AN URGENT PLEA FOR UNITY
I want to begin by clearly stating my motives for this letter: 1) To persuade all Christians that the Church (not merely individual believers themselves, but the gathered assembly of these believers on the Lord’s Day for the administering of the ordinary means of grace) is the most “essential” thing on the planet, and 2) To achieve and preserve unity among followers of Christ.
In regards to achieving and preserving unity, it is important to note that there are at least two methods of accomplishing this task: 1) One method is by extending charity in the midst of reasonable disagreement. And due to the unprecedented nature of the recent events surrounding Covid-19, I believe that disagreement among believers in this season is certainly reasonable. However, by making this statement, I am not saying that the Bible does not speak to the present challenges we are facing. Undoubtedly, there are both right and wrong answers to our questions. Therefore, in our attempts to extend charity toward one another during this season, we must be careful to avoid the type of language that affirms the moral relativism which faithful Christians have worked so hard to fight against throughout previous years. 2) The other method of achieving and preserving unity in the Church is powerful and persuasive preaching. Charity in the midst of disagreement certainly helps to preserve unity, but the greatest way to achieve unity in a local church is for its members to actually be persuaded of the same position.
Charity in the midst of disagreement certainly helps to preserve unity, but the greatest way to achieve unity in a local church is for its members to actually be persuaded of the same position.
Powerful and persuasive preaching is a fine art. It is incredibly difficult to achieve the art of persuasion, while carefully avoiding unhelpful dogmatism at the very same time. That said, I ask that you would please extend charity toward me as I attempt by God's grace to make powerful and persuasive arguments for why churches should resume gathering on the Lord's Day, while doing my best to maintain charity toward those who disagree with my position. In short, my goal is not to merely win an argument; my goal is to win you.
In short, my goal is not to merely win an argument; my goal is to win you.
CHURCH IS BOTH “ESSENTIAL” AND “UNIQUE”
Allow me to be abundantly clear: I firmly believe with every fiber of my being that the Church (not merely individual believers themselves, but the gathered assembly of these believers on the Lord’s Day for the administering of the ordinary means of grace) is absolutely “essential.” However, this statement is not meant to convey that I believe the gathering of the church is “essential” under any and all circumstances. For instance, if the police arrived at one of our Sunday Gatherings and informed us that there was an active shooter attempting to pick off members of our church with a sniper rifle, we would immediately and happily comply (submit) to these civil magistrates and their instructions. Allow me to provide another illustration: If the Mayor of Austin announced on a Saturday evening that there was a tornado of biblical proportions headed straight for the city, and that anyone who remained within the greater Austin area would be wiped out entirely, we would immediately and happily cancel our Lord's Day Gathering so that all of our members could divert their efforts toward getting out of harm's way.
However, an important detail to recognize in both of these scenarios is that, under these circumstances, all other institutions (grocery stores, drive-through restaurants, parks, etc) would be deemed “non-essential” as well. However, in the case of Covid-19, churches have been deemed by the civil authorities as “non-essential,” while other establishments (grocery stores, drive-through restaurants, parks, etc) have been deemed “essential.” Sadly, it is quite possible that one of the reasons there has been so little push back by the American Evangelical Church in regards to this decision is because many Christians in our nation have held a low view of the gathered assembly on the Lord's Day. To our shame, many Christians in our nation have actually been completely content to miss multiple Sunday Gatherings for a whole host of substantially lesser reasons (vacation, sports, travel, etc). If a person is comfortable with missing upwards of 10 Lord's Day Gatherings in a year for such petty reasons, certainly they will struggle to understand why pastors, such as myself, are making such a big deal about missing 6-7 weeks of church in the midst of a pandemic.
If a person is comfortable with missing upwards of 10 Lord's Day Gatherings in a year for such petty reasons, certainly they will struggle to understand why pastors, such as myself, are making such a big deal about missing 6-7 weeks of church in the midst of a pandemic.
However, even if Christians are convinced that the weekly gathering of the saints is “essential,” they may still remain suspicious of its true necessity. This is due to the fact that although some Christians may be willing to confess that church is “essential,” they still fail to recognize that church is “unique.” In our day, there appears to be an alarming amount of Christians who are simply unaware of the fact that what occurs in the gathered assembly of the saints on the Lord's Day is categorically distinct from what individual Christians do all week long in their personal practices of piety (scripture reading, prayer, fasting, catechizing their children, etc). Therefore, pastors must labor diligently to teach their congregations that when we come together on the Lord’s Day, we do not merely experience the heightened benefits of individual Christian practices due to the reality of being surrounded by many other brothers and sisters in Christ. Instead, what takes place in the gathered assembly is a spiritual reality which occurs in no other context.
What takes place in the gathered assembly is a spiritual reality which occurs in no other context.
According to Scripture, when “true churches” (orthodox churches faithfully proclaiming the gospel message) gather together on the Lord’s Day and rightly administer “the ordinary means of grace” (publicly preaching the Word, publicly praying the Word, corporately singing the Word, and corporately seeing the Word in the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism), Christ himself begins to walk among the “lampstands” (the lampstands are the churches themselves) and holds the “angels” of these churches in his right hand (the angels are the gospel-ministers who have been tasked with the faithful proclamation of God's Word). And as these gospel-ministers begin to preach, while being held in Christ’s right-hand, a “double-edged sword” is extended from the mouth of Christ himself and begins to pierce the hearts of men (Revelation 1:10-16).
In addition to this, in Matthew 18:17-20, we find another biblical text which illustrates both the “essential” and “unique” nature of the Church: “If [the impenitent church member currently under formal church discipline] refuses to listen to [the two or three witnesses who have confronted him], tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever [the gathered assembly of the church] binds on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are “GATHERED” in my name [a true church], there am I among them.” According to Jesus, two or three baptized believers who have made a public and credible profession of faith, and have covenanted with one another to fulfilling the Great Commission in unity (which includes following all of Christ's commands and teaching others to do likewise) constitutes a “true church.” And when true churches “gather in [Jesus'] name, there [is Christ] among them.” In other words, Christ (who is always present with all believers by virtue of the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit) is present in a “unique” way only in the context of the gathered church.
Christ is present in a “unique” way only in the context of the gathered church.
So when the saints physically gather with one another in worship on the Lord's Day, they are doing nothing less than coming together to meet with Christ in a particular way, which does not occur anywhere else on earth. And not only are we gathering to meet with Christ, but we are gathering to offer him our worship and receive from him a “word.” 1 Peter 4:11 says, “Whoever speaks, [should speak] as one who speaks the [very] oracles of God...” And Matthew 4:1-4 says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, 'If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.' But Jesus answered, 'It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Therefore, according to Jesus, if physical bread (grocery stores) are deemed “essential,” spiritual bread (every “word” that comes from the mouth of God) must be deemed as even more “essential” by the people of God.
Now, it is unquestionably true that Christians have been granted the immense privilege of receiving a “word from the mouth of God” in the context of their private practices of piety (reading the Scripture at home as individuals, or with family/friends). However, as we have already seen in Revelation 1:10-16, there is a “word” (“a double-edged sword”) which “comes from the mouth of God” (out of “the mouth of Christ”) when the “lampstand” is lit (the church is gathered) and “Christ begins to walk amidst the lampstands” (Jesus is spiritually present with the church in a unique way). When Jesus says to Satan in the wilderness that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” he does not specify which “word” referring to. Therefore, it is both reasonable and prudent for Christians to assume that both of these “words” are vital for the sustaining of our souls.
If physical bread (grocery stores) are deemed “essential,” spiritual bread (every “word” that comes from the mouth of God) must be deemed as even more “essential” by the people of God.
In order for Christians to spiritually survive, much less spiritually thrive, we must not only be diligent to study and meditate upon God's Word privately, but we must also humbly and joyfully receive God's Word as it is publicly proclaimed in the assembly of the saints on the Lord's Day. In fact, a convincing argument can be made that for almost 1500 years, followers of Christ were only able to receive God's Word in the Lord's Day Gathering. This was due to the fact that the Scripture had not yet been translated and copied into the common language of the people. Therefore, when we survey church history (although there were some very dark times where the church immensely suffered by not having the Scripture available for private use), it appears that God has sustained his people through the administering of the ordinary means of grace on the Lord's Day in a way which he has not through private Scripture reading, apart from the gathered assembly.
Furthermore, Jesus also says in John 6:27-35, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you... I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Again, if Christ himself is the true bread of life which all Christians desperately need in order to spiritually live, and Christ promises to be present in a unique way when the church gathers together (Matthew 18:20), then certainly this gathering must be considered both “unique” and “essential” by those who profess to be followers of Jesus.
If Christ himself is the true bread of life and promises to be present in a unique way when the church gathers together, then certainly this gathering must be considered both “unique” and “essential” by those who profess to be followers of Jesus.
A WORD ABOUT SUBMISSION TO CIVIL AUTHORITIES
Now, in terms of the Christian's duty to submit to the civil authorities, it is important that we rightly interpret the whole of Scripture on this matter. Firstly, it is important to recognize that Romans 13 says absolutely nothing about Christians being required by God to submit to unrighteous rulings handed down by the civil magistrate. Instead, Romans 13 clearly describes God's ideal purpose for civil governments, and therefore, it assumes that Christians would do well to submit to these civil governments. However, when we survey other scriptural texts, we quickly discover that there is a clear biblical principle for Christians submitting to civil authorities, even when these governments hand down unrighteous rulings. For instance, Rome was undoubtedly taxing its citizens at a rate that was wicked in the sight of God. It was clearly unrighteous for the Roman Empire to demand that its citizens submit to this unreasonable taxation. And yet, when Jesus was questioned about this, he responded by saying, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's” (Mark 12:17). Therefore, although it was wrong for the civil magistrate to enforce such burdensome taxation, it was righteous for Christians in Rome to submit to this civil law. So we can say that Christians are biblically required to submit to the civil magistrate when it is ruling righteously, but also when it is ruling unrighteously.
It was clearly unrighteous for the Roman Empire to demand that its citizens submit to this unreasonable taxation. And yet, when Jesus was questioned about this, he responded by saying, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.”
However, the question which still remains is this: Is there ever a time in which Christians are not required to submit to the civil magistrate? In order to answer this question faithfully, we must once more survey the whole of Scripture. In Exodus 1:16-17, we find these words: “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthing-stool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live. But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live.” This was certainly a righteous rebellion on the part of the Egyptian midwives against the king of Egypt (the highest civil magistrate in the land at that time). Also, Rahab refused to report the Hebrew spies in righteous defiance of the civil authorities at Jericho (Joshua 2). Furthermore, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego righteously rebelled against the king's edict when they were commanded to bow down and worship the golden image of the king (Daniel 3). And in addition to this, we see that Daniel himself was also willing to righteously rebel in Daniel 6:7-10: “All the high officials of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an injunction, that whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions... When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.” Therefore, when a decree of the king was ordered that forbid Daniel from continuing to act in obedience to his God, Daniel courageously chose to ignore it. And lastly, although more examples could certainly be given, it is important to remember that even the apostles chose to righteously rebel against the Jewish Council (which served as both a religious and civil authority for the Jews at that time). When the apostles were instructed not to preach in the name of Jesus any longer, they courageously and joyfully defied the authorities (Acts 5:27-29).
In the case of Daniel, it is worth noting that he did not find it necessary to throw any extra “punches” toward the civil authorities of his day. However, notice that he was deliberate not to pull any “punches” either. Daniel was committed to praying three times a day with his windows opened toward Jerusalem. This was in accordance with God's covenant found in 1 Kings 8:27-30. The fact that the Daniel's windows remained open was due to the “substance” of his worship, not the “circumstances” of his worship. In 1 Kings 8:27-30, God promised to hear the prayers of his people, even if they were held captive in a distant land (as Daniel was), if they prayed toward Jerusalem where the temple of God was constructed. As it pertains to the New Testament Church, the “substance” of our worship is preaching, prayer, singing, and the sacraments. These elements of worship cannot be changed by Christians, but the “circumstances” of our worship can be changed. For example, gathering outdoors may alter the “circumstances” of our worship, but live-streaming a church's service actually changes the “substance” of worship. This is because the Bible clearly commands Christians to physically gather together (Hebrews 10:25). However, the Bible does not command where, when, and how Christians should physically gather together.
The “substance” of our worship is preaching, prayer, singing, and the sacraments. These elements of worship cannot be changed by Christians, but the “circumstances” of our worship can be changed.
Now, certainly there are some distinctions between these biblical examples of persecution and some of the rulings issued by our civil magistrate due to Covid-19. But for the sake of this argument, we must all admit that there is most assuredly a legitimate biblical category for Christians righteously rebelling against the civil magistrate. Therefore, the task of those who desire to diligently obey the Scripture is simply to determine the proper “biblical criteria” for when it is both appropriate and right for Christians to rebel.
Some of us may be be tempted to conclude from the previous biblical examples that the common denominator in each of these cases was that the people of God were being specifically targeted, rather than Christians and non-Christians both suffering side by side. However, this is simply not true. In the case of Daniel, the decree of King Darius made it illegal for anyone in all of his kingdom to pray to any “god,” or petition any man. This decree oppressed those who worshiped the true God right along side everyone else. And in the case of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, it was exactly the same. The decree of King Nebuchadnezzar affected everyone in the whole kingdom, even the pagans who worshiped false “gods.” However, it is important to recognize that when governing authorities remove civil liberties, Christians will always be affected more severely than others. This is because we have been given clear commandments from God that must be obeyed.
The task of those who desire to diligently obey the Scripture is simply to determine the proper “biblical criteria” for when it is both appropriate and right for Christians to rebel.
For example, in the case of King Nebuchadnezzar's decree, those who worshiped idols could simply add the king's statue to their list of false “gods.” Most of these pagans were polytheist, and therefore, there was far less conflict in submitting to the king's demands. However, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were committed to worshiping Yahweh alone. Similarly, in the New Testament Church of the first century, Domitian ruled as emperor over Rome. His cruelty rivaled that of Emperor Nero. Statues of him were sent all over the empire, and on appointed days, feasts were held where the entire population was required to pass before the images of Domitian and bow before him as “god.” Once again, this was a blanket ruling that affected the whole population of the Roman Empire, but Christians were the ones who most frequently lost their lives, due to their unparalleled allegiance to Christ. So in regards to the social restrictions against gatherings due to Covid-19, although it is true that all Americans are certainly affected, not all Americans are bound by an allegiance to Scripture which clearly commands that we gather for corporate worship on the Lord's Day.
In my assessment, it is nothing short of a tragedy to discover that some Christians in our nation actually believe that the only valid criteria for Christians righteously rebelling against the civil magistrate is if Christians are being exclusively targeted. If this belief were to be consistently applied to the Christians living in China in very recent years, we would have to say that these precious believers have been righteous regarding their decision to rebel against the civil magistrate in order to gather in underground house churches, but sinful regarding their decision not to submit to the civil magistrate by handing over their “extra” children to be murdered (forced abortions) by the civil authorities, due to China's “one-child policy.” When we speak of the importance of exercising charity, certainly we should all agree that holding a position that condemns any and all rebellion against the civil magistrate, so long as Christians are not being singled out, is far from charitable. If it was not righteous for Chinese parents to seek to hide their “extra” children from a communist regime which sought to murder them, then I'm not sure I know what righteousness even is. And yet, we must recognize that the “one-child policy” of China was applied evenly across the board. In other words, this grotesque law did not single out Christians.
When governing authorities remove civil liberties, Christians will always be affected more severely than others because we have been given clear commandments from God that must be obeyed.
A further problem with this view is that if singling-out Christians is the only valid criteria for righteously choosing to rebel, the civil authorities can simply do what they have always done throughout church history: They can pass a universal law that affects all people, but harms Christians significantly more. And in order for Christians to have the “biblical” option of rebelling, we must then be able to somehow infallibly discern the hidden motives of all the governing officials involved. It is true that in the case of Daniel (as well as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) there were malicious officials serving as councilors to the king who desired to see the downfall of this godly man. These wicked officials worked hard in order to influence the king to issue foolish laws that would effect those who feared God in much more significant ways than others. However, we only know the wicked motives of these civil officials because it has been recorded for us in Scripture. In all fairness, these laws (although they were inspired by sinful officials who aimed at the persecution of godly men) actually affected all types of people, not merely worshipers of Yahweh. If anyone did not bow down in worship of the king's statue, they would be cast into the fiery furnace. Likewise, if anyone, of any religion, prayed to any “god” (or even if an atheist petitioned any man) other than the King Darius for 30 days, they would be thrown to the lions. There were likely many religious people at that time who urged one another to simply submit to king's edict. Perhaps they said something like this: “The king has promised that the restrictions against prayer will only last for 30 days. Surely, it is reasonable to simply be patient during this season as we seek to humbly submit to those who are in positions of civil authority.” Sound familiar?
Civil authorities can simply do what they have always done throughout church history: They can pass a universal law that affects all people, but harms Christians significantly more.
Therefore, the clearest common denominator found in each of the biblical examples of righteously rebelling against the civil magistrate is this: Both men and women who feared the Lord, righteously chose to rebel against their civil authorities wherever those officials required them to “partake” of something that God clearly “forbids,” or “forsake” something that God clearly “commands.” This is the only clear biblical criteria for determining when it is appropriate and right for Christians to rebel. Therefore, we must fairly consider whether or not the specific ruling in question requires Christians to disobey God's Word. So the question for us is this: Does God, by the agency of his Word, command us to regularly attend church? The correct answer, of course, is an emphatic “yes.” This is demonstrated by Hebrews 3:12-13 cross-referenced with Hebrews 10:24-25, multiple other biblical texts, and the overwhelmingly unified witness of church history. Therefore, in order for Christians to “forsake the gathering” in a manner that is acceptable before God, there must be a biblical reason for doing so. And this biblical reason must be something more than merely chanting Romans 13 as an incantation, and then framing the most recent document signed by President Joe Biden on our bedroom walls. Perhaps, the current challenges we are facing require a little more complex thought than this. Again, we must recognize that Romans 13 says nothing about submitting to governing officials when their decisions are not righteous, and it most assuredly says nothing about submitting to governing officials when their laws require the people Christians to forsake something which God clearly commands.
Both men and women who feared the Lord, righteously chose to rebel against their civil authorities wherever those officials required them to “partake” of something that God clearly “forbids,” or “forsake” something that God clearly “commands.”
As a final note on this point, it is vital for us to recognize that as Christians in America, we are not subjects in a monarchy. Instead, we are citizens of a republic. We are not ultimately subject to a sovereign human official because the highest civil magistrate in our land is not a human official, but a document: “The Constitution of the United States of America.” Therefore, a reasonable argument can be made for Christians righteously rebelling against lesser civil magistrates (governors, mayors, etc) in order to righteously submit to a higher civil magistrates (US Constitution), which clearly outlines our freedom of worship and the right to peaceable assembly (First Amendment).
As stated at the beginning, it is of the greatest importance that Christians on both sides of this argument exercise an extra measure of charity toward one another at this time. This is especially needed in a nation like America, where arguably the church has never before had to seriously consider rebelling against the civil magistrate in a manner like this. That is not to say that our civil magistrate has never done anything unrighteous throughout our nation's history. However, examples of wickedness, such as ethnic-based slavery, did not require Christians to participate. Even more heinous examples of wickedness, such as abortion, still allow for Christians to practice what the Bible clearly teaches as righteous. There can be no debate about at least one thing: This is a very unique situation with far more uncertainty than any of us would prefer. Courage for Christians is desperately needed in this hour, but true biblical courage never comes at the expense of charity and a genuine desire for unity among believers.
Again, this kind of charity does not mean that there is not a right answer to the questions we currently face. As Christians, we must not only uphold the “inerrancy” of God's Word, but also the “sufficiency” of God's Word. We must believe that the Word of God speaks to all situations in life, especially crisis moments such as this. And furthermore, we must believe that whenever God speaks, he does not speak out of both sides of his mouth. One day, when we all stand before God, we will come to realize that some of us got it right, while others got it wrong. In this particular situation, it is likely that everyone has gotten it wrong, at least to some degree or another. However, as those who esteem the reality of absolute truth, we simply cannot say that two contradicting positions are both right at the same time. Therefore, we must each study the Scripture for ourselves, while seeking to be taught by the local elders that God has sovereignly appointed over us, in order to come to a clear biblical conviction on these matters. There are many positions in relation to this crisis that have no biblical merit at all. However, there are still at least a few positions which an individual may take while staying well within the boundaries of Christian Orthodoxy.
True biblical courage never comes at the expense of charity and a genuine desire for unity among believers.
Therefore, our task should be to challenge one another to take a reasonable position with sufficient biblical support. As we seek to do this, it is both appropriate and even right to attempt to persuade others to hold our own position because we are convicted that it is the right one. However, as we lovingly seek to persuade one another, we must do our best to suspend unfair judgment during this difficult time, and diligently work to avoid falling into the deadly sin of self-righteousness.