As with other pastors, the last several weeks have brought intense challenges and difficult decisions as our congregation walks through the COVID-19 crisis. One of the most disheartening things to observe during this time, has been seeing believers shaming churches who have decided to remain open. I can certainly understand why people would not agree with that decision, but I could also see the other side. To give some context: the church where I serve as pastor has not been having any in-person meetings since mid/late March. We don’t own a building and we felt like God gave us a long-term strategy for how to walk through this season and relaunch on the other side. But I have observed this shaming across social media.
I want to ask some questions and make some observations, to perhaps bring a different perspective.
A few weeks ago, one of our church elders and I baptized a new believer. He had reached out to his church and asked to be baptized, but was told they could not do it during the lockdown. He was eager to obey the Lord in water baptism and did not want to wait.
When I found out about this situation through one of our church members, we arranged for him to be baptized at a pond. Our actions violated the stay-at-home order and COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. However, we didn’t do this to be rebellious against a governor’s orders, but to be obedient to the Lord’s command. There is a difference. How could I in good conscience deny a new believer water baptism? Isn’t baptizing new disciples part of the Great Commission that Jesus gave us to fulfill?
Situations like this highlight some of the complexities of what pastors and churches are navigating during this time. We are trying to balance what it looks like to be obedient to the Lord and Scriptural mandates, have concern for public health and safety, tend to the spiritual health and needs of our congregation, honor unprecedented government orders; all the while, filtering through the rapidly changing information (and misinformation), opposing perspectives (even from experts), and strong various opinions of the public. This is not a simple situation with simple solutions!
I walked away from the water baptism incident with a simple and clear thought: Social distancing is ultimately incompatible with Christianity. In other words, it is impossible to adhere to social distancing guidelines and fulfill basic Christian practices, such as water baptism, at the same time. This doesn’t mean we should be flippant or throw wisdom aside. But it brings up an important question that I believe needs to be asked:
I know there are strong opinions about how the church should respond to this crisis, and valid perspectives on different sides. My intention is not to stir controversy, but to ask believers to think clearly about some things and spark healthy dialogue. Let’s set aside emotionally-charged, knee-jerk reactions and look at some things biblically.
In order to strictly follow the current government orders in the state of Pennsylvania where I live, we cannot do the following foundational practices of Christianity:
Understand that these are substantial doctrines and practices of the Christian faith, not side issues. While it would seem reasonable to pause these types of activities for a few weeks during a crisis, how long are we supposed to set these practices aside? I don’t expect our governor to fully understand Christian doctrines, but I do expect him to uphold our constitutional right to practice our faith without government interference.
Pennsylvania’s Governor, Tom Wolf, has thankfully kept religious institutions on the “essential” list, but has strongly encouraged them not to gather, and to adhere to the stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines. In other states, some mayors and governors have been very explicit in trying to force churches to abide by government orders. Some pastors have actually been arrested for holding church services…government overreach and infringement on constitutional rights seems to be happening in an unprecedented and alarming way.
Some are shouting, “You can do church online!” But it’s just not that simple. I am certainly thankful for technology, and I see much value in using online ways of connecting with others and reaching people. But online services and Zoom meetings aren’t church; at least not in the true sense of the word, which literally carries the meaning of assembling together. Simply consider that much of the above list is impossible to do online. So, let’s not pretend it’s the same thing. Again, there are fundamental Christian doctrines and practices that simply cannot be done under current government orders.
But aren’t churches putting people at risk if they meet? I am aware that some people have reportedly contracted the virus and/or died after going to a church meeting (the media loves to highlight and mock these churches and pastors). But certainly, people have also contracted the virus and/or died after going to the grocery store, gas station, Wal-mart, hospital, nursing home, an “essential” business, etc. Why aren’t these places being shamed and mocked for remaining open? And are we supposed to hide out in our homes indefinitely? Shouldn’t people have freedom to decide whether or not to take a risk?
We’ve been told that we must love our neighbor, and that the only way to demonstrate this love is to strictly obey the government orders. But again, it’s not that simple. Let’s think clearly about this. Is staying home really the only way to love our neighbor? And which neighbor are we supposed to love?
Do these neighbors simply not count?
Can we please stop making blanket statements and shaming people who are not fully buying into the continued lock-down orders? Let’s stop being so narrow-minded and admit that this situation is not as simple as, “If you don’t fully comply with the government’s orders, you want people to die.” That is ridiculous!
I respect the various decisions that pastors and churches have made during this unprecedented and unpredictable time, whether that is to livestream services, do parking lot services, continue to meet in-person, or find creative ways to minister. Churches should not be shamed for closing their doors or told that they “don’t have enough faith” if they choose not to gather. But churches should not be shamed for keeping their doors open either. If they are doing it out of a conviction that they are obeying God and being faithful to the Scriptures, then we should fully support this. Certainly, there are clear biblical reasons for this approach.
I understand the reasoning behind the lockdown: “flatten the curve” and keep the hospital systems from being overwhelmed. But the curve has been flattened, the hospitals are not overwhelmed (in fact, they have been “underwhelmed” in my area), and now there is no end in sight to the lockdown in our state. It keeps getting extended as though we are being strung along. How is this sustainable?
Pastors and churches, I believe it is time to ask some questions: how long can we follow the governor’s orders (which are not laws, by the way) and also be obedient to the Lord and faithful to Scripture? How long are we supposed to set aside basic Christian practices? The answers to these questions are going to be different for every leader and every church, but they are worth asking.
We’ve seen a lot of believers trumpeting Romans 13, but it might be time to consider Acts 5:29: “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’” Let’s not forget that the same person who wrote Romans 13 (the apostle Paul) had a reputation for disregarding the government’s edicts in favor of obeying a higher King named Jesus (see Acts 17:6-7). Again, the key point here is not rebellion against the government, but obedience and allegiance to God first and foremost.
I honor our government and respect our elected officials. The only time we as believers should go against a government’s laws/orders is when they violate our conscience or the clear commands of Scripture. In the current COVID-19 crisis, things have not exactly been crystal clear, black-and-white, or cut-and-dried. There is room for differing approaches.
What does obedience to God look like at this time? When should churches begin to gather? I am not saying that churches should open. I am not saying churches should remain closed. I am simply suggesting that every church and leader should be seeking God as to how He is leading them, whether or not it is in agreement with the government’s orders.
I have prayed. I have processed. Our church’s leadership team has sought God’s direction. Our church has voluntarily complied with the orders and not held in-person meetings for many weeks, and we don’t regret this. But we can no longer wait for a governor’s permission, a permission he never truly had authority to withhold or grant in the first place. For us, obedience to God at this time means to begin gathering again. We will start by having some prayer meetings in different locations as we prepare for a full relaunch of church services in the coming weeks. We will also continue to provide virtual options for those who are not yet ready to gather, and we will respect people’s personal convictions and choices.
I am not implying that every church should do as we are doing. But for us, the time has come to say, “We must obey God rather than men.”