Is the canceling of church services a sign of responsible civic behavior? Or is it a sign of lacking faith and an overreaction? Should Christians hang in there and brave the risk of contracting (or spreading) coronavirus or should Christians ‘love thy neighbor’ by not hosting services?
Here are the facts: Coronavirus is not the ‘flu.’ It is actually more like SARS and MERS, two respiratory viruses that invoke more fear in the heart of the medical community than standard influenza. There are similarities, however. Coronavirus spreads more like the flu than SARS and MERS, even though its symptoms are more alike to these other respiratory ailments. Coronavirus is also ten times more communicable than the flu and anywhere between three and ten times as deadly as the flu. It is not as communicable or as deadly as smallpox, measles, the Black Death or the Spanish Flu.
However, there’s no doubt that coronavirus is likely the greatest pandemic – at least in western countries – so far in most of our lifetimes. And because of that, combined with state government edicts, health department warnings, and (like it or not) community peer pressure, churches are closing their doors.
Admittedly, closing the church doors in a time of crisis is not a good look. One would think that this is one of those times that faith is needed the most. However, God makes no promise to shield his people from communicable illnesses no matter what the charismatics have prophesied. Christians get sick, too.
At Fellowship Baptist Church, we will not be closing our doors despite requests from state government leaders that groups of more than 50 people disband or President Trump’s request that groups of over ten people postpone their meetings. In the most simple terms possible, we reject the notion that any government instituted by men can overrule any government instituted by God. While we all strive to adhere to Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 (both of which instruct us to obey our governing authorities), the traditional teachings on these passages iterate that government cannot overrule God.
However, in a church that is entirely under the age of 60, our decision to remain open is easier. Along with a healthy and independent Montana attitude that doesn’t like being bossed around by things like microscopic viruses (or blizzards), our decision is next to common sense. Changing how we meet (spacially), changing how we observe communion, dispensing with our ‘greet time’ and no longer ‘passing the plate’ we pray will be enough.
However, not everyone sees things this way. John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church shut its doors in obedience to Governor Newsome’s edict, for example. Countless others around the country have, or will, do the same. And this has led to no shortage of people who insist that any church that closes on Sunday is ‘faithless,’ bowing to the government, or disobedient of the 4th Commandment.
On the other side, there seems no shortage of people who would accuse churches that stay open of being careless, irresponsible, or disobedient to the governing ruling authorities.
Both sides have their share of Molotov-throwing pronouncements in social media that to [be open or closed] is tantamount to treason (whether to God or to the government or to common sense). But, that’s exactly what’s happening out there. Both sides are screaming “how dare you” at the top of their lungs.
Usually, the posts (that I have seen) of people shouting the loudest about whether or not church should be canceled aren’t pastors. That’s what bothers me the most.
Don’t get me wrong; everyone has a right to an opinion. I was going to include a tweet of Sye Ten Bruggencate, a former boiler-maker and presuppositional apologist who derided churches who canceled services, but Sye has wisely deleted that tweet. But when I first saw Sye’s comments I said to myself, “Well, he’s not a pastor.” But who can tell Brother Sye he’s not worthy of an opinion on the matter?
Part of my reason for not canceling services is because of my high view of the Lord’s Day and its purposes. Receiving the Means of Grace isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. It better be something downright earth-shaking to forsake the assembly, after all. But even I, who have engaged in more than a couple of debates on the Sabbath, would acknowledge that “acts of necessity and mercy” have always been acceptable reasons to consider oneself “providentially hindered” from corporate worship. Within this ‘loophole’ the “cancel services side” can claim that preventing the spread of a deadly virus is indeed an act of mercy. I can acknowledge that’s a reasonable argument, even if it’s not one that persuades me.
What I want laypeople to understand is that your pastor (probably) feels an incredible weight of burden for your wellbeing. I also want you to know that nobody hates canceling church (probably) as much as your pastor. To characterize church-canceling pastors as eager to get out of church is bearing false witness against most of them. Trust me; they hate it.
However, I want laypeople to understand something.
Your pastor has the job of protecting you. They have to give an account to God for you (Hebrews 13:17). They have the task of watching over you (Acts 20:28).
Your pastor (probably) also eyes the door on Sunday more intently than the typical person. Your pastor (probably) is the one who makes sure the security team is in place to stop an active shooter. Your pastor (probably) is the one who makes sure background checks on children’s workers are done in a timely fashion. Your pastor (probably) is the one who wonders if that tuna salad has been left out too long before potluck started.
There are a thousand things a pastor has to worry about that you, as a layman, don’t even have cross your mind.
If someone gets coronavirus at a church gathering, will we be liable for staying open after health officials said to close it? Will grandma come to church as long as the doors are open, even if we ask her to stay home due to her age? Do we have stupid people who will show up even though they exhibit signs of illness? Sure, it’s easy to say, “If you’re sick, just stay home.” But will people adhere to that? How far is the community from positive coronavirus cases?
If you’re not the person whose head will roll in the event of a worst-case scenario situation, then maybe you shouldn’t be screaming on Facebook like you have all the answers. Sure, I think churches should do everything possible to stay open. But I also know what it’s like to go to bed at night being responsible for a hundred-plus individuals and their personal safety.
Most church-cancelation critics do not know what that’s like.
Just do us all a favor and, should you cancel church, don’t call what’s happening on Sunday morning, “having church at home.” There’s no such thing as a church that gathers without gathering. There’s no such thing as corporate worship that isn’t done corporately. What you’re doing is – if you’ve canceled church in lieu of a livestream – facilitating people worshipping individually, not corporately. And certainly there’s an advantage to livestreaming a sermon from one’s home church when they can’t get out. But if it happens on the Internet it is not “church” in any meaningful way.
So just remember, if you don’t offer corporate worship on Sunday you’re not ‘doing church at home.’ You’re just plain canceling church. And if you feel providentially hindered, then I won’t stand in judgment of you. I would ask that you not stand in judgment of me.