Should Churches Open or Remain Closed Despite State Orders?
I recently shared an article about Pastor John Macarthur’s decision to exercise civil disobedience in regards to California officials’ mandate to keep church buildings closed for the foreseeable future due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. He summarizes his justification stating “in response to the recent state order requiring churches in California to limit or suspend all meetings indefinitely, we, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction, and faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services…”. This seems to contradict his previous sentiment about the same issue where he rationalizes his decision to initially keep the church doors closed. In his first video he reasoned that we should obey our leaders except in the case of blatant Christian persecution (of which he admits this is not), and also for the protection and safety of church congregants.
I believe Macarthur’s apparent change in heart illustrates how many are working through this issue. It’s difficult to land decisively on a clear answer to the question – what is the church to do? Should we submit to our governing authorities as Romans 13 says? Or are we obligated to disobey our leaders in order to obey God as illustrated in Acts 5? Many find themselves oscillating between these two questions. At least that’s where I am right now – inconclusive. That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought and prayed about it A LOT, though. There is much to consider. Below are my current thoughts on the question.
1) The Pandemic is real
COVID-19 is a real disease with real tragedy in its wake. We must respect the severity of the threat and realize it is not just an American issue – every country in the world is dealing with it. To say it’s all fake or just a conspiracy is equivalent to closing your eyes, sticking your fingers in your ears, and saying “nah, nah, nah, nah” repeatedly.
2) I’m skeptical of the response
Though COVID is a real threat to consider, I’m not convinced that a global economic and societal shutdown is the appropriate response to a disease with a 97% to 99.75% recovery rate, and according to the CDC a very low hospitalization rate (for every 100,000 people who contract COVID 120 need to be hospitalized, and of those the vast majority are those who are already immune compromised).
Like all deaths, every COVID death is tragic. However, while we may be temporarily shielding immune compromised citizens from contracting COVID, the repercussions of the pandemic are shattering to our social and economic systems. With the increases in businesses shutting down, unemployment, homelessness, suicide, depression, anxiety, crime, domestic violence, alcoholism and substance abuse, and economic collapse (to name a few), I’m just not convinced that the aftermath of the response was thoughtfully considered. Is the solution we landed on worse than the problem we are trying to solve?
3) America is supposedly the land of the free.
As an American, we should (in my opinion) have the right to use common sense, or not. I believe our leaders (if they’re leading well) should make the severity of the problem known, as well as provide information, resources, and strong recommendations regarding how to avoid getting sick; then leave it to the people (including churches, private businesses and organizations) to make a choice on how they will navigate the situation. I believe prohibiting well people from leading normal, law-abiding lives is an encroachment of our God-given rights. However, as a Christian, I hold this thought most loosely. I am a Christian before I am an American and am willing to forfeit my rights for the sake of the Gospel if needed.
4) Obedience to scripture is my priority.
As a Christian, I will not take my cues from the government as to how I will worship and practice my faith. I will live by the scriptures, not by the whims of my governing authorities who have no context of what living the Christian life means to me. This does not mean I will be a troublemaker or a rebel. I wear my mask in public and try to stay 6 feet apart from others as best I can. I will obey and submit to my governing authorities at every point until and unless obedience to them means disobedience to God. So I am not waiting for the government to give me permission to worship the way God prescribes. If my convictions from the Bible lead me to actions that defy the law of the land, “I must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
5) “Virtual church” is not koinonia.
Many object to the idea of churches gathering at all right now. “God is everywhere, so why can’t everyone pray at home and meet on zoom like the rest of us?” It’s a valid question. The short answer is it’s not about being able to connect with God personally. Of course, we pray and read the bible and learn about God individually at home. However, a major aspect of the Christian life is koinonia – true Christian fellowship and communion. This includes and assumes regular in-person meetings with your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Online services are a good short-term solution to make sure the Word of God is being preached and delivered to our people (praise God for technology); but it is not a replacement for koinonia, nor does it produce the same result in spiritual formation.
6) I will not fight for the religious status quo.
As a church leader and elder, I am not quick to fight for opening our building and “doing church” the way we used to for a couple reasons. For one – I believe large, indoor crowds is probably a bad idea and will unnecessarily put some people at risk. Though I believe we should have the right to choose this for ourselves (each church knows their people better than our governors and should have the freedom to use wisdom in how they will lead and protect their people).
Second – the way we used to “do church” isn’t even the most biblical method. Buildings and traditional western church services are foreign to the New Testament. The things they did in the early church are, for now, unenforceable (i.e. meeting in smaller groups in homes or outdoors).
7) The church should meet in smaller groups in homes.
All those who are complaining about our government not letting church buildings open have no right to say anything if they are not actively meeting up with their brothers and sisters in small groups for Christian fellowship. The battle for reopening church buildings is a distraction and not helpful to our cause.
All the trappings of the modern, western, American-church model are not bad, they’re just unbiblical. That doesn’t mean they’re antibiblical; it just means we can’t find them on any page in the bible (children’s ministry, worship band, youth group, fellowship hall, church sanctuary, etc.).
What happens if they burn up the buildings? Will we stop being the church? We have been saying for years “the building is not the church; we are the church.” The church is the people, not the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Now is our time to prove that, and we are failing. The early church seemed to only need the people of God, empowered by the Spirit of God, informed by the Word of God to proclaim the Kingdom of God – and they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).
Putting it all together
In wrestling through all these thoughts, the only conclusion I’ve come to is there’s not a monolithic answer. Every church is different. The geography, demographics, cultural distinctions, makeup of the congregation, etc. all need to be taken into consideration when navigating how to operate as a church. Therefore, church leaders would be wise in taking counsel, yet foolish to look for the model as a point of reference for what decision they should make for their unique congregation.
A few takeaways I hope you’d leave with
Think and pray deeply.
This post contains just 7 of the thoughts I’ve personally been wrestling with. I know there are other variables I haven’t even considered. It’s complex and every situation is unique. Don’t pretend to have the answer for how others should respond. You don’t. The wisdom of men doesn’t accomplish the will of God. His thoughts are not our thoughts, nor His ways our ways. These trying times should make us keenly aware of our complete dependence on God for His wisdom. Use sound judgement, reason, and common sense – then submit your thoughts to Christ. Think and pray deeply about how you ought to conduct yourself.
We are all in the same boat. Don’t be overly critical about how others are choosing to weather the storm. We are all personally accountable to God for how we choose to worship and maintain Christian fellowship. First, take the plank out of your own eye. Then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Share your thoughts if given the opportunity but withhold judgement if they don’t receive your personal conclusions as fact.
Pray for your leaders
“If we maintain social distancing, the deep physical and spiritual needs of the church are being neglected.”
“If we prematurely open and encourage people to gather we may put our congregation at risk.”
“What if people get sick and die?”
“Am I compromising the Gospel for the sake of peace with the world?”
Don’t think for a moment that the smile you see on the screen during virtual service means your pastor is oblivious to the challenges, or unconcerned for the wellbeing of the church. I’ve personally had conversations with several pastors who agonize over what to do. They hear the voices and opinions of everyone telling them what to do, as well as the critiques and criticism of those who think they’ve failed to lead well.
Think and pray deeply for how you should respond. Withhold criticism for those who have chosen to respond differently. Pray for your leaders that God would continue to guide and direct them during this time.