Is online worship acceptable?
I hope this email finds you well.
During the national lockdowns in my country, the church moved to online worship and this was beneficial in many ways. Now national lockdowns have ceased and the building is open for members to return. Attendance within some congregations has not returned to its normal level with more members choosing to worship online.
While those in the building of various congregations miss the physical presence of those who are worshipping online, it is understood that we all make personal choices. Some are still fearful of the pandemic; some are vulnerable; some are sick. Some prefer online worship but are still going to work ( physically), socializing with people in theatres and restaurants, and going on holidays.
Occasionally there are members, who prefer to worship online, will preach that online worship is okay; using John 4:23 and Matthew 18:20 as a reference to illustrate that it is no longer necessary to physically meet together in a physical building. I have read your previous responses to: 'If I'm just not able to get out, can I worship at home' and ' Does a person have to attend church in order to be accepted into the kingdom of God?' However, even texts such as 'when you come together' (I Corinthians 11:18) and 'not giving up meeting together ' (Hebrews 10:25) are being interpreted as not necessitating physicality if other ways of gathering are possible; for example, online.
If the government has stipulated that it is safe to meet in person, is it okay for members to choose how and where they worship using the scriptures above to justify this?
It will now be two years in 2022 since entire congregations were wholly together. I can see much change in the future and I don't know if this would be for the best or worst. If the men of these various congregations decide one of the following below- is this is acceptable to God?
- a congregation decides to move completely to online worship.
- to continue with a mix of in-person and online worship for those who do not wish to attend the building for various personal choices.
- to separate and allow those who wish to worship online or in the building to do so separately.
I would really appreciate your response to this question in order to ensure we continue in unity and love because ultimately this is a distraction from what our true purpose is.
May God continue to bless you and the congregation of La Vista richly. It truly was wonderful when I came to find your website and appreciate the many sermons and articles.
In Greek, one of the names for Christians assembling together is ekklesia (the called out). That word is generally translated as "church" in the English New Testaments. Universally, the church is composed of those called out of the world of sin. Locally, the church is composed of Christians who are called out to come, worship and serve the Lord. The distinguishing point of these local meetings is that the entire congregation is called to assemble:
- "when you come together as a church" (I Corinthians 11:18).
- "when you come together in one place" (I Corinthians 11:20).
- "when you come together to eat, wait for one another" (I Corinthians 11:33) -- speaking of eating the Lord's Supper.
- "the whole church comes together in one place" (I Corinthians 14:23).
- "Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification" (I Corinthians 14:26).
A group of Christians getting together, say for a camping trip, is not a gathering as a church. People listening from their homes over the Internet are not gathered in one place. These verses don't permit virtual meetings. Acts of worship are done by the congregation that expresses the unity of the congregation:
- Partaking of the Lord's Supper (I Corinthians 10:16-17; Acts 2:42).
- Singing (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; I Corinthians 14:23).
- Prayer (Acts 2:42; James 5:16).
- Giving (I Corinthians 16:1-2).
- Instruction (Acts 2:42).
There is no unity when people are not actively participating with brethren in these acts.
There was a short period of time when the virus was first detected that mankind didn't know what we were dealing with. Governments responded with lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus to give the medical community more time to come up with ways to deal with the virus. That all happened. What we are seeing now is different. Treatments are now known and available, and they have been for quite a while. While COVID can be a very nasty disease, we now know that that it doesn't severely affect as many people as was initially feared.
We are long past the initial emergency. We are instead learning how to live this virus and its variants, much as we have learned to live with influenza strains. For Christians, we know that this world is not our final destination, it isn't even our home. We are "strangers and pilgrims" (I Peter 2:11) on a temporary visa and one day, we will leave this world to go home (Hebrews 9:27). To live in fear of dying is a demonstration of unbelief in the promises of God. Christ freed us from the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15).
There are people whose medical conditions can't allow them to go places any longer. It is great that churches today can let them watch the worship of the saints and learn from God's Word. However, your question deals with those who are able to attend worship but are choosing not to do so. They are choosing to disobey God.
So let's look at the verses that are being pulled out of context to vainly try to justify this disobedience.
"The woman said to Him, "Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" " (John 4:19-24).
Jesus is discussing with the Samaritan woman whether worship of God should be conducted in Jerusalem or at Mount Gerizim. One of Jesus' points is that in the near future there would no longer be a single place of worship. Rather, worship will be conducted by His people wherever they are. This doesn't imply that worshipers of God would cease to gather. It only mentions that it would not be in a single place in all the world.
Further, God wants worshipers who worship in spirit (with sincerity) and truth (with obedient knowledge). People who worship by themselves at home may be sincere, but they are not obedient to God's command to be a part of a church and worship together in unity.
After discussing how to settle disputes between brethren in Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus went on to say:
"Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst" (Matthew 18:18-20).
Jesus stated that the church has the authority to uphold the laws of Christ. He is not stating that the church has the right to create its own laws and that God would go along with whatever they decide. The literal reading of the Greek is that “Whatever you bind on earth has been bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth has been loosed in heaven.” In other words, when the church follows Christ’s directives, the decisions they make will follow the decisions already established by God.
When two or three are gathered under the authority of Christ (that is, in his name), then Christ would be there with them. The decisions they make will be upheld by God. Again, this is not a blank check to make their own laws. It is the assurance of the king that when his people uphold his laws, the king would back them up with his authority. This, then, is the answer to the age-old question, “What right do you have to tell me what I need to do?” When disciples are upholding the laws of their Lord, they have the authority of the Lord behind them.
Yes, two or three can gather to form a church, and often in new areas, the number assembling may be quite low because there aren't any other Christians in the area. But Christians watching other Christians worship from afar have not started a new congregation. They are pretending to be a part of a congregation without contributing anything of their own to the work. They aren't encouraging fellow Christians by their presence. They are not singing admonitions together with the saints.
The strength of the church is found in the fellowship of believers. Just as "Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand" (Matthew 12:25), so it is that Christ's kingdom cannot stand if its citizens are divided into their own homes and not supporting each other.
"Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart" (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
Thank you so much for how quickly you responded to this. I appreciate the time you have taken to unpick my questions and the in-depth response you have given.
I intend to share this with some of the men from the various congregations, and God willing, it will enable all of us to really reflect on our individual and collective worship.
Thank you so much once again.