March 31, 2020

Can Churches Actually Close?

Regardless of the outbreak of COVID-19, church is never and should never be closed. Why? Because church is not a building. Church is people. “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9, NKJV). Therefore, as long as there are people of God, there is church.

Buildings are only places for worship. By “church building” we mean a building dedicated by God’s people where they can have their regular worship, especially on Saturday (Sabbath). A church building may be closed, but the church — God’s people — remain!

Church buildings or places of worship may be closed overnight by natural disasters, wars, and unexpected things. Since February 2020, many places of worship have been closed around the world.

On Saturdays (Sabbaths), what do we do in our church building? Yes, we meet friends, we greet one another, we sing and listen to worship music, we praise God, we discuss Sabbath School lessons, we listen to a sermon, our children love to listen to good Christian stories. Can we do all these alone or with our family in our houses, due to our cooperation and support to the government instruction for self-isolation to suppress the spread of the coronavirus? The answer is, “Yes, we can do most of these activities on Saturday (Sabbath) at home.”

We need to understand that in the time of the early church, Christians gathered together at their homes for their regular meetings. Several families may come and worship together in one house (e.g., Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15). That is why, when Saul (who was later known as Paul) was trying to persecute and banish the Christians, he went “from house to house” and dragged people out and put them in prison. Why from house to house? Because the church was there!

Given this fact, we should remember that the idea of having a church building is certainly biblical. It is a place dedicated to God, where His people may come together to worship Him. That is why the “temple” of God in the Bible is also called “the house of the Lord.” They are used interchangeably (e.g., Ezek. 8:16; Zech. 8:9). 

When people come together on Saturday (Sabbath) to meet in their church building or place of worship, they can do more than they could if each person or each family stayed home and had personal devotions or watched a worship service on a live stream. The functions of fellowship, mission planning, encouraging one another, communal activities and services, closeness, and physical presence are best fulfilled when people come together to worship.

However, when an unexpected and unavoidable circumstance, such as the outbreak of COVID-19, requires God's people to celebrate Sabbath while physically alone or with family members at home, they will receive from God the same Sabbath blessings. God is present there. He has promised in Isaiah 58:13, 14: “If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you shall delight yourself in the Lord; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob, your father. The mouth of the Lord has spoken” (NKJV).

Jesus promised: “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20, NKJV). Even when you are alone in self-isolation due to the coronavirus, He is our Good Shepherd (John 10:11), and He will be with you, just as He was with John on Patmos on the Lord’s day (Rev. 1:10). The church should never be closed, because you are His church, and the head of the church is Christ (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18).

The original version of this commentary was posted on the Northern Asia-Pacific Division news site.