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Are Church Services Essential?

Are Church Services Essential?

We have a tendency of making our preferences the mark of godliness. We too often perceive ourselves as the fourth member of the Trinity.

We make our convictions synonymous with God’s commandments. We refuse to accept that alternatives to our preferences might not be evil. Especially when our favourite people agree with us—especially when our least favourite people disagree with us.

But the only unerring and infallible words I know are printed in the Bible. Your words aren’t unerring. My words aren’t infallible. And that’s also true for our governments—their words aren’t infallible and unerring either.

The government isn’t God. Our politicians aren’t prophets. Our politicians aren’t perfect. They can be wrong—and they have been wrong in some of their reactions to the coronavirus pandemic.

In Canada, America, and many other nations in the world, our governments
have shut down most businesses and all churches—except for apparently “essential” businesses like Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics.

I don’t think their authoritarian policies are the most helpful way to react to the pandemic. Do we really think it’s helpful to give more control to a government that thinks abortion clinics are essential business during a pandemic?

But I am less concerned about politicians than I am about pastors. I don’t expect politicians to value religious liberty when it’s most convenient to ignore it. But I expect pastors to value Christian liberty when it’s most difficult to affirm it.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m failing to see what more godly and more wise Christians see clearly. I know I’m in the minority on this issue. I know most people disagree with me. But I’d rather be faithful to my conscience than a consensus.

Like all of you, I am grieving that so many people are suffering sickness and death from the coronavirus. And I believe it’s probably unhelpful for churches to gather for fellowship right now. But I am not convinced it’s sinful for churches to gather for fellowship either.

In other words, is it more loving to our neighbours if we stay away from meeting in person right now? Probably. And would we be more faithful to God and to our church members if we (cautiously) met for fellowship under this pandemic? Maybe.

I don’t know. My perceptions and my preferences lead me to believe it’s probably most helpful for churches to stay away from gathering for fellowship. But that’s just my preferences. I do not have a biblical basis to suggest that people who disagree with me are guilty of sin.

If faithful pastors sincerely committed themselves to prayer—saying, “God, we don’t want to carelessly harm anyone’s health. We don’t want to needlessly disobey our government. But we think if our church fails to gather for fellowship, we fear we’ll be disobeying your word. We’ll instruct all vulnerable people or people with symptoms to stay away home. We’ll do all we can to protect people. God, this is our conscience. Here we kneel, father—we can do no other.”

Is it really right to accuse those pastors of sin? Do we have the biblical basis to suggest their convictions are unrighteous?

Some might say that since our governments’ public health policies bans all social gatherings, Christians who disobey the policy to gather for fellowship are guilty of sin.

It’s true that needlessly disobeying the government is a sin—a serious sin that is ultimately a rejection of God’s authority. But the Bible gives us liberty to reject authority if it’s in violation of God’s commandments or in violation of a superior authority.

I think, at the very least, it’s reasonable for some Christians to believe our governments’ bans on social gatherings violate our responsibility to gather in person for fellowship. I don’t think we have the biblical basis to dismiss that understanding as an illegitimate position.

And local policies aren’t the most authoritative laws in our nations. The most authoritative laws in our nation are federal constitutions and bill of rights. And in most nations, particularly America and Canada, religious liberty is included in our constitutions and bill of rights.

Therefore, since there’s a conflict between temporary local public health policies and federal religious liberty, Christians who choose to exercise their religious liberty in defiance of local policies that ban fellowship are not violating God’s commandment to obey the government.

Some people suggest the ban on social gatherings isn’t a religious liberty issue since it isn’t explicitly anti-religious. But that’s a surprising and dangerous misunderstanding of the concept of religious liberty.

Religious liberty isn’t designed to protect religious people from explicitly anti-religious laws. Religious liberty is designed to protect religious people from any law that conflicts with their right to peaceably assemble for worship and fellowship wherever and whenever.

And that’s an odd reasoning, anyway. Most religious persecutions aren’t explicitly anti-religious. Rome’s persecutions against Christians weren’t always explicitly anti-Christian or anti-religious. Rome persecuted anyone, including Christians, Jews, and all groups who didn’t conform to Roman culture. And persecuted Christians in China are part of a diverse group of people in the country who suffer severe consequences for refusing to obey the communist regime’s every word.

But I am not necessarily making the case that our governments’ public health policies for the pandemic persecute Christians. I’m simply suggesting that this issue is a little greyer and more complex than some people make it out to be.

I’m disappointed that so many of us have so completely dismissed alternative perspectives that we’ve actually resorted to believing that pastors should be arrested for trying to be faithful to their conscience. Yes, we should all obey God’s commandments about the government in Romans 13. But we should also obey God’s commandments about Christian liberty in the following chapter in Romans 14.

If one person esteems that not fellowshipping at church during the pandemic is best, and if another person esteems that fellowshipping at church is best—each one should be fully convinced in their own mind. They’re both sincerely trying to honour the Lord. Who am I to pass judgement on them?

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