Many churches and congregations have recently been faced with a dilemma. During this recent period of fear, self-isolation and cautious self-distancing caused by the COVID-19 virus, many churches and congregations stopped holding regular, physical worship services. Why? After careful consideration and discussion, the individual leaders of these churches and congregations decided that it would be safer to cancel or postpone regular, physical worship services until it is safely possible to do so. This was their decision. In making this decision, these leaders of these many churches and congregations were faced with a conflict between the Third, Fourth and Fifth Commandments. Which commandment, within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, is more important and takes precedence over the others? As these commandments are discussed separately below, please note that each commandment may create a conflict or dilemma within itself. There may be no easy answer.
The Third Commandment says to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Since Christians aren’t obligated to keep any day as a Sabbath, this commandment must mean something else to them. Martin Luther equates keeping this commandment to hearing and learning God’s Word. Luther says this in his explanation to this commandment: “We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” How does a Christian “hear and learn” God’s Word? Can he “hear and learn it” over the television, radio or the internet? Or does God require physical worship services in order to keep this commandment? The author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews says that we should “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing – all the more as you see the Day [Jesus’ Second Coming] approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). And Jesus, Himself, says in a statement about forgiveness, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). Apparently Jesus, Himself, is that forgiveness that is present when His followers come together. Although a Christian can “hear and learn” God’s Word over the television, radio and the internet, God still appears to desire physical worship services. But, what if physical worship services are not safely possible? A conflict or dilemma appears to exist.
The Fourth Commandment says that “Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.” Martin Luther adds this in his explanation to this commandment: “We should fear and love God that we may not despise our parents and masters, nor provoke them to anger, but give them honor, serve and obey them, and hold them in love and esteem.” The Christian church has historically taught that the Fourth Commandment refers not only to parents, but to any of God’s representatives on earth. In this way, it encompasses obedience to any entity that represents God. Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this includes the government. Luther’s Small Catechism uses the term “parents and other authorities” when discussing the Fourth Commandment, and defines it this way: “Parents are fathers, mothers, and guardians; other authorities are all those whom God has placed over us at home, in government, at school, at the place where we work, and in the church.” Thus, the Fourth Commandment obligates the Christian to obey the government. Scriptural references for this obligation can be found in Paul’s letter to Titus where he tells him to “remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good” (Titus 3:1). What if the people don’t “subject [themselves] to rulers and authorities”? Paul gives this warning in his letter to the Romans: “He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:2). Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the above scripture references teach that the government can tell a Christian that he cannot or should not attend physical worship services. And if the government does this, then he cannot or should not attend. So, it seems that God wants the Christian to obey the government, but is this commandment more important than the Third? Or the Fifth? A conflict or dilemma appears to exist.
The Fifth Commandment says that “Thou shalt not kill.” Martin Luther equates this commandment with safeguarding God’s gift of life. Luther says this in his explanation to this commandment: “We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.” According to the Small Catechism, this commandment does not only forbid unjustifiable homicide: it also “forbids us to hurt or harm our neighbor physically, that is, to do anything which may destroy, shorten, or make his or her life bitter.” Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this means that a church or congregation may not want to hold physical worship services if those physical worship services cannot be held safely. This also means that a Christian may not want to attend physical worship services if he cannot do so safely, or if he will endanger someone else’s health or safety by doing so. Jesus, Himself, appears to agree with this meaning of the Fifth Commandment in two separate sayings. First, He says “do to others what you would have them do to you.” Christians know this as the “Golden Rule.” This saying of Jesus is so important that it is quoted twice in the Gospels: once at Matthew 7:12 and again at Luke 6:31. Second, He says “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This saying of Jesus is also very important. It is also quoted twice in the Gospels: once at Matthew 22:39 and again at Mark 12:31. Based on the words of Jesus, is this commandment the most important? Does it take precedence over the others? Of the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, the First Commandment is usually seen to be the most important. Most historians would say that the First Commandment takes precedence over the other nine. Does this mean that the other nine are equally important? The answer depends upon whom one asks. For the churches and congregations that stopped holding regular, physical worship services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the answer may have been one of equality. They were faced with a conflict and dilemma created by the various prohibitions and requirements of the three commandments discussed above. For them, there may have been no easy answer.