This post is overdue. I’ve been meaning to write on this topic for a while, and I recently received the prodding that I needed. A group of Pastors and church leaders in the Steinbach area wrote a letter expressing their support for our current public health measures, and to my knowledge, this includes the recent dictates to completely close any and all churches, forbidding any and all assemblies for worship, and even small group gatherings in homes.
“We believe that Manitoba’s current public health orders in no way contravene our ability to obey and worship God.”https://www.steinbachonline.com/local/23-local-churches-declare-united-support-for-public-health-officials?fbclid=IwAR1GV72ccwys8fe0P16xBX3uVRkbzyFDcGhJ-Lb3K1WQoPJUBdtyG1jbedc
This honestly baffles me. My hope is that this was simply careless wording that some of the signers overlooked in their desire to show support for our health officers. I’m more than willing to extend the benefit of that doubt. However, when you’re interacting with something like a letter, you need to interact with what someone has written, rather than what you hope they meant, and in this case what was written is extremely troubling, and, as I intend to demonstrate, patently unbiblical.
Just consider the implications of this statement; “Manitoba’s current public health orders in no way contravene our ability to obey and worship God.” Considering the scope of the present public health orders, this statement is therefore a claim that (among other things) God does not require the gathering of the body for worship, that God does not require any personal (in-person) interaction between members of a church, and that a Christian is fully able to perform all of their Christian duties while in nearly complete isolation. The list could go on, but we’ll start with these.
The Church must gather. The very word translated “Church” in the New Testament is the word Ekklesia, which means ‘called out ones.’ Thayer’s Greek Lexicon gives the definition: “properly, a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place; an assembly.” The very word itself, describes a gathering, a congregation, an assembly.
The New Testament assumes that Christians will be gathering together for worship, edification, teaching and fellowship, and Hebrews 10:24-25, contains the command:
“…Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”
Now whatever your interpretation of this passage, I think one thing should be very obvious; there is no way to fulfill this command under the current health orders of our province. Hebrews 10:25 specifically says that we are not to neglect meeting together. We are not to abandon the gathering of ourselves, our assembling together. How can we obey this command when we’re not allowed to leave our homes?
The answer of many churches over the past few months has been to say that we can go online. Live stream a service, have people sing along from their living rooms, and listen to a recording of the sermon. Okay, so then I have a question: is “virtual Church” a sufficient replacement for the gathering of Christ’s people on the Lord’s Day? To you pastors, would you be totally satisfied if your congregation never congregated again? No more in-person services ever?
My fear in all of this, is that many Christians will simply believe what their pastors said. Imagine the conversation in 2021 after our freedoms are restored (optimistically) as the pastor calls a member:
Pastor: “Hey brother, how are you doing?”
Member: “Hey Pastor, good! It’s great to hear from you!”
Pastor: “Glad to hear that! Hey, I’m calling because we haven’t seen you in Church for quite a while, just wanted to see what’s been going on; is everything okay?”
Member: “Yeah, we’re doing fine… why do you ask?”
Pastor: “Well, when you became a member, one of the things you committed to was regular church attendance, you committed not to forsake meeting together with this body of believers.”
Member: “But Pastor, I haven’t! My whole family gets up, we put on our Sunday best, and watch the livestream of your sermon every week!”
Pastor: “Well that doesn’t…
Member: “You said yourself that we can still have church, just not in person. When the Church was closed by the government, you signed that letter saying that the closure of church did not in any way contravene our ability to worship or obey God… So what’s the problem?”
Not even close
Here’s my assertion: A number of scattered households, who never come together, but happen to watch the same live stream every Sunday are not a Church. Quite honestly this doesn’t even come close to the biblical definition of a local Church. Yet this is all that is permitted under the current public health orders. Taking these pastors at their word when they say that these orders “in no way contravene our ability to obey and worship God,” we are left to conclude that they believe that God does not require His people to gather, and that watching online sermons or live-streamed services in isolation from other believers is a suitable replacement for the gathering of the saints.
More than Sunday Morning
Read through any of Paul’s letters to the Churches and one thing that becomes quite clear is that the Church is meant to care for one another. In Romans 12:5, the Church is described as the body of Christ, with individual Christians described as “Members individually of one another.” Each member is called to serve the body with the gifts that God has given them.
“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them; if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving, the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” – Romans 12:6-8
You, as a unique individual have been given particular gifts, abilities, or strengths by the Holy Spirit. God’s intention for you is that you would serve the body of Christ with the gifts you have been given. Riddle me this, Batman: how will you serve the body with your gifts from the isolation of your home?
The answer comes; ‘we can pray’, and absolutely we should; you won’t hear me for a moment downplaying the necessity or power of prayer. But is that the only thing we’re called to do? Notice the list Paul makes: prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership, and acts of mercy. Are we to believe that Zoom or Skype allow us to fulfill our duties to perform acts of mercy, service, teaching, exhortation and the like? These technologies certainly help, and I’m grateful to God for them, but let us not claim that they are a suitable permanent replacement for in-service, exhortation, teaching, etc. As anyone who has attempted a zoom Bible study can tell you, it is not the same.
Is anybody going to try to maintain that they are able to perform service or acts of mercy through zoom? The duties of Pastors to shepherd their flocks, (1 Peter 5:2) visit and pray for the sick, lay on hands, anoint with oil (James 5:14), provide diaconal care, (Acts 6:3) and many other duties require our presence.
The public health orders directly contravene our ability to serve the body in obedience to God.
Not Required to Sin?
A steady drum beat that I’ve heard from Christians looking to justify and require obedience to the lockdowns has been this refrain that we are not being required to sin. This letter included a similar sentiment:
Since Jesus is our Lord (King) our first allegiance belongs to Him. However, obeying governing authorities whenever the laws of the land do not cause us to disobey God is also every Christian’s duty (Romans 13:1-7).https://www.steinbachonline.com/local/23-local-churches-declare-united-support-for-public-health-officials?fbclid=IwAR1GV72ccwys8fe0P16xBX3uVRkbzyFDcGhJ-Lb3K1WQoPJUBdtyG1jbedc
I believe this view requires an incredible shrinking down of the duties which God requires of us. People seem to think of “being required to sin” as the government declaring to you that you must assault your neighbor, or steal their jewelry. They seem to be thinking only of the high-handed and obvious sins, (theft, assault, murder, etc.). This however, takes a very narrow view of God’s requirements. To those who take the ‘not being required to sin view’ I would ask; what does God require of you? We’ve already looked at this question in relation to the gathering of the Church, and our duties to one another in the body, but I challenge you to consider; what other requirements do we have? Are there not many responsibilities in the life of the Christian?
To care for orphans and widows in their distress? (James 1:27). To care for the poor and needy? (Proverbs 14:31). To show hospitality? (Hebrews 13:2). To provide for our families? (1 Timothy 5:8). To visit our parents? (Exodus 20:12). To make disciples? (Matthew 28:18-20).
I heartily affirm Romans 13, and the God given role of civil authority. I heartily affirm the requirement upon Christians to be in submission to governing authorities. Amen to Romans 13! I am not advocating for Christians to become scofflaws or develop a rebellious attitude toward civil government. This being said, I agree with these pastors that there are important limitations placed on civil governments. As they point out, our first allegiance must be to Christ! We must acknowledge therefore, that nobody has the authority to command what God forbids or forbid what God commands, and it cannot be doubted that the current orders have forbidden much of what God commands.
In Almost Every Way
I find the statement baffling, because I believe the exact opposite is true. The current public health orders directly contravene our ability to worship and obey God in almost every way. To say we are not being required to sin is functionally to deny that God requires anything of us at all that we cannot fulfill while under house arrest. This is nonsense! Even one year ago, none of the claims I’ve made would have been even remotely controversial. The Church is required to gather. Christians are required to serve one another (in person) with their gifts. Christians have a whole host of duties which God requires of them which they cannot fulfill while locked in their homes.
The Benefit of that Doubt
There is a massive difference between the following two statements:
- “We believe that Manitoba’s current public health orders in no way contravene our ability to obey and worship God.”
- “We believe that the current health orders are justified as temporary measures given the current pandemic.”
For clarity’s sake, I do believe that in times of legitimate emergency, the church may suspend its gathering for a time without being in sin before God. I do believe that various extenuating circumstances may legitimately prevent Christians from fulfilling their duties to one another or their duties to their neighbor. Pestilence, war, alien invasions, etc. But as we’re huddling in our basements hiding from the little green men, we must not pretend that the state of emergency is not contravening our ability to worship and obey God.
Even if you agree with the legitimacy of the government’s decision to close churches because of COVID-19, you can do so while maintaining that online services are not a sufficient replacement for the gathering of the saints. I believe it to be a respectable position to close your church in a time of legitimate emergency, while mourning the loss of the corporate gathering. The messaging I would hope to hear from Churches in such a situation is lament, and a longing to be re-united.
The letter goes on to acknowledge that freedoms are being limited, but then asserts that it is justified in order to serve the greater good. This gives me hope that Statement #2 is what they meant. I would call upon the pastors to clarify their meaning, as the implications from the initial statement are truly troubling.
I do not intend to split hairs, and so I should mention that this post is not only directed to those pastors and leaders, rather, their letter provided an opportunity to address the broader sentiments that have been common from many churches and leaders.
The Church is not a Building
Another common refrain is that the church is not a building. To this I say amen! We planted Grace Covenant Church last year in September and we do not own a building. I heartily affirm that statement; I’m very glad that we don’t need a building in order to be a church. We do however need to gather. There’s no meaningful sense in which we are a local Ekklesia (assembly) if we never assemble. We can’t consider ourselves a congregation if we never congregate. The duties which God requires of us are absolutely being contravened by these public health orders. The question I have for Christians who are in favor of the lockdowns, is this: “When does it become time to obey God rather than men?” Food for thought.
Soli Deo Gloria