“Can the Church Be the Church in Isolation?”
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Well it finally happened; Idaho skipped to the front of the line in order to be the 18th state to order people to stay home. There is so much at stake here and there are so many avenues that I could take to address this situation, but I want to remain focused on the church and her response to all of this. We cannot undo what Governor Little has already done, so there’s really no point in debating the validity of his decision. The question for us remains: how do we respond?
The answers to questions like this are always nebulous and vague. Answers seem to include things like “the church will remain faithful” and “we will not compromise the scriptures” and my personal favorite, “we will seek to glorify Christ.” Don’t get me wrong, I’ve said and meant all of those things but none of them actually declare what our next course of action will be.
Here’s the situation: The state government has declared the church closed for business. By hosting or attending a worship service of any size for any reason on any day, the state of Idaho says that you no longer have a 1st Amendment right and are actually guilty of a misdemeanor. That’s right, you can be fined and/or go to jail for going to church.
So, the question is: do we comply? Is it possible to “be faithful,” “not compromise,” and “glorify Christ” while staying at home? Can the church be the church in isolation?
The church’s primary job is to make disciples.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and low, I am with you always, event to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20
That passage has a single imperative – “make disciples.” For you grammar nerds out there baptize and teach are not imperatives but participles of means. They tell how disciples are made (i.e. through conversion and then instruction). Is it possible to make disciples in isolation? I suppose that we could devise limited means of teaching those already converted. But how are obeying this imperative by neglecting the go part. That is actually another participle but this one is a temporal participle – as you go, make disciples. There is a basic assumption that you’re going to leave your living room at some point.
“We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom so that we may present every man complete in Christ.” – Colossians 1:28
How can we exemplify this indicative in isolation? Is it possible to admonish and teach men without interacting with them? Some may argue that it is, but this is not the only place such a task is mentioned.
“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.” – Titus 1:5
Part of this teaching includes the training of elders and church leaders. If you bother to read the verses that follow you will see that they contain a list of qualifications for the men who are to be taught, trained, and appointed. How can we determine if these men are qualified if we do not have any personal interaction with them? How can we observe them in isolation?
The church is intrinsically intertwined by design.
“But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine. Older men are to be temperate, dignified, sensible, sound in faith, in love, in perseverance. Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips, nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be dishonored. Likewise urge the young men to be sensible; in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine, dignified, sound in speech which is beyond reproach, in order that the opponent may be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us.” – Titus 2:1-8
This is a description of what daily life is supposed to look like in the church. To be a Christian is to be intertwined relationally with other Christians. How are older women to teach younger women and older men be the example to younger men in isolation?
“Let the Word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” – Colossians 3:16
Despite what your song leader may say, the context here is not within the public gathering (we’ll get to that in a minute) but the daily life of the believers. We are commanded to be in each other’s lives for the purpose of teaching and admonishing (or making disciples).
Worship is never a private affair.
“Prescribe and teach these things. Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe. Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching.” – 1 Timothy 4:11-13
How can Timothy show himself an example if there is no one watching? How can he teach these things, read these things, and preach these things if no one is listening? One might make the argument that we can still “do church” online. But what about Hebrews 10?
“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” – Hebrews 10:23-25
It is difficult to side-step these words. God the Holy Spirit commanded the author to prohibit believers from neglecting the weekly gathering. The Governor of the state of Idaho has ordered the church to disobey this command. What does faithfulness look like? What does commitment look like? What does it mean to give glory to Christ?
“But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.’” – Acts 4:19-20
“When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood on us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’” – Acts 6:27-29
Other things to consider.
There are many other things that we might address. How can we partake of the Lord’s Supper, baptize new believers, and enact church discipline in isolation from each other? All of these things are commanded and none of them are conducive to an isolated church. While it is true that the church is a body not a building. Yet the body is at best dysfunctional and at worst incapable of doing her mission when it is dismembered.
I’m not sure if any of you have looked at the calendar, but this 21-day (assuming that it remains only 21 days) quarantine is going to envelope Resurrection Sunday (commonly referred to as Easter). Christian, surely you understand that this is the single greatest day of the year. Are you going to cut yourself off from Christ’s body and avoid worshiping our risen Savior and celebrating His victory over death?
Some may argue that the current crisis is only a temporary one and that we should buckle under and weather the storm. But is it ever permissible to disobey, even on a temporary basis? Did Daniel buckle under, or did he openly defy the governing authorities while remaining faithful to his God? Did the Apostles buckle under, or did they openly defy the authorities while remaining faithful to their God? And here’s the real kicker, in those circumstances the authorities had the legal right to order faithful men to cease and desist. Our government is currently the only ones guilty of breaking the law. But I digress.
So what will we do?
I cannot speak for anyone other than myself and the body that Christ has placed me over as an under-shepherd, but I have a few ideas.
First, I think that looking at the whole spectrum of our ministries and determining what is essential is a good idea. We have suspended mid-week Bible studies, Sunday school, and Sunday evening Bible study. These are supplemental and not essential to the faithful ministry. Although, I do not anticipate these ministries remaining dormant for very long.
Second, we have encouraged those who are truly at risk to heed the warnings to remain home. This is an excellent time for the church to shine so that we can tangibly display our love for one another by taking care of those who should not be in public. We can take their packages to the post office, care for their yards, and go to the store for them. Let the world see our love for one another.
Third, we have taken the necessary precautions of cleaning the bejeebers out of the church building, disinfecting the nursery, wiping down the pews, etc. We are doing our due diligence.
Fourth, we will continue to meet and to livestream our Sunday worship service and we will continue to meet on Wednesday evenings to pray. Under no circumstances will we close our doors. This is the bread and butter of a faithful ministry.
My mind is filled with the examples of other faithful men throughout history. I think of Martin Luther when asked to recant of his writings and teachings against the apostate Roman church – “I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.” I think of the words of Polycarp when asked to deny Christ – “Eighty and six years have I served Christ, nor has He ever done me any harm. How, then, could I blaspheme my King who saved Me?” But I think I will let Paul’s words to Timothy conclude my thoughts here.
“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” – 2 Timothy 4:1-5