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Prohibiting Worship

Posted by Matt Postiff May 12, 2020 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Society  Church 

I'm writing for pastors especially, but the general Christian audience is welcome to read as well.

My title perhaps evoked in your mind various government edicts that presently prohibit churches from worshiping due to the COVID-19 scare. But that is not my point.

In the State of Michigan, each of the several governor's orders have carefully side-stepped a prohibition against corporate worship, while making clear the government's desire that churches not gather for safety reasons. This built-in vagueness is due to the recognition that the first amendment of the United States Constitution as well as the Michigan constitution protect the rights of individuals to worship as they see fit. I appreciate this recognition in Michigan. Governor Whitmer even took flak from the far left for making an "unconstitutional exemption for churches." But governors of other states are a little less sharp on this issue and felt that they could infringe churches' rights.

Almost all churches gladly complied with the government's wishes for the first 6 weeks or so of the pandemic, including ours. But these wishes were never a command and, properly understood, should not have bound the consciences of church members nor of their pastors. The most recent order (ending May 28) is less vague. A lawsuit brought by a number of churches forced the governor to add language to make it clear that not only are church "owners" and "places of worship" exempt from penalty, but also individuals who choose to travel and worship at those places. The executive order (2020-77) is still clear that the desire of the government is that there be no group gatherings, but desire is not a legally enforceable command.

Some Christians feel that this is more than clear enough to go back to worship. After all, a law with no penalty attached is no different than advice. For these Christians, the advice given ("don't gather") has now become unnecessarily restrictive of their right and desire to worship God together. Further, the legal wrangling at the state level causes these ones to have legitimate questions about whether the governor has extended orders beyond her authority.

Others are waiting for explicit permission to gather once again. The "spirit" of the executive order is to avoid all gatherings, and these folks want to obey the spirit of the order.

I am in the first group; I have never asked nor awaited permission from secular governing authorities to worship God, and I am not about to set that precedent now. We exist in a distinct "authority regime" -- distinct but not totally separate -- than the secular government. And, I believe we will be waiting a long time for explicit permission from the governor to worship.

The difference between these two camps has the ring of a matter of indifference in Romans 14. I shared with our church family that there will be a wide variety of opinions as to the "right" time to open the church. There will be strongly-held opinions about wearing masks and taking temperatures and how to do children's ministries and a dozen other issues. Speaking generally, worship is clearly not a matter of indifference. It is commanded. But the particular question about whether to open on May 17 or May 31 or June 7 or August 16 is more like a Romans 14 kind of thing. You have to be fully convinced that what you are doing is right. And I have to be fully convinced that what I am doing is right. Each of us will stand before God for our decisions. It is not my place to criticize another pastor for doing what he thinks is right; and it is not your place to criticize other pastors for doing what they think is right.

At some point, you are going to have to open your church. And when you do, this matter of differences of opinion will filter down to your church members. They will have to make a discerning judgment as to whether it is right for them to attend worship. You will be in fact pushing that decision downward to them--a decision which you took from them earlier in the pandemic when you decided to close the church for the preservation of life. Your approach made it easy for the church because they had nothing to decide. They were stuck with your decision. But when you reopen, they will have the burden to decide: Do they have an underlying health condition? Do they have a family member in the home or for whom they care who has such an issue? Are they fearful? Are they listening too much to the fear-mongering left-wing media and consuming doomsday statistics about the virus? Are they coming to worship for the right reason, not just to "stick it to the authorities"?

I do not have all the data to make those decisions for all the church members simultaneously. Only they are in possession of that information, and since they are servants of Another, I am not going to get into the business of judging them on this matter. One week or another is not going to make a difference in the eternal scheme of things. Granted, if someone makes excuse that they cannot attend worship until January of 2021 or until there is a vaccine (which may never come to be), I will speak to them and question their motives and wisdom, and try to help inform their consciences. But I do not believe today is the point in time to fight that battle with anyone.

Similarly, I am not in possession of the information to pontificate about what church X or Y should do. Maybe it is a small church; maybe they will have multiple services; maybe they will hold outdoor services; maybe they have lots of people with tender consciences. What do I know? Nothing. I am not in their shoes. I trust God to work with those pastors and Christian leaders to make wise decisions. A few will not, and many will. That's how it goes.

So, while trying myself to avoid such pontification, may I exhort you to consider another side of the equation? My concern: pastors and church boards, because of division or fear, may keep the church closed while many of their members long to worship God. They desire, like David, to come to the house of God and express His beauty in worship. They want to see other believers for fellowship. They want to be instructed corporately--directly--in the Word. They want to participate in the Lord's Table, and they have missed it for two months already. Pastors should not be in the place of prohibiting the worship of God's people. Individual hang-ups sometimes have to be set aside in order to avoid unnecessarily hurting a subset of the church by not permitting them to worship corporately as God commands. Their consciences are important too--not just the pastors or leaders or members with a tender-conscience.

Early on in the crisis, the "fog of war" was upon us. Lack of information, panic, and a dreadfully high curve faced us. It was appropriate to take steps to preserve life in the face of many unknowns. That time is past. The curve has been flattened. In general, hospitals are well under capacity. We know more about the virus, we know how to mitigate. Are we past all risk? Never. But things are different now than two months ago. It is time for churches to plan reopening whether the government likes it or not. God's people need corporate gatherings and worship. God deserves our corporate worship once again.

The earth has been strangely quiet toward God for the last two months. Not silent, to be sure, but quiet. Let us not prohibit God's people from making the trek to their houses of worship and lifting their praises to the true and living God, the King of the Universe. May He be praised in all true houses of worship very soon.

Update 7/24/2020: Pastor John MacArthur and the elders of Grace Community Church in California have written an excellent open letter defending the opening of churches despite government orders to stay closed.

Update 7/25/2020: Jonathan Leeman at 9Marks has written a critical response to MacArthur and the elders of grace Community Church.

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