Pastoral letter on gathering as the church in the COVID-19 pandemic

To the High Point Church family, in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, 

For 2000 years, pastors have written to the congregations they serve with spiritual advice, commands and encouragement in times of need. This was not only true of the apostles, but also church fathers and bishops, like St. Athanasius. Martin Luther wrote to European Christians in the 16th century an essay entitled “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” It is still worth reading.  

The current pandemic may not be as deadly as some of the ancient plagues, but it is deadly for some, and this may not be the last pandemic that we face in our lifetime. Many Christians recognize the big picture in relationship to faith in Christ when facing disease. In life or death, we belong to Christ. Jesus has called us to live in faith, not fear. But we are also told that faith is not the same as foolishness. Faith and wisdom are never opposed to each other, and yet both are opposed to cowardice. Christians generally understand that we are to live in the divine triumvirate of faith, hope and love, that we should serve our neighbors, believe that God is ultimately in control of all things (even suffering), and that we should act with wisdom in our daily choices. Much can be said about these basic and fundamental Christian truths. 

However, the church can easily become divided in a situation like this—over questions of conscience and wisdom. For example, is it religious persecution for the government to say we cannot have our normal gatherings? Does worshiping with a virtual source count as worship? If the church opens, should everyone have the conviction that they should attend? Should we be deferential and obedient to the government in their regulations? 

In this letter, I will focus on three important parts of the Bible’s teaching and outline our plan for gathering again so that we can move forward in the coming weeks not only in wisdom and faith, but in unity.

First, the Bible teaches in many places that every Christian is called to be an active, covenantal and familial participant in a concrete local church whenever possible. Christians should seek to form a local church when one is not present, and this can only be neglected in extreme circumstances—for example, if you are the only Christian in 100 square miles in rural North Korea. However, does it follow that we must meet every week on Sunday in a particularly marked church building, as is our ancient custom? Scripture seems to teach that the earliest Christians probably met on “the first day” of the week, which is presumably our Sunday. 

Three scriptures seem to state this. Acts 20:7 says that people gathered together for a meeting that lasted until the next day, and that this meeting was “on the first day of the week.” But though the reference tells us when the meeting happened, it doesn’t tell us that this was a normative time for the church to meet. In 1 Corinthians 16:2, people are told to set aside a financial gift “on the first day of every week.” This is so that no time will be used to collect money when Paul arrives to carry the church’s gift to Jerusalem. It does not include any normative command about when worship should take place, or why. In Revelation 1:10, the apostle John says, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet…” Here, presumably the first day of the week is simply referred to as the Lord’s day—as though the concept was already established, and everyone would know what he meant. However, in the case of Acts 20:7, since Jews counted days from evening to evening, that meeting would have been on Saturday night over to Sunday morning. In fact, it’s likely that most Christian churches met on Saturday night after the Sabbath had concluded—the Sabbath spanning from Friday evening to sundown on Saturday evening. 

We are also told precious little in Scripture about exactly what should happen in our worship services, or exactly when we should meet. Early in the book of Acts, people are meeting in the temple to hear the apostles teaching, and are meeting “day by day” in people’s homes. As the New Testament moves forward, no prescription is given for a day of worship, a time of worship, the frequency of meetings, how many people make up a meeting, and so forth. Instead, these things are left up to the prudential wisdom of Christians, while we are given general commandments about what should be included in our worship, what should be our goals, what faith and godliness looks like and that we should do these things “often.”

This leads to the most specific verse that focuses on the times and frequencies of our meeting, Hebrews 10:25. It says, “let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The most literal contention here is the command to “not give up meeting together.” In the context of the pandemic, this command has led some Christians to believe churches should simply continue their previous meeting schedule in obedience to this command. Other believers have claimed that this quotation does not apply to extenuating circumstances in which our health could be at risk. However, Hebrews makes clear that these Christians are worshiping in the context of intense persecution, which includes the “plundering of their possessions.” In addition to having their private property taken, the apostle also includes an entire chapter on the suffering of God’s martyrs in Hebrews chapter 11. This is no doubt included because of the severity of the suffering he expected the Hebrews to face, which clearly could include profound personal suffering, even martyrdom. So, we should not too easily dismiss our earnest Christian brother or sister who believes that this verse says that we should not stop meeting together in our normal way even in the worst possible circumstances, including during a pandemic. 

Conversely, extreme circumstances are also the context for the Biblical command to obey those in civil authority. In Romans 13, the apostle Paul tells us to obey the government in absolute language, as instituted by God.  

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. Romans 13:1 – 2 

This was the case even though Nero was emperor, and their current government was murdering Christians. 1 Peter 2:12 – 15 tells us to obey every authority instituted in our society, whether on the federal or local level. The purpose of this is not only that authority is in itself a good, bringing order out of chaos, but that we are to “silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” Presumably, this means the ignorant talk that because we are citizens of heaven, we are no longer under the practical jurisdictions of men. This is not the case. In 1 Timothy 2:1 – 2 we are commanded to pray for all those in authority. This is meant to help them see that they can leave us alone to live in peace and quiet. The result should be that godliness would thrive among us, and that people would see its beauty and turn to God who wants “all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” So, not only are we instructed to obey authority because it is ordained by God, but because it is also integral to the reputation of God’s truth in our city. Obeying authority is critical to living honorably and deserving a good name, and consequently, adorning God’s name in the minds of our societal neighbors.  

This does not mean that there are no exceptions to the rule. Peter and John disobey the Jewish rulers when they are commanded not to speak about Jesus and his salvation.  

But Peter and John replied, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard. Acts 4:19 – 20  

The Hebrew midwives are blessed by God for disobeying Pharaoh’s orders to kill Jewish boys as they were born because they “feared God.” They knew that to obey the king they would directly disobey God, the greater and true king. Therefore, our duty to obey right authorities is foundational, but does admit our disobedience when such a command requires us to disobey a direct command of God. We could also note the disobedience of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were also all commended by God. 

So, the question we must answer with good conscience is: Are we disobeying the general commands of worship and fellowship given to Christians and the local church by worshiping only according to what our government allows during a pandemic?  

This requires us to take stock of the minimum actions that amount to worship and fellowship as outlined in the Scriptures. First, there is no direct command as to the day we must meet, nor the time. We are told to “not stop meeting together.” This must mean that meetings should be frequent. The purpose of these meetings in Hebrews 10:25 is to “encourage one another” toward perseverance until the return of Jesus. This meeting has no minimum number so long as it is plural. Two or three might suffice. The church is commanded to read Scripture publicly, submit to the shepherding of elders, hear the word preached, worship in song and prayer, fulfill the “one another” commands, baptize new believers, celebrate the Lord’s supper, exert church discipline, and spread the gospel as the work of making disciples of all nations.  

Can we do this using almost entirely virtual tools while confined in households? I believe the answer is yes, at least for some period of time. At some point, virtual meetings are not sufficient for the human soul, and people who do not gather are scattered. This is why house church movements are so difficult to cultivate. Gathering in a large church makes it much easier to gather people. Yet, large churches are not necessary for us to be the body of Christ. Not having them in operation makes it harder and less convenient. But we are not precluded from worshiping, praying, or doing any of the works and worship we are commanded to do under these restrictions.  

What we must face is that this takes discipline and maturity. We have to organize ourselves. We have to check in on people. We have to exhort and encourage one another. We must do for free and out of love what is fitting for those God has made brothers and sisters, those he has made “one body.” We must be a people who can be the body of Christ without a building and without a budget. For this is what we may be one day not only in a pandemic, and what many of the Body of Christ are now in various places around the world.  

We should be cognizant of our rights in a free society governed by laws, that should apply to everyone the same, rather than by men, who will do as they please. However, the Biblical examples argue for justice on the basis of truth while in a posture of obedience to the government, except for in the most extreme circumstances. So, Christians can speak against government policies and use rights of speech, petition and assembly to change policies and advocate for their rights, as well as the rights of others. Some have done this. 

This leads to two concluding areas of action once we begin gathering again, and eventually, reopen our building doors. 

First, all Christians must respect the earnest conscience of others acting in faith who are trying to obey Christ. Most human decisions are not right and wrong in themselves. They are prudential decisions: decisions made on the principles of wisdom, utilizing our best perceptions of what is happening. We make prudential decisions by weighing the voices of many virtues and varied commands of God. Our varied perceptions and conceptualizations are imperfect and may lead people of the same convictions and faith to very different decisions concerning how we should act. In such circumstances, love must press for unity in the Body of Christ by respecting and accommodating the consciences of others. There are limits to this principle, but only express and explicit commands of God fence in the earnest conscience. In Romans 14, an example of where this principle is expounded, one of the differences of opinion about which we are not to judge each other is how we esteem the significance of certain days. In the context of the passage, these are probably festival days of the Old Testament. But this is a disagreement about the times and places of worship, and the apostle says we should not judge each other over these things. We should not allow the disunity to fester among us that comes from despising those who are conservative or judging those who have a more liberal conscience. For this to work, both groups must seek the truth in Christ, search the scriptures, and stay in fellowship with each other. 

Practically, as we roll out the reopening of church services, we will not all agree on how this should be done. Some believe we were wrong to ever close services. Others have asked to be present at services already. Some have informed us we should not open for some time. Others have said they will not come for some time, but affirm the church reopening if that is what the elders decide. I have been encouraged by the humility and the earnestness to honor Jesus that I have encountered among people who are acting in opposite ways. I believe this can please the Lord if we can also love and accept one another, even while debating with one another in humility and honest discourse. Jesus demands that we find unity even in the midst of giving others freedom of conscience in many matters. 

Concerning the reopening of the church, our plan needs to be fluid. The county has made clear that it reserved the right to move back and forth in levels of openness and quarantine, depending on infection rates and other indicators. So, for the foreseeable future, we will continue to at least live stream one service of worship each Sunday. This will remain the case until we communicate the next phase of reopening. Since we have started live streaming, some have attended worship much more regularly. Pray for God to use this time to draw many people deeper into the covenantal community of the church. 

The second step, which we have not yet reached, is to meet in groups of ten or fewer to worship together along with the streamed worship services. Moving to small group meetings for worship allows us to meet together to encourage one another in persevering faith and good works. This is an adequate means of fellowship and personal contact that treats people as fully human in their spiritual and social needs. We will communicate with you once we are either legally or conscientiously able to meet in this way.  

Though the public order says we should use virtual means in every way possible, we cannot neglect personally meeting with a small group of people any longer than is absolutely necessary. Gathering in small groups that are connected to virtual worship allows us to meet the basic necessities of Christian worship in the present moment, while minimizing risks of infection to ourselves and our neighbors. These small groups should be no more than ten people and should be the same people every week. This way, if someone is infected, we will know fairly easily who has been in contact with that person and who will need to quarantine themselves. Also, make sure the ten you choose is not exclusive of those that will get left out. Structure those you invite to include friends, as well as those that need a friend, because Jesus told us to invite all the people that couldn’t do anything for us (Luke 14:12 – 14).

Hopefully, fairly soon, things will move more back to normal, and we will be able to reopen Sunday services as normal. Right now, though churches can meet at 25% occupancy, there are many onerous requirements for those meetings, and so we will not gather in our church building until further notice. For High Point Church, even 25% capacity is a disease-spreading nightmare, especially in our space. 25% capacity in our sanctuary alone is more than 200 people. These actions are in line with the advice of numerous health care workers that we have consulted in the last week.  

Finally, do not tell yourself this will all be over soon. We have no idea what the next months, or the next year, will bring. If you plan for an end to the difficulties, your resolve will break when hardships extend. Choose to trust God in each moment, and plan for the future only long enough to do your duty and have hope that God will use you for some eternal good that circumstances can neither steal nor spoil. Find your happiness in God and in people (who last forever), in present graces (like sunshine), and in pursuing godliness. Life’s greatest joys do not come by changes in trials, and most wholesome routes of meaning are expanded in hardship, not contracted. You do not have fewer eternal opportunities in these days; you have more—regardless of what happens to our bank accounts or our health. Even when our bodies are wasting away, we can be renewed inwardly day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). Let us give to everyone what duty owes them: first to God, and then to our governing authorities, to the fellowship of believers, in generosity to the poor and to our not yet believing neighbors.   

Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love (Ephesians 6:24).

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