I penned the following letter to help our church leaders better understand the reasons for which many churches across the country and our State are rejecting what many perceive to be first unbiblical and second unconstitutional intrusions of government into the realm of church worship and ministries. I’m sure many will disagree with me on some (maybe all) of these points, but I am compelled, as an under-shepherd of God’s flock who will answer to God for my thoughts and actions, to actively engage in this debate at this time.
These thoughts are meant to be understood as building up two sermons I preached over the last two weeks at Mosaic. The first addressed the biblical call to submission to government as well as what I see to be the biblical limits to governmental authority while the second deals with the issue of what the church is according to the New Testament and how not gathering physically together over time impacts the biblical understanding of the church. Both sermons and their printed notes may be found at http://mosaicspokane.com/resources/sermons/.
May 18, 2020
Dear Brothers & Sisters,
While some of you may hold very different opinions regarding the current State prohibition of religious services and ministries and while I sincerely respect the right of every one of us to hold diverse opinions on this issue, I feel compelled to state some of my own concerns about what is unfolding and some of the life-threatening and utterly church-changing implications I foresee coming from this current crisis.
If you are not aware, the Governor of Washington, according to his directive to “Religious & Faith-Based Organizations” is "permitting" certain “drive-in” religious services in the first two phases of the “Washington Phased Approach to Reopening Business.” (Go to https://www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/Spiritual%20Drive-in%20Services%20Guidance%20Memo.pdf?utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery for the document.) In the process, he is also criminalizing other expressions of worship by this and other Executive orders. His four-phase approach is very clear that, at a minimum, each of the phases will take at least 3 weeks and may require many, many more. In addition, he is claiming the right to return to any previous phase at any time for as long as he deems justifiable. In essence, he has assumed that he can not only extend this lock-down indefinitely but bring it back as often and as frequently in the future as he deems necessary.
Let me address the last “guideline” released from the Governor regarding “drive-in services”, a guideline that is to dominate in both Phases 1 & 2. Here are just a few quotes from his memorandum to “Interested Stakeholders” (i.e. religious organizations/churches) in his May 6, 2020 letter on the stated subject of "Religious and Faith-based Organization Guidance...." He continues to state that “these requirements apply to all drive-in spiritual services as long as Gubernatorial Proclamation 20-50 [his initial State of Emergency Declaration of March 25th], or any extension thereof, is in effect or if adopted as rules by a federal, state or local regulatory agency.” Just to be clear now, the Governor has granted to any “regulatory agency” of any governmental entity at any level a blank check to enforce all of his arbitrary standards as they see fit. This interpretation has been confirmed by the Pacific Justice Institute when questioned on the matter.
Lest you think that the rules he is applying to churches are the same in any way to those he is applying to any store today that is open, keep reading. Phase 1 states that “each vehicle may only be occupied by members of the same household.” This automatically prohibits any of our members who don’t own cars from participating in even this limited expression of “drive-in” services. They are now breaking the law if they get in the car to go to church and sit in a church parking lot with another believer…though getting in the car and going to the pot shop, Walmart, Lowes, Safeway, etc. is not a legal infraction in any of the Governor's other proclamations.
Secondly, under the instructions to “Attendees,” Point #2 states, “Vehicle windows, sunroofs and convertible tops must remain closed during the entire service, unless the vehicle is parked more than six feet from any other vehicle.” This is a requirement put on churches alone, not parking lots in any other business or organization in our State.
Third, under “Employees” (by which I take him to mean “Clergy/Pastors/Priests/etc.”), Point #2 specifically targets Holy Communion when it says, “No food, beverages, or other materials (whether for religious or secular purpose) may be distributed or collected before, after, or as part of the service.” Since the beginning of this “State of Emergency,” churches/people serving street people full hot or cold meals have been exempted from prosecution and can do so publicly, on the street and with minimal requirements. But now churches engaging in the ordinance of Communion while confined to their cars and in their own church parking lots are forbidden. How is this not targeted, religion-specific criminalization of the most basic worship to which the Christian Church has historically held? And this is simply his May 6th declaration to churches. Keep reading.
Our State is claiming that a Governor alone has the constitutional authority to determine which entities are "essential" and which are not, when they can open, in what form and how they can conduct either business or ministry. This application has been made to churches in our State for the first time in its history. Such a restrictive relationship between church and state has not only been consistently rejected historically by most courts in our land; that kind of relationship has also been consistently rejected by most religious entities in America since its founding and by all types of churches and denominations of all centuries of the church around the world regardless of the governmental structure, be that communism or constitutions, under which they have found themselves.
The Apostles weren't martyred because they did something that the civil and religious authorities liked. They were imprisoned, beaten and martyred because what they did was, for various reasons, disliked by their governments. They were killed because, at some point, they refused to be silenced or stop practicing what those authorities found offensive and non-essential for their subjects. They would not have been martyred had they not at some point said “no,” based on firm biblical convictions, to some governmental power. So clearly, submission to God-ordained government is not an absolute submission found anywhere in Scripture or in the vast majority of church history.
Speaking of essential, our Governor has declared (despite the clear medical evidence against some of the following) that vaping stores, cigarette sales, pot-shops, abortion clinics, pottery and plant stores, tools and liquor stores, to name but a few, are "essential services" to the health and welfare of our State while declaring at the same time that churches and their ministries are "non-essential." That's his prerogative but that is not what the Word of God says about the ministry of the church or what the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights states. Both the Word of God and the God-recognized authority of our Constitution are parallel tracks on which our decision to reopen church run. Those who would question whether we should appeal to a Constitutional right at all in this argument might do well to review what Paul did in appealing to his Roman captors based on his rights as a citizen after being mistreated by government officials in Philippi.
But back to the issues of timelines.
The latest extension of Phase 1 to May 31 is the Governor’s fourth continuation of lock-down in two months, a lock-down that continues to classify churches as "non-essential" both in function and activities...unless, of course, we are feeding the poor on the street, as I’ve already noted. (That, for some reason, has gotten a special pass though it probably has the highest public health danger to both those serving and those receiving services of anything that a church might do in this crisis.) So, while allowing lawncare businesses to go back to work, people with boats to go fishing and car dealerships to sell cars, our Governor sees no compelling value in churches ministering to the mental, spiritual, social, relational and emotional health of Washingtonians. That's been declared "non-essential" and, under the 4-phase guidelines, won’t be truly and fully permitted until “Phase 4,” minimally most likely months from now. While church ministries may be arbitrarily deemed non-essential for the Governor, I can tell you that in-person fellowship is not non-essential for thousands of parishioners in our State who find themselves battling fear, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, isolation, domestic abuse, family breakdown, financial crises, suicide, substance abuse and more. Why is it that COVID-19 is the ONLY destroyer of human life that deserves consideration in this crisis by our government?
To the issue of “drive-in church services.” Our State's allowance for that may work in some limited form for churches who normally invite their congregants to come primarily to observe a well-performed, well-polished, observer-driven type of service where interaction and human contact with other believers is not a high value for that part of their ministry. It may work at some level for suburban churches with big parking lots and where everyone owns a car. But it works poorly if at all for churches such as ours where many do not own a car, where many walk to church and where significant numbers of congregants rely on the church as an actual family of people who give each other spiritual, emotional and relational support, counsel, prayer, encouragement and more.
These issues and their implications are massive when it comes to not only the present but the future of what the church will be locally and in our country at large. Clearly the church around the world has never faced this exact kind of pandemic situation before. So, there are unique issues that we as God's people must grapple with in making decisions going forward. But this decision has huge implications for what our government will potentially become and do going forward as well as what churches will be permitted to do and become in the future. It has grave implications for the very concept, definition and understanding of church.
Church history and how the church around the world is handling this right now has much to teach us. Never, to my knowledge, in the history of Christendom, when a government has told Christian believers they cannot meet for worship, cannot meet to practice the sacraments, cannot meet to pray, to anoint the sick, to counsel the distressed, to instruct their children or preach the gospel has the true, confessing church acquiesced, agreed and stopped being the church for any extended period of time. It is our belief that we are, according to Scripture, really only the church when we come together as the body of Christ in ministry one to another, not when we can simply point to a building we own or drive to a parking lot we can sit in or get on the internet and listen to someone talk. That is not a biblical definition of what it is to be “the church,” a Greek word which, by the way, fundamentally means “assembly" or "gathering."
In addition, I believe that we as American Christians have a unique responsibility as citizens of this country that the vast majority of other Christians in the world don’t have to be concerned with. America's unique governmental makeup as a democratic republic (rather than say a monarchy or dictatorship or any other option), which is defined by the rule of law of our Constitution, demands of “we the people” active, positive and wise stewardship of this unique God-given gift of the government we have. WE are the government. We must be the good stewards of that government. Were we under a different form of government, this response might have to be modified. While day-to-day operations are delegated to elected officials in our democratic republic, the power, responsibility and authority to guard what has been given to us by God is not. So not only does our response to and involvement in this crisis determine the kind of power and role government will have over the church in the future; it will determine the kind of church that survives in American for our children and grandchildren.
If any of us had been asked 3 months ago, “Will you be willing to let the government tell you when you can and cannot gather with other Christians, what kinds of expressions of worship are acceptable and not acceptable, where you can and can’t gather for fellowship, how many people you can or can’t be with, who you can sit next to in a religious service, when you can and can’t practice Communion and more…all without a definitive termination date, without changing a single law on the books, without the consent of the governed, without a vote of the people or without public comment?” would you have said “YES! If your answer is “No,” then why are we comfortable with the current shut-down of churches?
In addition, the numbers of cases and deaths in Spokane County has, thankfully and graciously, been amazingly low. Our medical community was bracing for between 8,000-12,000 hospitalization cases of COVID-19 three months ago (with a total of 1,200 hospital beds in our city). We’ve had a total of 74 COVID-19 hospitalizations since then and a total of 30 deaths (none under age 50 and 75% 70 years of age or older, virtually all with underlying conditions). These are the hard statistics we are being told by our government, which are the reasons, they say, to continue this draconian lock-down of churches.
This is not to say that prudent and proper health procedures should not be practiced by all churches seeking to minister to both their congregation and their community. They should and they can be done relatively easily. They do not unduly burden or eliminate public worship. But when the stated reasons for which the original State of Emergency and following overly-restrictive proclamations no longer exist, it is time for all citizens affected to love all their neighbors enough to practice reasonable mitigation procedures and reengage in loving ministry to them on both a personal and corporate basis.
This is an issue, contentious as it is, that Jesus Christ is powerful enough to give us all love one for another in the midst of differences of opinions. It is an issue about which we can discover and experience unity in the midst of diversity if we will make Christ’s name and His fame our highest concern as well as love for ALL our neighbors our practice. But it is not an issue which I think will be easy to process or tidy every step of the way. We at Mosaic are committed to do whatever Jesus calls us to do no matter what the cost. We certainly respect and affirm every believer’s right to follow God’s calling through the Word and the convictions of their consciences. May all of us be found loving Jesus Christ supremely and each other sacrificially.