6 things Paul says about social distancing
When COVID-19 took hold in the US, churches began to stop meeting physically. As the months progressed, pastors and churches started to wonder what the correct response to the virus and the government regulations should be. Since COVID-19 is a virus and is spread in the closeness of physical proximity, the ability to meet physically with others has been greatly hindered. However, we also know that isolation is dangerous for one’s mental health and spiritual health.
Paul's "longing" passages
In light of this and thinking through how to best pastor the people I lead, I decided to study all of the passages where Paul expresses the longing to physically be with those he is writing to. We are all embodied beings made for embodied fellowship. So when Paul was in prison or separated from the physical gathering of believers, what did he have to say? Here are six principles that I believe give us a more balanced perspective on social distancing in light of the gospel.
1. Social distancing hurts (and should hurt) but doesn’t affect our spiritual unity.
Paul states in Philippians constantly how much he longs to be with the church in Philippi. In chapter 3, we see the example of Epaphroditus (a messenger from this church) that is in “distress” because he longed to be back with his church family (Phil. 2:25-30). In 1 Thess. 2 Paul says that he was “torn away” from his brothers for a short time (1 Thess. 2:17). When we can’t gather, it feels like we are “torn” from our family. This hurts and should hurt. However, in that same verse Paul acknowledges they are apart “in person not in heart.” It is a physical separation but not a spiritual one. Therefore, we should not allow our physical separation to affect our spiritual unity.
2. The ability to physically be together is a grace of God that we sometimes are unable to experience.
In Romans 1, Paul longs to be with the church and is praying that he can be with them, “asking that somehow by God’s will [he] may now at last succeed in coming to [them]” (Rom. 1:9). In this passage, it was his mission to the Gentiles that kept him from coming. Here, he acknowledges that God’s will is above all things and it may not be God’s will for them to be together. In 1 Thess. 2:18, Paul states that he tried to be with them but “Satan hindered [them].” Satan doesn’t want the church to gather and, in submission to God’s will, sometimes we are unable. During those times, we must be on guard against sin and fight for joy and faith in God.
3. There is no replacement for physical fellowship.
Paul understood that writing letters and sending messengers was no replacement for physical fellowship. I believe he would agree that even things like Zoom are no replacement either. Paul believed physical fellowship would allow him to “impart some spiritual gift to strengthen others” through mutual encouragement (Rom. 1:11); he believed physical fellowship provided a unique joy to the community (Rom. 15:24,29; Phil. 2:28-29; 2 Tim. 1:4); and he believed physical fellowship allowed for more effective discipleship (Rom. 15:29; 1 Thess. 3:4,10; Phil. 2:25-30; 2 Tim. 1:16). So, let us not believe that it matters little whether we can gather physically together. It is vital for our encouragement, joy, and discipleship.
4. When we must socially distance, we should pray fervently and constantly for physical fellowship.
In almost every place where Paul “longs to be with” other believers, he is intent on stating that he is praying constantly and fervently that God would allow their physical fellowship to be restored. He prayed “without ceasing” for this (Rom. 1:9); he prayed “always in every prayer” for this (Phil. 1:4); he prayed constantly “night and day” for this (2 Tim. 1:3-4); and he prayed “most earnestly night and day” for this (1 Thess. 3:10). Knowing the importance of physical fellowship and knowing God’s sovereignty over it, we should pray with all the passion we can muster and continually that God would allow us to meet physically with more freedom.
5. Our motivation for meeting physically should not come from personal “rights” but from love.
Interestingly, Paul never mentions an inherent “right” to meet physically with other believers. However, he constantly longs to be with others because of the joy we can experience from each other and the blessings we can provide for each other (see previous passages referenced). This is convicting for me. If we are motivated by love, then we will be willing to sacrifice preferences and conveniences if it means being able to wisely and safely gather together. It also means that we need to know the importance of physical fellowship. We need it and others need it. We don’t meet to “prove a point". We meet to love others and obey Christ.
6. As much as we can, we should seek physical fellowship, in light of eternity.
Although Paul acknowledges that it is God’s will that often prevented him from experiencing physical fellowship, this did not stop him for pursuing it. In 1 Thess. 2:17, Paul states that he “endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see [them] face to face.” In Philippians 2, we see that Epaphroditus was sick to the point of death (v. 27); however, he took the risk of his own health for the sake of ministering to others with his physical presence. Paul tells the church to honor him for doing so (v. 30). Paul also has in mind the coming of Jesus Christ and our eternal fellowship with him (which will be a physical fellowship). Every investment will contribute to the completion of our sanctification at the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6). Paul consistently holds out the benefits of mutual discipleship in physical fellowship because of our eternal reward. Our investment in others is our hope, our joy, our crown, and our glory when we go to be with Christ (1 Thess. 2:19-20). Because of this, it seems that we should be willing to take risks (if necessary) if it means that we can disciple others toward Christlikeness. This is because of our eternal perspective.
Having an eternal perspective
When we go to be with Christ and see the expanse of human history before us, COVID-19 will feel like a small blip on the timeline. I hope that we will not look back with regret that we were either dismissive and reckless or fearful and passive. Let us trust in the sovereign will of God, grieve the fact that our fellowship is hindered, pray that God would allow us to meet freely, and pursue physical fellowship with wisdom and love.