For many American churches, March 15 was the last time they physically assembled for public worship, due to the mandates of the United States government and many state and local authorities regarding the COVID-19 “pandemic”. There have been, however, a few churches who have defied the mandates and continued with their public worship services, giving rise to the question, should Christians be allowed to continue to publicly assemble for worship during this crisis when everyone else is in lockdown?
I do want to be clear that the President and many state governors have specified that churches are “essential” and, therefore, are not included under the quarantine bans.
Ultimately the question we’re considering comes down to how we define “essential.” In my opinion, fundamentally, there are two reasons why churches should not only be allowed but also encouraged to remain open during these times. The first is theological, the second is legal. I wish to discuss the first reason now. (In another post I’ll share my thoughts on the legal side.)
If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I want to take us back to the early history of the Church. The Church has a rich history of worship, but also controversy, fighting over dogmatic issues of faith. In the First Century, there was a heresy known as Gnosticism, which among other things, taught that all material things are evil, and therefore, Jesus did not actually come in the flesh, die on the cross, and was not bodily resurrected.
The second great heresy that the Church dealt with early in her history was Arianism. Arius taught that Jesus was not divine, and though a higher form of being than we are, was created nonetheless, and was, therefore, not co-eternal or consubstantial (of the same substance) with the Father.
The third heresy was Nestorianism. Nestorius essentially taught that Christ was one individual, but living within the one individual was two different persons, a divine and a human person. For instance, when we see Jesus healing the sick, raising the dead, or feeding the multitudes, that is the divine person at work. When He is eating, sleeping, or doing “natural” things, that is the human person at work.
The Church came against all three of these with full force! John wrote extensively arguing against the Gnostics, and three councils were convened to address the other heresies. To summarize what the Church determined, we believe that Jesus is divine! He is the eternal Word of the Father. Secondly, the eternal Word of the Father fully assumed humanity, experiencing our life in every way. Finally, Christ is not divided. Though divine, Christ is tangible and was really and fully present in the flesh.
What does this have to do with the question we’re deliberating on? Everything! What we believe about Jesus informs what we believe about the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:23). John says, “as He is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17). Therefore, what is true about Him is necessarily true of the Church.
Jesus came in the flesh and could be touched, listened to, and seen. He was present in life. Therefore, the Church must be tangible, have a voice, and have a presence in our communities. Though fully man, He is divine. That is not to say that we become divine, for the created cannot become uncreated. However, Peter tells us that we have received all things pertaining to life and godliness…that we might become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:3-4).
Through the two natures of Christ, we see how the Church should operate. His humanity shows His compassion, tenderness, and care for humanity. His divinity shows His power to heal and restore what is broken in humanity. His humanity gives Him a real body that He offers as food for those who believe. His divinity offers eternal life to those who eat His flesh and drink His blood (John 6:54-56).
Paul commands, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
According to Paul, what is the reason for assembling? To stir one another up in love and good works and to exhort one another. The Greek word for “exhorting” is a compound of the words “para” and “kaleo”. It means “to be called alongside another for a specific purpose”. Keeping it in context, we, as the Church, are called alongside one another to stir each other up in love and good works.
Here’s the bottom line. Since Christ is not divided (He is both spiritual and natural) the Church cannot be divided. There must be a spiritual union, but there must also be a physical assembling. To think that you can be the Church without the physical assembly is both Gnostic and Nestorian. You can sing along with the songs and listen to a sermon online from your house, but you have not assembled. To act as if the Church is devoid of supernatural power is also Arianism.
Aside from being the tangible Body of Christ, we come together to stir one another up and to encourage each other. As a result of the shutdown, entire industries have gone belly up, and that has resulted in over 10 million people facing unemployment in just a little over two weeks (a new national record).
Unfortunately, however, the issues go further than that. Though many people have families, there is still a large percentage of Americans who are almost or entirely isolated. Add the stress of not having enough money to cover your basic needs, not being able to put food on your table, and not having any place to go to receive consolation, we’ve got a major emotional and psychological crisis as well!
Remember back to 9/11. Until the current COVID-19 crisis, it was arguably the greatest crisis our nation, and in large part, the world has faced in recent history. For weeks following that dreadful event, churches were packed. People who otherwise would have never darkened the doorsteps of a church building, flooded into churches all over the country.
We have bought the line that “we are the Church, not the building”, yet the people didn’t flock to scattered people, it was a building where they assembled. Why? The building is where the Church meets! The building represents the Church. If you were looking for the Church, where would you go? You would go to the place where they assemble. When people are hurting and looking for help, answers, and consolation, where should they go?
Christ did not build His Church merely to “preach” the Gospel. If that was all there was to it, assembling would not be necessary. The Church’s mandate is so much more. James says that if your brother is in need, and you can meet that need, your Faith should move you to help alleviate their suffering (James 2:16). Christ’s Church must have a physical presence in the world!
Grocery stores are considered essential, not because they are food, but because they’re a place you can go to get food. If grocery stores, which offer natural sustenance, are considered essential, how much more should the Church of the Living God be essential, when we are offering eternal life?
If the Church really was “dispatched”, where did she go? On the front lines, offering hope and alleviating suffering? For some, yes. Unfortunately, for most, the answer, sadly, is no! Where is the Church in this time of crisis? The mighty, victorious, life-giving Church is hiding! It is time for the Church to arise, take our place, and be who God has called us to be in this world!