There is an element in Western society that is moving to bring about lasting changes to the way humans interact, ostensibly for the peace of mind and protection of the public. The coronavirus epidemic that has affected much of the world seems to be acting as a catalyst for the desired transition to a “new normal” for social interaction, travel, and public gatherings.
Here is an example of the thinking that has lately been expressed in the public domain by those in a position to bring about, or at least to significantly influence, such societal changes:
The question now is, how are we going to reinvent ourselves as a human species? “We will not go back to what life was like before January of this year,” Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, said this week in releasing updated COVID-19 prognostications. Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu also summoned our post-pandemic future in a briefing, saying testing is just one layer of the health safety net needed to “arrive at the new normal.”(National Post, May 2, 2020)
And for a more recent example of this new order thinking:
“We don’t believe there’s a green light that says go back to the way things were.”California Governor Gavin Newsom, August, 2020
We wouldn’t want to spend much time speculating about what some would like to see in a “new normal” in the broader society, but here are a few possibilities, all of which have either been proposed or are being practiced somewhere: using elbow bumps rather than handshakes when greeting others, working and holding meetings virtually rather than in person, expanding the use of plexiglass barriers, perpetuating government mandates for wearing face coverings inside and even outside, developing a robust surveillance regime made possible by technological advances, requiring health documentation for travel or employment, and expecting citizens to report neighbors for not conforming to the requirements of these completely new societal norms. Many people may already be resigned to these new ideas being implemented and continued on into the indefinite future, to the extent they believe them to be instrumental in maintaining safety and avoiding risk. I would suggest that there is an attractive moralistic component to much of this desire for change, and that it originates in a humanistic world view.
Perhaps some of you have been considering and praying about how this impetus for change to a permanent new normal in the broader society might affect Christian gatherings and worship, or whether it should have an effect. I suppose that most of us understand and accept that the specter of a worldwide contagion, along with the way the governments and the media of the world responded to it, legitimately gave pause to church-goers who wanted to be kept safe from a potentially deadly viral infection. Consequently, all over the world changes were made quickly to the order and manner of worship services and church meetings, either on the advice or at the demand of authorities.
Christianity in its belief and practice places high value on openness and brotherly intimacy, or closeness, perhaps more so than most other belief systems in the world. God did not intend that the church should exist on earth without this ethic of closeness and interpersonal vulnerability. Some measure of risk to ourselves is unavoidable in everyday life, and it is inherent in any effort made by faith to gather and interact as Christians for the glory of God.
Let’s look at some of the practices of the early church, long before there was a concept of health risk being attached to the normal behaviors of saints. They met together indoors in close quarters, often in their homes, perhaps in groups of 50 to 100.1 They ate together at what they called “love-feasts”.2 Christians who were in fellowship with each other passed the broken bread and the cup of wine during the Lord’s supper, for that symbolized the communion of the body and blood of Christ.3 They greeted each other warmly with embraces or kisses of love.4 They extended their right hands to each other, or laid hands on others, at times as a sign of fellowship, and other times in healing the sick.5 It required close physical proximity to baptize those who made confessions of faith, individually or as households, and when the occasion called for it, elders anointed the sick with oil in the name of the Lord.6 It was customary to wash the feet of other saints after walking a distance for a visit.7 “Social distancing” is a new paradigm by which we might be expected to modify these long-practiced brotherly behaviors, so we ought to very carefully examine the validity of the reasoning behind it in the light of God’s word.
There are other scriptural practices common among Christians that have seen changes or restrictions during this trying period. Singing heartily to the Lord and for the encouragement of each other8 has been the blessed pattern among believers for thousands of years, long predating the Christian era, but a concern about a viral spread during singing has brought with it inhibitions or prohibitions against the practice. Gathering for worship with open faces was no doubt the accepted practice among spiritually cleansed worshipers,9 in keeping with the encouragement to come boldly into the heavenly sanctuary, but worshiping with face coverings is now encouraged or mandated in some places. And although the apostles and other saints in even the earliest days of the church traveled from one locale to another for the work of the Lord, and to have fellowship with other gatherings of believers,10 a new travel restriction paradigm has been introduced that may be used again in the future to limit the movement of Christians for fellowship or service.
All of this is not to discount the need for Christians to use wisdom and discretion during times of crisis or pestilence, given the cumulative knowledge base applying to the matter at hand. We ought to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16) in all of our interactions, and may the Lord Jesus give us the grace to carry on in the manner in which He enjoined His disciples when He charged them with traveling the land with the gospel of the kingdom.
But I am convinced that we err if we entertain the proposition that scientific advances and modern medical knowledge might render obsolete any of the practices of the early church, so that health risks might be avoided. We ought to expect that these scriptural practices be resumed according to what was the normal pattern in the past, as soon as faith and confidence in our all-sufficient, sovereign God allows for it. Indeed, meeting as Christians ought always to be a matter of faith, rather than merely a tradition or a habit or a calculation of risk versus reward. Christian brethren, let us not submit to the idea of a “new normal” for worship and fellowship. It is Christ’s body that we are members of, and His claims with respect to our gatherings and our interaction as that “one body” ought to take preeminence. Should we not then consciously begin with His pattern in view and impressed upon our consciences, even when obliged to consider the matter of risk to ourselves and to our fellowmen?
It is needful that we encourage each other to trust in the God who by His Spirit formed the church almost 2,000 years ago, giving to those early saints by means of the apostles many practices and instructions that established a timeless “normal”. If first-century Jewish hygiene, based on the Law of Moses, was compatible with the close social interaction that these practices assumed and even depended upon, who are we to question the wisdom of the Spirit of God who directed the apostles in the establishment of these practices? Knowing a little of the faithfulness of our God, I am very doubtful that an early church practice will be found at last to be unhealthful among Christians who seek to carry them on by faith, in the absence of manifestly symptomatic disease.11 But I am confident that the Lord Jesus Christ will honor believers who give His claims, and the apostles’ teaching on worship and fellowship, their rightful place by faith, while being guided by wisdom from above.
1 Acts 2;46; 20:7-11; Philemon 2; Mark 6:40
2 Jude 12
3 Luke 22:14-20; I Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:20-26
4 Acts 20:36-37; I Peter 5:14
5 Galatians 2:9; I Timothy 4:14; 5:22; Acts 28:8
6 Acts 8:38; James 5:14
7 I Timothy 5:10; Luke 7:44
8 Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16
9 II Corinthians 3:18, cf. Leviticus 13:45; Hebrews 10:19-22
10 Acts 18:18 – 19:1
11 See Leviticus 13:38-46; Leviticus 15