In our previous message, we discussed the concept of religious liberty. We learned that it is not necessarily a sin to defy human authorities in certain, limited instances. If the dictates of our earthly governments are in clear violation of God’s revealed commands, we must obey God rather than men. I have been encouraged this week to read that several governors and mayors are beginning to back down from and relax their unbiblical and unconstitutional mandates aimed at restricting, regulating, or punishing churches for meeting during the COVID-19 crisis. I hope this trend continues…
While I am not overly surprised that non-Christian officials and pagan leaders would seek to discourage church gatherings, I have been saddened by the number of Christians who have done likewise. Why would any born-again believer - especially a pastor - actively dissuade their congregations from meeting? One of the arguments that I’ve read recently from several well-meaning believers is that Christians who insist on physically assembling together for church during this pandemic are sinning because they are “testing” God.
This is this issue I want to address today. Are church members who continue meeting in person during this coronavirus ordeal wrongfully testing God? Are they unduly pressuring the LORD to act on their behalf? Are they recklessly daring God to protect them? Could it be that the physical gathering of the saints - at least under these current and temporary circumstances - is actually a sin? Let’s dig deeper to find out...
I. ARE WE TESTING GOD?
The Bible warns Christians not to test God in certain ways, but also invites us to test Him in others. When Jesus was being tempted by Satan to throw Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple (Luke 4:9-12), He refused to put “the LORD to the test”. On the other hand, following the Babylonian exile God actually encouraged His people to test Him as it pertained to the giving of their tithes and offerings (Malachi 3:10). Obviously, some forms of testing God are acceptable and others are not. How can we know the difference?
One of the Hebrew words for “test” is “nacah”. It means “to try or tempt”. This is the type of testing that Scripture cautions us against. Testing God is this way is an act of provocation and coercion. It is an attempt to force God to act in order to prove Himself. As Christians we are called to accept the LORD in faith. We should not demand additional signs or evidence of His power or reliability (Luke 11:29). We can trust that God will act in our lives in His perfect time and way. We should, therefore, not seek to manipulate Him by callously testing His provision, protection, or presence. To do so is an expression of doubt and disobedience.
The other Hebrew word for “test” is “bachan” which means “to examine, scrutinize, or prove”. This is the type of testing that Scripture heartily promotes. It is rooted in both faith and obedience. When we as Christians do what God tells us to do, He is happy to pour out His blessings and shower His goodness upon us. As He does so, further evidence of His existence and character becomes plainly evident. However, producing these proofs was not the initial motivation of the testing. Following God in this way is not an act of exploitation, but obedience.
In truth, any act of faith is a test to some degree. When a missionary accepts the calling of Christ upon his or her life and travels to a foreign land to serve Him, is this not a test? When a believer sacrificially gives a portion of their paycheck to the Lord even when their bills are due and groceries are running low, is this not a test? Testing God by acting in obedience to His Word and will - such as gathering together to worship Him at church - is not a sinful provocation against Him. On the contrary, it is an act of faith that is quite pleasing to Him.
II. WHAT IS GOD’S PRIMARY CONCERN?
The rationale for not “testing God” by meeting together physically as a church during this COVID-19 crisis is rooted almost entirely in fear. Fear is the opposite of faith. There is no doubt that by assembling as a group, people are taking a personal risk and even putting others at risk of contracting and spreading the virus. While the statistical degree of that risk varies from place to place, and has in many cases been blown way out of proportion, it does unquestionably exist. So, should believers come together for worship if doing so places them or others with whom they gather in physical jeopardy?
Perhaps we should pose this question to the persecuted church. Christians around the world have been congregating together for centuries under the imminent threat of severe persecution or even death. In many places, the church has been driven underground. Thousands of individuals, families, and even entire congregations have been arrested, tortured, or killed for conducting church services. Knowing the possible dangers, it would seem reasonable for these folks to abandon this practice altogether or find safer alternatives… but they haven’t. Instead, they knowingly risk their lives by assembling because obedience to God demands it.
While the LORD certainly loves and cares for His children, their physical well-being is not His primary concern. Jesus calls His followers to take up their crosses and follow Him (Matthew 16:24). He expects them to be willing to die, if necessary, in order to follow Him. This is not meant figuratively or symbolically, but literally. Christians are called to surrender, sacrifice, and suffer for the Lord’s sake. In fact, we should delight in such sufferings and view them as a privilege (1 Peter 4:12-16). God is much more concerned about our eternal, spiritual condition than our present, natural condition.
Didn’t Nehemiah put the exiles at risk as they rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls while being threatened by their adversaries? Didn’t Joshua put the Hebrew children at risk when they invaded the Promised Land? Or King David when he led the armies of God into numerous battles? Or Peter, Paul, and countless others when they and their colleagues boldly carried the gospel into hostile territories? These men were not oblivious to the danger, yet they put their lives on the line in order to obey God. In the same way, I am fully aware that attending church right now is somewhat risky, but I will do what the LORD beckons me to do...
III. IS GOD TESTING US?
Perhaps the more fitting question to ask during this pandemic, at least in my opinion, is not whether or not we are testing God by attending church, but rather is God testing us in some way? Years ago I heard a pastor say that this life is both a test and a trust. The LORD has entrusted to each of us particular gifts and blessings with the expectation that we will use them for His glory. Furthermore, He allows us to regularly experience challenges, heartbreaks, and other obstacles that test our faith. These are intended for our benefit - to help us grow closer to God by deepening our reliance on Him.
The bad things that happen in our life occur as the result of human sin. Prior to man’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, everything was perfect and pure. Following the fall, however, creation was placed under a curse. Satan was given limited jurisdiction over the earth and influence upon the affairs of men. Death, sickness, pain, sorrow, and countless other realities became a natural part of the human condition. God didn’t purposefully cause these things to happen, yet in His sovereignty He is able to work them together for our ultimate good (Romans 8:28).
Trials and tribulations will either push us toward God or pull us away from Him. Many people have become angry at the LORD and abandoned the faith altogether due to some tragedy or hardship in their life. Others have leaned into God during such times, drawing strength from His presence and unmeasured compassion. Fortunately, the Bible promises that there is no difficulty or hindrance in this life that we can’t overcome or endure with God’s help (1 Corinthians 10:13). However, if we go it apart from the LORD we are almost certain to fail…
Some of the greatest testimonies I’ve ever heard have come from those who’ve been tested, and through God’s strength have prevailed, despite facing insurmountable odds. I can’t help but wonder, in the midst of this ongoing coronavirus hysteria... What type of witness are we as God’s church presenting to the lost culture all around us? How do our actions stand out from those who don’t know the LORD? As we confront this awful pandemic, are we demonstrating a faith that triumphs over fear? Are we acting in determined obedience to God’s Word and will? Are we bringing Him glory during this time of crisis? In short, are we passing this test?
Most people, myself included if I am being honest, seek to rationalize their actions with Scripture. Whether right or wrong, we attempt to interpret the Bible in a manner that justifies our decisions. Don’t get me wrong… the things we do and say should be based upon the teachings of Scripture. The question is, “Is fidelity to God’s Word dictating the choices we make or are the choices we make shaping our interpretation of God’s Word?” At times, it is hard to tell which of these is driving the other.
In recent weeks, I’ve read numerous articles and posts explaining why churches should not be physically meeting right now. Many have cited various Bible verses and passages seeking to defend the decision to close the church, albeit temporarily. Perhaps they are right to do so, and I wholeheartedly respect their choices and pray for their congregations. But I personally feel led in the opposite direction, and can’t in good conscience do likewise. Scripture commands the people of God to gather, and all the more as the LORD’s return approaches. Therefore, this is the position that I have and will unashamedly advocate.
Those who have stated that Christians are sinfully tempting God by meeting during the COVID-19 outbreak have woefully misunderstood what it means to test God. Those who have promoted the physical safety and well-being of people over obedience to the LORD’s commands have misrepresented what it means to follow Christ. Those believers who have responded to this crisis in virtually the same way as everyone else have missed a tremendous opportunity to shine the light of Jesus to the lost.
Beloved, I don’t mean to be overly critical. I don’t intend to sound uncaring or callous. I don’t claim to be absolutely right on my every understanding of the Bible. But I will say this… If I am to err in my interpretation of God’s Word, may it be defending the church’s mandate to meet together rather than trying to excuse it.