While some Governors have certainly overstepped their bounds and made it harder to churches to return to in-person worship. The idea that the church is closed is preposterous.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
California Governor Gavin Newsom, in my opinion, has overstepped in regard to some of the restrictions he has put on the church. But if you have been watching the fight between Grace Community Church, pastored by John MacArthur, then you have seen the equal and opposite reaction play out. For those who have not been following, Churches in CA could reopen with a fairly heavy amount of restrictions designed to stop the spread of COVID-19 caused by the Novel Coronavirus which at the time of this writing is still raging in the state. Some of those restrictions, were unnecessary and even overstepping the authority the government has over the Church as I noted. Grace Community then sued to be able to meet without any kinds of restrictions whatsoever and won. This has been met with criticism from pastors across the country, as to meet without restrictions of any kind seems foolish. I have written on why we do not just fling the doors open, and I stand by that idea. However, MacArthur’s reaction against any restrictions at all also reveals a fundamental misconception about the nature of the Church that has been realized by most of the Christianity long before we as Americans have had to reckon with it.
That is, that the church cannot be closed because the Church is not a building. If the Church were a building, then the scattered flocks of believers meeting underground or in secret to avoid persecution by their governments could not be the Church. IF the Church is a building then those towns in Iran that Elliot Clark describes in his book “Evangelism as Exiles” would not be members of the Church since they have no way of gathering with other believers. Those churches have been attacked and maligned and even scattered and yet, they are still part of the Church, they are still Churches. They still share in the same organic unity that comes through the Holy Spirit and which transcends this world. The Church cannot close precisely because it is not a building, but an organism. It is quite a low view of something God has created to diminish the church to these brick and mortar structures that Tornados blow over and fires consume. These holy places are just that, places, and what has made them Holy is the saints who come to gather in them, when they can. To say that the Church is closed is to say that the world has defeated us, to which I say “preposterous.” It may be that, in the West, we have made idols out of our meeting places and meeting preferences, so much so, that we are willing to put people’s lives at risk long before we will ever consider giving them up.
But at the same time, I understand MacArthur’s motivations, at least on some level. Theses shutdowns have been hard on everyone, especially pastors who are considered “non-essential” and who are dealing with the boots on the ground mental health crisis that has accompanied this pandemic. There is something healing about gathering, about being able to sing together and worship God together. On top of that we have verses in scripture about not giving up meeting together, and those verses spark convictions about meeting together which have to be balanced with convictions about keeping the wolves and thieves out of the sheep pen. By the way, this virus is a thief and wolf and it has already killed, stolen, and destroyed. Those are dueling convictions that pastors are trying as hard as we can to balance. It would be inappropriate for us to ignore one in favor of the other, we have to dwell in the tension between the two, it is an imperative, one we can model for the world who is watching all this aghast. If we are truly Christians, then humility, not hubris are the answer in these days.
My regional pastor Dr. Ray Delaurier made the distinction that makes the most sense to me on the phone the other day. He distinguished the difference between the Gathered Church, when we can meet in one place, be it building or house or gymnasium, and the scattered church, when we cannot meet in public or at all. Right now, the Church is scattered, God has taken away our corporate worship and forced us to rethink everything we ever thought to be true of the Church. We need to remember that the church has always been on the brink of being scattered, and around the world, the gathered church is less normal than the Scattered church. We are now experiencing, due to a virus, what our Chinese Brothers and Sisters experienced for most of the last century and are still experiencing today.
I had a parishioner say to me a few weeks ago; “why is it that abortion clinics can be open but churches cannot?” The answer is because to the world we are non-essential,and the position of power and influence which we enjoyed in the 18th-20th centuries in this country, which is now waning significantly, is not and has not been the norm in the majority world and we should be surprised, given Jesus promises to us in the Gospels and the book of Revelation, that it even lasted as long as it did. The good news is that, in places like Europe where Christendom is a distant memory, Christianity is once again starting to spread. But as David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock have noted, the church in the West, particularly in the U.S needs to relearn how to do ministry in what they call “Digital Babylon.” That will require a great deal of humility that it seems, unfortunately, Grace Community does not seem to be demonstrating now.
On a practical note, there are underlying assumptions made when one calls for the church to “reopen.” First, and this has been my biggest struggle through the many calls to reopens, it implies that pastors have not been working. When you close the building, there is a lot of new infrastructure that has to be put in place to take a church online, unless that infrastructure was not already in place. In the case of my church, it was not, and because I have experience in both Radio (college) and TV (High School) I had an understanding of how to make this all work, many churches are still figuring out livestreaming with little to no help from bigger churches. Pastors have been crashing and researchers are estimating that we will see a mass-exodus from the already greatly diminished pastorate in the next year. To imply that not having “in-person” worship means the church is closed, is to imply your pastor has been taking vacation. Just the opposite, I do not know a pastor who can continue their pastoral ministry, who is not working more hours, myself included. Second, it continues what should be considered theological heresy among the laity and pastors born our of Gnosticism that divides the church into “visible” and “Invisible” or “unreal” and “real.” This is the idea that has been the justification for every Church Split and new denomination born in the history of the Church since Augustine formulated it. But it is a direct violation of Scripture to divide the church in anyway since dividing the Church divides Christ and Paul is adamant that Christ is not divided (1 Cor 1:11-4). This pandemic has given us a chance to do away with that once and for all, and we have not done a particularly good job. The Church is both Visible and Invisible consisting of those who are in Christ, it is not the people in the building who make up the Church, but the ones organically fused to Christ. To reduce it to anything less is to remove it from its original purpose and Christ’s intent in its creation, something we should shy away from.
Though we are scattered, we will soon be gathered, and that is something we should not take for granted. The Church cannot reopen, because the Church cannot be closed. It is an error to think otherwise, our ministries continue, our worship continues, it may look a little different, but to think that the governments of man have the ability to close the very presence of Christ on Earth is truly…well…preposterous.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.