Humanity is going through an unprecedented time because of the coronavirus pandemic. And, the religious world has also not been left unaffected by this crisis.
Temples, mosques, churches were closed for a long duration of time. It is perhaps for the first time in this century that the religious world has witnessed such a horrific and lengthy disaster. Ever since the church was established on the day of Pentecost, nothing could stop church service, not even violent persecutions. Believers of the first century gathered every day; later they gathered once in a week on Sunday. But, for the first time, believers could not gather on Sundays for months together during the pandemic.
But, thanks to technology, online church services started and gained momentum. People began to join online services, but many were not satisfied because technology did not give them the spiritual experiences that they experienced in physical gatherings.
After a while religious sanctuaries were reopened though with restrictions. But people were in dilemma due to the fear of pandemic. While some Christians put fear over their faith and had to abide by the government’s restrictions, others put faith over the fear of pandemic. They just wanted to come to the church and have fellowship with one another in person. For them, physical gathering was more effective in terms of spiritual experience and personal satisfaction than the online service.
In such a scenario how should we interpret Hebrews 10:25 which reads that the believers should not neglect meeting together and encouraging one another. First, let us know why Hebrews 10:25 reads so.
The author of epistles to Hebrews writes to his readers in a crucial time when the readers, the second-generation Christians, were under pressure to dump Christ and Christianity due to the persecution they were going through for the cause of Christ. At this juncture it was essential for the church to play an important role on how to equip the believers as disciples in order that they would continue to follow Jesus regardless of the circumstances they were undergoing.
Persecution should not overtake them. Fear should not be the reason for the believers to stay away from local church gathering. Faith should triumph over fear. So the author of Hebrews writes that they should not neglect to meet together and encourage one another. And this exhortation, with the author’s style in this epistle, is followed by another warning in 10:26–31 against ignoring God’s truth and His son. That means, if fear triumphs over faith, then there is a danger for them.
What should be our takeaway when we read Hebrews 10:25 in the light of pandemic? Hermeneutically, what is applicable for us today from this text and what is not? The text is precise that the believers should gather together and encourage one another. It would truly help them to be strengthened in the Lord during the time of disaster. If not, loneliness will affect, in one way or the other, their journey with Christ. So, the gathering and exhortation is the prime concern for us today in the light of pandemic.
Then how to carry this understanding forward? Do we need to have necessarily the physical gathering or should we replace it with online gathering? Traditional churches are in favour of the physical gathering always, which is not wise enough in the light of safety precautions and social restrictions.
The pandemic has created chaos in the Christian world. It has created doctrinal dualism on parousia. While some tried to interpret the pandemic as the sign of the imminent coming of the Lord Jesus, others, though believe in the imminent return of Christ, don’t believe such interpretation. Many others consider it as divine judgment on humanity for sin. On this point also believers are divided. Many are sure and certain that the pandemic is a judgment for sins of humanity. So it should affect only the sinful and unbelieving world. But many others are skeptic about why it is affecting the believing world too. It is unintelligible for them that even believers and great servants of God are overtaken by the pandemic.
To bring the pandemic under control, the scientists worked untiringly and brought forth vaccines. The Christian world is again divided on vaccine. Few churches in India openly teach vaccine as the mark of the beast, 666, and that the believers should not be vaccinated.
The pandemic has caused theological bias, doctrinal division, interpretive errors and skepticism in the churches. What should be done to keep the believers intact at this juncture? The focal point of the church today should be to correct the theological, doctrinal, interpretive errors of believers on pandemic, and not to concentrate on whether it is a sign of divine judgment or the second coming of Christ, and or the mark of antichrist, etc. If the church is not strong enough to equip the believers with sound doctrine, then it will not be incredible to think that church will ultimately end up with creating heresies out of pandemic.
No one knows when the pandemic is going to end. We can’t connect with many at distant places via a physical church service whom we can connect through online service. The kind of spiritual experience and satisfaction we obtain in physical service cannot be obtained in online service. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. So it is advisable that church should accommodate both the physical and online gathering whenever and however possible and make the best out of them. Both should be regarded complementary to each other in the present scenario. The motto of either should not be primarily personal satisfaction or spiritual experience, but the exhortation for the needy. We need to be strengthened in our weakness. This is the need of the hour.