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Covid decisions: a dress rehearsal

January 2021 | by Paul Smith

Every church leader has a view on lockdown. Many hiring buildings have been spared a potentially divisive decision. Churches with buildings have had to decide whether and how to open.

It seems that the way churches have been treated owes more to the powers that be viewing us as irrelevant than deliberate persecution. However, God in his mercy has provided a preview of the problems that will arise, post Covid-19, the next time a government decree affects churches.

The dress rehearsal for responding to state interference has seen actors unsure of their lines, a squabbling cast, and the stage’s foundation wobbling. We can thank God for showing issues that must be addressed, often where there are no easy answers.

Money matters

How many are willing to risk a fine? Does stewardship over church funds make the risk of a fine a decisive factor? Do any decisions that might significantly affect church funds require a full members’ meeting? Are churches willing to contemplate forgoing their charitable status (or having it removed)? Should this affect our financial planning?

Trustees matter

The appointment of trustees has been found to be a theological matter. There’s no biblical office of trustee, yet trustees, fearing personal liability, affected decisions to open buildings. Should trustees have power to over-rule elders? As all churches must soon become independent charities, the qualifications for trustees and the extent of their liability have been found to be pressing issues.

Richard Baxter
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Ecclesiology matters

Richard Baxter’s views on government power during plague have been shared. Packer describes Baxter as favouring monarchy and national churches; how should this affect assessment of his arguments? Ecclesiology has long been downplayed as an impediment to evangelistic endeavour. Suddenly it is necessary because our ecclesiology (implied or reasoned) affects our views on church and state.

Reputation matters

Some are utterly aghast at offending neighbours by opening: their good name is a decisive argument. Others fear their reputation if they tacitly agree that it is more important for children to attend school than church.

Thinking matters

Some agonised over the decision to open or not. Others simply went by instinct: ‘of course we…’ Fruitful discussion becomes tricky. We all need greater awareness of how we think!

Unity matters

Does this mean going no faster than the most fearful, following the elders, or something else? Can we avoid cheap digs? Labelling those opening as ‘wannabe MacArthurs’ and those not opening as faithless compromisers is unhelpful.

Leadership matters

The classic conundrum for elders between leadership and management has been seen. Is the greater risk to be out in front with few following or keeping the flock together by pursuing the least controversial strategy possible?

Clarity matters

Does the call to obey God rather than man apply only during direct persecution? How do we define direct persecution? When does something become a case of acknowledging or denying Christ before men?

Preparation matters

Despite the prospect of lockdown being clearly discussed for months, its arrival seemed to catch people out. ‘Let’s not worry about it, it might not happen’ is not always sensible. Every believer, and every gospel church has now been put on notice to work through key principles, such as the relative power of church and state.

Charity matters

When is a denomination or grouping so compromised that a church must leave? When is a government requirement so unreasonable that a church or individual must ignore it? These questions have long divided believers: what it utterly clear to one is highly nuanced to another. Believers have the challenge not just to think through when to stand, but also how far or how long others can disagree without being biblically unfaithful.

As government diktats cut into our historic freedoms one salami slice at a time, how will we know when it’s time to stand? It seems only a matter of time before churches are faced with the question: is this latest restriction worth losing charity status over? Will we, as churches, have worked through the biblical principles together and be ready to respond with united voice?

Paul Smith is full-time elder at Grace Baptist Church, Broadstairs, Kent, and a director of ET.

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Ademola Adebayo
Ademola Adebayo
21 hours ago

I find it rather unfortunate that as educative as this article has been, the author has chosen not to reveal where he stands. There are 4 questions that have been raised in this article. The first is should churches open for services on Lord’s day? How should churches implement the government’s instruction to close? What are the adverse implications for churches that refuse to abide by the government’s guidelines? Finally, how do we interpret Acts 5:29 in the light of all of this?

The scriptures are very clear about God mandating His people to “Not forsake the assembling of ourselves together”. The pattern of assembling ourselves together can be found in Acts 2:42 “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Where did they continue steadfastly? verse 46 gives us some information “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,”

Many will agree with me that the internet technology that allowed for services to be held online (also known as worship by proxy) did not exist in those days. So it will be reasonable to believe the whole congregation of the local church met from house to house. So I don’t think there will be any disagreement about churches meeting on Lord’s day.

The second question is trickier. This is where churches, unfortunately, do not agree. Some are of the opinion that Romans chapter 13 and 1 Peter 2 apply here. That as Christians, we should submit to the government by cancelling church services. If we are going to take the view that we should submit to the government’s request to cancel church services, then we must be willing to admit that Hebrews 10:25 does not deal with Lord’s day services. This is because the government’s directive for churches to cancel services is in direct opposition to Hebrews 10:25. I find it difficult to believe that churches are unaware of this fact. There is a way by which we can implement government guidelines without cancelling services. We could adopt the sanitary requirements, thereby minimising the risk of people becoming infected. Churches could adopt a quarantine policy for those who have tested positive or who have covid symptoms.

Thirdly, what are the adverse implications for churches not obeying the government guidelines? The scriptures inform us of what awaits those of us who follow Christ. Matthew 5 verse 10 – 12 reads “10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” Verse 11 gives us some information about how persecution will come about. People will say all manner of evil against us falsely, for the sake of Christ. So as we obey Christ, including by refusing to cancel church services, we will be hated and maligned and called all sorts of names. This is not a reason for us to cancel church services.

In Acts 5:29, Peter boldly proclaimed that we are to obey God and not man. If God has commanded us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, then the government has no business in commanding us to do otherwise. We are to obey God regardless of what awaits us. We are however to submit to the consequences of obeying God as meted out by the state. We do this knowing that God who is sovereign, ordains all things for His glory.