We are living in unique times. The deadly corona plague pandemic is spreading around the globe, targeting all human beings without distinction. In order to keep us safe, most governments have issued quarantine rules and banned large assemblies of people. This means that all religious assemblies are currently put on hold. Churches, synagogues and mosques.
Some religious leaders refuse to obey. In Florida, megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested for arranging mass meetings in spite of health regulations. In Bangladesh tens of thousands of Muslims gathered to hold a mass prayer against the Corona virus.
Here in Israel, the government has a hard time getting the non-zionist ultra-orthodox community to follow the new rules. A number of mass-events have been held despite the regulations, and police were attacked with rocks when trying to intervene. In my old homecountry Sweden, controversial preacher Lars Enarson held a massive prayer conference, keeping the attendance at 500 at a time, comfortably circumventing the government requirement at the time of no assemblies over 500.
A common answer from the leaders of these different religious movements is that God has told them to assemble, and they should rather follow God and not the human rulers in government. They might even misuse verses such as “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7), completely missing the fact that this verse has nothing to do with plagues or contagious diseases.
If we open the Bible we see a very different picture. Leviticus has strict quarantine rules for people afflicted with leprosy. They are to be outside the camp. Even if we can’t follow those rules to the letter anymore, they still show us God’s attitude. During the night when the Angel of Death went through Egypt and killed the firstborns, everyone were commanded to stay indoors. Anyone who went outside, “his blood is on his head.”
Add to this what Isaiah says about times of plagues: “Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by.” (Isaiah 26:20)
The problem with the religious communities who assemble despite government regulations, and despite common sense, is not that they refuse to obey humans. The problem is that they rather obey humans than God.
Let me explain – the biblical account is clear. We are not to spread a plague when it hits us. We are to take precautions to avoid spreading it. This is true at all times. The Torah says “when you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.” (Deuteronomy 22:8). That is, don’t let people die because of your negligence. You will be responsible for their deaths if you fail to follow it. That’s a principle we can apply to plagues as well.
During regular times, no one in their right mind would bring a person with measles to the church. Bringing a highly infectious person to a church because “God said to assemble” is both irresponsible and ridiculous. In the same way, during a time of a pandemic plague, when you can’t know who carries the virus and who doesn’t, you don’t assemble at all. You wait for it to end.
People who gather to these assemblies despite this plague are people who rather listen to human beings – their pastors, sheikhs and rabbis – than to God. It is the exact opposite of what they claim. It is not by chance that the religions and movements with the most authoritative human leaders are the ones that are still meeting, defying or circumventing the law.
We can agree or disagree with our governments’ measures, thinking they are too strict or too lax. But we can’t claim that they go against God or are unbiblical. On the contrary, the motive behind all of these measures are to save human lives – a value that comes directly from the Bible. We should be thankful if we have the privilege of living under a government who values human lives.
Churches, congregations and movements who emphasize personal relationship with God and alone time with his Word, are struggling but still thriving under the new rules. We live in a time and age when online contact is possible. Here in Israel, many Messianic congregations conduct lessons through zoom, send audio or video teachings on whatsapp, and they encourage their members to increase family worship, personal devotion and Bible reading.
For the first time in a long time we get to live out what we have always known – we are the church. We are the kehila. We don’t need to abandon our assemblies when we can assemble online. We can grow closer to God, reading his word and knowing him better during this time. We can read the Bible more, and we can become better at distinguishing true biblical teaching from false teaching.
And maybe that’s what some of those preachers are afraid of…