Bravado has swept through the church as local congregations have begun to defy the lock-down guidelines issued by their local governments. I type today not to condemn or support such action. Undoubtedly there is a time and place for civil disobedience. Depending upon where you live, that day may be today.
But as we decide the best way forward for our congregations, I want to remind elders, deacons, and church members that their churches are not comprised of special forces platoons equipped to run roughshod over all that stands in their way. Rather like Moses, we lead camps filled with young mothers, vulnerable children, weak cancer patients, irresponsible teenagers, and aging senior adults. When we oppose the government, we risk the health and safety of both the weak and the strong.
Indeed, the day for such stands will come. They existed in years past. I have the greatest respect for Corrie Ten Boom’s eighty-four -year-old father who willing died in a German concentration camp, preferring the gospel command to love his neighbor above his personal safety.
But for most of us (the residents of Nevada sadly reside in a very different paradigm), the restrictions have not singled out churches. Christians have not been persecuted, yet.
According to history, these pandemic guidelines will be brief. Pandemics usually run their course in about one to two years. Most will not last that long. Life will go back to normal and society will forget the ‘horrors’ that once dominated the news cycle. For example, few to none of us remember that the city of New York killed 72,000 cats and 8,000 dogs in 1916 in an effort to prevent the spread of Polio. Our collective forgetfulness proves that the guidelines of today will soon fade into the wasteland of lost memories. In a few weeks or months, the world will return to ‘normal.’
Until then, I believe the Jesus who welcomed vulnerable little children into his inner circle would desire for us to sacrifice our Sunday morning norms to create environments where all members could worship without facing harm.
If men and women become sick and/or die because we hastily return to our per-COVID19 practices, we will weaken our churches and do harm to our gospel witness. The church needs its weak brothers and sisters, even those over eighty. Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted,
Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also the strong need cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of fellowship.
Before we embrace a plan for the future, we must determine whether or not it benefits both the strong and the weak in our midst. A plan that helps one group while harming the other is incomplete.
Times of persecution will come as the Ten Boom’s life make clear. When the days are dark, churches and their members will need to take stands that risk the wellbeing of all of their members. But such stands should always be the last option, not the first or the second.
If we can move forward and worship in such a way that protects the most vulnerable among us, why would we risk harming them?
The coronavirus has spun the world around like the vindictive kid standing next to an old merry-go-round. As humanity has hung on for dear life, some church leaders have declared that the violent spins will fundamentally alter the when and how people assemble. To survive, pastors and their congregations must learn to navigate the spinning wobbles of the coronavirus world through appeals to leadership coaches, political theories, sociologists, psychologists, and biologists.
Though the rotations of the 2020 merry-go-round have given the riders the impression that the they are moving across the playground, the foundation of the church has not moved and will not move. It remains forever anchored to the unchanging God of the universe. The mission of the local church which is comprised of redeemed men and women who have convenented together to live out the gospel in community is and forever will be to glorify God. The church will always assemble to worship the one true God. The historical record proves the fixed nature of the church, revealing that plagues, masks, and social distancing have not fundamentally changed the church.
A Brief History of Churches and Plagues
The coronavirus is not the first virus that has spun around the people of God with all the care of a ten-year-old bully. Church has withstood past challenges which threatened to ‘radically’ alter the bride of Christ. In 165 A.D. and again in 260 A.D plagues ravaged the world of the early church fathers, killing as much as 30% of the Roman world’s population according to historian Rodney Stark. The Bishop Dionysius was able to successfully pastor his generation through terror that “prevails over all hope.” When the plagues subsided, the church remained. Dionysius believed the plague of 260 A.D. had been a positive “instrument for our training and probation.”
In addition to medical issues, the church has wrestled through the secondary challenges and moral dilemmas that the coronavirus has brought to the church’s attention. During the plague of 1527, Martin Luther harshly condemned Germans who knowingly exposed their neighbors to the plague as “prank like putting lice into fur garments or flies into someone’s living room.” During the Cholera Outbreak of 1866, Spurgeon had to remind Christians that science did not threaten their faith. He said,
I am thankful that there are many men of intelligence and scientific information who can speak well upon… the laws of cleanliness and health. So far from being angry with those who instruct the people in useful secular knowledge, he ought rather to be thankful for them…The gospel has no quarrel with ventilation, and the doctrines of grace have no dispute with chloride of lime.
The particularly challenging topic of whether or not to meet during times of biological peril has also been address by the church of old.
Spurgeon kept holding services because his church’s neighborhood was not quarantined during the second cholera outbreak.
Similarly, Luther encouraged his followers to attend church so that they could “learn through God’s word how to live and how to die.” But, he also thought Christians had the freedom to leave cities struggling with the plague and believed the sick should avoid large gatherings. He wrote.
It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and to fail to protect it against the plague the best his is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death.
Richard Baxter who lived through the great London plague of 1665, leaned toward the side of caution. He encouraged the church to suspend operations when facing medical and civil crisisses not tied to gospel proclamation. He wrote,
If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him….[we] omit some assemblies for a time, that we may thereby have opportunity.
Ashbel Green concurred, encouraging the churches of Philadelphia to suspend their meetings during the plague of 1798 which claimed 3,400 lives. He refused to meet with his congregation from a “conviction to duty.” He believed that the “long and tedious” interval between services would help would perfect the church while she waited for divine deliverance.
Lastly, Francis Grimke who pastored in Washington D.C. during the Spanish Flu of 1918 supported the temporary closure of churches, theatres, and schools though other evangelicals grumbled. He wrote,
If as a matter of fact, it was dangerous to meet in theatres and in the schools, it certainly was no less dangerous to meet in churches…it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger and expect God to protect us.
By God’s grace, the church of the past has successfully weathered spins on the pandemic merry-go-round, arriving in the form we recognize today.
Though some church leaders clamor about declaring the challenges of the coronavirus to be earth shattering, the history of the church proves the opposite to be true. As Ecclesiastics 1:10-11 notes,
Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.
If anything, the writings of Grimke, Spurgeon, and Green have revealed that plagues never substantial changed the nature of the church. Once the coronavirus merry-go-round stops spinning, history indicates most Christians and people will forget that the church was ever spun about. This is the greatest challenge the church faces today.
The Greatest Threat to The Church
The greatest threat of a pandemic resides not in is ability to change the church but in humanity’s ability to forget it ever occurred, missing the divine lessons which God promotes through trials.
In 1918, Grimke hoped the Spanish flu would, “beat a little sense into the white man’s head” because no one could deny that “White and black alike are dealt with indiscriminately: the one is smitten as readily as the other.” The need for the civil rights movement and the social unrest of 2020 have revealed that this lesson has not been taken to heart. Similarly, Spurgeon had wished that the plague of 1866 would usher in a revival, calling the people of London to forsake drunkenness, fornication, their lack of church attendance and their fascination with Catholicism. But the plague of 1866 like the plague of 1854 produced little change. Spurgeon later lamented,
Alas! for your piety! It was as the morning cloud, and as the early dew it passed away…We prayed; we sent for the minister; we devoted ourselves to God; we vowed, if he would spare us, we would live better. Here thou art, my hearer, just what thou wast before thy sickness.
Ashebel Green concurred, noting that populations often forget the lessons learned during plagues, returning to their earlier sins. He lamented:
We have actually grown worse, and not better, by all the chastisements we have been made to endure feel for this past five years.
Spurgeon feared that the church’s inability to heed God’s displeasure would result in the people of God being “ravaged by a pestilence worse than the plague: I mean the pestilence of deadly soul-destroying error.” Sadly, his warning has proved prophetic.
The merry-go-round will not change the church but it may afflict the church with gospel amnesia which will blunt the spread of the kingdom of God. Instead of strategizing about how to prepare for future changes that will prove insignificant in a few months time, believers should plead with God to bless the trials of today with gospel fruitfulness. Green reminds us:
Our past experiences has surely been enough to convince us, that no providence, however afflictive, awful or awakening in themselves, will make us any better, but rather much worse unless God accompany by the influences of his grace.
The coronavirus should bother Christians for it has rebirthed a host of government restrictions that prevent churches from assembling together. But the local church’s inability to meet together as the church is not a new phenomenon that will undermine the vitality of God’s people. In 1918, churches were suspended for more than four weeks as the Spanish Flu ravaged America. Luther spent 300 days mostly self-isolated in a dark tower, translating the Bible while the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor sought his life. More importantly, the Scriptures have addressed how we are to care for our souls during seasons of isolation.
Though David never knew the terrors of invisible germs, he experienced the terrors of the visible king Saul who prevented him from worshiping. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit David chronicled his experiences in Psalm 84.
David’s response to his separation from the people of God should inform our response to our separation from the assembled church. While we wait for our churches to reopen and resume normal operations, Christians should heed David’s counsel place their trust in the Lord Almighty. “O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!” Such well founded trust produces holy discontentment, divine dependence, and divine hope.
Those who trust the Lord will find the love for the church growing. David longed for a church like a lover kept from the object of his affections, like an athlete kept from water and like a wounded animal unable to find comfort. He cries out for the house of God. He is envious of the insignificant birds who hang about the altar that he can no longer see. David understood that God was specially present in the gatherings of his people (Mt 18:20). He wanted to be there with every ounce of his being. When Christians are kept from corporate worship, their love for the assembled body grows and they become discontent with their lot in life, crying out for God to act.
Separation from the normal graces of God should stir Christians to yearn for God even more. Deuteronomy 8:3 reminds us that God let the people of Israel hunger in the wilderness for the purpose of teaching them, “that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”
Christians in 1918 experienced this Biblical reality. Washington D.C. Pastor Francis Grimke noted,
The fact that for several weeks we have been shut out from the privileges of the sanctuary has brought home to us as never before what the church has really meant to us. We hadn’t thought, perhaps, very much of the privilege while it lasted, but the moment it was taken away we saw at once how much it meant to us.
Those who trust the Lord while separated from the church will find their love for church growing.
The Bible has no category for Christians who willingly isolate themselves from the body of Christ so that they can drive about the country, go to softball tournaments, and spend weekends at college sporting venues. Instead of excusing those who social distances themselves from their local church, Christians need to call their friends to repentance. Christians should have the heart of David and prefer church above all else.
The Christian ultimately does not seek fulfillment in this life for she is a “sojourner” and an “exile” on her way to heaven (1 Pt. 2:11). The Christian lives life longing for the heavenly assembly. As she waits for that moment, she delights in the local church which pictures that reality. Since all Christians should long for heaven, all Christians should long to be at their local church which is a small, imperfect representation of the whole.
Those who trust God make God their strength while they wait for church to reassemble. When Christians are kept from worshiping together, they will undoubtedly experience hardships. Those who trust the Lord go on pilgrimages that lead through desert valleys. A quick survey of first-responders, soldiers, and the homebound will reveal that isolation from the body leads to hardships. Souls will feel weary, lonely, and faint. But such pilgrimages do not end poorly for the Christian. Those who appeal to God in prayer to mend their troubled hearts find relief. The desert valleys are redeemed by gospel grace and turned into pastures of peace. Our troubles do not represent the end of God’s plan or the failure of his plan. Thomas Boston correctly noted, “There is not, in anybody’s lot, any such thing as a crook, in respect to the will and purpose of God.” God works through troubles to usher in spiritual blessings.
The Bishop Dionysius said the plague of 260 A.D. “proved to be an instrument for our training and probation.”
The apostle Paul concurs. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-17, he writes,
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Lastly, those who trust in the Lord will discover divine hope. God both shields and blesses his anointed. Though humanity should hide in the shrubs like Adam and Eve when God approaches, Christians do not have to fear the presence of God. They are no longer sinners stained by all their evil deeds. Those who have repented and believed on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus have been made righteous by Jesus’s work on the cross. Paul writes in Galatians 3:13,
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.
The curse has been removed and Christians can reside peacefully in the presence of God. Thus, the psalmist can say, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.”
God has shielded his people from the pains of death absorbing all the blows of God’s justice and of Satan’s accusation. He became our curse.
But God is also proactive. He gave us righteousness and holiness. He made the Sun of God’s love shine upon the hearts of the redeemed. He brings Christians to heaven. And he sustains them while they journey about earth, growing their faith and giving them victory of their sin. Indeed, God withholds no good thing from his people. Even the trials and the troubles that strike the Christian work together for the Christian’s benefit.
David began Psalm 84 envious of the insignificant sparrows and swallows who could flutter about the alter while he stumbled about the mountains in exile. Yet the glorious truth of this Psalm and of the entire Bible is that God cares infinitely more about his people than he does the sparrows. Jesus says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows (Lk. 12:6-7).” God loves his children dearly and will not withhold anything good from them.
The Christian who finds himself or herself unable to go to church should trust in the almighty Lord. Those who trust in God will not be disappointed. God will bless them with a longing for his church, with the strength to persevere, and with hope. Are you trusting?