Friday, October 09, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Making Tough Choices

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: Last month, IC, you and I had a conversation in this space about what might come after the COVID crisis for local churches, as well as for Christians generally in a transformed economic and social environment, and I don’t want to revisit the topics we considered at that time at any length.

But in the last week or two (assuming you are not reading this in Sweden), you are probably hearing about significant “spikes” and “surges” in the COVID-19 infection rate wherever you live. Some people are calling it a “second wave”. The U.K. has seen the worst surge, topping what they experienced in April and May, but Canada is looking ugly too, as are the U.S., France and especially Spain. (I’m using the World Health Organization (WHO) stats; graphs of confirmed cases and deaths day by day in each country are found by scrolling down below the maps.)

So then, rightly or wrongly — and we don’t need to get into how it’s being handled here or elsewhere — what is becoming more and more evident is that this is not ending any time soon, and that some of the restrictions we were experiencing earlier on church meetings and other gatherings are likely to be reimposed, if they have not been already.

Asking ‘What If?’

What is also becoming evident is that even where churches have reopened, at least for now, numbers are way down.

Immanuel Can: What’s happened around here, Tom, is that some smaller groups have continued to enjoy fellowship and growth together without the formal services. Life groups, neighborhood groups and friend groups are quietly and slowly reviving. But large-scale church services of hundreds or thousands are looking far off.

Tom: Unless you are attending Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA, that is definitely the case. I guess if there is any good news, IC, it is that while the documented infection rates are undeniably spiking, death rates are not. Mortality is staying relatively flat. But I am noticing an increase in mask-wearing even in outdoor, distanced settings where a mask serves no purpose at all. There is a lot of fear out there. Other than the occasional report of kids acting out, people seem to be settling in for the long haul and appear more-or-less willing to comply with whatever new rules are imposed, at least around here.

This includes Christians. Other than John MacArthur’s place in California, I don’t know of any churches that have reopened to more than about 1/3 of their usual attendees. That’s causing elders some concern. Should it, do you think?

IC: I’m seeing various uneven reactions from elders and church administrators. Some have put rather innovative COVID measures in place in order to keep their congregations engaged; how successful these all are, especially in the long run, I’m not able to judge. Some others have essentially done nothing but minimal stopgaps, and now wait for restrictions on their numbers to be reduced. The assumption of the latter is that normal will return, and before funds and functionality run out. But I do think elders everywhere should be asking themselves “What if?”

Commanded to Meet?

Tom: I just watched Andy Stanley on YouTube telling an interviewer that he keeps hearing people say, “The Lord commands us to meet.” Stanley replies, “He does not. He commands that we lay down our lives for our friends, that we do what’s best for others.” So, even within mainstream evangelicalism, there are definitely two very different positions about what local churches should be doing right now in the face of government restrictions. John MacArthur is headed one direction, Stanley in very much the opposite.

How would you respond to Stanley’s claim that Jesus does not command his people to meet? Is there any sense in which that might be a valid argument?

IC: Hmm … of course, the first verse you’re going to hear quoted in regard to this is Hebrews 10:25.

Tom: “... not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” John MacArthur immediately quoted that in response to Stanley. Andy Stanley’s position is that technically Jesus didn’t say it. I think you and I would agree that’s a distinction without a difference; it’s there in the word of God with exactly the same authority as the recorded words of Christ. Caviling about that is straining at gnats.

IC: He didn’t really say that, did he? I’m stunned.

What ‘Loving’ Looks Like

Tom: He totally did. And Stanley could as easily have pointed out that complying with a government order is not the same as “neglecting” to gather, which I suspect would have been more coherent way of looking at it. But he didn’t. His position is that compliance is more “loving” than non-compliance, and that love is the last word for the Christian.

IC: “Love” as he conceives of it? So not, say, “love of God,” or “love of obeying his commandments” or even “love of other Christians”, but just some vague kind of loving as Stanley sees it?

Tom: I find it a little astonishing too. Basically, Stanley is assuming that there is only one possible position a loving Christian could take with respect to this crisis, and that’s to shut your church down for as long as you are told to. That’s maybe just a little insulting to people like John MacArthur and anyone else who has gleaned from the New Testament that gathering together is normal Christian practice — Exhibit A to that case being the literal meaning of the Greek word ekklÄ“sia.

Hey, I have plenty of doctrinal disagreements with John MacArthur, but I very much doubt he reopened the doors of Grace Community Church and is keeping them open out of a deficiency of love. It’s more a question of what is the right way for love to express itself in any given moment. That’s a discussion churches can have legitimate differences of opinion about because it’s not spelled out for us in scripture.

IC: Right. I agree with you there.

Looking for Something Better

On the one hand, Tom, I think the church is really high priority. But I’m not sure either Stanley’s or MacArthur’s position is in its best interests, necessarily. We’ve talked about this before, in other contexts: but the church was in need of a shakeup even before COVID hit. I’m not sure I want to fight very hard to see it return to the place it was at before all this began. I’d like to hope it could do something better … that somehow this crisis would put refreshed urgency into its mission, and would provide an opportunity for us to rethink with clear eyes. The truth is that we’d fallen into unhealthy, passive patterns. I would wish we’d come out of the crisis with some new ones.

Tom: Understood. I agree that many local churches need a serious shakeup. But I’m not sure sitting at home thinking about what we’d like the church to be like is necessarily the best way to accomplish that. And I’m sure you’re not suggesting we should call time out on church life until we figure out how to do it better, are you?

IC: No, not at all. I think what we should be thinking about is how to keep living as the church, but to think about how to do it in radically different ways than we were used to; more authentic, committed sorts of ways.

Tom: Can’t gainsay that one.

Who’s in Charge Here?

I’ve got a hard question for you here. Your church is still “gathering” virtually rather than physically, as is the case with many others around here. Firstly, have you given any thought to how long you would be prepared to put up with restrictions on church meetings in view of what we’re being told is a very serious crisis — nine months, a year, maybe a year and a half — or is that a decision you’re prepared to leave to the men in charge? Secondly, would your position change if the next government-mandated move is to reduce the numbers allowed to meet in a private home to four or five, so that even your Life group could not meet anymore?

IC: Well, here’s my thought: I never went into church lockdown on the grounds that the government told me to. They don’t have the power to tell me whether or not I can be in church … that’s above their pay grade. I agreed to forgo meeting because we all thought COVID presented an immediate threat to the health of people we love. Secondarily, I was willing to accede to the concerns some of my brothers and sisters had about potential health risks to them. But the minute I, and those loved ones, are satisfied that COVID is no longer a threat, that’s over.

So personally, I have to say that I was never responding to government demands in the first place.

Tom: Well, that’s interesting. Personally, I agree, but I am seeing “Romans 13” all over the place from Christians maintaining that civic authorities are established by God and must be obeyed unconditionally and universally. We should probably add in 1 Peter 2:13-17, which says something similar but is less frequently quoted.

Biblical Limits to Secular Authority

How do you feel about their understanding of those passages?

IC: I’d say Acts 5:29. There are limits to secular authority … and their right to say anything ends when we have a directive from the Head of the Church himself. The Lord has commanded that we are to meet together, feed each other spiritually (and sometimes physically too), worship, sing and pray together, and mature together into what Christ told us to be. There’s no secular authority that can countermand that order. That’s what I mean when I say it’s “above their pay grade” if they try to tell Christians that they cannot meet.

Government interference didn’t stop the church in Russia. It doesn’t stop it today in China or the Middle East. And it has no more authority here than it does there. And yes, that includes if it comes with a smiling face and a plea of “health concerns”.

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