What We Believe
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March 19, 2020 Q & A

“Is it a sin to cancel worship?”

Question

“Is it a sin to cancel worship?”

Answer

I will have to refine your question a bit to respond to what I believe is your intent. You see, you cannot cancel worship. Worship is either given or withheld, which are actions of the individual first (and also to be performed in public as one of God’s people). And it is indeed a sin to withhold worship from the one true God.

I believe that “Is it a sin to cancel public worship?” is a better phrasing of your question. And to that, the answer is yes without proper cause. While the fourth Commandment requires us to worship God (as a part of keeping the Sabbath), the times and circumstances are left to the prudence of the session. Individual members are called upon to follow those decisions as far as possible, but not blindly. There are faithful Christians who cannot attend some of the services, and none of us are able always to attend them all. For example, I had knee surgery and did not attend the worship services two days later; it was virtually impossible for me to go and participate.

There are times when it is not proper to conduct pubic worship, particularly when doing so poses an inordinate danger to the attendees. During my pastorate in Iowa, there were normally two or three Lord’s Days each winter when the travel (even in town) was extremely hazardous. The Session would consider the situation and conclude that to insist on holding services would endanger the lives of those who traveled. We tried to judge wisely regarding the danger, and often continued with services even with ice and snow abounding. But at other times we believed that asking the members to come would have violated the sixth Commandment by endangering their lives. This did not “cancel worship,” but it did cancel the public services for worship that were scheduled.

And this, I believe, is the core of your question. Does the current situation (the coronavirus) make it dangerous for our members to gather? That is a judgment call of each Session, complicated somewhat by civil authorities banning such gatherings in some places. It would be foolish to declare that there is no danger, and improper to declare that every Session that cancelled services to protect their members had erred.

Let me conclude with a quote from Martin Luther regarding his conduct during the plague.

I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God. (Luther’s Works, vol. 43, p. 132, the letter “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess)

 

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