*Originally Posted on the Georgia Discipleship & Counseling Network*
As government restrictions in some places relax and communities begin emerging from confinement, many churches now face challenging questions as everyone considers how to retain some level of normalcy. Many leaders are quickly realizing that there is no “one size fits all” approach to the question of reopening churches. Each church will have to wrestle with balancing various dynamics when thinking about reopening, such as location, state communications and regulations, church demographics, church facilities, and volunteer manpower. Also, for as many people as are in your local congregation, there are as many perspectives on this situation—the nature of COVID-19, the government’s handling of this situation, the risk of disease spread throughout your community, as well as the best and worst procedures for churches going forward. Many pastors are preparing the mental strength to navigate diverse opinions and disagreements within their churches. As churches plan out the next few weeks and months of church life and prepare policies and procedures surrounding masks, distancing, and hugs, every Christian should consider a few biblical reflections to prepare for their church’s reopening plans.
1. Something Deadly is Still Out There
I may lose you at this point, but I do want to remind you that something deadly is still out there. Truly, there remains in the world a constant threat to the health of churches and the safety of its members. It easily spreads through human interactions, sometimes so easily and subtly that no one notices its transference. Only one church member may be infected, but if churches aren’t careful, that one member can spread this deadly illness to every member in a matter of moments. No matter your age or health, every member is vulnerable to this terrible disease.
I’m not talking about COVID-19, I’m talking about selfish ambition.
Procedures and policies for churches after COVID-19 fall into the category of wisdom: what is the wisest thing to do? But James reminds us that not all wisdom is good; there is a type of wisdom which is earthly, unspiritual, and demonic (Jas 3:14). It’s the type of wisdom that is driven by selfish ambition. Selfish ambition elevates our own thoughts, preferences, and opinions over our responsibility to love others. If you’re right and he is wrong, if you’re informed and she’s uninformed, if you zig and he zags, your sinful heart attitudes and responses are justified.
It is not wrong for Christians to want to return to normal church gatherings. It is wrong for a Christian to over-prioritize his or her own preference and perspective on this complex issue over and above loving other church members.
Christian, as you think about your church’s communication concerning COVID-19 or the perspectives of other members you’ve observed through social media, are you tempted to harbor bitterness? Do you honestly consider yourself to be better than other members because of your perspective? Are you having a hard time thinking through the personal impact of your church’s policies? Maybe your church is requiring you to watch over the interactions of your family with other members or is not providing a nursery. Others are frustrated by having to police policies that they believe are unnecessary. Maybe you are worried that your church is not doing enough to protect you from this virus or that your church is over-blowing the severity of this situation.
Prepare your heart for whatever decisions may come in the next few weeks or months by revisiting what Paul says to the church in Philippi:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” – Philippians 2:3-4
Also, remember what James says in James 3:16:
“For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”
Many churches may find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of having the first few gatherings filled with disorder and hearts filled with bitterness and frustration. Remember, the disorder and vile heart attitudes and responses among your church over the next few months have nothing to do with COVID-19 but everything to do with selfish ambition. If you find yourself contributing to the disorder within your church through backbiting, snide comments, and harboring bitterness toward other Christians or your leaders, remember that these practices stem from selfish ambition, which is deadlier than COVID-19.
2. Focus on the Corporate Church when thinking through Reopening
One of the challenging dynamics of relaxing quarantine standards is that people watch some portions of society open while others close. You can go to Chick-fil-A but not Starbucks. Home Depot is open but not Mom and Pop’s warehouse. Jim has been working while Joe is furloughed. As people return to restaurants, beaches, and gyms, many Christians now wonder why they can’t return to their church gatherings.
Without being sidetracked down the rabbit trail of civil disobedience, I want you to reflect on your thought process of returning to church.
Which description better categorizes your thought process, are you more focused on how COVID-19 has restricted your ability “to go to church” or the ability of your church “to gather”?
If you are very bothered that you can go to Walmart but you can’t go to church, let me challenge you to reconsider your perspective. While church is something that you attend, if you are a Christian you are also a church member. You have a stewardship in your church’s ability to function as a church. For the Christian, the comparison is not between whether you can go to Walmart on Saturday and Church on Sunday, but is more akin to gathering with the Walmart executives and deciding whether you will stay open and what policies are in place. If your church has not asked for your opinion on reopening policies, you know that you can communicate your feelings through comments, body language, and actions.
If you are mainly focused on your ability to “go to church”, you are not going to be as considerate of the concerns of other members in your church, who are members of your local church body. As members, you should be thinking through the complex realities now facing many churches. You should consider the interests of others in your congregation. You should express concerned for the well-being of other members, such as those with young children and those who are immune-compromised or elderly (1 Cor 12:12-13). Other members with different options are not hindrances or opponents, but rather have been sovereignty-ordained by God during COVID-19 to be part of the body for building up the whole (Eph 4:11-16).
Your response to your church’s policies—especially those which may inconvenience you or ask more from you than preferable—may reveal that you are more of a consumer of goods offered by your local church than a steward and a servant of the other members in the congregation.
3. Revisit Scripture’s Ethical Priorities
I think it’s safe to say that many institutional responses to COVID-19 are being intentionally politicized. Opening often signals solidarity with one party while closing shows allegiance to other leaders. While the world may interpret how church’s respond to its own agendas, Christians recognize that they have a responsibility to please God in reopening churches (2 Cor 5:9). Instead of reading into the comments and decisions of your leaders, consider how your church’s response aligns with Scripture’s ethical priorities.
When thinking about Scripture’s testimony to ethics and decision-making, different passages reflect various ethical priorities.
Scripture prioritizes Patience and Watchfulness over Speed and Decisiveness
“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” (Proverbs 18:13)
“Desire without knowledge is not good, and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.” (Proverbs 19:2)
“The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.” (Proverbs 21:5)
“The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps. One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless.” (Proverbs 14:15-16)
If we performed some honest self-reflection, there are many things that we don’t know about COVID-19. The growing lack of trust in public institutions only hurts our ability to make smart decisions. Due to this fact, many pastors and leaders may choose to take a slower and more cautious approach to regathering. This decision may have nothing to do with one’s perspective on COVID-19 but may rather draw from Scripture’s principles concerning patience and watchfulness in making prudent decisions.
Scripture prioritizes Weak Consciences over Strong Consciences
Many Christians would benefit from revisiting Romans 14. Here, Paul warns those who hold strong convictions on the permissibility of certain actions against plowing over the consciences of other Christians. Paul even uses language such as “destroying the work of God” and reminds Christians that the kingdom of God is comprised of righteousness, peace, and joy (Rom 14:17). Jesus also warns of causing “little ones” to sin, in such a way that our actions influence others to respond sinfully to circumstances and situations (Matt 18:5-6). Many note that the word underneath the verb “causes one of these little ones to sin” is the word from which we derive “scandalized.” While steering clear of a word fallacy, I think it is safe to say that Jesus would not be pleased if a local church responds to COVID-19 in such a way that scandalizes a portion of its membership. Be mindful that your leaders may lead in their decisions in a way that protects the consciences of certain members out of love.
Scripture prioritizes protecting the Weak and the Vulnerable over the Comforts of the Healthy and Strong
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. (Deuteronomy 10:17-18)
And the word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” (Zechariah 7:8-10)
Enter: Parapet Theology (Deut 22:8). God desires for his people to have such a concern over the safety of others that they go above and beyond to ensure the safety of their neighbors, such as building a parapet on a new house. God’s heart naturally bends toward the vulnerable, the weak, the immune-compromised church member, the mother of young children who instinctively reject social distancing, and the elderly member who has been scared to buy groceries for months. He opposes the proud, those who trust in their strength, those who boast in their wisdom, and those who lack care for the vulnerable and weak. If your pastors and leaders execute policies that lean in a more protective manner, they may be following the heart of the True Shepherd toward the flock.
Many pastors and churches have challenging decisions to make in the days ahead. There will be long meetings, hurt feelings, and a great need for grace and forgiveness. Christian, prepare your heart for what your church decides concerning COVID-19. Prepare yourself to respond with love, grace, and patience toward your leaders and others. Trust that God in his wisdom has brought about COVID-19 for the sanctification of his church and fight against selfish ambition. As you wait to gather once more, remember that we all wait for the ultimate gathering, where COVID-19 is only a memory and that which can truly kill us is ultimately defeated.