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Updated Advice for Assembly Gatherings During the COVID-19 Pandemic – March 17, 2020

An update to the previous advice for assembly gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic has been received. The same doctors have authored this update below.

The Recommendations, Verbatim

As we expected, government directives to fight the COVID-19 pandemic have evolved rapidly. Two weeks ago, we were advised to wash our hands, use sanitizing gels and wipes, cover our coughs, avoid sick people, and practice social distancing. Today, however, the number of cases in the U.S. passed 5,130, and the numbers of deaths passed 100. As the number of cases has continued to rise sharply, health officials see the U.S. and Canada at a tipping point. They are warning that if we don’t take the call to action seriously, we will face a scenario similar to what Italy has endured. That hardest-hit European country saw the number of cases mushroom to over 25,000 in just a few days. Italian hospitals were overwhelmed, and some 2000 people have died.

As a result, many state and provincial governments have closed schools and theaters and sports venues, restricted restaurants to carry-out only, encouraged people to work from home, implemented travel bans, and prohibited large public gatherings. Further restrictions may be forthcoming.

Although scientists are exploring a variety of potential therapies, no treatment or vaccination is currently approved for COVID-19. Employing every available method to slow the spread of the virus (“flattening the curve”) will buy some time to test experimental therapies. For example, “convalescent serum” (a blood component containing neutralizing antibodies to the virus) from people who have already recovered from COVID-19 may be useful to prevent or treat coronavirus infection in high-risk individuals (https://www.jci.org/articles/view/138003). Volunteers in the state of Washington have already been recruited for a phase-1 clinical trial to test an investigational vaccine designed to protect against COVID-19—although scientists estimate that it will take 12-18 months before a successful vaccine would be widely available (https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-clinical-trial-investigational-vaccine-covid-19-begins).

Our first communication focused on hand washing, social distancing, and disinfecting shared surfaces. We also discussed possible strategies to reduce the risk of viral transmission when partaking of the bread and wine and passing the offering container. Since then, however, government-imposed limits on the size of public gatherings have kept many assemblies from meeting at all. The governor of Michigan, for example, has banned all public gatherings of 50 people or more from today until April 5.

We believe assemblies should comply with such directives for the sake of testimony (Col. 4:5). Although we take the Lord’s command to remember Him on the first day of the week seriously, we do not believe that these government mandates call for civil disobedience. If the government were persecuting Christians by banning Bibles, forbidding evangelizing, and outlawing meetings, then we would follow the example of Peter and John, who declared to their antagonists, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). However, following the current government restrictions in the midst of a pandemic is completely different. These directives are for our good (Rom. 13:4), they apply to everyone, and are temporary.

Assemblies might consider ways to use technology to encourage each other during this difficult time—especially if the restrictions on meeting are prolonged. Conference calls and live-streamed messages are two options. In addition to praying for each other, let us encourage each other by phoning, e-mailing and texting, remembering especially elderly saints and those who are alone. Using these means, we can continue to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2).

We also suggest that parents bring their families together on Lord’s Day morning to read from the Scriptures and pray. This reinforces to our children that we want to give the Father and the Son their rightful place even when we cannot gather with the Lord’s people.

For assemblies that can still legally meet, we would first remind people who might have been exposed to COVID-19 to self-quarantine for at least two weeks whether they feel ill or not. Those who have a fever or respiratory symptoms must stay home. Those who attend should continue to avoid handshakes and other direct contact, wash their hands frequently and thoroughly (at least 20 seconds with soap), and assign people to wipe down shared surfaces with disinfectant regularly. The sharing of the bread and cup and the passing of the offering receptacle pose the greatest risk for viral transmission. Overseers will have to ponder how best to follow the Scriptural pattern of partaking of a single loaf and single cup while at the same time minimizing the risk of viral spread. For example, brothers with gloved hands could bring the bread to each believer, and then decant a small measure of wine into a disposable cup for each believer. Further, the Lord’s people could place their offerings in a designated stationary box rather than in a bag or basket passed around the circle.

This is a sobering time. In a time of similar anxiety, David wrote, “My times are in your hand” (Psalm 31:15a). The challenge is great, but God is greater. Let us cast our worries on the Savior and Sustainer of our lives. Remember Paul’s encouraging words to the Philippians: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).

Respectfully submitted,

David Vallance MD (Livonia, Michigan)
Scott Yaekle MD (Livonia, Michigan)
Michael Renzi DO (Barrington, NJ)
Ricardo Castro MD (Santiago, Chile)
Alexander Higgins MD (Barrington, NJ)
Lindsay Parks DO (Indiana, PA)

About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.