On "Selfish" Church Attendance
One of the current charges leveled against Christians (largely on social media) is that Christians are being selfish by insisting on worshiping even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. One could put the argument like this:
- Participating in unecessary social activities that risk perpetuating the spread of COVID-19 is selfish.
- Meeting for in-person worship during the pandemic is an unnecessary social activity that carries the risk of perpetuating the spread of COVID-19.
- Therefore, meeting for in-person worship during the pandemic is selfish.
- Selfishness is immoral.
- Therefore meeting for in-person worship during the pandemic is immoral.
If churches meet, it should be taken for granted that to some degree they risk perpetuating the spread of COVID-19, regardless of the precautions they take, ultimately. All churches need to reckon with the question of whether meeting in person is selfish. It appears the only truly foolproof way to stop the spread of COVID-19 is to isolate people away from others until the pandemic ends. Having said all of that, there are a few ways in which the logic of the above argument fails.
The second premise fails, because it assumes that meeting to worship is unnecessary.
First, rather than looking at worship as necessary, many (probably most) in the West view worship as an optional lifestyle expression similar to skateboarding, moviegoing, or crocheting. They see church as optional and simply do not consider it on the same level as getting groceries or having a bed to sleep in. But it is different from the Christian's perspective. Hebrews 10:25 says that worship is a generally necessary activity. If worship is to be missed, it is not to be missed as a regular or routine “habit.” This is something more than religion as modern self-expression and therefore should not be minimized.
Second, for some, computer church or Zoom church should be seen as just the same as (or a legitimate substitute for) in-person worship. Therefore, it is argued, Christian insistence on attending in-person worship is selfish and puts society at risk. Of course, this criticism depends upon that very contestable assumption that Zoom church is really a legitimate approximation of what God commands (and that believers need). However, there are many features of Zoom worship that will never be able to replicate in-person worship.
For one thing, church is more than passively watching someone talking about God and praying. Church is interactive, it is a dialogue, not a monologue, with congregations responding to God’s word in prayer, with the pastor or worship leader hearing the response, with God’s people corporately singing, and reciting Scripture together. It is called “corporate worship” not because the church is a corporation but because the Latin word “corporatus” means bodily/physical. Corporate worship is literally impossible over Zoom, as much as that substitute has helped some people to get along during this season.
For another thing, the sacraments of the church are not replicable in isolation. The Lord’s Supper taken alone is an oxymoron; by its very nature the Lord’s Supper is communal. It takes place when believers are “together” (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:20) and can see each other and speak to each other. Paul actually suggests that when believers go home they can eat and drink in a way that is not the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:22). They share from the same element that has been set before them all. These are things that cannot be replicated and that find no analogue or substitute from home, even if one is watching along. There are other arguments for why the sacrament of the Lord’s supper cannot be replicated from home. It is perhaps too much to expect secular critics to find this argument persuasive—eating bread and drinking wine at home looks the same to them as it does at church—but believers in God’s Word at least need to recognize the difference.
Third, a further reality that has to be reckoned with is this: even as physical church gatherings do carry inherent risk (COVID or not), they also carry incredibly potent (though sometimes less tangible) benefits to society that ought not to be easily dismissed. Gallup recently released a poll showing the mental health benefits of weekly church attendance.
It is good for one’s neighbor if one’s own mental health is strong. Those whose mental health declines may become a burden to society, not a help. One whose mental health is strong is able to carry others and care for their own so that less pressure is put upon public servants. The mental health (not even to speak of spiritual health) of people matters, especially in a time when suicides and mental illness are on the rise. There are good reasons to believe that church attendance is necessary—at least on par with grocery shopping or going to the doctor. Therefore, the argument that church attendance is unnecessary fails.
The first premise also fails, because it assumes that doing things which carry risk towards others is necessarily selfish and therefore immoral.
First, the argument proves too much, since nearly every social activity carries risks which are always being weighed. Going to work on the MAX train in Portland carries risk. Driving to church or work each week carries risk. Even if someone followed all of the traffic laws someone else could have a collision and die. During a pandemic, even something as mundane but necessary as shopping carries risk, yet it is hard to think that a fellow shopper was being selfish, even during this time. The argument against actions that carry any risk for others makes all who do not completely isolate selfish.
Second, the only way to live a life that does not put others at risk is to refuse to participate in society. Yet even then, such persons depend on the activity and labor of others who do put themselves at risk for the sake of the isolated person. Personal shoppers risk their own lives so those at home can have groceries. Laborers at the power company work to keep the electricity going so the person at home can isolate. Hundreds of other people risk their lives for isolated persons who are trying not to put others at risk, and yet society does not label those who order groceries as selfish. That is to say, people cannot avoid risking their own lives or the lives of others. If doing things which carry risk towards others is immoral, then all of life is immoral. All of life involves risk to ourselves or others. The argument that isolation is the only unselfish way to live during a pandemic is also not a feasible conclusion.
Third, it can and should be argued that doing reckless, unreasonable, or unnecessary things which carry high risk for others can be considered immoral, but it also has to be acknowledged that the terms “reckless,” “unreasonable,” “high risk” and the like are by their nature subject to interpretation and context. Asking someone to do something that carries with it a 50/50 chance of dying simply so that one can be amused for an hour seems to qualify as unreasonable. Asking members of society to risk a 0.3% chance of dying so that one can do necessary activities is not prima facie unreasonable. The mere existence of risk (even to others) is not enough to make attending church something that one is morally obligated to forego. How that judgment works out will vary from person to person and by situation.
The argument here is actually fairly limited. The point is not that churches ought to meet in all situations. Neither is it that no scenario exists in which worship could wisely be postponed for extraordinary reasons. The argument is simply that a church meeting during a time of pandemic is not necessarily selfish.
Adam Parker is the Senior Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Beaverton, Oregon. He is the husband of Arryn and a father of four. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.
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