The current argument for civil disobedience runs something like this: The Bible commands us to gather for worship. The government currently forbids us to gather for worship. The authority of God is greater than the authority of the government. Therefore, we must obey God rather than men.
The basic rules for deductive reasoning assert that if the premises are true, and the terms are clear and the rules of deductive logic are followed then the conclusion reached is necessarily true. If the premises stated above are true and if the terms are clear then logic and conscience would demand that every church in this Province (not to mention several other Provinces) open its doors and welcome its members for public worship this coming Lord’s Day.
So has that case been made?
I don’t believe it has.
To be clear, I do believe that churches and individuals must be prepared to render ultimate obedience to God alone. However, in most cases obeying the civil government is an aspect of our obedience to God. The Bible says:
“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.” (Romans 13:1–2 ESV)
The terms in this passage could not be any clearer: God commands his people to be subject to the governing authorities. To resist those authorities is to resist God.
That is a clearly stated, unambiguous general principle – to which there is a widely recognized exception. When the Apostles were commanded by the Jewish Sanhedrin not to preach in Jesus’ name, Peter replied:
“We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29 ESV)
God had told them to preach in Jesus’ name and an angel had just let them out of prison and reaffirmed their basic commission. The terms were maximally clear: the disciples must preach in the name of Jesus. If the governing authorities forbid what God has expressly commanded, and supernaturally confirmed then:
“We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29 ESV)
Every Christian must be prepared to make that stand should they find themselves in a similar situation. But is this current situation analogous to that one? That is the question of the hour.
Put simply: is there a clear and unambiguous command to gather, as a whole local church, in the New Testament?
If there is then the logical argument for civil disobedience in this particular circumstance would be greatly advanced.
The most frequently cited passage in the attempt to demonstrate such a command would be Hebrews 10:24-25. For maximum clarity it is cited below in 3 literal translations:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25 ESV)
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24–25 NRSV)
And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, 25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25 NASB95)
The Greek word translated in the ESV and the NRSV as “not neglecting” and in the NASB95 as “not forsaking” is egkataleipo. It means, when used, as here, in a negative sense:
“to desert: — forsake, leave.”
The word appears here as a participle meaning that it supports the main verb which is katanoeo, translated here as “let us consider”.
The word translated as “meet together” or “assembling together” is episunagoge. It is a version of the word generally used to refer to the Jewish synagogue. It means simply “to gather” and generally, though not always, refers to gatherings for the purpose of worship.
Putting that all together, the Apostle’s main exhortation here is for the readers of his letter to consider how they may increase their love and service to one another and he makes it clear that regular gatherings and on-going fellowship will no doubt constitute an important aspect of their efforts at so doing.
P.E. Hughes offers a rather pointed summary of the main point being expressed in this passage. He says:
“Unconcern for the well-being of the body, of which they are members, is symptomatic of self-concern and egocentricity.”
Strictly speaking, there is no “command” in Hebrews 10:24-25. The main verb is in the subjunctive, which generally has the sense of an encouragement, as reflected in all literal translations. The Apostle is encouraging a group of people to consider how they may increase in mutual love, consideration and humble service toward one another. To state the obvious, there is no direct command mandating large congregational worship gatherings on a 7-day rotation.
The Apostle here rebukes the independent spirit. He rebukes those who are too self-reliant to acknowledge their need of the Christian community as well as those who are too proud to humble themselves in service to it. The proper contemporary application of this passage would be to the cottage owner who neglects corporate gatherings for 3 months out of every year. It would be fairly applied to the avid golfer or the sports addicted parents who are simply too busy with other activities to truly connect and integrate with a local church family.
It does not clearly or obviously apply to situations wherein large public worship gatherings may be temporarily forbidden by the state for reasons of public health and safety. It was evidently not understood in that sense by Richard Baxter, the English Reformer, in his book A Christian Directory which deals systematically with difficult questions that may arise over the course of the Christian life. He anticipates our concern precisely in question 109:
Question 109: May we omit church-assemblies on the Lord’s day, if the magistrate forbid them?
Answer: 1. It is one thing to forbid them for a time, upon some special cause, (as infection by pestilence, fire, war, etc.) and another to forbid them statedly or profanely.
Baxter’s application reflects a nuanced understanding of Hebrews 10:24-25. The Apostle’s concern in that passage had to do with those who neglected to gather for profane reasons. If an individual neglected the public gatherings of the church profanely (out of disinterest, arrogance, defiance or unbelief) then he or she would be in grievous error. But if an individual omitted public gatherings for a time, upon some special cause, such as concern for public health and the well-being and safety of neighbours and vulnerable seniors, then that does not in any way contradict the teaching and intent of this passage.
The same logic would apply to the validity of health and safety protocols levied by the civil magistrate. If they were demonstrably profane in intention (so as to undermine the church, or to devalue human dignity, or to silence Christian witness) then they would be rightly refused by Christian people. If however they were temporary in nature and upon some special cause such as infection by pestilence, fire, war, etc., then the Christian would be bound to obey. The Christian in such a situation could not appeal to Hebrews 10, which does not clearly apply, so as to invalidate Romans 13, which clearly does.
There is a significant difference between pausing and neglecting.
There is a significant difference between delaying and forsaking.
Hebrews 10:24-25 addresses the nominal or independent-minded believer who does not see the value in corporate gatherings. It is not a clear and unambiguous command to gather for large group worship on every Lord’s Day. To be clear, we would be surprised if it did mean that. There is very little in the way of ritual law in the New Testament. The motivation in the New Testament is internal; it is love, it is Spirit, it is gratitude. The New Testament believer wants to gather, is inclined to gather, delights to gather, longs to gather so as to love and serve his or her fellow believer. And it is that same love that will occasionally motivate him or her to pause or omit gathering so as not to unwittingly harm those we mean to serve and care for.
Even still, come Lord Jesus!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here.
Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “paragraph 1.
 Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary On The Epistle To The Hebrews (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 415.