The High Value of Mission
A Biblical Perspective on the Debate About Reopening Church Buildings
Some state governors are limiting indoor in-person church services. Over the past few weeks, that conversation has ramped up. A growing number of churches are meeting in defiance of those mandates. Some have filed lawsuits against their states, as further acts of protest. How litigation will affect the process is not clear. Neither do we know when governors will remove social gathering restrictions. In the meantime, HDC’s leadership have chosen to not meet for indoor in-person services.
The government isn’t forcing us to do that. We have chosen to not meet in person, as an act of biblical submission to authority, a way to better ensure the safety of our church family (and their families), and because we are annoyingly committed to our mission to see lost people find Jesus. How long we continue on the path we have chosen is uncertain. We are trying to discern God’s leading from week to week. But it’s especially important that we not confuse what the Bible says with our opinions about the virus or our desire to protect The Bill of Rights.
The question many people keep asking is a good one.
“Don’t we need to obey God rather than human beings?”
Peter and the apostles uttered those important words in Acts 5:29. “We must obey God rather than human beings.” But they are in response to a government mandate, issued in the previous verse. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in Jesus name.” To my knowledge, no American governor has ever said that to any American pastor. At least not yet.
Just because we are most familiar with certain forms of experiencing church, doesn’t mean those forms are either required or efficient. They’re just what we’re used to. What we grew up with. What we might still prefer. I mean, many of us have spent our entire spiritual lives inside of church buildings! But, as I remind you often, you won’t find any church buildings in the Book of Acts, where resources were spent on other missional strategies. Neither will you find church buildings today, in many regions of the world where the Great Commission seems to be fulfilled most efficiently.
The fact that some churches have decided to follow a different path than HDC is expected. Like any biblical issue, different churches often have different opinions about what to do or how to respond to a crisis. It would be unfair to accuse pastors who have decided to defy their governors and hold in-person services of not believing in biblical submission or of not caring about the health of their church families. At the same time, it would be unfair to accuse pastors who have decided to not yet hold in-person services of not trusting God or of believing that divine authority must take a back seat to human authority.
I had hoped that we would all take a deep breath and not allow this virus to create distrust and further division in Christ’s body, the Church. Unfortunately, it may be too late. Arguments are already getting ugly, as people argue with one another about which churches are the most spiritual, the most courageous, the most prudent, the most American, the most Christlike. The result is predictable. Ungracious accusations and belittling retorts, all the fruit of simple arrogance. Some say, “I am of John MacArthur, who defies Caesar!” Others say, “I am of Tom Mercer, who doesn’t yet see the need to!” Okay, Corinth, like we need something else to divide us.
Be careful HDC, that we don’t fall into the satanic trap of prideful one-upmanship!
The Apostolic letters reflect a consistent pattern. What is problematic culturally can quickly become obstacles in the Church. Whether it was classic heresies like Gnosticism or Syncretism, prideful factionalism, or sexuality, the world’s First Century problems quickly became the First Century Church’s problems.
We now live in an angry time. Public decorum is barely a memory. The right can’t sit down with the left. Red pushes against blue. Choice threatens life. People fight hate with hate. The worst versions of ourselves are available in 4K and in real time. Social media now bullies us into immediate retaliation. No one is allowed time to step back long enough to think it over. Seizing yet another opportunity, our common enemy pushes those same doses of cultural angst into the Body of Christ.
I guess it’s naive to think that cultural dysfunction would ever leave the Church alone, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that it is happening again now. It reminds me about another divisive issue, the historic inter-church debate about brothers and sisters in Christ serving in His Church together. It flared up last fall, when a prolific local church pastor told a seminar audience that female Church leaders should “Go home.” Since that view was not shared by everyone, it also became an unflattering conversation. The arguments bantered back and forth in that very public debate are not the reason I bring it up now. I’m concerned how the conversation about Christian differences is ever conducted.
We all have an opinion about a woman’s role in church leadership. Some pretty smart people, who all read the same Bible and who are filled with the same Holy Spirit, come away from that conversation, once again, with different views. But we can all agree that men and women both fill important roles in the Church and bring value to the Church’s mission. So why can’t we just say that? Go ahead and hold your view, even teach it as if it were God’s view. But let’s do it humbly, without personal attacks or diminishing other members of our spiritual family. And let’s be careful to remind our audiences that there are a lot of pretty great people who don’t agree with us. Those people, remember, are supposedly elevating the same Gospel that we’re supposedly elevating.
So, back to the conversation about reopening church buildings. When it comes to that subject, what do we all agree on? Quite a bit, actually.
1. We all agree that we’re tired of this pandemic. We want to get back to what life was like pre-COVID. No masks, no distancing, no screenings, and full access to church buildings.
2. We all agree that human government does not have the power to close Christ’s Church. Only Jesus can do that. And He will do that, in His time and in His way. (Please, let’s not start arguing now about our views of the Eschaton.)
3. We all agree that the Church is not a building, but a people. The Church always seems to enjoy her greatest success in settings where a building does not provide the center for church life. The data is clear. The Book of Acts shows the way and, even today, the Church is growing faster without meeting in large church buildings than it ever did inside of church buildings.
4. We all agree that government cannot keep believers from meeting together. They can make it more difficult for believers to meet together but, even if their motives are malicious, they can’t stop us from meeting together. After months of mostly remote ministry, without the luxury of gathering in large buildings, HDC remains open, alive, in community, and on mission.
“But isn’t the government guilty of overreach.”
That too is a fair question. And our biblical obligation to submit to authority is at the heart of the answer. Before you read the next passage, remember, it was written to believers who were living in Caesar's home town. Talk about an overreacher.
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:1-4)
The discipline of Christian submission to authority is one that empowers our mission to change the world. For example, if a Christian wife is married to a non-believing husband, and that husband insists that his wife not attend a local church, what would we tell her? That her husband is guilty of spousal overreach? That she must obey God rather than her husband and go to church anyway?” I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t tell her that. I’d say, “Submit to him and pray for him, that he would know Jesus.” I’d encourage her to, for the time being, pursue her personal growth in other ways that would help prepare her for her personal mission to her front row where, by the way, her husband is sitting!
The Apostle Peter said as much. “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives.” (1 Peter 3:1) By the way, that’s the exact same Peter who declared in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than human beings.”
Or, suppose a Christian student had agnostic parents. What if the parents scolded the student for going to church and said that he (or she) would no longer be allowed to attend the youth group? What counsel should a youth pastor provide? That their parents were guilty of parental overreach? That the student must obey God rather than their human being parents and meet with the youth group anyway? Maybe sneak out of the house if they had to? Of course, we wouldn’t say that. We’d say, “Submit to your parents and pray for them, that they would soon know Jesus.” We’d remind them that God wants their relationship with their parents to flourish, so that God could use them to share the Gospel.
That’s the reason for Paul’s admonition in Romans 13 to cooperate with civic authorities. If, at some point, a government official actually did say something like, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in Jesus name,” then all bets are off. But, when it comes to any issue, especially one that has the potential to divide us, pre-COVID, mid-COVID, or post-COVID, the Church needs to utilize discernment and focus on our mission to bring the Gospel to the world. I’m not saying controversies don’t deserve conversations. But those conversations are pointless if the world won’t be able to hear about God’s grace over the rancor of an ungracious Church.
“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.” (Romans 14:1)
I’m not sure who is expressing the “weaker” faith these days, those who can’t operate without a church building or those who don’t insist on requiring one. But, if we could ever stop our in-fighting, we might have a chance to start outfighting our common enemy and inviting a lost world to find the peace of Christ, where it’s supposed to live, in His Church.
Anyone who knows me, knows how important the Bible is to me. I’m called to teach it, but I can’t do that until I first understand it. But biblical knowledge is not our objective. Seeing lost people become saved people is our objective. To do that, we’re called to utilize both biblical knowledge and biblical wisdom. If we do it right, we won’t have to sacrifice either one.
We don’t have to agree on this, but I hope you can better understand why HDC is still following the guidelines we’ve been asked to abide by. I have no doubt, we’ll survive this virus and come together again at our campuses in increasingly larger groups. But, in the meantime, don’t lose sight of the endgame. At times, pursuing our mission may require choosing to limit our freedom. And, remember, there are wise ways to conduct potentially divisive discussions within a family. A shouting match in the middle of the cyber-mall is neither the place nor the time for parents to declare the differences between them.
The children are watching.