German churches have regathered for public worship but without singing.  Why?

Groups as ideologically varied as CNN and The Gospel Coalition have reported increasing anecdotal evidence that indicates singing together spreads the coronavirus quite destructively, with the case of a Washington State choir practice being one of the most noted.  The National Academy of Engineering, Science and Medicine, New England Journal of Medicine, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Environment International, and the CDC have all released more research-focused treatments that indicate the same.  As all 50 states in the United States have started to regather, at varying speeds and to varying degrees, churches are struggling to determine how to regather for public worship both safely and responsibly.  God commands that we sing in worship.  Yet, if congregational singing does tend to create a “super spreader” event for the coronavirus, could it be that love of God and love of our neighbor seem to conflict?  Could we end up having to decide between the two?  If so, how?  How should we think biblically about such a decision?

The Greatest Commandment…and the Second Like It

In Matthew 22:36 an expert in the Jewish Law tests Jesus with a simple but difficult question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus answers, as many have remarked, with a two-for-one special:

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37–40, ESV)

The first would be an entirely unsurprising choice, as Jesus cites Deuteronomy 6:5, the Shema, a famous and foundational tenet of Judaism.  The second, however, would be obscure to all but the experts of the Law, as Jesus plucks it from Leviticus 19:18.  By citing both of these texts, Jesus lays out Christian duty on both a vertical and a horizontal axis – our relationship with God and our relationship with humankind.  That they are “like” each other initially seems a conundrum.  Ought not our duty to God be primary?  And it is.  Jesus cites it first. Yet, our duty to God works out in our duty to man, how we treat others is an expression of our wholehearted love for God.  The second is “like it.”

So far, so good.  What’s the problem?  In the Bible God regularly calls on his people to worship him with singing.  Singing is an expression of the human soul.  Worship is, of course, far more than just singing.  It includes prayer, preaching, sacraments, and other biblically mandated activities, but singing is certainly one of the most regularly cited ways that the bible calls us to worship God:

“I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.” (Psalm 7:17, ESV)

“Sing praises to the Lord, who sits enthroned in Zion! Tell among the peoples his deeds!” (Psalm 9:11, ESV)

“Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name.” (Psalm 30:4, ESV)

“Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.” (Psalm 33:3, ESV)

The list could go on and on.  To follow the first commandment, then, it seems that when we regather for worship, we ought to sing.  How could we not?

But suppose the anecdotal evidence becomes firm, as it seems to be doing.  If so, then singing together could be one of the most dangerous things we could do in terms of spreading the coronavirus.  While many in our congregations might escape unfazed with an asymptomatic case, many others would not, especially those who are elderly or immunocompromised but also the unlucky ones who – for reasons we do not understand – develop more severe cases.  Even if we can regather, what if singing is something that would curse our neighbor, not show love?  If singing plausibly or even possibly creates a super spreader event for the virus, then to follow the second commandment, should we stay home?  Or should we at least worship without singing for the time being?  It seems possible that we shortly could find ourselves with the first and second greatest commandments seemingly contradicting each other. If we love God we would go to church and sing; if we love man we would stay home or be quiet.  How does a Christian navigate a seeming contradiction in what Jesus terms the two greatest commandments?

Against Tragic Moral Choices

One approach to such a situation – common in both Ethics classes and late-night dorm conversations – is that of a “tragic moral choice.”  The classic examples are usually questions such as, “Would you lie to protect Jews during the Holocaust?” or “If it were the only way to protect them, would you kill someone who was about to murder a crowd of innocent people?”  Common to these – and to many more complicated examples of the concept – is the idea that in a fallen world we can end up in situations where we will sin either way, cases in which we have to choose, and both choices are wrong.  Are we allowed to pick the lesser evil, or can we not choose it because it remains sin?

Biblically, we should reject this concept of tragic moral choices.  In our fallen world there certainly are many agonizing decisions, but an agonizing decision does not mean that all options are sin.  To approach all possibilities in any decision as sin requires a flattening of the Law, an idea that God reasons without nuance.  It ultimately falls back on the idea that all sin is equal, that God does not distinguish some sins as worse than others.

Many a well-meaning youth leader has said precisely that, declaring, “All sin is equal.”  Alas, that well-meaning statement is not biblically correct.  To quote the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “Some sins in and of themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.”  (Answer 83 – see Ezek. 8:6-15, Matt. 11:20-24, John 19:11)  What the well-meaning youth leader means to say is crucial; less behaviorally apparent sins such as pride and self-righteousness are just as damaging and even damning than many others.  Therefore Answer 84 in the Shorter Catechism quickly adds, “Every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse, both in this life and that which is to come.”  To say that every sin deserves God’s judgment, however, is a different statement than “all sins are equal.”

God’s Word testifies that there are more and less important commands in the Law.  2 Chronicles 30 speaks approvingly when king Hezekiah delays the Passover because the priests were unclean.  In other words, the cleanliness laws were more important than the timing of the Passover, even though both were mandated in the Law of God.  More important than either were the issues of love and mercy.  God said through the prophet Amos:

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21–24, ESV)

The sacrifices mattered, of course.  The Law mandated them, but such sacrifices were nothing if not accompanied by moral goodness.  The prophet Micah likewise puts justice, kindness, and humility above the ceremonial Law:

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6–8, ESV)

In Matthew 9:13, therefore, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13, ESV)  Later in Matthew, Jesus states explicitly that the Law contains more and less weighty aspects: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matthew 23:23, ESV)

If we can keep all of God’s commands, then, of course, we should.  Yet, if there are more and less important commands in the Law, then if the commands come into conflict, it is the right thing to honor the more important command.  It is not a sin, even if that involves therefore breaking a lesser command.  There are, then, better and worse answers, even right and wrong, in any situation.  Once we realize that God sees layers of importance in the Law, our thinking becomes more nuanced.  Decisions sometimes become more complicated, issues more complex, but right and wrong answers emerge.  We should not accept the concept of a tragic moral choice, give up, and just decide we are sinning somehow.  Instead, when faced with what appears to be a tragic moral choice, we should apply the whole of God’s Word to make the best decision possible in a fallen world, and if we think through the issue rightly, following God’s heart as expressed in his Word about what is most important, we are not sinning.  This means the first and second greatest commandments may seem to be in tension, but there is a right answer.  We are not doomed to sin by breaking one or the other.

When it comes to regathering for worship, then, we are not trapped between two wrong decisions – to sing or not to sing.

Against (Strict Sense) Adiaphora

A second approach is often called adiaphora.  The term was originally Stoic, indicating actions that were neither required nor forbidden by morality.  Within Christian theology, the term adiaphora has most often been used in the context of worship, with Luther using it to allow various rites that had no biblical basis but that he felt were not inimical to the gospel.  More general (non-worship) actions that seem neither required nor forbidden by our faith are often also termed adiaphora, meaning that they are considered neither right nor wrong for Christian behavior, but indifferent.

Within the world of ethics, John Frame strenuously objects to the idea of adiaphora in a strict sense, particularly because of 1 Cor. 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” He states:

But are there any human actions that are ethically indifferent? When Paul says, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31), he implies that everything we do either brings glory to God or does not do so. The “whatever” is universal. It includes our eating and drinking, sleeping, waking, bathing, working, marrying, entertaining ourselves—indeed, every human activity. When we glorify God, we are doing right, and when we do not glorify God, we are doing wrong. Here there is no room for a third category that we might call adiaphora. No human action is indifferent to God.” (John Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, p. 169)

When it comes to our choices about worship in particular or life in general, God is never truly indifferent.[i]  The circumstances in which we do the action, the motives behind the action, the way in which we carry it out – all impact whether our action was right or wrong.  When we conceive of each action more broadly, then – including motivations, circumstances, etc. – we realize that every action we make either honors God or dishonors Him.  We ought not to approach any Christian action, much less a question of worship, with the idea that God does not care.  God cares about all human behavior.  No action is adiaphora in the strictest formulation of the word

When it comes to regathering for worship, then, God cares deeply about the decisions we make, so we ought not be cavalier.

Moral Dilemmas and Christian Liberty

A subtly but crucially different doctrine than either tragic moral choice or adiaphora is that of Christian liberty.  What we have as Christians living before God in a fallen world are neither tragic moral choices nor adiaphora.  Instead, we have moral dilemmas, areas in which God is not indifferent, nor are we doomed to sin either way.  There are right and wrong answers, but we are limited people with limited information.  God’s Word gives us everything we need for the decisions we must make, but it often does not provide us everything we wish it would.  That means that moral dilemmas do occur.  It can be challenging to determine what course of action to take when a situation presents itself that seems to pit two parts of God’s Word against each other.

What God’s people must do when dealing with difficult moral decisions is to approach them with charity, recognizing that our finitude means we will, at times, reach opposing conclusions on how to act.  If another person is working diligently to apply the bible to a difficult decision and makes the opposite decision from our own, we need not assume the other has sinned.  Paul takes up this issue in both 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14, in each case dealing with questions of diet.  His command appears at first to be adiaphora: “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” (1 Cor. 8:8, ESV)  Paul expands in Romans 14:1-8:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Rom. 14:1–8, ESV)

As Luther summarized the issue, “Because of the diversity of consciences, therefore, it can happen that one man sins and another does the right thing in one and the same action which, as such, is allowed.” (Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, p.394)

When it comes regathering for public worship, then, we must show Christian charity to those who make different decisions about when and what when it comes to our worship services.

Wisdom and Christian Liberty

Finally, however, Christian liberty does not mean that all choices are equally wise, even if they are equally valid.  Some decisions may not be sin in and of themselves, but they may still be ill-considered, unwise, or poor choices.  Further, using our liberty to harm others is clearly unbiblical, even rising to the level of sin.  Paul goes on in 1 Cor. 8:

But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:9–13, ESV)

There remain better and worse choices in a situation, so in the end Christian liberty is a charity towards each other, not adiaphora or agnosticism towards the decision.

In the Law and the Prophets, God’s heart for mercy regularly overcomes his heart for ceremony.  If the anecdotal research becomes firm, and if gathering and singing would plausibly become a super spreading event, might we have to worship without singing?  We actually might.  We would hate having to do so, of course.  Worship without song is undoubtedly NOT what Christian worship ought to be.  But if we have to for some time out of love for our neighbor, it would not be sin.

 


[i] We should note that many people who use the term “adiaphora” actually mean what I am terming “Christian liberty.”  The point is not to worry about terminology but about concepts.  If someone says “adiaphora” but agrees that no action is one about which God is indifferent, then that is merely a terminological difference and worth clarification but not concern.

 

An ordained minister and the first professor of Reformed Theological Seminary NYC in Manhattan, Bill earned a Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America. He completed his M.Div. at RTS Orlando and serves as a pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church.

Meet Rev. Dr. Bill Fullilove