Here in the state of Wisconsin, as in most other states in America, we are on the down side of government-mandated closing of what were deemed “non-essential” businesses, meetings and more. At the beginning of what appeared to be a potentially devastating global pandemic, (indeed, that’s what so many politicians, media and academia elitists were calling it) we suspended our normal services. Looking at what actually happened, I’m not fully convinced that I made the right decision as a pastor. Without scrutinizing the differences between “essential” and “non-essential” entities, the direction, not guidance for churches was that in-person gatherings of ten or more people were “prohibited.” For Bible Baptist Church this restriction means that only my wife, seven children and I would be able to gather for worship. Only ONE additional person from the congregation joining us would have been a violation.
In Matthew 18:20, Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” This is absolutely true in any case, but in most cases in our country and certainly for our church there are more than two or three people who gather for worship. It is clear from many places in Scripture that the church is not a building, but the people who have accepted the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. Where these people gather for mutual learning, encouragement, spiritual growth, support and more, it makes up the local church. “Church,” as I will use the term is the building, the congregation and the activities, all-encompassing.
Wisconsin’s Governor Evers and the state and local governments almost everywhere in America designated “essential” and “non-essential” entities as I mentioned already. I will assert that churches and their primary activities are indeed essential, even if they mostly were designated otherwise. Genesis 1:27 declares that God “created man in his own image,” which includes man’s body, soul and spirit. The spirit of man is the part which communes with God, the Creator of the universe. We were created for fellowship with God.
Sadly, there are some “christians” who attend church at their convenience and at least give lip-service to the essential services provided by their church. For many of these, the ban on religious gatherings over nine people really didn’t affect them. On the other hand, there are Christians (not in name only) for whom church and their essential services are not only a regular, but a vital part of their life. In short, church is absolutely essential for them.
I believe that there are several scriptures which absolutely validates the point that churches and their primary activities are essential, especially to Bible-believing, Bible- living Christians. The Old Testament Patriarch, Job declared when speaking of God, “Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food.” ~ Job 23:12. Jesus Christ, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, declared, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” ~ Matthew 4:4. The writer of Hebrews also declares, “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.” ~ Hebrews 10:23-25
It is clear, from the Bible, from personal experience, from the experience of others, and certainly from the necessity of fellowship with our Creator that churches and their essential services, the preaching, teaching and corporate practice of faith is essential. Because we have been created with a spirit, the part o f man that is designed to interact on a personal level with our Creator, to deny the ability to do this is detrimental to our health and well-being.
An entirely different discussion is the First Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees us the freedom of religion. All of a sudden, the supposed “separation of Church and State,” which is not to be found in the US Constitution, is important. Could this be because it restricts the Church and not the State, turning the intended purpose of the document on its head?
Of course, there is much more that has been or could be said, and I certainly welcome discussion, but let me leave you with this: this is my “bottom line,” as a Christian and as a pastor. As a Christian, I understand that meeting with other Christians is just as essential or even more essential than going to the grocery store. (Think Job 23:12 and Matthew 4:4.) I will also highly encourage and participate in gatherings to learn, encourage and fellowship with other believers as I know I should.
My role as a pastor, the societal figurehead and biblical leader of my local congregation may be a bit more tenuous in some eyes, but after much prayer, Bible study, contemplation and godly counsel, when the government tells us that I cannot continue with regular services, I MUST “obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:29). As a pastor, I will absolutely, to the best of my ability, continue to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry,” (Ephesians 4:12).
Those saints, the members and attenders have the ability, and I believe the authority, granted by Almighty God and the US Constitution to make the decision to attend or not attend any service or function of our church. If, for some reason, there are negative consequences for those decisions, as a Christian and a pastor, I will echo the Apostles Peter and John, “rejoicing” to be “counted worthy to suffer shame for his name.”