Going out to church in person right now (whether you feel sick or not and whether you are elderly or not) puts the lives and health of other people in greater danger in the coming weeks — healthcare workers, other churchgoers, your family, your neighbors, and people in your area who get sick and need access to a non-overburdened healthcare system.
Scripture asks us to love our neighbors enough that we do not go to or hold church in person outside our own homes for a while, even though we want to, in order to protect, avoid harming, and have mercy on our neighbors.
COVID-19 is an Enormous Threat to the Lives and Health of Our Neighbors and Our Families
Estimates for the death rate vary widely, but are all significant. NPR reports it as at least 4 to 7 times greater than the death rate for the seasonal flu in the United States, assuming we lower it from China’s rate with our efforts and healthcare system. This is a significant assumption.
Researchers from UCLA, Switzerland, and China, publishing in The Lancet, calculated mortality rates of 5.6% for China and 15.2% outside of China, as of March 1, leveling off to 5.7%, “converging with the current WHO estimates.” As of March 18, the world-wide death rate relative to confirmed cases, as reported by Johns Hopkins, is 4.02%, but this does not consider time-delay issues noted by the researchers, which would likely increase the rate for the 204,029 confirmed cases as of that date, only 82,107 of which are confirmed as recovered, leaving the remaining as ill (possibly critically so) or status unknown.
According to Harvard infectious disease epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, “it’s “plausible” that 20 to 60 percent of adults will be infected …. So far, 80 percent of cases globally have been mild, but if the case fatality rate is around 1 percent (which several experts say it may be), a scenario is possible of tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths in the US alone. … What epidemiologists fear most is the health care system becoming overwhelmed by a sudden explosion of illness that requires more people to be hospitalized than it can handle. … [M]ore people will die because there won’t be enough hospital beds or ventilators to keep them alive,” as reported by Vox.
The New York Times reports, without efforts to slow transmission of the virus, “2.4 million to 21 million people in the United States could require hospitalization, potentially crushing the nation’s medical system, which has only about 925,000 staffed hospital beds.” Per the Times, Dr. James Lawler, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, estimated 96 million people in the United States would be infected and 480,000 would die (a comparatively low estimate he labeled conservative).
A report on which President Trump’s March 16 recommendations appeared to draw warned that, without action to slow and suppress the spread of coronavirus, “2.2 million people in the United States could die.”
The Curve: Grows Rapidly, Like a Wave
The “curve” (the number of cases over time) can grow rapidly. Italy discovered its first case on January 29. Today, about 6 weeks later, it has over 17,000 confirmed cases, over 1,000 have died from the virus, around another 1,000 are in intensive care, and the numbers keep growing, per the Times.
The curve can be thought of and can look like a wave on the ocean. The wave’s height and width impacts the death rate.
A Critical Group Effort: Flatten the Curve
A large part of the United States is doing what it can to “flatten the curve” — #flattenthecurve — in order to help (love!) their neighbor by sacrificing for others and cancelling things or moving online for several weeks while this wave of COVID-19 risk hopefully passes.
Flattening the curve involves a collective effort across the United States of taking substantial protective measures now.
Without substantial protective measures — without cancelling in-person gatherings (e.g., going all online) and without engaging in other social distancing, for example — we risk having so many symptomatic people at once that we overwhelm the health-care system’s capacity: And many more people die.
That is, without such protective measures, such a large number of people might be ill from COVID-19 at once that there are not enough hospital beds, not enough healthcare workers to do everything needed, not enough intubation equipment, not enough … in your community.
More of our neighbors suffer and die. More healthcare workers die. More of us die.
On the left of the figure above is a wave or curve without protective measures — the brown curve. The number of cases exceed the dotted line, representing the health care system’s capacity (a function of the number of beds, doctors, nurses, etc.). So, the cases above the line go without treatment or without sufficient treatment. The death-rate thus would likely dramatically increase.
On the right is a wave with protective measures — the blue curve. It typically takes 5 – 14 days after infection for symptoms to be felt. Protective measures taken in advance, like avoiding gatherings where people unknowingly transmit the virus to create more cases, changes the wave and its demand on the health-care system. The number of cases is spread out over more time and the height of the curve is lower. The height and width have changed. Thus, #FlattenTheCurve. The health-care system can handle the number of cases in that wave, and the death rate and impact is kept down.
Have to Act Now to Have an Impact on the Wave
Many people seem to recognize that every protective measure done right now, every risk reduction done right now, adds up.
Anything that can be done right now that contributes to reducing and spreading out the number of cases makes the coming wave smaller, with the goal of making it a wave the health-care system can handle. One has to take action right now to have an impact on the coming wave.
In other words, everyone working together right now to engage in protective measures adds up to “flatten the curve” and adds up to saving lives. It provides greater care and a lower mortality rate. Every little bit helps.
This Does Not Mean Just Elderly People Stay Away and Clean Well
This does not mean that just elderly and other higher-risk persons are not to come to gatherings, like church.
It means everyone — young, old, and healthy — needs to avoid gatherings and otherwise engage in social distancing. And disinfecting well is not sufficient when people are present. One of Britain’s Coronavirus task force leaders explained, “What had the biggest impact in the model is social distancing ….”
Flattening the Curve is the Best, Proven Way to Save Lives in this Situation
Most people are not elderly and most people are healthy. Flattening the curve requires everyone — including non-elderly, healthy people (who make up most of the population) — engaged in avoiding infection, avoiding being a carrier, avoiding transmitting to others when you do not know you have it, and trying to avoid burdening the health-care system. This is all in order to save lives, not just your own, but the lives of others.
According to NPR, “[t]hese two curves have already played out in the U.S. in an earlier age — during the 1918 flu pandemic. Research has shown that the faster authorities moved to implement the kinds of social distancing measures designed to slow the transmission of disease, the more lives were saved. ”
Yet, Many Church Leaders are Not …
But some church leaders are deciding not to cancel in-person gatherings and deciding not to go completely online for gatherings, which would help flatten the curve, and are proceeding to meet in person despite the collective effort across the United States to flatten the curve.
Some of them are unaware of this critical timing issue. Some are unaware of the group effort. Some are aware and are deciding to gather anyway.
This is all happening, too, when the people most likely to feel compelled to show up if the church doors are open (and to feel bad if they don’t show) are among the most vulnerable to death from the virus: older people, those 60 and above.
Many church leaders have cancelled in-person assembling but many have not.
Church Leaders: Helping or Harming? Flatten the Curve or Call Gatherings?
In this scenario, meeting will increase harm to others, harm to our neighbors.
For the vast majority of situations, it seems like the right thing to do is for a church not to have in-person church services, classes, or the like for a time, to contribute towards and do its part for #flattenthecurve right now, when it is needed.
Here are 10 reasons:
1. President Trump says not to have gatherings of more than 10 people, and the CDC says to cancel gatherings of more than 10 if serving older people (60 or older).
President Trump issued guidelines March 16 not to have gatherings of more than 10 people (of any age, anywhere).
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has, for some time, recommended “organizations that serve high-risk populations … cancel gatherings of more than 10 people” when area transmission is perceived as “minimal to moderate.” Now that COVID-19 is a pandemic and has been detected in virtually every state and in many cities of size, virtually all non-isolated communities may, and likely do, fall in this “minimal to moderate” category, at least, given our interstate transportation system and rapid and easy travel and the long delay between transmission and public notice, like 2 – 4 weeks or more (see below). Churches often serve older people, a high-risk population for COVID-19.
High-risk is 60 years or older and the “China CDC study shows that for coronavirus patients ages 70 to 79 the death rate more than triples. For those older than 80 it’s more than six times as high,” according to NPR.
2. The CDC says cancel gatherings of any size for some communities. The CDC recommends to “Cancel community and faith-based gatherings of any size” when the level of community transmission or impact is “substantial,” which many communities are now, as this is a pandemic. Virtually all larger cities and nearby areas likely fall into this category now. If your schools are closed or closing, for example, or your state or area has declared a public health emergency, or there have been uncontained transmissions between people while in the geographic area, you are probably in the “substantial” category.
And the CDC has said to “cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States” (i.e., even in remote places, even if for all 26-year-olds), regardless of the level of transmission, i.e., even if no impact has been perceived. This does not, of course, mean that less than 50 is “OK.” This was even before President Trump recommended not having gatherings over 10 people.
The conservative and loving approach for health, in uncertain times, would be to cancel or go solely online if one is uncertain about whether the transmission or impact is currently “substantial” or “minimal” or whether 50 or 30 will come or whether 10 or more will come. There is a significant delay — 2 to 4 weeks or more — in knowing about confirmed cases (see below).
3. Meeting is contradictory to the main effort to combat the virus: Flatten the Curve. The main effort to limit COVID-19’s impact is #FlattenTheCurve. The country is doing what it can to flatten the curve in order to help (love!) their neighbor by sacrificing for others and cancelling things or moving online for several weeks while this wave of risk hopefully passes, recognizing that every small risk reduction adds up. Major league and college sports is being cancelled or postponed. Colleges went online. Businesses are having people work from home and not meet. It goes on.
Telling the sick to stay home is not enough, as many who have it do not show symptoms or only very mild ones, and a person does not have to feel bad to be contagious and transmit COVID-19 to others. Neither is telling older people to stay home enough — keep reading and read #8 closely.
Church leaders deciding not to do what they can to help flatten the curve and proceeding to meet in person anyway, particularly knowing that people most likely to feel compelled to show up if the doors are open (and to feel bad if they don’t show) are exactly the most vulnerable to the virus, acts directly contrary to #FlattenTheCurve in most instances. It is dangerous and social distancing is critical — some states have even declared it a crime for gatherings over a certain number to occur.
4. It might take 2-4 weeks or more after an outbreak of infections in your city for you to know about it. Statements like there is “no confirmed case in our city yet” as a reason to meet in person overlooks that this is a pandemic. Unless you live in a highly isolated place, COVID-19 is probably, maybe nearly certainly, already in your city.
COVID-19 has a long incubation period, up to 14 days, probably around 5 days, and then it can take days to feel bad enough to go to the doctor (if they go), get tested, etc., and then more for a public announcement. By the time we hear about cases in a city, COVID-19 will probably have been there for 2-4 weeks, maybe longer, probably infecting others, who infect others, who infect others, who …. And scientists say for every confirmed case in an area there is likely 5 – 10 undetected cases. People may not know that they are infected. And, as one of Britain’s task force leaders explained, the “most important thing was if one person in the household became infected, the whole household self-quarantined for 14 days. Because that stops 100 percent of the transmission outside of the household.”
Everyone — young, old, healthy, don’t know if infected or not — staying home is critical to saving lives.
5. Covid-19 is breathed out; it may be airborne; it does not have to be breathed directly onto you; it hangs in the air; cleaning the church is not enough. COVID-19 may be an airborne virus — the virus is new and this is still under investigation and there is disagreement over the question, and it might linger in the air beyond the nearby 3-6 feet of direct transmission via the air (see below). Regardless, droplets of it are breathed out and can linger on surfaces for some time.
Cleaning the church is not comforting when showing up with other people who are breathing out possibly infected droplets. An area — within 3-6 feet of people, possibly more, of where people have breathed and are breathing — can become immediately “dirty” with whatever they are breathing and sweating out, right then and there when they show up — the air, too, at least nearby an infected person, possibly beyond.
6. Getting within 6 feet is enough; if you are bumping elbows, you are in direct range. Being within 6 feet of a person is within range for a direct transmission, so “fist bumps” and “elbow bumps” lessen hand-to-hand-to-mouth (or to other intake point) transmission but still put people close together for transmission via the air. So breathing in around infected people puts people at risk.
7. COVID-19 lives a long time on metal, plastic, and other surfaces. COVID-19 survives. The virus survives a long time on a variety of surfaces (metal, plastic, …). So, touching doorknobs, pews, trays, faucets, bathroom fixtures and handles, tables, etc., after others have touched them or breathed out around them puts people at risk.
8. Older people— at-risk — often feel compelled to show up when the church doors are open. Having the doors open puts guilt, compulsion, etc., on people who are at high-risk for death relative to COVID-19. Telling them to stay home will not be enough. They will show up anyway because the leaders opened the doors: “I need to show faith to my children and other people in the church; I have a responsibility to do that, so I better show up ….” “We must not forsake the assembly …” “I need to show God and myself that my faith is strong ….” “John was good to come to my husband’s funeral, so I’m not going to let him down by staying home ….” “Mary’s mother came to my daughter’s shower and her son is an elder, so I want to support his efforts, so I better go …”
9. Young adults are at serious risk, too. “New C.D.C. data showed that nearly 40 percent of patients sick enough to be hospitalized were aged 20 to 54.” While the risk of dying is significantly higher for those 60+, those under 60 are at risk for serious injury and hospitalization and of dying, too. The mother and two adult children with no reported underlying conditions in the same family recently died in the United States after contracting COVID-19, likely at a family gathering. The mom “would sit in the same pew at church each Sunday” and the “family was among the founding members of the church.”
10. If leadership told members about the purpose of #flattenthecurve (help others, help healthcare workers, …), they would probably say cancel or go online. Members’ desire to have service is respectable, but if they understood the importance of #flattenthecurve, they would probably immediately say “never mind my personal desire for Sunday, let’s take care of our neighbor by doing our part to flatten the curve.” Most of them probably have not been told this by church leadership. Regardless, knowing about the big picture and health overall and decision-making about that is in the elder’s and preacher’s hands.
And a bonus, and perhaps the most important, reason:
11. It’s about other people, our neighbors. That members are willing to risk it for themselves is not the question. Meeting and risking transmission in this environment risks harm to other people —- people outside the congregation: neighbors, healthcare workers, other family members, etc.
That members are willing to put themselves at risk to come to the church does not address at all what they do to other people, their neighbors, by exposing themselves. It is not just about the members themselves. That is the whole point of #FlattentheCurve. And that is the whole point of “love your neighbor ….”
A Few Relevant Scripture Passages
1. “’Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself….” (Matthew 22:36-40)
2. “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ ….” (Matthew 12:7; see also Hosea 6:6)
3. “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” (John 13:34).
4. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35)
5. “Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.'” (Mark 2:27)
6. “Love is patient, love is kind. … It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, …. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. …” (1 Cor 13:4-7)
7. Jesus says, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)
8. “… Be still, and know that I am God ….” (Psalm 46:10)
9. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves ….” (Philippians 2:3)
10. “Love does no harm to a neighbor. …” (Romans 13:10)
11. “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” (Romans 12:10)
12. “… [A]s God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive …. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Col 3:12-14)
13. “Jesus asked ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.'” (Luke 10:25-37)
14. “… For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:20-21)
It seems that if everyone, including churches, joins together and flattens the curve — #flattenthecurve — then the harm to everyone, including our neighbors and ourselves, will be much less.
It will stand out that some churches are assembling contrary to what can help other people — healthcare workers, people in the community, their neighbors, etc. — via #flattenthecurve and instead doing what might be perceived as desired by or good for the church members. There are exceptions, of course, but it seems like most can be solved other ways.
There are ways to accomplish most practices consistent with flattening the curve. Prayers can be offered from home. Online broadcast of a sermon is easy. Online gatherings are feasible. Communion can even be self-served, and even done together online if desired. Checks can be mailed. Singing can be done at home. These are temporary measures to aid our neighbors, people outside our congregation.
Extra effort to connect with people via phone, text, e-mail, Facetime, WebEx, Zoom, etc., may be necessary. It can be done.
We live in a time in which God has blessed us with technology by which people can gather in God’s name via their computers and their phones.
There are many unknowns with COVID-19 and early flattening the curve appears to be the best near-term hope.
Of course, there is a lot of information coming at church leaders and the situation has changed rapidly over the last few days and will likely continue to do so. This is a unique happening and a difficult and trying time for them. I offer my thoughts in case anyone finds them useful.
Prayers for all involved.
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Sources & Notes
Johns Hopkins reports: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html (as of 1:45 pm on 3/16, Johns Hopkins reported 7,055 deaths out of 178,508 confirmed cases.) (as of 9:24 am on 3/18, it reported 8,205 deaths out of 204,029 confirmed cases worldwide with 82,107 recovered; note that in the time it took me to edit the text and then scroll down to edit the source/notes, maybe 20 seconds, the death number had increased to 8,207 while the confirmed cases and recovered number had not changed)
See https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/community-mitigation-strategy.pdf (“For organizations that serve high-risk populations, cancel gatherings of more than 10 people.”).
See https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/coronavirus-resource-center (“Anyone 60 years or older is considered to be at higher risk for getting very sick from COVID-19. This is true whether or not you also have an underlying medical condition, although the sickest individuals and most of the deaths have been among people who were both older and had chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, lung problems or diabetes.”).
See https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/03/03/809904660/why-the-death-rate-from-coronavirus-is-plunging-in-china (“The China CDC study shows that for coronavirus patients ages 70 to 79 the death rate more than triples. For those older than 80 it’s more than six times as high.”)
2. “Cancel community and faith-based gatherings of any size” when the level of community transmission or impact is “substantial” …: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/downloads/community-mitigation-strategy.pdf.
3. See cites in 1 above.
Telling the sick to stay home is not enough, as many who have it do not show symptoms or only very mild symptoms, and one does not have to feel bad to be contagious.
Declared it a crime: https://governor.nc.gov/news/governor-cooper-issues-executive-order-closing-k-12-public-schools-and-banning-gatherings-more (“In addition to closing schools, the Executive Order prohibits mass gatherings that bring together more than 100 people in a single room or space, such as an auditorium, stadium, arena, large conference room, meeting hall, theater, or other confined indoor or outdoor space, including parades, fairs and festivals. Violations of the order are punishable as a Class 2 misdemeanor.”).
4. Incubation period:
Added “likely 5 – 10 undetected cases …”: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/16/world/live-coronavirus-news-updates.html#link-71630fa
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/transmission.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fabout%2Ftransmission.html (“It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”)
See also generally
On https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/large-events/mass-gatherings-ready-for-covid-19.html (published 3/15/2020):
This new 50-part of the CDC recommendations is for cancelling all gatherings of 50+ … “throughout the United States,” i.e., everywhere, even for super-remote areas, even if there hasn’t been a case within 200 miles, even for a bunch of 26 year olds, etc. That’s just one part of the CDC’s recommendation.
**** It also recommends for “Events of any Size” (anywhere, with anybody) that “When feasible, organizers could modify events to be virtual.”
**** And the CDC’s recommendation includes “Cancel gatherings of more than 10 people for organizations that serve higher-risk populations” —- and virtually every Church of Christ serves higher-risk populations, people over 60, etc. —- for areas that have “minimal to moderate” levels of transmission. At this point, virtually every city of any size and rural area within driving distance of larger cities has such a minimal level of transmission; it’s a pandemic, we are on a Italy trajectory for number of cases, and it takes 2-4 weeks or more for the public to hear about a “confirmed case.”
And the CDC’s recommendation is “to cancel mass gatherings of any size” (i.e., all of them, whether you serve higher-risk people or not) if there is “a substantial level of community transmission.
It doesn’t seem to define substantial, but clues seem to be that you are probably in the “substantial” category if your state or city or county has declared a public health emergency, or schools in your area are not meeting, or there has been a sustained transmission in the area (e.g., it wasn’t just brought in from the outside, but it was transmitted b/t people in the area), or something along those lines.
All passages from the NIV or Young’s Literal Translation (YLT) unless otherwise noted.
Some notes on scripture —
Jesus says, “…The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) And what does God want of us? Jesus says, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ ….” (Matthew 12:7; see also Hosea 6:6) The most merciful thing you can do for your neighbor over the next few weeks is to cancel everything and stay home. #FlattenTheCurve efforts is our best way to show love to our neighbor and to keep them and us safe.
Jesus also says, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” (John 13:34). “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35)
And what is love? “Love is patient, love is kind. … It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, …. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. …” 1 Cor 13:4-7.
Love, in the next few weeks, is kindly not making people in your church feel guilty and compelled to gather. It is patiently staying at home. It is protecting others by cancelling services. It is trusting and hoping that #FlattenTheCurve efforts work.
“Love does no harm to a neighbor. …” Romans 13:10. Holding gatherings harms your neighbor. #FlattentheCurve
“Jesus asked ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” (Luke 10:25-37)
It is absolutely an act of mercy for elders to cancel services or hold them online.
Having the doors open puts guilt, compulsion, etc., on people who are at high-risk for death relative to COVID-19, the over 60 population: “I need to show faith to my children and other people in the church, I have a responsibility to do that, so I better show up ….” “I need to show God and myself that my faith is strong ….” “John was good to come to my husband’s funeral, so I’m not going to let him down by staying home ….” “Mary’s mother came to my daughter’s shower and her son is an elder, so I want to support his efforts, so I better go …” “…”
They need mercy.
Our neighbors need mercy, as if we don’t engage in extreme social distancing *right now * we are going to overwhelm the healthcare system and kill more people b/c of shortages of healthcare workers and hospital beds and hospital equipment.
Micah 6:6-8 says:
6 With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
God answers all that with a no.
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Acting justly and loving mercy and walking humbly with God in light of the coronavirus means acting to cancel any gathering, showing mercy to our neighbors and those in the congregation by not meeting in person, and walking humbly — and not brashly, densely, tempting fate, self-righteously, seeking to display faith and righteousness, and arrogantly — in the face of a pandemic.
Jesus says, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)
There are, of course, self-righteous and hypocritical people who demand that the doors stay open and who want to go, just to be heard and seen by others as faithful and righteous. It is not that you are necessarily that person (though you might be). Jesus says do not be “like” them. “Like” — ὡς (hōs) in the Greek. Not just do not be them, but do not be like them. Instead, there are times to “go into your room, close the door ….” Now is one of those times. There are so many churches providing on-line services that you go into your room, close the door, and immediately join many other Christians in an assembly online.
“Forsake” means to abandon or renounce or give up. Staying home right now is the opposite of forsaking. The assembly is a body of people, not a building, and protecting that body is the opposite of abandoning, renouncing, or giving up on it.
Even more, God asks us to stay home and temporarily attend online or in-family in order to protect, love, and have mercy on other people, our neighbors. “… For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:20-21) “… ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’” (Mark 2:27) “Love is patient, love is kind. … It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, …. It always protects …” (1 Cor 13:4-7).
And “works” includes the work of sheltering in place, the work of staying home, the work of social distancing —- to love, protect, and have mercy on others, on your neighbor.
Young and healthy people are carriers and transmit the virus, and they can fall very ill, too, just die less often. Social distancing — the only thing that has been shown to reduce the impact of the virus —- cannot happen if only elderly and immunocompromised do it. And when the doors are open, many elderly people are the ones most likely to feel compelled to be present.
Church is a body of people, not a building. It is not soul winning to show that we don’t care about the health and lives of our neighbors. That is what we do when we gather together right now, as that puts our neighbors at greater risk of illness and death.
Loving and protecting other people is not being afraid. Not being afraid includes not being afraid that God will be angry at us for not being in person at a church building but instead loving our neighbor enough to stay home.
Additional relevant scripture passages:
15. Jesus said “… believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24)
16. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)
17. Jesus said, “… thou art a rock, and upon this rock I will build my assembly, and gates of Hades shall not prevail against it ….” (Matthew 16:18)
18. Paul said to Timothy, “… if I delay, that thou mayest know how it behoveth thee to conduct thyself in the house of God, which is an assembly of the living God — a pillar and foundation of the truth ….” (1 Tim 3:15)
19. “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (Acts 9:31)
20. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works. You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that—and tremble with fear.
But would you like evidence, you empty fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Now Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And similarly, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14-26) (CET)
21. “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:7-21)
22 “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (2 Tim 1:7 KJV)
Picture: By Geralt, from pixabay.
Updated 3/19: Added 9. 3/18: Edited intro to 10 reasons to note harm to others in this scenario.