Answers to Questions About Church Regathering

Jesus said, “…upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it”
Mt. 16:18 – NASB

I am an eternal optimist, and I will be forever (pun intended). My Tiggerish approach to life comes from my deep conviction that God is absolutely sovereign 100% of the time. He has been in control of all things for all eternity and nothing will change that. On top of that, He is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, wise, loving, and good. His plan is always perfect. If there was a better way to do things, He would do it that way. It is my ever-deepening faith in those truths that allows me to sleep at night and not worry about what will happen tomorrow. How about you? Are you experiencing God’s grace and peace in fullest measure during these difficult times?

I have received a number of questions (and opinions) from people both inside and outside of our church about the pandemic, the government’s response, and our response to the government. On top of that, I receive about 50 emails every day from different Christian organizations offering their opinion on what is happening and how churches should respond to it. Reading the emails, watching the attached videos, engaging in Zoom meetings with leaders across the nation, and discussing all of it with other pastors and leadership in our church, takes numerous hours every week. As a result, I am not always able to answer your individual questions when you send them to me. We have a team investigating all of these issues and prayerfully discussing what we will do as a church regarding when and how we will reopen our church facilities for public worship services. We appreciate your prayers as we seek the Lord for what we should do in our specific situation with our specific people. Our elders are doing extensive research on all of the issues and are scheduled to meet on June 9th to discuss and decide what we will do going forward. We will let you know what our plan is after that.

I know that the Lord Jesus is building His church. The pandemic has not slowed down His plans one bit; in fact, it has enhanced the spread of the Gospel all over the world. Millions of people who were not interested in spiritual things are now purchasing Bibles, asking questions, and watching livestream videos of worship services. On top of that, believers all over the world have been doing acts of kindness (providing finances, food and other essentials) for people in need. This is opening the door to gospel conversations and multitudes are coming to faith in Jesus. Our God is an awesome God!

Some of you have asked me if we are consulting with other church leaders around the country. We are consulting with our district and national leadership of the EFCA, our insurance company, and numerous other organizations. I have a few friends who are going to open their worship services this weekend even though they can only have a maximum of 100 people at a time (regardless of how big the worship center may be; this includes outdoor gatherings). But the vast majority of leaders I have spoken to are going to wait to reopen their churches for many reasons. Four reasons I have heard repeatedly:

  1. Concern that people in their church will get the virus. They want to wait and see what happens with the virus as things open up. A pastor in Tijuana reported that 11 people in his church have contracted the virus and 4 of them have died so far. Tijuana has limited medical facilities and not nearly enough to accommodate their large population. On top of that, 50,000 people from Tijuana cross the border legally every day to work in San Diego.
  2. Current restrictions. Even though they can meet, they don’t want to have worship services with a fraction of the number of their people in attendance, no singing, etc.
  3. They don’t feel discriminated against or persecuted by the government. They agree with the government that gatherings of hundreds of people in a worship service within close proximity of each other for an extended period of time during a pandemic because of a highly contagious disease, is different than people walking through a store to purchase certain items and then leave.
  4. They don’t believe the church is limited by a location. In their words, “In the history of the world, the church has never closed.” The Word of God continues to be taught, worship continues to be offered to the LORD, prayers and petitions are lifted before His throne, etc.

One of the big questions people have about not meeting publicly pertains to Hebrews 10:25 and “not forsaking our own assembling together…” Some people are angry at church leaders for forcing their people to violate this passage of Scripture by not having public worship services. I am copying two posts below by Phil Johnson, one of the Pastors at Grace Community Church, and Executive Director at Grace To You radio. The first is in response to someone who was upset that Grace Community decided not to meet after the 9th Circuit Court ruling that banned church meetings last weekend in California. The man said, “An unjust law need not be followed.” The first post from Phil is his reply to that line of thinking.

Phil Johnson post #1:

I’m appalled at how many people who profess to believe Scripture echo that sentiment. Nero was emperor when Paul wrote Romans 13:1-7: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. . . .” First Peter 2:13 was written to people suffering unjustly. (“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him…”)

Peter goes on to say: “Be subject . . . also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly” (vv. 18-19). Indeed, “to this [unjust suffering] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” (v. 21). When someone in authority over us treats us unjustly, the example we are to follow was set for us by Christ, who simply “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (v. 23).

The ***only*** exception to this principle is when the one in authority instructs us to sin. ***Then*** “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

So does a government-mandated quarantine ask us to violate Hebrews 10:25 (“not neglecting to meet together”), or is the quarantine in keeping with the principle of Leviticus 13-14, where quarantines are expressly mandated?

The answer to that question may vary according to where we live. Quarantining people in the midst of a pandemic ***is*** a legitimate prerogative of government. How long the quarantine should last and who should be exempted are questions that don’t have clear, fixed answers. The severity and duration of the pandemic determines what’s reasonable or not. We may or may not agree with ***how*** the quarantine is being implemented **(I certainly do not),** but we have a clear duty to submit unless we are being asked to sin.

How long until the government-ordered quarantine is undeniably excessive, or we conclude that it’s targeted persecution against our worship and therefore an illegal attempt to make us disobey Hebrews 10:25? That time may come, and when it does, we may have to implement the principle of Acts 5:29. The question of whether we have *already* passed that point is another subjective issue, but it’s clear that among believers—in the church itself—there is not yet consensus on whether the quarantine has gone too far.

Nevertheless, if you hang out on Twitter or Facebook, you may have noticed that there are countless people in the evangelical community who refuse to regard any of the above questions as matters of conscience. They believe the answers are perfectly obvious. They are eager to tell you what ***you and your church*** ought to be doing. They are locked and loaded with vituperation for anyone who sees matters differently. Two camps of them have squared off against each other—hordes of angry Karens at opposite extremes, all of whom disagree with the position I’ve outlined above. Some of them are scolding us for thinking Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 actually apply in today’s circumstances. The others are berating us for wanting to resume public worship ASAP.

Sorry, but in the words of Martin Luther, here I stand. I can do no other. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help us.

Second post from Phil Johnson on the issue of Hebrews 10:25:

“Forsake” in Hebrews 10:25 is ἐγκαταλείπω–literally, “utterly leave behind, cast off.” It’s talking about permanent and/or willful abandonment–the final, plenary discontinuation of public worship. The verse clearly doesn’t rule out temporary or involuntary absence from the gathered assembly. Paul in prison and people under quarantine aren’t sinning if they can’t gather with God’s people on the Lord’s day.

On the other hand (see the third paragraph from the end in yesterday’s post), if the ban against church assemblies become routine, or if permanent efforts by the authorities to thwart the gathering of God’s people reflect an obvious motive of contempt for Christ, THEN we will need to invoke Acts 5:29.

When will that be? Possibly very soon unless the governor begins to loosen his restrictions against public worship. But at the moment the elders of our church believe such a move would unnecessarily: 1) cause division within the body, 2) heighten the fears of people in high-risk categories, 3) provoke unneeded animosity from both government authorities and the people in our community, and 4) do nothing to adorn the gospel.

What is the telling factor that would signal clearly that it’s time to overstep the quarantine order and disobey Caesar? It’s fairly simple, I think: If restrictions are relaxed against movie theaters, sporting events, and other large public gatherings but kept in place against the church, THEN it will be undeniably obvious that politicians driven by evil motives are demanding that we disobey Hebrews 10:25. We will then need to obey God rather than men.

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