On Cancelling Services And Holding Devotions At Home On The Christian Sabbath

Preface

I have received a number of telephone calls and had a number discussions by text, direct message etc about this topic. Here, in general, is what I am telling those who ask. There are variables. It may be that, in your area, the authorities will take a different position because conditions differ. Obviously, what is known about the virus and its transmission is changing almost hourly.

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The Question And My Answer

Should you cancel worship services tomorrow or broadcast them online in lieu of meeting face to face?

My opinion is that the church should submit to to the instruction of the governing authorities. If they are discouraging public gatherings, we should obey. The Governor of California has urged everyone to cancel large gatherings and the County of San Diego has issued strongly-worded, detailed instructions that include the cancelation of gatherings over 250 people.

Grounds

It may be that the media is hyping this virus in order to scare us (for ratings or political advantage) but until we know differently we should take the authorities at their word when they say that it is dangerous and especially for seniors and those with compromised immune systems and underlying respiratory conditions.

The consistory has canceled  services tomorrow at EURC. I think that is wise, especially for us because of the number of seniors we have in the congregation. I do not think that it is being ungodly or fearful to take wise precautions. We wash our hands after going to the bathroom. Is that fearful? No, that is being wise, gracious, and charitable toward our neighbor.

Were the government seeking to silence us then we might have a duty to gather but we are not in that position now. This is about being charitable to our neighbors. These guidelines are prudential. It would be tragic to be required to conduct an unusually large number of funerals in the next months because we defied the public health authorities.

Context

I have seen a number of public comments on social media Christians exhibiting a degree of bravado about this crisis. From what I am able to tell, however, few of them are epidemiologists (neither am I). Here is an instance in which it is helpful to remember that we live under what Calvin called a “twofold government” (duplex regimen). The church is responsible to minister  God’s Word in the sacred sphere and the the civil magistrate is God’s minister in the secular sphere. We live in both spheres. We have submit to authorities in both spheres.

Perhaps we will learn that the authorities were wrong in this instance but perhaps not. We do not know yet. We probably will not know for some time. The probabilities are that you are not qualified to judge, unless you are an expert in public health. “Well my neighbor is a nurse and he says…” is not an adequate substitute for actual expertise. The news media and pundits are not experts in public health.

We Christians submit to the governing authorities because Romans 13 is still God’s Word:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (Rom 13:1-7; ESV).

If you are unable to gather tomorrow on the Christian Sabbath, please remember that it is still the Christian Sabbath.

What To Do Tomorrow

If your congregation is streaming a service/sermon, then by all means, you should watch that and participate as you are able. If your congregation is unable to stream services/a sermon tomorrow, here is what you can do to hold a time of prayer and Scripture reading in the morning and in the evening.

  • Open with prayer. Since before the Reformation Christian worship services have begun with the recitation of Psalms 124:8–
    “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Amen.
  • Sing a Psalm of Response, e.g., Psalm 100B1 (“the old hundredth”), which is well known and easily sung a cappella (without instruments).
  • Pray for God’s presence and blessing thus:
    Almighty God,
    to whom our hearts are open,
    our desires are known,
    and from whom no secrets are hidden:
    cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
    by the gracious power of Your Holy Spirit,
    that we may perfectly love You
    and worthily magnify Your holy name;
    through Christ our Lord. Amen.2
  • Read God’s Holy Law:
    “You shall have no other gods before me.
    “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
    “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
    “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
    “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
    “You shall not murder.
    “You shall not commit adultery.
    “You shall not steal.
    “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
    “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:3–17;ESV)
  • Confess your sins thus:
    Almighty and most merciful Father,
    we have erred and strayed from Your ways like lost sheep,
    we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against Your holy laws,
    we have left undone those things which we ought to have done,
    and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and so we are helpless without You.
    O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders, spare us, as we confess our faults,
    restore us, as we are penitent,
    according to Your promises declared to us in Christ Jesus our Lord, and grant, O most merciful Father, for His sake,
    that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and devout life,
    to the glory of Your holy name.
    Amen.
  • Read a promise of forgiveness thus:
    “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9; ESV).
  • Read a song of thanksgiving: e.g., Exodus 15:1–21
  • Read a prayer for the illumination of the Word, thus:
    BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
  • Read a passage of Scripture, e.g, Exodus 14.
  • Say a prayer of thanksgiving and intercession, e.g.,O God, the Creator and Preserver of all mankind:
    We humbly intercede on behalf of all people, that You would be pleased to make Your ways known to them, Your saving grace to all nations. [Specific prayers may be added for missions / missionaries and church plants / church planters.]
    More especially, we pray for the universal church, that it may be so guided and governed by Your Holy Spirit, that all who profess to be and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth and embrace the faith in the unity of the Spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.
    Finally, we commend to Your fatherly goodness all those who are in any way afflicted or distressed in mind, body, or any other way. We especially pray for [specific needs are mentioned]. May it please You to comfort and relieve them, according to their particular needs, giving them patience in their sufferings and a blessed deliverance out of all their afflictions.
    All this we ask for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
  • Read from the Heidelberg Catechism, e.g., Question and Answer 1.Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?A. That I am not my own,
    but belong—
    body and soul,
    in life and in death—
    to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
    He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,
    and has delivered me from the tyranny of the devil.
    He also watches over me in such a way
    that not a hair can fall from my head
    without the will of my Father in heaven;
    in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
    Because I belong to him,
    Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
    also assures me of eternal life
    and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
    from now on to live for him.
  • Sing a Psalm of Praise and Thanks, e.g., Psalm 23A (tune: CRIMOND), which is widely known and easily sung a cappella.
  • Close with prayer, e.g.,
    Our heavenly Father,
    we ask You to look upon us in grace,
    as we look away from ourselves into the face of Your Son, whom You have
    appointed our Mediator and Savior.
    As all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in Your Son, guide us by
    Your Holy Spirit into the true understanding of the doctrines of Christ.
    May our meditation upon His truth produce in us the fruit of righteousness to the glory and exaltation of His name, the instruction and edification of this congregation, and the salvation of the lost through our witness.
    We pray this in the name and favor of Your well-beloved Son, Jesus Christ, in dependence on His Holy Spirit. Amen.
  • Our Father who is in heaven,
    hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.
    Your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
    Give us this day our daily bread,
    and forgive us our debts,
    as we forgive our debtors.
    And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from evil.
    For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.

You can follow the same pattern for a time of evening prayer. E.g., Heidelberg Questions 26–28 seem especially relevant right now:

26 Q. What do you believe when you say,
“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth”?

A. That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them,1 who still upholds and rules them
by his eternal counsel and providence,2 is my God and Father
for the sake of Christ his Son. I trust God so much that I do not doubt he will provide
whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends upon me in this vale of tears. He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.

27 Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?

A. Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God1 by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that
leaf and blade,
rain and drought,
fruitful and lean years,
food and drink,
health and sickness, prosperity and poverty — all things, in fact, come to us
not by chance
but by his fatherly hand.

28 Q. How does the knowledge of God’s creation and providence help us?

A. We can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for the future we can have
good confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature will separate us from his love. For all creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they can neither move nor be moved.

May the Lord bless you and yours today and especially tomorrow on the Lord’s Day as we gather as those who bear the name of Christ, who rest in his all-wise providence, and who rejoice in the grace of Christ and the salvation that he has earned and freely given to all his people.

NOTE

1. The numbering is taken from the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (Great Commission Publications/United Reformed Churches in North America, 2018). These Psalms and tunes are found widely, however.

I am indebted to Mike Abendroth, pastor of Bethlehem Bible Church, who sent out a letter to his congregation explaining why they are suspending services tomorrow and encouraging them to hold devotions at home, for inspiring this post.

2. The prayers are taken from URCNA Forms And Confessions.

Resources

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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18 comments

  1. What do small churches do that are under “a” 250 person gathering “cut off,” so they hold services but get overwhelmed with “visitors” wanting to worship with saints gathered? Send them away?

    • Michael,

      The CDC has just solved that problem. They’re issuing guidelines forbidding gatherings of more than 50 until May 10.

      There’s a Heidelcast episode coming with some ideas.

    • “Interesting times” we’ve been given to deal with. My wife and I are currently visiting friends about 1,500 miles from our home so we became two of those “visitors” yesterday, and were blessed to participate in two wonderfully edifying worship services so maybe my view is a bit skewed, but in our home church we would gladly give up our seats for visitors (and we *love* our church!) if it came down to that or denying them the blessing we received worshipping with the saints assembled here.

      Here’s the CDC “Guidance” for Consistories and others to mull over. Extraordinarily important, I believe, that none of us fault our churches, especially not publicly, for their response to this situation. This may be one of the best opportunities God in His grace has given many of us to demonstrate the Fruit of the Spirit to those around us.

      https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/large-events/mass-gatherings-ready-for-covid-19.html

  2. the state of california and cdc have issued guidelines which are in fact suggestions concerning the gathering of people. the same is true for san diego. to gather, therefore is not an act of lawlessness but may be considered unwise. to cancelled administering word and sacrament is a grave thing to consider. however nothing suggests a consistory or minister of word sacrament is abdicating their duty in closing the doors for the sake of protecting their members. there are other remedies churches have taken in the URCNA as well as the ones suggested here. but to open or close in any circumstances is not a matter of law at this time. it would require the imposition of martial law for that to occur.
    Thomas J. Schnable J.D.

  3. We used this liturgy yesterday. Thanks!

    I have seen a number of public comments on social media Christians exhibiting a degree of bravado about this crisis. From what I am able to tell, however, few of them are epidemiologists (neither am I). Here is an instance in which it is helpful to remember that we live under what Calvin called a “twofold government” (duplex regimen). The church is responsible to minister God’s Word in the sacred sphere and the the civil magistrate is God’s minister in the secular sphere. We live in both spheres. We have submit to authorities in both spheres.
    Perhaps we will learn that the authorities were wrong in this instance but perhaps not. We do not know yet. We probably will not know for some time. The probabilities are that you are not qualified to judge, unless you are an expert in public health. “Well my neighbor is a nurse and he says…” is not an adequate substitute for actual expertise. The news media and pundits are not experts in public health.

    Where do you go to get information? Like the boy who cried, “Wolf!” every week the media generates a new crisis and the world keeps not ending. Trust in the news has plummeted since the 1970s to its current nadir. Only 30% trust the news. During the latest round of fires, I had to gather my own weather data from weather.gov and look at the ArcGIS incident maps of the fires and the MODIS satellite overlays. Other than that, the media was useless to understand the spread of the fires.

    After the incident, the conclusions drawn by elected officials were at odds with CalFire’s and the Legislative Analyst’s Office reports on the source of our constants fires: (primarily) inadequate clearance of millions of acres of brush and inadequate fire break cutting. Instead, the public were told that we needed a public takeover of PG&E. I could go on all day with other examples, but another is Dr. Drew’s public comments about our vagrancy and drug epidemic versus elected officials’ statements that we just don’t have enough housing.

    The fog of half-truths and lies coming from the news and many in public office has caused many of us to ask people in our own networks such as doctors about their opinion on a matter, for lack of a better option, and for better or worse. We need a better news media but all of their financial incentives are to write as inflammatory pieces as possible to drive up web traffic. Also, we need to elect honest magistrates. We’re definitely getting what we voted for.

  4. Thank you for this, Dr. Clark. I’m writing specifically to better understand your application of 2K to this situation. It seems to me that Scripture makes clear that assembly is a necessary component of worship. Since worship is the purview of the church and not the state, the state lacks the authority to tell the church not to perform anything necessary for worship including assembly.

    Please understand that I am not questioning whether the CDC advice is good advice nor to project any accusations against those who are not assembling etc. I’m just curious about your application of 2K to this situation regarding the assembly necessary for worship.

    • Jeremiah,

      1. Christians are going to come to differing conclusions as they seek to live under God’s twofold kingdom. Some congregations gathered for worship last Lord’s Day and others will gather next Lord’s Day.

      2. I did not say that the state had a right to tell the church not to gather for worship. I did say or imply that the state has a legitimate interest in public health. Covid-19 is spread person to person (and perhaps indirectly via surfaces). Data show that young people can be vectors (carriers) transmitting the virus unknowingly to vulnerable people, which happens in groups. Churches meet in groups. The magistrate asked all groups over 250 not to meet or to meet. Now they’re trying to limit groups to 50 or fewer. This isn’t aimed at the church. The question is how the church, as an institution, should respond to this instruction in order to love our neighbors and not spread the virus?

      3. Did you listen to the H-cast follow up from Sunday? Obviously, the facts on the ground have changed a bit but the interviews are instructive.

    • Thank you for taking the time to respond to my question, Dr. Clark. I recognize you’re using your limited time to respond to a stranger online, and I appreciate it. I completely agree with point 1. Christians will/do/did come to different conclusions about 2K and its application. Christians will/do/did come to different solutions to the current problem, and there were a variety of practices even within my presbytery. I’m casting no aspersions upon those who came to different conclusions.

      As to 3, I have listened to your episode on this. I believe I’ve listened to all of your podcasts available through ITunes including Office Hours. I also listen to a significant proportion of Presbycast, so it was fun to hear Chortles as well.

      To 2, both you and your guest Chad indicated that we should submit to our civil authorities in the matter of whether or not we assembled ourselves together, and above you linked that conclusion regarding submission to 2K. The other reasons mentioned for why we should consider not having church in the ordinary sense with large crowds such as wisdom/prudence, loving our neighbor etc. make perfect sense to me. My question is specifically about what is entailed in submission to authority within 2K with respect to assembling ourselves together. If assembling is necessary for right worship, and I believe that we agree that it is, is it within the sphere of the secular authority to tell the church that they cannot do something necessary for right worship? I’m not asking about whether the church should consider their advice or whether or not the government should inform churches of the threat. I’m asking who ultimately is responsible for whether or not the people of God assemble to worship on the Lord’s day. If it’s the church, then I don’t see how submission is an element of the choice.

      Again, I’m not advocating a cavalier attitude towards illness nor am I advocating that the government doesn’t matter. I’m asking in this specific scenario how the civil authority’s power intersects with church responsibilities in an authoritative manner with respect to assembling ourselves together.

      • Jeremiah,

        It intersects thus:

        1. All congregations are groups
        2. The magistrate is restricting group meetings for public health reasons.
        3. Ergo, congregations are restricted for public health reasons.

  5. I understand that Scott. But quoting chapter of Roman’s takes compliance to a different level I think even though that was not your intent. As an additional note Denver has recommended dentist offices close for 3 weeks. This is communicated by the press as an order. My wife’s office is complying, not because they fear ramifications by the city, but because they fear the news will report their noncompliance damaging future business. They also fear the certification board would take some action

    • Thomas,

      What do you mean by “different level”?

      The magistrate is trying to protect people, particularly the the elderly and those with underlying health conditions from catching a deadly virus. That is quite within the purview of the magistrate. They have not issued any laws but have given directions. Many congregations, for the protection of their members and their community, are temporarily suspending services to as not to spread the virus. This seems like an eminently reasonable application of Romans 13.

  6. i will answer you privately as my would take up to much space here. i understand that you are trying to say things in a limited space but you have touched on categories that merit some further discussion. also, i do not like to parse words and i do not want to do this with what you have submitted here. finally, i do agree with taking precautions as you suggest so we are in agreement on that. i sincerely am glad you have written these things and hope i have not trouble the waters concerning the main thrust of your comments.

Comments are closed.