Bible Study
Study Topic: Singing, Masks, Livestreaming, and Faith

Wallace G. Smith

Does the Bible command every one of us to sing hymns as a whole congregation at services every Sabbath?

It certainly feels strange not singing, to be sure, and there is no question that most of us want to sing. But is it a sin not to do so? Is it a command of God for every single individual to sing in services every Sabbath?

The question arises when we read a number of verses in the Bible that might suggest singing in services is a command. For instance, Psalm 100:2 says, “Serve the LORD with gladness; come before His presence with singing.” Verse 4 says, “Enter... into His courts with praise.” Psalm 149:1 says, “Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, and His praise in the assembly of saints,” and the very next psalm begins, “Praise the LORD! Praise God in His sanctuary” (Psalm 150:1). These verses, and many others like them, are part of why we make congregational hymn-singing a regular part of our normal Sabbath service—a part most of us enjoy very much!

But the question is whether these verses represent a command to have congregation-wide singing in every Sabbath service. If so, then we must! If not, then the Church has some flexibility in adapting to circumstances such as the current pandemic environment.

On this matter, as on so many, we must be careful to ensure we are “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). When we do, we find that these are not commands at all, and that those who treat them as if they were commands find themselves facing any number of additional “commands” that God’s Church has virtually never considered commands. For instance, Psalm 149:3 says of God’s people, “Let them praise His name with the dance; let them sing praises to Him with the timbrel and harp.” Psalm 150, after “commanding” to “Praise God in the sanctuary” similarly “commands” us, “Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet; praise Him with the lute and harp! Praise Him with the timbrel and dance; praise Him with the stringed instruments and flutes! Praise Him with loud cymbals; praise Him with clashing cymbals!” (vv. 3–5).

To say that biblical statements on singing equate to personal, individual “commands” to perform congregational hymn-singing each Sabbath but that biblically identical statements on dancing, playing the timbrel, etc. do not equate to personal “commands” is to fail to rightly divide the word of truth—inconsistent at best and grossly incorrect at worst. In fact, if those statements are “commands,” then there are many such “commands” in the Bible we are simultaneously ignoring. For example, Paul tells brethren in four separate passages to greet each other with “a holy kiss”—is this to be understood as a command?

We are not allowed by God to decide what is a “command” and what is “not a command” based on our personal emotions or desires. To want to sing with God’s people is a good desire, but we cannot effectively add commands to His word—an action He strongly condemns (Deuteronomy 12:32; Proverbs 30:6; Ezekiel 13:7; Revelation 22:18–19). If these passages are commands requiring hymn-singing of each individual every Sabbath, then they are also commands to dance every Sabbath, play the timbrel every Sabbath, etc. One simply cannot claim one is a command and the others are not while also claiming to be standing on God’s word.

Instead, let’s understand these passages rightly. The psalms are exhortations, broadly encouraging us toward a godly mindset but not always dictating necessary details in the manner of the law. Psalm 148 is not literally commanding fire, hail, snow, clouds (v. 8), “cedars” (v. 9), “beasts and all cattle” (v. 10) to praise God. This would be nonsense. This psalm is a beautiful exhortation pointing us to the One worthy of praise above all of creation, and we understand it this way every time we turn in our hymnal to “Praise Ye the Lord!”, the hymn based on that psalm.

These exhortations cannot be interpreted as specific commands requiring us to sing congregational hymns every Sabbath without also requiring dancing, timbrel and cymbal playing, and any number of new “commands.” In fact, if these passages were interpreted as “commands,” they would not be limited to the Sabbath. As Mr. Peter Nathan has noted in his own paper, the psalms covered circumstances describing all of the gatherings of God’s people, not just the holy convocations—if they were truly “commands,” they would also extend to our weekly or monthly Bible studies and other occasions.

While Psalm 81:4 does say, “For this is a statute for Israel, a law of the God of Jacob,” this is in the context of verse 3: “Blow the trumpet at the time of the New Moon, at the full moon, on our solemn feast day,” which literally was a law in the Book of the Law (Numbers 10:10). Verses 1–2 contain details discussed nowhere in God’s laws—and, again, would command more than individual singing, but also individual timbrel playing, etc. If anything, this illustrates how God makes plain what His commands are and how He doesn’t require us to make guesses or personal judgments based on our own desires or emotions. Mr. Dexter Wakefield demonstrates plainly in his paper the connection between such passages and David’s instructions to appointed Levitical singers and performers at special occasions and at the tabernacle and temple, as in 1 Chronicles 15:16.

Finally, of course, there are passages that describe the worship of God and sacred assembly without mentioning any congregational singing at all. Nehemiah 8, which has long been used by God’s Church as a model for its services, makes no mention of singing. A number of the professional singers for the temple, as in the courses organized by King David, were certainly among the returning captives listed in Nehemiah 7 along with the other temple servants—the gatekeepers and the Nethinim. These would be akin to our special music performers, choirs, etc. Yet even these are not described as performing in Nehemiah 8. In fact, by playing recorded hymnal music or special music performances, we are including more music than Nehemiah 8 describes in Ezra’s service and assembly of the people.

We look forward to the resumption of congregational singing, to be sure. And many of us are singing praises to God in other circumstances—such as in our homes, with our families, and in our cars—more frequently than we ever have before. The Bible is clear that God loves music! But we simply cannot say that the Bible requires congregational hymn-singing every Sabbath and accurately claim to be interpreting God’s word honestly, consistently, or credibly.

Is it a sin to have your face covered before God, like with these cloth or medical masks?

Of course, no one is saying they are fun! But speaking biblically, wearing such masks to protect your brothers and sisters in Christ at services is certainly not sin.

Some have read the account of Moses’ “shining face” and wondered if this relates to the wearing of health masks. After his time speaking with God one-on-one on Mount Sinai and in the tent of meeting, Moses’ face would shine with a special, radiant light for a time, which unnerved the people. During these times, Moses would wear a veil when he spoke to the people to communicate the Eternal’s commands, though when he spent time alone with God, he took off the veil (Exodus 34:29–35). Some have wondered if this means it is a sin to wear a medical mask at services.

While the account in Exodus 34 is fascinating, it clearly cannot be rightly understood as any sort of command to avoid health-related masks at Sabbath services, and for a number of reasons. First, there is nothing in the example to naturally interpret as such a command. When Moses spent time with God and God caused his face to shine, he only wore the veil because the supernatural light was unnerving to the people—it certainly was not unnerving to God, who had caused the glow in the first place! So, when speaking one-on-one with God, away from the people, he naturally had no need for it (vv. 34–35).

Reading the passage plainly reveals no hint of a command that would prevent one from wearing a health-related mask for the protection of the vulnerable. In fact, if Moses spoke with God on a Sabbath morning and then assembled with the people for Sabbath instruction and praise, the passage clearly indicates he would have worn the veil during such assembly with the people, since he only took it off in one-on-one discussion with God in the tent of meeting.

The New Testament mention of this account adds no such command either. In 2 Corinthians 3 and 4, the Apostle Paul uses Moses’ veil as a metaphor for how the Jews, “when Moses is read” (3:15), cannot see the Gospel in the Scriptures because “their minds were blinded” and “the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ” (v. 14). Without Christ, “our gospel is veiled” to “those who are perishing” (4:3). However, “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (3:16), and “we all, with unveiled face” can see that Gospel clearly, beholding “the glory of the Lord” in it even as we are “being transformed” to match that glory ourselves—so that the Gospel holds our purpose up to us like “a mirror” (v. 18). Paul’s use of this account to make a spiritual point is powerful and enlightening! God’s people, reading even the Old Testament with minds opened by His Spirit, can see in its pages what the Jews, “even to this day” (v. 15), cannot: our incredible potential as glorified members of the God Family.

But nowhere does this passage communicate a command of any sort at all. Nowhere do Paul’s words relate in any way to wearing a mask to protect the vulnerable. And nowhere does this passage indicate that doing so is some sort of sin. If this spiritual point is meant to communicate a physical “command,” then is the spiritual point God taught Peter in the vision of unclean animals in Acts 10, in which God says, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat” (v. 13), meant to say that we truly are supposed to do so physically? Or is Paul’s use of circumcision as a picture of spiritual repentance—which he applies to the heart and mind like he does the veil (Romans 2:28–29; Colossians 2:11; 2 Corinthians 3:14–15)—meant to imply we must be physically circumcised as well, in contradiction to Acts 15? Of course not. Again, it is a dangerous and presumptuous task to create “commands” God never issued and invest our own private interpretation and meaning into Scripture, opposing the meaning God Himself intends to convey in the inspired text (2 Peter 1:20).

In fact, scriptural evidence contradicts any such interpretation. For instance, we have Elijah’s direct and explicitly described example to illustrate that it is not a sin to cover one’s face in God’s presence. When God called to him in a “still small voice,” Elijah, upon hearing the voice, “wrapped his face in his mantle and went out” to address the Eternal (1 Kings 19:12–13)—that is, he literally covered His face with cloth. Nowhere does God call this action a sin. Frankly, many of God’s servants humbly covered, hid, or turned their face at times in God’s very presence, including Abraham and Moses. In prayer, we often tend to bow with our faces to the ground in respect, while other times we lift our face to the heavens. Both are defended in Scripture in multiple instances, and neither is prescribed nor prohibited. The holy angels themselves are depicted as covering their faces in the presence of God, even as they declare His praise (Isaiah 6:2–3), while some are described as beholding His face (Matthew 18:10).

None of this is to say that God requires the covering of one’s face. Quite the contrary—not one of these passages communicates any command at all. They simply illustrate that the Bible cannot be accurately used to say that covering one’s face in God’s presence is a sin. In fact, one could far more easily invent a “command” to take off one’s shoes in God’s presence in Sabbath services, as that was literally and explicitly commanded of both Moses and Joshua (Exodus 3:5; Joshua 5:15). Yet, no one seems to be arguing that we should begin taking off our shoes in services—as much as many might enjoy that! How much less does one example of Moses’ behavior concerning his miraculous, glowing face fail to translate into a command against wearing a protective mask out of concern for the welfare of others?

Far from forbidding such coverings, Scripture contains passages that may recommend such measures. These passages are discussed in a later question.

Is it wrong for Church leadership to ever decide the congregation cannot assemble physically in person for a period of time and instead utilize a livestream or other alternative?

Surely, no one believes that connecting online is an interchangeable substitute for meeting in person. Those members who—for reasons of health, infirmity, or great distance—are unable to physically meet with a local congregation are able to confirm that fact; they often long for personal, face-to-face contact. And let’s also recognize that when we can meet in person, we should. Livestreaming and similar measures, such as sermon CDs and DVDs, are wonderful helps for which we should be grateful in suboptimal circumstances, and many shut-ins are blessed by them. We should praise God for allowing His twenty-first-century Church to use technologies His first-century Church could not have even imagined. Yet God clearly wants us meeting in person—face to face and side by side—when we are capable of doing so.

So, are there ever conditions when Church government has a responsibility before God to cancel in-person services? This has been an uncontroversial question for decades, and pastors have historically made such judgments from time to time due to periods of local distress, such as instances of inclement weather. Snowstorms, icy conditions, and the like occasionally prompt area pastors to contact local congregations to say that, for the safety of the members, in-person services are canceled. This was done under Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong as it was under Mr. Roderick C. Meredith, and it is now done under Mr. Gerald Weston. In fact, requiring his flock to travel in hazardous conditions would be a sign of a heartless pastor.

When a time of “present distress” strikes on a larger scale—nationally or even globally—Church government still has the responsibility to respond for the sake of our congregations. That includes taking into account health regulations and pandemic conditions. One can wonder if actions are truly necessary, and the same occurs whenever local services are cancelled due to inclement weather. Frankly, even the local pastor who makes the call often questions himself—not wanting to “pull the plug” unnecessarily, yet clearly wanting to protect his flock from harm. So, too, when decisions are made on a larger scale. Regardless, such calls are not sin. They are judgments made based on temporary conditions by those who are charged by God with caring for His flock. And they are often accompanied by measures taken to bring as much normalcy to the situation as possible—such as streamed services—until the circumstance has passed.

Again, one can argue about whether the call made is the wisest one, but one cannot biblically say that all such calls are sin. The Bible contains many judgment calls made by those with authority to do so, and shows God honoring those calls—e.g., adjustments to Passover practice in Hezekiah’s day to account for the uncleansed, Ahimelech’s giving the priestly showbread to David’s men, Christ’s foregoing Sabbath assembly for five or six Sabbaths in a row in the wilderness, His teaching concerning the ox in the ditch, the Apostle Paul’s telling individuals not to marry during the “present distress” they were experiencing, etc.

In these circumstances, we see key similarities:

  1. These were decisions made not by individual lay members, but by duly ordained leaders and judges God placed in a position of authoritative judgment (Deuteronomy 17:8–13).
  2. They dealt with significant temporary circumstances and temporary conditions.
  3. They did not represent a discarding or dishonoring of God’s law, but an intent to be consistent with the spirit behind the law while dealing with those temporary circumstances.

So, far from “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” as Paul discusses in Hebrews 10:25, these decisions represent the same sorts of judgments ministers in God’s Church have for decades been pressed to make in handling difficult and dangerous circumstances. They are judgments concerning bringing us together as best we can in times of distress when we might otherwise not be together in any way at all. Yet they are, indeed, temporary measures for times of distress, not to be abused. To say that we must always be physically present with each other regardless of whatever physical hazard may exist would be to contradict judgments made by the leaders of God’s Church over the many decades since Mr. Armstrong first revived the Work. Yet to leave such decisions in the hands of anyone other than God’s appointed government would be to invite chaos and confusion into “the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33, cf. v. 40) and stand in contradiction to all else the Bible says concerning how God communicates such judgments (e.g., Deuteronomy 17:8–13; Matthew 16:18–19).

If we have faith, can’t we ignore all these precautions? Won’t God protect us?

We know that “with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). And, frankly, few of us want to do these things. Masks are uncomfortable. It feels sad sometimes not to personally sing in services. We miss our brothers and sisters when we can’t see them in person. And it would be nice to think that, through the power of faith, we can ignore taking any precautions and live as though we have no obligations involving any of these things. But that would be a deep misunderstanding of biblical faith. While faith is a profound topic that deserves more space than this “Q & A” provides, the specific question at hand is narrow and far more easily addressed. In an encouraging passage for the faithful, we are told that “whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (1 John 3:22). Before claiming anything in faith, we must ensure we are obeying God’s will and commands, seeking to please Him by looking to His word for how we should behave before Him and before our fellow man.

Claiming God’s promises while explicitly ignoring His will as revealed in His word would not be real, living faith. It would be a dead faith, as James describes, since faith must be accompanied by faithful works of obedience (James 2:20–22). And ignoring precautions one can take for the benefit of one’s brother or sister in Christ is not an act of obedience to Jesus Christ. It violates the second great commandment of the law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Understanding that, how can one tell God with a sincere heart, “Father, I do not want to take these measures to help protect the life of my brother in Christ, and I expect you to honor my unwillingness by miraculously protecting him”? Such a claim is a caricature of faith—akin to that of many Evangelicals, Protestants, and Pentecostals, who have divorced faith from obedience to the law and statutes of God.

And the law of God does, very specifically, address these circumstances. In its decisions on these matters, the Council of Elders considered applicable statutes of God that He inspired to tell us His own judgment of those who, through neglect, put their neighbor at risk of harm. For instance, in Deuteronomy 22:8, we are told, “When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring guilt of bloodshed on your household if anyone falls from it.” God teaches us with this example that it is a sin of neglect to allow harm to come to our neighbor when we could have taken action to prevent it—in fact, it can bring “guilt of bloodshed.”

Consider, too, Exodus 21:28–29, where we read that if an ox gores someone to death, the ox is killed, but not the owner. However, the passage also says that if the owner had been informed of the danger his ox was causing and he neglected to take action to prevent harm, then both the ox and the owner were to be killed. Again, we see the biblical principle: When it is personally in our power to prevent harm and we neglect to take action, God considers us to be as guilty as if we had caused the harm directly. Our unwillingness to reduce the risk of harm to our brother when we are able to do so is—in the mind of God, which the Church has long understood to be revealed by His commandments and statutes—a grievous sin.

One could claim that, with faith, it would be unnecessary to build a parapet on one’s roof or to contain one’s ox, since God could save the individual falling off of the roof or the next victim of the ox. But, again, that is a mockery of faith. No one willing to ignore any of the laws of God and what He reveals of His mind through those laws has the right to expect God to miraculously prevent the consequences of his choices or actions.

Finally, the idea that we need not take precautions at services because we have faith—the idea that no harm can befall us in “God’s presence” whether we take precautions or not—directly contradicts the actions all of us routinely take around the vulnerable at services. We honor the “gray headed” and “the presence of an old man” as an expression of our fear of God (Leviticus 19:32). We routinely prevent our children from running around the congregation in areas where they might cause the elderly to fall and injure themselves. We caution people at the Feast not to use intense perfumes that can be life-threatening to those who have chemical sensitivities. Those who are infirm and vulnerable—with, say, neuropathy and other conditions—do not suddenly find their pains vanish upon entering the assembly, and we treat such individuals with care. We post greeters or security volunteers at our doors to intercept strangers and the uninvited. We have never treated “faith” as an excuse not to take precautions for the sake of our brother or sister in Christ. If we are applying “faith” only to those precautions to which we have a personal aversion, we are not applying real faith at all. We are expressing our will and calling it “an act of faith.”

One cannot rightly treat faith as an excuse not to do something prudent—nor a means by which those who do take prudent actions should be judged. It is true that, with God, the laws of nature need not apply! The Savior who personally healed the lame, gave sight to the blind, cured the leprous, and raised the dead is still alive, still reigns in His Church, and still loves His people!

But does that mean we should judge as “lacking in faith” those who, out of concern for the vulnerable, take precautions to safeguard them? Does that mean that we should judge a brother or sister in Christ who has been diagnosed with cancer and seeks surgery or chemotherapy—or both—for having a lack of faith? When a teenager is extra cautious about being exposed to illness because he lives with an 80-year-old grandmother, should we judge the sacrifices he makes out of love and compassion for her to be a fear-based lack of faith in God to keep her safe? Should we define his loving concern as an example of “living in fear instead of faith”? The answers to these questions should be obvious. Indeed, “Who are you to judge another's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4).

Yes, Jesus Christ is just as capable of working miracles today as He ever was! But He also expects us to love our brother both in word and in deed—in fact, He makes it plain through John that if we do not love our brother, our proclaimed love of God is false (1 John 4:21; 3:10). And when He commands us to show our love for our brother in our actions and we are unwilling to do so, even having “faith” does not save us from His rejection (Matthew 7:22–23). Jesus Christ did, indeed, tell us, “Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says” (Mark 11:22–23). Indeed, faith can move mountains.

Yet the same One who spoke those words also inspired one of His apostles to put that faith in perspective, saying that “though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). The God of our Bibles—the Creator who is the object of our faith—makes His position absolutely clear: If you are unwilling to show love to your brother, even the faith to move mountains means nothing.

James 2:14–17 speaks to the hypocrisy of using faith as an excuse not to act concerning our brother and sister’s needs. Concerning works of love, we should obey James’ challenge of v. 18, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”