During the Roman Empire Christians had to decide if God was first in their lives (Mk. 12:30). Should they attend worship services knowing if they did, they could ultimately die? Knowing the risk if they got caught, would God permit a reprieve to His command for assembling (Heb. 10:25). After all, once a new emperor took office the madness would end. They only needed to hide for a few months or in the worst case, a few years. However, the persecution of Christians didn’t end for over 200 years.
There was evidence to suggest Christians were finding it hard to attend services. Ignatius wrote Polycarp a letter to encourage the beleaguered servant of Christ to keep up the good fight. In it he wrote, “Let your assembling together be of frequent occurrence: seek after all by name.”[i] Ignatius who was writing this letter from prison was telling Polycarp to meet more often. No doubt with the intent of strengthening the brethren to endure martyrdom.[ii] But he also said to “seek after all by name.” In the foot notes it reads concerning this statement, “i.e., so as to bring them out to the public assembly.”[iii] Ignatius was an Elder at Antioch. He was soon to be executed for being a Christian. He knew that assembling placed a target on the backs of the brethren. Yet, he was encouraging more gatherings, not less. It seems Ignatius understood the importance of assembling even in trying times.
Later in the same letter Ignatius wrote, “A Christian has not power over himself, but must always be ready for the service of God.”[iv] This is an excellent point. Paul wrote the Roman brethren, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1). Paul wrote the Corinthians saying, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore, glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Ignatius understood that Christians serve a higher power. If that meant potentially being exposed to a virus in order to assemble as commanded by God, so be it! Of course, Ignatius was referring to being exposed to the Roman authorities under penalty of death if they were caught and refused to denounce Christ. In either case, it was far safer staying at home then it was circulating in public.
We would like to think that martyrdom is a far cry from catching a virus. To wit, we agree. Before one was executed during the Roman Empire, Christians had to endure torture and suffering. Catching the coronavirus, suffering in bed and possibly dying somehow does not compare. However, the principle is the same. Christ has commanded our presence at the assembling for worship and we are expected to be there even if it means our life (Heb. 10:25-26; Lk. 17:33). If we get sick because someone at the service exposed us to the virus and we died, do we think God won’t notice? Jesus said if we die for the gospel’s sake, we will find eternal life (Mk. 8:35). He knows we gave our life in obedience to His commands.
We need to understand that even if we attend worship services for the right reasons, we are still unprofitable servants (Lk. 17:7-10). We are only doing that which was our duty to perform. What does it say about us when we can’t even do our duty? When King David failed to do his duty, God called it disobedience. Solomon called David’s disobedience rebellion and stubbornness that rejects God (1 Sam. 15:22-23). Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (Jn. 14:15). If we don’t love Him, we won’t keep His commands especially when it becomes threatening.
There is no reason why a healthy Christian cannot attend services. The only thing that prevents attending worship services is a fear of getting ill and possibly dying. Sickness and death are cares of life (Matt. 13:22). If we cannot attend services for fear of sickness or death, we will never attend services again. We have proven we possess a spirit of fear (2 Tim. 1:7). Fear can ultimately prevent our salvation (Rev. 21:8).
We should encourage one another to attend services despite the threat of a virus. Many first century Christians sacrificed their lives by attending services. The reward is the same for them as it is for us. There should be nothing that holds us to this life if the Lord is truly first in our hearts. ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength’” (Mk. 12:30). That is what it means to be a Christian. “Whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk. 8:35). Apparently, many have not counted the cost of discipleship (Lk. 14:26-33).
[i] Ignatius, “Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson, ed., Hendrickson Publishers, 1995, Vol. 1, pg. 94.
[ii] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Hendrickson Publishers, 1998, Book III, 36, pg. 100.
[iii] Ignatius, “Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson, ed., Hendrickson Publishers, 1995, Vol. 1, pg. 94.
[iv] Ibid, pg. 96