An appeal to Shepherds.
Over the last few months I have read a lot about why not gathering for worship is the correct and in fact the Christian thing to do. The arguments are varied but each arrives at the same conclusion, suspending our worship gatherings for an indefinite government defined period of time is the correct thing to do. Some argue that meeting will damage our testimony. They worry about what the world think of us if we act in an irresponsible manner and by our insistence on worshipping together put others at needless risk. Others suggest that the Bible clearly teaches that we must submit to the governing authorities. Rom 13 and 1 Peter 2 seem to be patently clear and conclusive. And still others insist that in reality we are not prevented from gathering. They insist that as we join together via zoom or as we watch the livestream of our church service we are gathering together in a legitimate lifegiving manner.
And the reality is that there is some truth and wisdom in every one of these arguments. We do need to be careful about our testimony before the world, the Bible does command us to be subject to “every human institution,” and there is certainly a level of connection established via the internet. But is this where the discussion should end? Is this where the Bible ends the discussion? Should we simply accept one or all of these arguments and then wait until the government tells us that we are allowed to gather again for worship? Or does the Word of God have more to say on this subject?
I believe that there is, and to understand what God requires of us it's necessary that we evaluate the question from another vantage, a position that when considered may convince some of us that civil disobedience must be an option we begin to contemplate. The vantage point of which I speak is ecclesiological. A position rooted in the nature, character and the purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Jesus established the Church as a living organism on earth, that manifests itself as we gather as local bodies of believers. It's clear from the practice of the early church that gathering together to worship and celebrate Jesus, to break bread together and remember Him, to hear His Word preached and to fellowship with one another was the norm. As a consequence, when the church is forced to abandon this pattern it follows that there must inevitably be a price to be paid individually and collectively. So the question we must wrestle with is simple: what price are we paying, what are we losing when we are prevented from gathering together for worship? What do we forfeit when we chose to acquiesce to the government and not gather as the Bride of Christ?
1. Our collective impact on the world.
In John 17:20 and following as Jesus was praying for His Bride He asks the Father three times to make us one, or that we would be made perfectly one. The prayer of Jesus repeated three times in short succession was that we might be unified, that the church would be one. Why does Jesus so passionately and repeatedly utter this plea to His Father? The answer is repeated, again three times…that the world might know or come to believe that God sent Jesus. In being together the local church by its nature, its ministry and its worshipping presence in the world confirms, validates and declares that the incarnation is in fact an historical and living reality. In other words, it's our oneness, our being together in unity that declares this incarnational reality to our world. Some may argue that this oneness is demonstrated in a variety of other ways and means. And I would agree. However, our oneness is most clearly demonstrated when we gather together for worship.
The question that we must wrestle with is this, can this incarnational declaration be made in a bold and irrefutable manner when the called out People of God are staying home? I would argue that the answer is no because it's the worshipping, gathered Bride of Jesus living in unity, a unity made possible only by the living presence of Jesus among us that shouts to our world that Jesus is alive and is present among us.
I believe that this is ultimately the testimony, the declaration that Jesus is certainly among us, with which the church must be most concerned. God forbit that we should be seen as cavalier or reckless regarding the danger of Covid 19. But we may need to embrace these monikers in order to effectively testify to the world that Jesus is indeed alive!
In worship, Jesus incarnates His Presence. It’s the gathered Body of Christ, by its public radically counter-cultural presence in our culture that shouts or should shout to the world that Jesus is alive and dynamically moving among us. Therefore by not worshipping together we are depriving a hurting world of this life changing non-verbal declaration, a declaration that has been loudly made in every generation as the People of God choose not to not forsake their assembling together and simply invited and then enjoying the presence of Jesus in their worship.
2. Our collective impact on Jesus.
But the issue goes deeper still. When we choose not to worship together we withhold the blessing Jesus died to enjoy. In short we rob Jesus of the pleasure he died to delight in, His Bride! As a pastor my focus when planning a worship service has never been primarily the enjoyment of the sheep but the enjoyment and the satisfaction of the Chief Shepherd. The reason for this is simply that in worship our primary goal is to honor, bless and delight our Lord. A worship service is for Jesus.
The author of Hebrews wrote in Heb. 12:2 that for the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross, despising its shame. The joy the author was speaking of was, in part, the joy He would receive as He delighted over His redeemed Bride in worship. In worship we for a moment lose our individuality and coalesce to become the Bride of Christ. In worship we welcome the Bridegroom into a sacred and precious moment of intimacy that blesses and delights Him. When the Bride is compelled not to worship we in effect are forced to spurn the Bridegroom. And that should grieve us.
Some may argue that we can worship alone or as families. And we can. But the worship of which I speak, the worship of a church family, whether worshipping in secret in China or publicly in the West is different in that it's a moment when we become His Bride. It's a moment when the People of God coalesce into the Temple of God, when the Lord Jesus makes his dwelling among us in more than just a symbolic or metaphorical sense. And in that moment we are blessed and so is He. Our not meeting robs Him of His rightful blessing a blessing He died to enjoy.
3. Our collective impact on one another.
Real worship is therapeutic. It's a healing, restorative and sacred moment when the Spirit of God renews, encourages and refreshes the weary and burdened believer. Worship is critical to the spiritual health and vitality of every Christian. The Spirit of God made it such when He regenerated us. As shepherds we know this, and also know that this divine, life giving transaction between Savior and Saint is dramatically limited in its affect when we substitute an experience via zoom or some other electronic intermediary for authentic worship. I believe we will all admit that the internet is no substitute for genuine, authentic, Holy Spirit filled worship.
There is no doubt that the lockdown is having a very negative impact on the emotional wellbeing of many within our society. I have said repeatedly, and mental health statistics are clearly beginning to bear this out, that the “cure” the government has prescribed for us will, in the long run, be proven to have been worse than the disease itself. As a pastor I can say with certainty that believers are not immune from the emotionally deleterious effects of the lockdown.
But beyond the emotional and psychological impact, consider the spiritual fallout of not being together for worship, fellowship, prayer, edification and encouragement? Men and women who when born again are engendered with a God given longing for the preaching of the pure milk of God's Word and moments of intimacy with their Savior and with one another during worship are atrophying spiritually.
In my experience it has become obvious that unlike physical hunger which grows with the lack of nourishment, spiritual hunger wanes as we are deprived of those means of grace that sustain and revitalize our spiritual lives. Of course this is not to say that spiritual nutrition is not available to us. We can read the Word and receive teaching, and enjoy a level of fellowship via the internet. But I am firmly convinced that we need to hear the Word preached and that real, life changing, soul restoring preaching is best apprehended and applied by the Holy Spirit when it is experienced in person. The passion, the vital Spirit filled energy and dynamic that characterizes preaching and distinguishes it from teaching or lecturing does not translate well via electronic mediums. And the result is that our sheep are hungry and malnourished despite our best efforts via the internet!
Is worship essential? Is gathering together with our church family in Christ’s presence critical? Is it worth disobeying the dictates of the government in order to collectively worship our King? As a son of Scotland I have always had a fascination with and admiration for the Covenanters. Those men and women who defied King Charles I and later his son Charles II and chose to secretly meet for worship in the forests and glens of Scotland. They risked their lives to attend Conventicles where they celebrated the Lord’s Supper, heard the Word of God powerfully preached and enjoyed fellowship together. And as a result of their defiance and their choice to disobey the King in order to obey a Higher King, many paid with their lives. I have often contemplated how these spiritual forefathers would view our willingness to cancel our worship services in order to obey the government of our day.
None of us have any idea how long this pandemic will continue and how long the prohibition on public worship will last. But a few things are clear. Those who are in power do not understand nor do they appreciate the impact their choices are having upon us. When Costco and the Liquor Store are seen as essential and the church is not we must realize that those in authority do not share our fundamental values or our spiritual needs as Christians.
And secondly, at some point if this lockdown continues we must move to a different vantage point and come to realize that despite the negative image our gathering together may communicate to our culture, there is a more critical testimony we must communicate that our culture desperately needs to hear by seeing us worship. What did we say to our world about the resurrection of Jesus when we chose not to gather to celebrate the Lord last Easter? We must decide what we are going to communicate this Easter. We must also decide that despite what Rom 13 and 1 Peter 2 say these two passage cannot be where the discussion ends. We must recognize there is a greater King to whom we are accountable and that we must ultimately obey God rather than man. And at some point we must conclude that the internet is a sadly lacking medium that simply does not allow us to nourish, feed and satisfy the Spirit given spiritual needs of our people.
May the Lord give His shepherds the wisdom to know that worship is essential. The world needs it, Jesus longs for it and His sheep desperately need it.
Rev. Paul Little