Friday, June 18, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: A House Divided

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

Immanuel Can: Tom, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but a division seems to be forming within the Christian community generally, and within some local churches as well, over the issue of what we all should have done about the government’s lockdowns. In some cases, the debate is becoming quite heated. One side says “the powers that be are ordained of God”, and that as a duty to love our neighbor, all Christians should be very thorough in obeying the government’s dictates. The other side points out that love of neighbor is the second commandment, not the first, the first being to love God above all, and that all Christians have a duty to “obey God rather than men”.

Tom: Actually, I’ve written extensively about that very subject here and here, and I’ve recently been enjoying a few of the more radical “first commandment” folks online. As you point out, both sides have their scriptures.

Compliers and Resisters

IC: What’s made this particularly heated are the cases of the few churches that at various points in the lockdown simply refused to comply. Some of the officials and clergy who adopted this position are now regarded as heroes by the side that favors resistance; and yet the other side continues to insist that such resistance is disobedient to the government, and ultimately, disobedient to God. The two sides are not very happy with each other right now; and that is not a particularly good thing.

Tom: It’s also inevitable, I think. I have pointed out that even the compliers have a point at which they acknowledge Romans 13 no longer applies. It’s just a question of the two backs of the camels having different breaking points. But no Christians argue we must do everything the government says no matter what. That would be making the government God.

IC: Now, I start with that observation.

Tom: The unhappiness with each other ...

IC: Yes. But I actually don’t want to talk about that, because I think there’s a very important point that both sides are completely missing. To the resisters, I would point out that when all this nonsense started, the government lied to us, telling us they only wanted “fourteen days to flatten the curve” (remember that line?). So we can forgive our brothers and sisters who were not awake to the fact that the government was actually going to minimize or shut most churches for over a year. If they had announced that at the beginning, I suspect the resistance would have been pretty much universal. But that’s not how they spun it. So we can argue whether the resisters were right or the compliers were right, but that gets us not very far.

When It Hurts

Here’s the most important question: the churches were shut down for over a year; why didn’t it hurt more?

Tom: Zoom. That way we could feel like we were complying with Hebrews 10:25 without actually complying with Hebrews 10:25. Satan was smart enough to give us anaesthesia before he started removing our organs. This could never have happened in 1946.

Also, as Bernie has pointed out, he found himself loving the convenience of rolling out of bed just in time to put on a decent shirt, brew a coffee and boot up the laptop, rather than going through the usual Sunday morning routine of rounding up his family and getting them into the car to drive down the road. And for those who are overworked keeping half a dozen church programs running, this was one massive holiday. Don’t think a few Christians didn’t secretly enjoy it. So there were a few positives to go with the negatives of de-churching.

And of course we could pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves we couldn’t really have done otherwise.

IC: Well, as we were talking about in our Kreider discussion last week, COVID lockdown has exposed some things. In the workplace, it’s that in some cases, the commute, the large offices, in‑person meetings and so forth were not actually necessary, and were actually a drain on resources and time. I think that the same lockdown has exposed some very troubling things about the standard procedures of evangelical churches. Truth be told, they weren’t adding that much to our spiritual lives.

Now, for sure we may have missed the friendship of our fellow believers. And some may have longed for the communion service, which could never really be replicated online. But what about the main teaching-preaching meeting; did we feel the painful lack of it instantly? If not, why not?

The Routine We Didn’t Miss

Tom: No, we didn’t miss it because it never went away. The Zoom ‘Family Bible Hour’ almost perfectly replicated the real one in at least one major respect, which is that 95% of the church sits idly and (hopefully, but not always) pays attention to five or fewer people exercising their gifts or performing predictable roles. And what you’re saying, if I’m not jumping too far ahead, is that the lockdowns exposed our ongoing and rather serious collective failure to maximize the utilization of the gifts the Holy Spirit gave us to build one another up. And I sadly agree.

IC: Well, it calls into question the one meeting most evangelical churches regard as sacred: the Sunday morning service. Why weren’t we instantly starving (spiritually speaking) the minute that service was taken away from us? How is it that we could stand, for a year and a half, to go without that sort of gathering — and, if I might speak generally, without the vast majority of preaching that goes on — and not feel any lack? Can it actually be that we have allowed a procedure to persist that we follow out of pure habit or duty, but which is now revealed to us as having little or no impact on our spiritual lives? After all, its presence or absence seems to make no difference to us. We let the government take it away, and it didn’t even really pinch. Most of us didn’t squawk at all (the notable exception being a few of those functionaries whose livelihood was actually threatened by the lockdown).

Tom: I guess my take on that is a little different. I would estimate we didn’t suddenly experience spiritual starvation because we continued to get what we always get, or I think most people did. Or perhaps we were starving long before COVID. Take your pick. Bible teaching was certainly available a-plenty on Zoom. I watched a bunch of it. What I didn’t realize was how paltry that once-or-twice-a-week 45 minute offering really is. I don’t believe it’s body life as the Head of the Church intended. We have gotten used to being spectators rather than participants, so being spectators at home in front of a screen was not really that different an experience for us.

Flattening the Curve Forever

Now, there are other aspects to church life than Bible teaching, obviously, and I do think the fellowship and worship aspects were sorely missed by some. But definitely not all. Even now, the vast majority of believers are still not prepared to risk the approbation of their neighbors or repercussions from civil disobedience to gather. And I admit to being puzzled by that. As you say, the “two weeks to flatten the curve” meme is utterly disproved. I’m not saying government is targeting Christians specifically, but we couldn’t have made ourselves an easier target, to be frank.

IC: I think the more important question is why were we running the kind of church life that it didn’t hurt us to lose for a year. Why were we spending so much time on thin lectures? And what value is there in returning to that pattern, no matter how time-honored and traditional it may be? When are we going to decide we want to have the kind of church life that matters … one that the government could not stop without us immediately feeling seriously deprived? 

It reminds me of Isaiah 1:12, in which the Lord asks “Who requires of you this trampling of my courtyards?” The implication, of course, is that whatever the people were doing in the temple in those days, it was no idea of his.

The Meetings Nobody Missed

What’s the point of holding the kind of preaching services that apparently do so little good that nobody even misses them when they are gone for a year? Has the Lord demanded of us the Sunday morning routine? Does he require us to sit en masse, in silence, while somebody offloads a “nice little message” we barely hear? Or would he rather have us do something different, something actually edifying, something that makes converts into disciples and disciples into worshipers and servants, or makes the naive into the informed and the young into the mature? And do we care enough to change our routines and do something better?

Tom: In fact, we had a whole buffet of better Bible teachers than what most Christians would normally hear on a Sunday available to us through Zoom. Why would I check in at my home church when I can log in to another meeting and get forty good minutes from a Bible teacher who is far more skilled and helpful than the one my own church is putting on camera?

IC: And the truth is that there is almost always somebody better than your local preacher available on the internet somewhere. If just having a preaching meeting is what churches are for, then that’s how to get it done: stay home, and put the best guy on.

Tom: Of course, then there would be no real point in having a local church at all. We could just consider ourselves members of the church universal and hop around like bunnies wherever we can find the best carrots growing.

Thin, Unfocused, Intellectually Light ...

IC: What troubles me, Tom, is that we were not more aware already that things had fallen into that condition. Having visited a variety of evangelical churches, I can tell you that the procedures and teaching are pretty much all on the same level. Most of it has become thin, unfocused, intellectually light, devoid of context, unsequential, unsystematic, and only faintly related to the goal of making immature Christians into mature ones. And what shocks me is that we were not noticing or doing anything about that. But now we can’t not know that any longer.

Tom: Maybe. I’m not sure it’s registering with most people. I don’t see a lot of frantic eagerness to get back to gathering.

IC: What appals me more is the fear that we might be quite capable of doing nothing about it even now, and just accepting a return to that. I hope that’s not true.

Tom: I think we are going to see division along one line or another, but most probably between those who are serious enough to take risks for their faith, and those who just want to step into a warm bath once a week, and where and how they do it is not of major concern to them.

IC: That could well be right. But we can no longer use the excuse “We just didn’t know.

We did know. The lockdown showed us what we had been doing. So the only question remaining is whether or not we care enough to change it.

Abused Verses

And this takes me back to one of the most abused verses in the Bible: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” We use it as if it’s an evangelism verse, but it’s nothing of the kind. It’s the church at Laodicea, who have become so smug, so certain about themselves, and so lukewarm that they don’t even have a clue that Christ is outside their gathering, and that he cannot appeal to the church as a whole any longer, but only to individuals. Some of the saddest words are “If anyone hears my voice …” That “if” is tragic. It’s by no means certain that there is even one person in that smug church who will hear what the Lord is saying and be open to doing anything about it. But the Lord will still have fellowship with any faithful individuals who might be left: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with me.”

So there’s the split: those who will realize the Lord’s calling them spiritually “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked”, and those who will take no thought for it, and go on like the church at Laodicea had already been going on.

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