This is the second of a three-part series on the church’s response to COVID-19. Part 1 focused on the question, “What is the church?” Part 2 will now seek to gauge whether church leaders have appropriately responded to this crisis. Part 3 will look at why i believe church leaders have responded inappropriately to this crisis.
(At the outset, I am not trying to shame anybody who is more susceptible to the COVID-19 virus, and who would have chosen to stay home even without government “recommendations.” I just ask and pray that your decision is rooted in and surrounded by prayer.)
It was seven long years ago when if you asked me what day of the week was my favorite, i would have said, “Sunday,” without missing a beat.
It was a different time then. I was three years into my Christian walk. I had a super solid, biblical church; godly, humble pastors; and everything made sense (except for dating relationships; they never made sense until now; but this isn’t the post for that.) I was all set to move to Missouri from California so that i could start Bible college in late August. I felt like i was untouchable. Everything was working out as i thought and hoped it might.
But i looked forward to Sunday mornings, specifically, with much eagerness. I would wake up three or more hours before church, have my quiet time and coffee, and then drive thirty minutes to church (arriving at least twenty minutes early) to have more coffee and to fellowship with the people there. And then remain for close to an hour after service to continue fellowshipping with the people there. The depression i had struggled with throughout high school all but disappeared in this time.
Sunday morning was the highlight of my week. Every week.
But then I went to college:
- A pastor told me that my confessing sin to him and reaching out for biblical counsel was just to get attention.
- My best friend (roommate) stopped being friendly to me because i decided to leave his church.
- A girl told me she loved me, and then told me she was “for me” in the same breath as saying, “We shouldn’t keep seeing each other.”
- My then-current roommate started dating my ex, unwittingly flaunting their relationship.
- The church i was attending at the time stopped caring about my walk, scheduling meetings with other people at the same time as our previously-scheduled meetings.
Depression came back with a vengeance. I moved back to California in May of 2017 in an effort to return to the depression-free place i had left in August of 2013. But when i returned:
- The church i loved so much before was now cliquey and dis-unified.
- My cat (who had been the most positive part of winter 2016/2017) was hit by a car and killed.
- The pastors of my church who had taken me under their wing before i went to college decided that i had been corrupted by my school, even though i was bringing up the very points they had instilled in me themselves.
- Another local pastor heard about the situation and invited me to his church so i could take some time to heal.
- The same pastor asked me if i’d consider doing ministry at his church.
- When i questioned his claim to preach the Gospel (in a private conversation), i became an enemy.
- He ended up telling me i was not to step foot in his church again until i was seeking reconciliation.
It got so bad that i had sworn to never again be part of a church. But again, God didn’t let me do that. I’m now in a better situation, the deacon of a new church plant, but June to November of 2019 was an atrocious time for me. Depression was at an all-time high. As such, i had initially planned to write a post entitled “Sunday Mornings are the Hardest” last October. However, in light of current events, i figured i’d share my church struggles to highlight my desperate need for the local gathering of the church week-in and week-out.
And i posit that i’m not alone in this need.
Some of my most negative experiences have been directly related to the church, but so have some of my most positive memories. In the church, i have found the most loving, supportive, encouraging group of people i’ve ever known. To close down the church (except for online “forms”), is to disobey many specific commands of Scripture.
This post is primarily aimed at pastors because pastors are charged with the care of souls (cf. Acts 20:28). Two passages will suffice to prove the necessity of pastoral care for souls:
Remember your leaders who have spoken God’s word to you. As you carefully observe the outcome of their lives, imitate their faith.Hebrews 13:7 (HCSB), emphasis added.
Therefore, as a fellow elder and witness to the sufferings of the Messiah and also a participant in the glory about to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you: Shepherd God’s flock among you, not overseeing out of compulsion but freely, according to God’s ⌊will⌋; not for the money but eagerly; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.1 Peter 5:1-4 (HCSB), emphasis added.
As such, i must simply ask, “How can people observe your life, how can you be an example to the flock, when your church is not meeting in person?”
As we did in part 1, to answer the primary question, we must look at two underlying questions:
- Should churches have closed their doors in light of the COVID-19 crisis?
Before continuing, i would be remiss to not share this quote from Pastor Jeff Durbin of Apologia Church in Phoenix, AZ:
What we would say as elders of Apologia Church is we highly regard, highly respect, our brothers-in-the-Lord who may be responding to this particular circumstance in a different way than us. We want to say: Have it to yourself between the Lord. We pray that you are doing what you’re doing for the glory of God, and you’re trusting in Him. We are not going to condemn brothers who have made a determination to do what they have done.Jeff Durbin, “Important Sermon on #Coronavirus,” March 16, 2020 (1:09:23).
I pray that the post that follows is thought-provoking, and ultimately used by God for the furthering of His church in this world. I pray that it is not condemnatory or offensive, but that it would merely initiate a new dimension of this discussion.
“Isn’t this a dangerous, deadly virus?”
I’ll answer that specific question in a moment, but i want to begin this section by reminding us of the most common command in Scripture:
- “Do not be afraid.”
- “Be strong and courageous.”
- “Fear not!”
If the most frequent command in the Bible speaks against fear, then shouldn’t Christians–especially Christian leaders–be among the most fearless, bold, courageous individuals?
I’m not saying that we should be perfect, for we all stumble in many ways (cf. James 3:2). However, i do think that more faith could be exercised by Christians, especially Christian leaders, especially in the West, especially at this time.
“Is this a dangerous virus?”
Absolutely. People have died from it. Whether or not the reported statistics and numbers are accurate, even if only one person died from COVID-19, it would still be accurately described as a dangerous, deadly virus. And if only one person died from it, one person’s loved ones would be grieving, and it would be tragic.
I say this with all seriousness.
As it stands, there are many dead from this virus, many dead from the “aftershock” of this virus, and many more will likely die because of all this. This means that we cannot make light of this situation, and we must mourn with those who mourn (cf. Romans 12:15). Odds are, if you don’t specifically know someone who has died from this virus, you know someone who has lost someone as a result of this virus. And even if you don’t know someone who has lost someone, you know someone who has lost something as a result of this virus.
But with all that said, i think that the church has, by and large, fumbled this situation. (I’ll come back to this idea before too long.)
Perhaps my passion for this topic is related to finishing the book of Isaiah yesterday for my quiet time. Isaiah paints a portrait of our large God: the God who defies anyone and anything who might try to stand against Him, the God who moves national leaders like pawns on a chessboard, the God who is intimately involved in the history of the world.
And what does Isaiah reveal to us about our God?
- Isaiah 26:2-4 (HCSB), emphasis added
Open the gates so a righteous nation can come in— one that remains faithful. You will keep the mind ⌊that is⌋ dependent ⌊on You⌋ in perfect peace, for it is trusting in You. Trust in the LORD forever, because in Yah, the LORD, is an everlasting rock!
- Isaiah 37:15-20 (HCSB), emphasis added
Then Hezekiah prayed to the LORD: “LORD of Hosts, God of Israel, who is enthroned above the cherubim, You are God—You alone—of all the kingdoms of the earth. You made the heavens and the earth. Listen closely, LORD, and hear; open Your eyes, LORD, and see. Hear all the words that Sennacherib has sent to mock the living God. LORD, it is true that the kings of Assyria have devastated all these countries and their lands. They have thrown their gods into the fire, for they were not gods but made by human hands—wood and stone. So they have destroyed them. Now, LORD our God, save us from his power so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the LORD—You alone.“
- Isaiah 44:6-8 (HCSB), emphasis added
This is what the LORD, the King of Israel and its Redeemer, the LORD of Hosts, says: I am the first and I am the last. There is no God but Me. Who, like Me, can announce ⌊the future⌋? Let him say so and make a case before Me, since I have established an ancient people. Let these gods declare the coming things, and what will take place. Do not be startled or afraid. Have I not told you and declared it long ago? You are my witnesses! Is there any God but Me? There is no ⌊other⌋ Rock; I do not know any.
I worry that churches which are depending on live-streaming their services in this time are evidencing a lack of faith in the God of the Bible. I especially find it odd when these are the same church leaders who preach and teach and write about the necessity of gathering together locally.
I mention something similar at the beginning of each of the posts in this series: I hope and pray that church leaders’ decisions to cease meeting were preceded by extended prayer and not just a rash decision because the government said to no longer meet together. Again, i’ll come back to this topic below, but the fact is that just because the government labels the church as non-essential doesn’t mean that they have a clue what they are talking about. (However, this article was interesting when it comes to the topic of churches being essential.)
What message do we tell the world about our God when we act no differently than the rest of the world at this time? And yes, i fear that the world views streaming a church service on our TV’s no different than streaming Netflix or Disney+ on their TV’s.
“We like our shows; they like theirs,” they might say.
And yes, i’ve heard the accusation:
For those in this country who insisted on continuing large gatherings at churches and coming together as church families–you’ve heard it in the media, you’ve heard it from our governmental leaders, from so many others, and social media–those churches are now being rejected. And they’re not being rejected because they were Christ-like. They’re being rejected because they were illogical. They’re being rejected because they should be. And we can’t hide behind the old, “Spiritual food is an essential service, just like physical food” excuse. Excuse to hold services for people to meet in large groups. Because the logic doesn’t work. . . . And the only things a non-believing world takes away from antics like that is that Christians are arrogant, and we don’t believe in science. Neither of which should be true.Tom Mercer, “Our Only Hope,” April 5, 2020 (29:27).
First of all, God created science–which Pastor Mercer goes on to admit himself immediately after the quoted portion ends–and God sovereignly allowed the creation of this virus as well. God also commanded His people to “not give up meeting together” (cf. Hebrews 10:24). God does not contradict Himself. His will cannot be both for us to gather together on Sundays, and for us to hide in our homes for an undetermined amount of time–not gathering together–until this pandemic ends.
Second, i’m not saying we should say, “You will fall under church discipline if you decide to not attend church services.” That would be foolish, thoughtless, and unloving. There should be grace and love for those with compromised immune systems, those at increased risk, or those who are forced to work on Sunday mornings now to provide food and shelter for their families. But there is a difference between insisting that your people attend church and simply opening your doors on a Sunday morning so that the confused, hurting, and lonely can be loved and cared for (at least once a week). The church is failing in the two Greatest Commandments at this time. We are not loving the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength because we are failing to rightly love our neighbors (brothers and sisters in Christ) at this time. There is grace, and hope, and mercy, and forgiveness in Jesus.
Third, everything about Christianity is illogical (from a worldly point of view).
- “We are sinful humans?” That can’t be right!
- “A perfect Man died for sinners?” That makes no sense!
- “Jesus rose from the dead?” That sounds like science fiction!
- “Jesus is the only way to God?” That’s arrogant!
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25,
Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
The Bible is entirely okay with not making logical sense on the surface. As such, i have no problem saying:
God is bigger than COVID-19, and while we can’t guarantee that Christians who continue to gather together will not contract the virus, we trust a big God who holds all things in His hand. We must evidence this trust by again gathering together publicly!
Finally, there is no service more essential than the body of Christ gathered together.
In Genesis 18, we see an interesting story about Abraham praying to God for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s nephew Lot lived there, and God revealed to Abraham that He was going to destroy these cities. Abraham didn’t want Lot to die, so he asked God to spare the cities if various numbers of righteous people were found in the city. The story concludes with these words:
Then he said, “Let the Lord not be angry, and I will speak one more time. Suppose 10 are found there?”Genesis 18:32-33 (HCSB)
He answered, “I will not destroy ⌊it⌋ on account of 10.”
When the LORD had finished speaking with Abraham, He departed, and Abraham returned to his place.
Turn the page to chapter 19, and Lot is rescued from the city, but the city is destroyed. God would have spared the whole city if ten righteous people were found there.
What if the reason why this pandemic has gotten so bad is that for the first time in 2,000 years, almost all churches have become disobedient to God’s Word? (This is the focus for part 3, but suffice it to say now that never before have churches willingly obeyed when they have been ordered to close their doors. The link says otherwise, but i will discuss it further in part 3.)
That is a big view of God. It is a view i possess. It is a view i pray that the church as a whole will recapture, starting with church leadership.
Even children know this truth:
He's got the whole world in His hands He's got the whole world in His hands He's got the whole world in His hands He's got the whole world in His hands
How sad is it that we are practically rewriting it in this time:
He's got the whole world in His hands Except this virus--that's not planned He's got the whole world in His hands Except this virus--let's all panic
I realize that it is slightly facetious, and i apologize for that, but the world is watching us at this time. When we close our church doors and for all appearances do nothing differently than our unbelieving neighbors, we are showing them that God really doesn’t have this one under control.
The psalmist writes in Psalm 91,
The one who lives under the protection of the Most Highemphases added
dwells in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
He Himself will deliver you from the hunter’s net,
from the destructive plague.
He will cover you with His feathers;
you will take refuge under His wings.
His faithfulness will be a protective shield.
You will not fear the terror of the night, the arrow that flies by day,
the plague that stalks in darkness,
or the pestilence that ravages at noon.
Though a thousand fall at your side
and ten thousand at your right hand,
the pestilence will not reach you.
You will only see it with your eyes
and witness the punishment of the wicked.
Because you have made the LORD—my refuge,
the Most High—your dwelling place,
no harm will come to you;
no plague will come near your tent.
For He will give His angels orders concerning you,
to protect you in all your ways.
They will support you with their hands
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the young lion and the serpent.
Because he is lovingly devoted to Me,
I will deliver him;
I will protect him because he knows My name.
When he calls out to Me, I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble.
I will rescue him and give him honor.
I will satisfy him with a long life
and show him My salvation.
This psalm deserves an exposition all by itself (and it deserves a more expansive exposition than this video). But this is not the time for that. Right now, i merely want to point out that God promises protection to those who trust and obey Him.
And while that protection could simply mean resurrection after death (cf. John 11:25), we must believe that resurrection counts as protection, and know that Psalm 91 is still trustworthy Scripture.
“But wait!” you exclaim. “That underlined verse was the same verse Satan used to tempt Jesus in Matthew 4! We can’t apply it to ourselves.”
Then the Devil took Him to the holy city, had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: He will give His angels orders concerning you, and they will support you with their hands so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”Matthew 4:5-7 (HCSB)
Jesus told him, “It is also written: Do not test the Lord your God.”
Going back to church despite a widespread virus and the “government recommendation” is neither arrogant nor illogical nor “testing God.” There is a difference between trusting God by obeying His specific, Scriptural commands (cf. Hebrews 10:23-25) and trusting Him to keep you from dying from attempted suicide. (The latter is what Satan wanted Jesus to do).
We cannot throw out the beautiful promise of Psalm 91 because Satan tempted Jesus by quoting it atrociously out of context.
I close this section by repeating George Whitefield’s words: “We are immortal until our work on earth is done.”
“Aren’t we supposed to submit to the government?”
The simple answer is, “Yes.”
I preached a sermon within the past 12 months on this exact topic. We are commanded to submit to the government. We are commanded to treat the government with respect. We are commanded to speak highly of our government officials, to pray for them, and to obey them.
But we are also commanded to obey God.
I hope that by now, this point is clear: God has commanded us to meet together.
As such, for the government to “recommend” that we no longer meet together is for the government to “recommend” that we disobey God. And, for those of us in California–especially in Los Angeles County–the government is ordering that we continue to disobey God for at least the next three months. We must resist!
Peter and the other apostles unanimously declared the following in Acts 5:29,
We must obey God rather than men.
“But what about Romans 13?” you protest.
Romans 13 has been thrown around recently to convince people that the church is to obey the government at this time. As such, i want to walk through the relevant verses and see what we are ultimately saying when we appeal to Romans 13 for justification for closing our church doors at this time.
Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience.Romans 13:1-5 (HCSB)
Verse 1 says that we must submit to the government because God ordained government.
So far, absolutely! We must submit to the government!
Verse 2 says that if we resist the government’s authority, then we are disobeying God, and we will be judged (by the government) for our disobedience.
So far, it still looks like we must submit to the government.
Peter and the other Apostles resisted the government in Acts 5. Were they disobeying God?
Not at all! God’s commands trump the government’s commands!
But the fact remains: They experienced judgment from the government for their decision. Acts 5:40 says that they were flogged for obeying God instead of the government. So Romans 13:2 is still valid. If we obey God–disobeying the government–then we open ourselves to judgment from the government.
Christians in Nero’s day disobeyed the government–obeying God instead–and accepted being beheaded, being ripped apart by wild animals, and being used as living torches. But they refused to cease meeting together.
Verse 3 continues by saying that the government’s authority is to curb bad behavior and promote good behavior. To appeal to Romans 13 to justify closing your church in this time is essentially to say that attending church is bad behavior.
At this point, it should be clear that Romans 13 does not accurately fit our current situation! (If it does fit now, why wouldn’t it also fit later when no virus is spreading, when the government just wants to make Christianity illegal?)
Verse 4 says that the government exists for our good. It specifically states, “It does not carry the sword for no reason.” The sword.
Just about every Christian knows that the sword is part of the “Armor of God” (cf. Ephesians 6:10-18). Also, the sword is often referred to as the “only offensive weapon in the ‘Armor of God.'”
As such, it strikes me as odd that people quote Romans 13 to say, “The government wields the sword to defend us from COVID-19. Stay-at-home orders and canceled church services are the government’s way of wielding the sword in this time.”
Swords are offensive weapons. You don’t primarily defend with a sword. And Paul clarifies why he brings up the sword in the very next phrase: “The government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.”
Therefore, if closed church services are a result of the government “wielding the sword,” then it follows that the church “has done wrong.” May God forbid that the church ever be guilty of doing wrong!
Romans 13 clearly does not fit our current situation!
Verse 5 concludes the section, even though verses 6-7 expand on “conscience” by saying that we must always honor the government through our taxes and respect and honor. Verse 5 says:
Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience.
This does not negate what we discovered in verses 2-4. It means that until the government goes against the Word of God, we must submit! It means that there is a right and a wrong way to resist the government. We can’t disobey the government for every little thing. We must honor the government in the small, inconsequential things–like taxes–and speak respectfully of our leaders at all times. This will allow our consciences to be clear when we must for conscience’s sake disobey clearly anti-biblical commands or “recommendations” handed down by our governments.
Pastor Jeff Durbin explained, speaking of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:41,
Here’s the point: Jesus teaches His people, in effect, when there is a silly and inconsequential rule like that: humble yourself, be a servant, and obey. Something that is silly and inconsequential like “the one mile,” go with them two. However, Scripture condemns injustice, Scripture condemns those who would attempt to thwart the worship of the true and living God. . . . When you unjustly disrupt the proper gathering and worship of God, or destroy our neighbors, we must speak to you, and we must resist. We must call you to consistency. We must call you to God’s Word.Jeff Durbin, “Sermon to the Governor of Arizona,” May 4, 2020 (26:20).
So, to conclude this section, we absolutely must submit to the government, day-in and day-out. We must! There is no doubt about this. Scripture is clear that we are to submit to the government.
But Scripture is equally clear that we are to resist the government when it goes against the Word of God. And something only needs to be said once in Scripture for it to be considered the authoritative Word of God. And the author of Hebrews said it clearly:
Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our ⌊worship⌋ meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.Hebrews 10:23-25 (HCSB), emphasis added.
This post is the bulk of my thoughts on this topic. I trust that the Scriptures have been accurately explained, and i pray that God uses this post to promote more balanced thinking as churches consider reopening soon.
I posit that the government should consider churches “essential services,” especially as churches carry out their God-ordained missions: praying for the world, loving their neighbors, preaching the Gospel, caring for the sick, and praying for their governmental leaders.
As i asked before, so i now question again:
What if the reason why this pandemic has gotten so bad is that for the first time in 2,000 years, almost all churches have become disobedient to God’s Word?
I posit that even if the government continues seeing churches as “non-essential services,” each congregation should at least prayerfully consider reopening, sooner rather than later (even disobeying the government if necessary). In this way, God’s presence can again be visibly felt in our world once again:
For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.”Matthew 18:20 (HCSB)
In this with you.
Soli Deo Gloria
Thanks for reading.