Question: What are the biblical guidelines when it comes to staying home from church due to illness?
Answer: The Bible offers more than just guidelines. It actually points us back to the two greatest commandments of all: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.” (Luke 10:27)
Determining whether to stay home from church due to illness becomes a lot easier when we honestly acknowledge both sides of our two-fold calling to love God and neighbor.
More specifically, we are here cautioned us against two typical extremes:
“I have a little sniffle, so I’m staying home from church.” While this is the way many people reason, this approach does not stand up under the scrutiny of scripture.
Weekly participation in the worship and life of your local church is a moral obligation. In other words, it is one of the many practical ways we have been called to love the Lord and our fellow Christians.
In both Old and New Testaments, God commands his people to observe a weekly sabbath by attending the holy convocation so they can worship God and perform the ministry of mutual edification (c.f., Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Leviticus 23:3, Hebrews 10:24-25, etc.).
Because attending public worship is an ethical obligation, it should not be thought of any differently than the many other moral duties of our lives (like a man going to work or a mother preparing meals for her children).
It might, therefore, be helpful to think of it this way,“If I am well enough to work, then I am well enough to worship.”
Let us now examine the other extreme:
“I’m going to church no matter how sick I feel.” This position is not as common as the first, but some people do think this way. This position too is a difficult one to defend from scripture.
To love our neighbor as our self means, among other things, that we should extend to others the same level of courtesy that we would like to receive ourselves.
When applied to realm of wellness, this means that we should not carelessly put others at risk of contracting our illness while we are clearly contagious.
Sadly, in cases of cold and flu, we are contagious before we even start experiencing symptoms, so it is simply not possible to love our neighbors perfectly in this regard.
Nevertheless, once we begin to feel seek and to manifest symptoms, we should endeavor to contain our infection by avoiding personal contact with others.
The Center for Disease Control recommends five to seven days in cases of influenza. Because children are typically less careful when it comes to covering their mouths while coughing or sneezing, it might be wise to double the quarantine period for them.
In conclusion, I would like to remind our readers of an important, but oftentimes overlooked, aspect of this discussion: One of God’s promises to the sick involves the church:
“Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” (James 5:14-15)
So when you cannot – and should not – attend church due to a serious illness, you should simply let the church come to you so its elders might administer the means of grace and healing called prayer.