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Wrong Responses to a Loss of Corporate Worship

When Israel lost its Temple in A. D. 70, you might imagine it would have prompted much soul-searching and repentance among the rabbis that had rejected Jesus as Messiah. In fact, the rabbis had known for forty years before that date that something was amiss. Yoma 39b of the Talmud records the strange occurrences from around A. D. 30 onwards:

“Our Rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-coloured strap become white; nor did the westernmost light shine; and the doors of the Hekal would open by themselves…”

From the year 30 (give or take three years), the Yom Kippur lot came up in the wrong hand, the crimson cord that was tied around the scapegoat’s neck did not change colour, the Menorah would go out by itself, and the doors would open and close by themselves. Since Luke tells us that many of the thousands of priests in Jerusalem became believers (Acts 6:7), clearly many of them understood the significance of these events, and of the one recorded in Scripture, the tearing of the Temple veil.

But not everyone did. Once the Temple was destroyed, Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai hurried to consolidate and set up rabbinic Judaism at Yavneh. Rabbinic Judaism eliminated the centrality of the Temple and the need for ritual atonement. Several texts in the Talmud defend the new bloodless and templeless religion:

Shabbat 119b states that “Rabbi Chisda said in Mar ‘Ukba’s name: He who prays on the eve of the Sabbath and recites ‘and [heaven and earth were finished]’, the two ministering angels who accompany man place their hands on his head and say to him ‘and thine iniquity is taken away and thine sin purged.”

Menachot 110a: “Whoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah needs no burnt-offering nor sin-offering, no meal-offering nor guilt-offering”.

Hundreds of years later, the Siddur (prayer book) continued the idea:
“Lord of the Universe, thou hast commanded us to offer up the perpetual sacrifice in its time and thou hast established priests and Levites in their posts and in their special status, and now the Temple has been broken up on account of our sins, the perpetual offering has been postponed and we do not have a functioning priest or a Levite in office…may Thy will, therefore, be…that the speech of our lips shall be considered an offering.”

Instead of soul-searching as to why the central place of Jewish corporate worship had been removed, the Pharisees capitalized on the moment, knowing the Sadducees had lost their power. The synagogue would now become the center of Jewish religion, and the study of Torah a de facto form of atonement. One can imagine the argument from expediency and pragmatism: “But we can’t perform the sacrifices! Prayer and the study of Torah must suffice now.” The larger question is ignored: “Why would God remove what He commanded to be used?” The fact that the first and second Temple were both destroyed on the 9th of Av, centuries apart, should surely have been some cause for reflecting on the meaning of this providence.

But the nature of professional religionists is to keep the show going. Treat the elephant in the room as a natural feature. Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

Last week, I posted on why we [my local church] chose not to livestream. (Note, not “Why You Should Never Livestream” or “Why Only the Ungodly Livestream”. ) In that post, I explained – carefully, I thought – that there are great uses for livestreaming in the church, but the one thing we should not do is to smooth this event over. As a pastor, I understand why pastors want to be shock-absorbers, and reduce the level of panic and fear among our people. But comfort should never become half-truths. We should not tell our people that we are really still gathering, only through a screen. We might be communicating, and enjoying the connection that digital media afford. But we aren’t gathering. And I don’t think I’m splitting hairs in insisting that we reserve the term gathering for an actual gathering. The assembly must assemble. My argument was simple: we should mourn the loss of corporate worship, encourage home and family worship, pastor and disciple through technological means, but not attempt to create the impression that we are really still conducting corporate worship, in the truest sense.

To make that attempt would be the rabbinic response. Instead of asking, “Why has God removed our opportunity for corporate worship?”, the rabbinic response says, “Well, God hasn’t totally removed corporate worship, since we still have the Internet! ” Instead of asking how God might be chastening us, we find a way to notice the crisis without pondering its meaning, to respond to its exigencies without responding to its existence. That’s exactly how you end up like the rabbis of the first century: use necessity to justify pragmatism.

Yes, there’s no question that the parallels between the destruction of the Temple and our current crisis are not without many differences. We have not lost our atonement, nor have we rejected Christ. But there are certainly some similarities: Israel could no longer corporately gather three times a year, and we cannot gather for the time being.

As we look upon the rabbis of the first century and marvel at their hardness of heart, is it too much to ask for modern evangelical and fundamentalist leaders to ponder the meaning of the moment and soul-search?

Could it be that we, and our people, have treated corporate worship casually and flippantly? Do we attend sporadically, dress as casually as is socially acceptable, arrive late, check our phones during sermons, sleep, walk out when we need a break, and slurp on our coffee during worship? Do we sing trite songs because they are catchy or create the mood we like? Do we pray hurriedly and chattily to the Most High? Do we pay lip service to expository preaching while smuggling in our pet topics or favourite hobby-horses? Do we worship some other things, besides God: relevance, popularity, authenticity, sincerity, niceness? Do we fail to cultivate the fear of the Lord, because the fear of the Lord is alien to our culture?

Might it be that God is chastening us for taking corporate worship for granted? Could He be showing us what it is that we have been treating so casually? Might it be that some of our worship has actually become superficial and artificial enough to be a spectacle: something that can be entirely communicated through a screen?

Might it be that God is giving us that thing which people craved for, till it comes out of their nostrils (Num. 11:20)? Some have craved internet church, home church, online sermons, convenience and comfort, and have despised gathering, prayer meetings, membership, covenanting, and ministering to one another. Now they have enough home and internet church to make themselves sick, and none of those things they treated lightly.

Could this be a moment for pastors and leaders to consider the meaning of church, the meaning of worship, the meaning of the Body (and the human body) and renew their commitment to worship instead of entertainment, to body life and not vicarious involvement, to membership instead of illusory community?

Perhaps.

Or we could assure our people that this is a technical difficulty, and that regular programming will resume shortly. Our technicians are working on it.

David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

7 Responses to Wrong Responses to a Loss of Corporate Worship

  1. “Could it be that we, and our people, have treated corporate worship casually and flippantly? Do we attend sporadically, dress as casually as is socially acceptable, arrive late, check our phones during sermons, sleep, walk out when we need a break, and slurp on our coffee during worship? Do we sing trite songs because they are catchy or create the mood we like? Do we pray hurriedly and chattily to the Most High? Do we pay lip service to expository preaching while smuggling in our pet topics or favourite hobby-horses? Do we worship some other things, besides God: relevance, popularity, authenticity, sincerity, niceness? Do we fail to cultivate the fear of the Lord, because the fear of the Lord is alien to our culture?

    Might it be that God is chastening us for taking corporate worship for granted? Could He be showing us what it is that we have been treating so casually? Might it be that some of our worship has actually become superficial and artificial enough to be a spectacle: something that can be entirely communicated through a screen?”

    I especially appreciated this section in your article. Well said and very appropriate for the times. May God give us all a willingness to handle this change to His glory and lead those around us in similar fashion.

  2. “Could this be a moment for pastors and leaders to consider the meaning of church, the meaning of worship, the meaning of the Body (and the human body) and renew their commitment to worship instead of entertainment, to body life and not vicarious involvement, to membership instead of illusory community.”

    Of course it is. Could it also still be a moment to point out that whatever online or digital efforts are made are to be rightly acknowledged as never standing in for physically gathered worship? I nod my head in agreement with much of what is published her at RA, but to make this a “who is on the Lord’s side ” type of issue, well… Many of us are involved in well-thought-efforts to help our people miss our sweet physical gatherings of Worship, while still finding some fellowship. Many of us are joining in chorus in eschewing and teaching against what this good brother says should be eschewed and taught against, while utilizing modern tools to accomplish some ancient heart work. Why a my way or the highway approach, it’s quite offputting. Grace to you, and peace.

  3. Sam,

    No disagreement from my side. There are many valid applications and uses of technology for this time, and we don’t all have to look the same when we apply them. Each shepherd must answer to God for how he led during this time.
    The line which I think must be drawn is the one which distinguishes true assembling from a video shared by several people simultaneously. I’d like to think that I’m sending a friendly warning to some shepherds who may find when this crisis is over that their people can’t see why livestreaming shouldn’t become a permanent option. There are already voices out there saying we should embrace the change.

  4. Sam,
    I must have read a different article than you did. I didn’t detect any of the “who is on the Lord’s side” or “my way or the highway” attitude that you are suggesting. I gathered a challenge, warning, caution and encouragement to all of us during these times. I am recording SS every week for our church in Hong Kong. This last Sunday I recorded for SS and the “main service.” This, for sure, is a moment to reflect and be careful and have a Bible based principled plan for our decisions moving forward. That is exactly what I took from these two articles.

  5. David de Bruyn,
    I am a nobody and feel insignificant in these comments. I appreciate the concern for proper corporate worship from Religious Affections. I have read your articles and can sense a pastor who wants to be sensitive to God’s leading. You desire to fear the Lord and lead others to do the same. Thank you.

    I find it interesting that you use Israel as an analogy for the current day local church in the realm of corporate worship. I cannot say that this connection would have ever come to my mind. It helps to illustrate your points to corporate worship. This does not help me to agree with your final challenge from the assumed answers to your rhetorical questions? This reminds me of how reformed theology individuals argue points of theology and replace Israel with the church which does not make sense to me looking at the natural meaning of words in the text. I do not think you do this o

    You ask the question, “Might it be that God is chastening us for taking corporate worship for granted?” (1) I do not understand the value of this question. Other than this idea is usually a topic of your posts. Please, help me understand what you are saying. We know that God rains blessings on the just and the unjust. We know that God allows difficult situations and physical deformities for His Own glory. God works out all things for our spiritual wellbeing. God gives us sufficient grace for life and godliness. Looking at a difficult situation such as COVID19 and asking a question like this seems quite similar to the question of who sinned to cause someone to be born with a deformity. (2) Would you agree that your question may not be that helpful to some? I could see this question leading some to have a distorted view of God, that God is forsaking His revealed character in the whole Bible which communicates law, Gospel, and grace. An example of this comes to mind from the Book of Ruth with Naomi responding so bitterly to her situation that she describes God improperly. She should know better from her understanding of Scripture.

    I want to ask the question for clarity. Do you think God is chastising with COVID19 the local churches because they are corporately worshiping improperly? I think you would say no and describe yourself as trying to help/provoke churches to correct improper worship by using the current times to provoke a proper understanding and response to worship corporately and biblically.

    Could you explain your intended audience more? Sometimes I think that I would understand your article better if I knew who your intended audience was. I do not, so I do not understand what you are saying at times because I do not have these thoughts and motives you describe and do not know others in my stripe of theology who have these motives either. I like calling our use of digital tools a “faux service.” We look forward to the day we can fellowship and worship together again as God intended. I do not know anyone in my circles who would say digital faux services are the same as meeting physically. Who are you referring to?

    You do well at provoking people to think. I try to do this with my own flock that God has given me. I am a new pastor to my current flock and am still getting to know them and to know how best to help them and provoke them to respond properly to God. Right now, I encourage my church to seize every opportunity to communicate our hope in Christ to the world whose hope is shattered by these world events. I do want to be as sensitive as I can like King David who seems to listen to anyone who says anything with great concern about whether it is coming from God. I am also blessed to have the complete Word of God to help me.

    Am I misrepresenting you? I do not indent to. My hope in this comment is to encourage you not to lose heart and give helpful criticism. I noticed a whole paragraph devoted to addressing the negative reception of your previous article which I assume is hard to receive when you are trying to be helpful. It has been quite hard for me to watch pastors verbally attack other pastors for making different decisions during these challenging times. I am not referring to you as “attacking” but just sharing my heart of sadness currently. Again, I appreciate your concern to honor God and to provoke and to lead others to do the same. I look forward to reading your future articles. I hope you are doing well.

  6. John,

    Thanks for taking the time to pen your comment, which you obviously gave much thought to.

    The connection between the Jewish situation and my final questions is summed up in the statement, “we find a way to notice the crisis without pondering its meaning, to respond to its exigencies without responding to its existence”. Their response to their removal was to simply make practical adjustments, not ask the deeper questions. My final challenge contains those deeper questions.

    To take your questions in order:
    1) The value of asking “might God be chastening us?” is to enable us to consider that possibility, and make amendments. In any trial, we should ask questions such as, “What is God exposing about my trust? What sinful responses are coming out of me in this trial? What godly traits are needed but missing in me? What might God be loosening my grip on? What priorities need re-ordering? What demands or rights are being humbled?” I teach my church to ask these questions, because to fail to ask them is often to waste the trial. In one sense, God is always chastening us: both positively affirming and negatively correcting. But if we never consider how, we miss opportunities for growth and just “weather the storm”.
    I don’t think this paints God negatively or harshly, because, first, chastening is always loving, and second, because God is doubtless doing innumerable things through this, besides chastening. And since He works for the good of His beloved (Ro 8:28), none should take that possibility negatively.

    2) Could my question not be helpful to some? It’s hard to answer that. Who do you mean? What is ‘helpful’? I suppose the shortest answer is Yes, in the same way that a sermon is not helpful to some, because of how they receive the sermon.
    If I may take a guess at what you mean with this question, perhaps you mean, “Is your question liable to be misunderstood and inflict unnecessary confusion or harm?” To that, I would answer, a rhetorical question about the possibility of God’s chastening is possibly the gentlest, most roundabout way you could say it. I made no declaration about what God is doing. I did not indict a particular group or practice, or lay blame at anyone’s feet. I asked what any Christian should ask when God removes something: why did He remove it (especially when it’s needful)? We know it is not to torment us, so thoughtful believers should scan the possibilities. Perhaps we have taken it for granted. Perhaps we have been flippant. Perhaps to reveal what we thought worship was. Perhaps none of these, but we will regard it more preciously when it returns. If the shoe doesn’t fit, then no harm is done. Shrug, thank God for daily grace and move on. On the other hand, if it does, then we should consider our ways.

    Who is the intended audience? I don’t really aim for a specific group. It probably includes pastors, leaders, church members, interested Christians. Maybe more to your point, who are the ‘guilty parties’? I’m not going after anyone particular. I’m included in my critique. But in the broadest stroke, evangelicalism is a movement so chronically infected with pragmatism that it is terminal. Its zeitgeist is to do what works, and to keep moving. It is not, by and large, a deeply reflective movement, one that considers the meaning of its habits, traditions, technologies. It adopts and adapts, and becomes very defensive and contemptuous of those who call on it to reflect, think, and consider what the trade-off and losses will be. Case in point, many of the comments and reactions to this post and the one before it.

    Since most of us, in some form or another, drink from the evangelical stream, it is a self-critique for us all.

    Thanks for carefully thinking and interacting. May God bless your ministry to your flock.

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