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.
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?
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’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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.