When orders started coming out to avoid groups larger than 250, then 50, then 10, many organizations were affected. The NBA season ended almost immediately, NCAA’s March Madness tournament was canceled, Major League Baseball has yet to have opening day, concerts have been canceled, and theaters have sat empty for a month. Churches are also place where regular meetings of more than 10 people occur, and they were affected as well. And, while sport and concert tickets can be refunded, and movie release dates pushed back, very few churches have chosen to go completely idle during this time.
Some people may just accept it. Others, though, may wonder why, and some people may completely not understand. If you can rewatch your favorite series on Netflix, why not rewatch or relisten to your favorite sermon? Nearly everyone owns at least one Bible, and even if not, Bible Gateway is free! Just read the Bible for yourself! In this installment, we’ll look at the concept of “church during a pandemic” from the Christian worldview, and see why its practitioners feel it is essential.
Scripture Commands and Exemplefies It
The best-known verse cited as a reason to gather regularly is Hebrews 10:25, presented here in context with verse 24:
24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 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.
We also see it in the example of the early church, meeting together every day!
46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
This is far from exhaustive (remember the “bite-sized” nature of these posts), but from these origins, believers have regularly met together. And, while I’m not aware of a church that has the full Sunday morning treatment every day of the week, there are churches that have activities nearly every day. These activities help believers obey this command and follow the example of those who came before us.
An interesting companion study of Scripture is to study times where Christians did not meet together, or where they adjusted their techniques due to government persecution. That would push this way longer than I’ve planned to write, but there are examples of people separating themselves for sickness, and of abandoning the temple for smaller gatherings in homes. I know of no orthodox Christians who have continued their normal services during these times.
Christians Need It
Notice that, in the above two passages, there was more than just a command or an example - there was a recognized or promised benefit. In Hebrews, believers meet together to stir up each other towards love and good works, and in Acts, they had glad and generous hearts. Meeting together with other believers was commanded because God knew that we, as Christians, would need those benefits. In one of his earliest recorded letters, Paul is discussing various spiritual gifts, and this is what he says as he concludes that discussion:
26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
Christians can get these benefits virtually, and many have been. Prior to this, we would have scoffed at Zoom Sunday School classes; now, we are grateful for the tools that allow us to stay connected. I can’t remember who I first heard say “the Internet is a terrible place to go to church” (and they were right), but in a pinch, it’s been a great way to continue in fellowship with other believers. (Once this all goes away, these go back to being true; in-person is still preferable. There are many benefits these tools don’t provide.)
We All Need Hope
This is a dark time for many people. They have lost jobs and have no idea where money is coming from next week. They have lost loved ones, and weren’t even able to see them for the last weeks of their lives. They are depressed, the normal routine of a life they enjoyed exchanged for a house that feels like a jail. These are not people who need to “suck it up” and get over it – these are people with real, genuine hurts, and the world offers them very little in the way of comfort or hope.
Jesus, though, offers hope to hurting people. He spent His entire earthly ministry “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” We, as the church, carry on His ministry today; but how can we offer hope if all we have is a greatest hits playlist? Hurting people need acceptance, a listening ear, and kind words; these pre-recorded messages may have truth, but struggling people “don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Jesus offers salvation, which addresses the root of all of our problems, and He offers hope and peace between here and Heaven; we are the ambassadors He’s trusted to share that message.
Churches also need to meet to mobilze help where it may be needed. Most churches have several members who struggle to get out and get the things they need when nothing is wrong; under these conditions, they simply can’t do it. Most churches also have able-bodied, healthy members who can care for those who are struggling. We cannot build up the body (physically or spiritually) if we do not know the needs.
So, that is why you see churches live-streaming, driving CDs around, renting FM transmitters to let people park at the church and attend from their cars – it is that important. And, I’ll wrap up with a bit of afflicting the comfortable – shouldn’t our “salt and light” be so self-evident that no one wonders why we’re still meeting?
Earlier today, I saw a link to a blog post about a man, Michael Salman, who had been thrown in jail and fined for hosting a Bible study in his home. We’ve seen things like this before, but what made this one unique is that it was in Arizona; yes, this is happening right here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. I shared the link with others, voicing my support for him if the situation was as it was presented. However, a friend followed up with a link to a news story that gives more of the history and what has happened. As it turns out, the original post is highly-slanted advocacy that left out some key details. The more I’ve thought about it, the angrier I’ve become, to the point where I now hope that Salman comes to his senses while he’s in jail.
Here is the Cliff’s Notes version of the first post (feel free to read it if you’d like). This man and his wife were having family and friends over for a Bible study on a weekly basis. Neighbors complained about the extra cars and the traffic, and the fire department broke up one of their studies. The man then gets building permits for a 2,000 square foot building where the number of people could be without causing a fire hazard. Since erecting that building, he has been continually harassed and accused of running a church on his residential property. He maintains that these are simply guests in his home and new out-building, and that they have as much of a right to be there as would a birthday or Super Bowl party. Salman is now facing 30 months in jail and $12,000 in fines.
Sounds pretty bad, huh? Well, my opinion began to turn when I saw a picture of his yard…
OK - the “this is not a church” claim just became very, very hard to swallow. From the above link, plus another from the DailyMail, we learn some other interesting facts. First, Salman is an ordained minister. Second, this out-building, contrary to the restaurant-looking picture from the Freedom Outpost article, is equipped with a pulpit, stage, and chairs. Third, these Bible studies were hosted on the weekend. A time of Bible study on the weekend in a building with a pulpit on a stage… If only there were a word that would be more succinct to describe that sort of thing! There is, and it’s the one the city of Phoenix used - church.
This brings me to the angry part. My anger is based in the blemish to the name of Christ that this has caused, and for the people who are going to look like fools for supporting this when the first, incomplete, biased, and dishonest story came out.
Yes, dishonest; candor is a part of honesty, and involved disclosing information that the hearer, upon learning that it was not disclosed, would feel wronged. There is real religious persecution going on all around the world; this does NOT rise to that level. In the realm of ideas, honesty is paramount. This is why so many arguments fall flat on their face when all the facts come out; even those who claim that their are no absolutes tend to still hold honesty as a moral character trait.
Secondly, what happened to “love your neighbor as yourself,” Mr. Salman? A Super Bowl party and a birthday party are both once-a-year events, and even those have been broken up by police and fire officials if they cause a safety concern. You knew that your neighbors did not like the extra traffic, particularly when your study expanded from 15 to nearly 40. I’m sure there is a restaurant in Phoenix that would love to have a weekly banquet room reservation for 30 people; there are two I could attend in the Albuquerque area every week. But, rather than show peace and love, you extended “the middle finger of the Lord” to your neighbors and the city. You are now reaping what you have sown; how can you expect your neighbors or the city to have mercy on you when you were not interested in giving it to them?
Thirdly, Mr. Salman, did we miss Romans 13:1-2?
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
The city told you what you needed to do. They did not prohibit you from continuing to have meetings; they told you the codes with which you must comply if you wanted to continue doing so. All churches have to meet building codes; if you have any doubts regarding their importance, compare the earthquake devastation in countries with them to the devastation in countries without them. They ensure public safety where large numbers of people are present on a regular basis; a building does not have to be a public building to meet this criteria. You chose to call your meetings something other than church to get around that (see how that honesty thing keeps cropping up?), you got called on it, and now you have, to quote Paul, “incur[red] judgment.”
Mr. Salman, I hope you use your time away to think about what you have done. Will the world be better off if your 5 children show the world the love of God the way you’ve modeled it for them in this situation? And please, be HONEST when asking for help. There are good people who will support you, but we don’t want to be played for fools. By doing what you have been doing for the past several years, YOU ARE HARMING THE CAUSE OF CHRIST. Christ did not come to give us freedom of religion; He came to free us from sin. He chose to place us in a country where we have very few limits on the free exercise of religion; don’t lose sight of that because you happen to have bumped up against what you view as an impediment on that free exercise.
The good thing in all this is, Mr. Salman, that grace is always there. You can receive it, and you can extend it. This cause is not hopeless, especially if you change the focus from “I have a right!” to “where does God want me to hold this study?” Who knows the ministry God may have for you if you get out of a landlocked residential neighborhood and into some place with room for growth?