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On Reopening

by Doug Becker, Pastor of Theology

As our state begins to cautiously reopen from the Covid-19 mandated lockdown, churches are faced with numerous difficult decisions that inform how they will proceed. Emergence is no different. Because our congregation is composed of diverse people with diverse convictions, it is unavoidable that some will disagree with our decisions as to how we will reopen. If that’s you, or someone you know, then please understand that we are doing our best to navigate these uncharted waters, and that our plan for reopening is the result of much prayer, research, careful thought, and discussion. Our highest priority as a church is that we honor the Lord in all that we do. From day one, we have strived towards the goal of bringing the gospel to as many people as possible, and fulfilling our responsibility to equip those in our flock to walk in maturity and love.

And so, we’d like to share some thoughts that have led us to where we currently stand regarding our plan to reopen, which will inevitably strike some people as overly cautious, and others as not cautious enough. Given the reality of this broad range of positions regarding the pandemic, it is important to be transparent about the biblical reasons behind our reopening strategy. The details of this plan can be found at http://emergencenj.org/reopening.

The calculation as to how and when churches should begin meeting again involves several intersecting moral obligations, as well as many unknowns. Failure to acknowledge all of them will lead us to unwise and perhaps immoral decisions. Our reopening plan is an attempt to balance four of these obligations that we recognize as a church:

1.     The obligation to gather.
2.     The obligation to protect the vulnerable.
3.     The obligation to submit to governmental authority.
4.     The obligation to bear witness to Jesus.

What follows are summaries of our thinking on each of them.

The Obligation to Gather

Gathering together is something Christians are commanded to do, and our spiritual health depends on it. As individuals, Jesus saves us in order to bring us into relationship with God, and this places us into relationship with one another—“one body in Christ and individually members one of another.”[1] We meet together in order to recognize and express this unity, pursuing harmony so that together we might “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[2] This includes corporate worship in song,[3] prayer,[4] the preaching of the word,[5] the requirements of church discipline,[6] and the observance of the ordinances of baptism[7] and the Lord’s Supper.[8] This has been the regular practice of all churches since the days of the apostles.[9]

We all agree that, for Emergence, the optimal way to do this is by gathering together as one body at our several campuses. But we also acknowledge, as we always have, that this is not the only way to do this. Throughout church history, many churches have been composed of small numbers of believers gathering in homes, sometimes part of larger regional networks, sometimes not. This was true in the days of the apostles, and it is still true today. We firmly believe that such house gatherings are legitimate churches and are able to fully carry out their responsibilities and mission, every bit as much as larger churches that meet in public buildings.

During the pandemic, we have been functioning in a way very similar to many of these house churches, yet all as part of the unified body that is Emergence Church. In “normal” times we thrive as a church scattered in several locations, yet under the same vision, teaching, and leadership. Now, during the various stages of lockdown, we do the same, but in many more locations.

Hebrews 10:24–25 tells us, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” This is why it is important to continue meeting together in every way available to us—whether in online communities, family worship time with online services and other resources, watch parties, community groups, casual gatherings, and eventually our Sunday morning services. The “meeting together” spoken of in Hebrews 10 does not require a large formal service in a church building. Rather, it refers to the constant engagement with one another in the many ways hinted at earlier in chapter 3, where we are instructed to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called today, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”[10]

Reflecting on Hebrews 10:25, commentator George Guthrie gives the following advice to church leaders:

The question is whether [Christians] are meaningfully engaged in the life of the body on a weekly basis. Are they involved in worship? Are they being educated through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word? Are they ministering, exercising their spiritual gifts? Are they experiencing Christian fellowship? We should teach these aspects of healthy Christian living and allow the Holy Spirit to show them how these are to be lived out consistently.[11]

We believe that this is done in both the corporate gathering of our whole church, as well as in our various ministries and the everyday interactions that take place as believers build one another up. And we believe that these objectives are still being met, though imperfectly, with the various resources our staff and volunteers are working diligently to produce during lockdown. We must all continue to make a conscious effort to fight the temptations of apathy, despair, and laziness, and to remain steadfast and engaged with one another and with the Lord during this challenging time. Now is a time when what is ideal is not yet possible. But as soon as it is, we will reopen.

The Obligation to Protect the Vulnerable

Like almost any group, churches are composed partly of people who are vulnerable to the Coronavirus and at a high risk of developing dangerous, and even fatal, symptoms. This is true especially in churches like Emergence, which has been blessed with diversity in both age and ethnicity. Throughout our reopening process, we will be encouraging compromised individuals to refrain from attending our physical services until it is safe to do so, and their wellbeing will be a high priority.

In addition, the moral obligation to protect the vulnerable extends beyond who does and doesn’t attend our services. This should inform those who feel that it is an act of bravery to violate state guidelines for social gatherings. The rationale for social distance measures, from the beginning of the pandemic, has been to care for the wellbeing of everyone with whom we come in contact, which ultimately means the society as a whole. These measures are meant to attenuate the spread of the Coronavirus throughout our society, not just—and not even primarily—among ourselves. In other words, it isn’t just that the virus is dangerous to us, but that it’s dangerous to others. We have a moral obligation to protect the weak and to love our neighbors, and if foregoing our preferred kind of worship for a limited time means that we can fulfill that obligation, then we, as Christians, should be willing to put our rights and preferences on hold until it is clear that our meetings will not endanger others.

The Obligation to Submit to Governmental Authority

The Scriptures command Christians to live in submission to legitimate governmental authorities, understanding that God, in his sovereignty, ordains rulers for his purposes.[12] We are to show respect and honor to those who are over us. For it is God’s will, Peter tells us, that “by doing good [we] should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”[13] The logic of this verse is that our upstanding conduct has the power to pierce the conscience of those who doubt the moral goodness of the Christian life.[14] It is noteworthy that the apostles penned these admonitions under the harsh government of Rome, and in this context Peter explicitly commands us, “honor the Emperor.”[15]

On the other hand, we do acknowledge that sometimes it is right in God’s eyes to disobey civil authorities, especially when laws conflict with our obligations before the Lord. The parade example of this from the New Testament is in Acts 5, where some of the apostles are commanded not to teach in the name of Jesus. Peter and his companions refuse to comply, declaring, “We must obey God rather than men.”[16] Although this scene doesn’t speak directly to civil disobedience, since the authorities the apostles are defying are religious leaders, it is probably correct to assume that the same principles would apply to directives given by the civil government.[17]

Other passages support the notion that God’s people are called to civil disobedience when their governmental authorities demand things that are contrary to the revealed will of God.[18] These include the midwives who spared the lives of the male Hebrew newborns,[19] Queen Esther’s insistence on approaching the king despite a law that forbade it,[20] the refusal of Daniel and his companions to bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue,[21] Daniel’s insistence of praying to the Lord, despite King Darius’ prohibition against it,[22] and the wise men who ignored Herod’s command to disclose the location of the newborn king of the Jews.[23] Note that in several of these stories God explicitly signals his approval of these acts of civil disobedience, both in the form of reward for obedience (e.g., the midwives) and in protection from consequences (e.g., Esther, as well as Daniel and his companions).

Would it be right, or even obligatory, for Christians to disobey government lockdown orders by holding large public worship services? We do not think so. While passages such as Hebrews 10:24–25 command Christians meet together regularly, nothing in Scripture mandates the size and location of our meetings. And so, this is not a choice between the requirements of the state and the commands of God. As mentioned above, Christians in other times and places have and continue to fully obey this passage, and others like it, by meeting in house churches, and this commitment honors Christ and upholds them as members of his body every bit as when we meet with all the trappings of our Sunday morning services. This is not ideal, but when circumstances limit the size and manner of our gatherings, it is a legitimate and healthy way to honor the Lord, given that the Scripture does not obligate us otherwise.

Therefore, we do not see the current circumstances as requiring, or even permitting, us to exercise civil disobedience by meeting together in large numbers in public spaces in defiance of the government mandated Covid-19 lockdown.

The Obligation to Bear Witness to Jesus

Jesus’ primary directive to his church is to make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and by teaching them all that he has commanded us.[24] While we do not currently have the ability to hold church baptisms during lockdown, we realize that this will not continue forever, and look forward to the day when we are able to gather and celebrate the new birth of our brothers and sisters through baptism.[25] However, we have been able to continue our ministry of preaching and teaching through online resources during lockdown, and our reach as a church has grown as a result of it. We rejoice that the Lord continues to use our efforts, even under the current restrictions, to help us to spread the Word of Christ to North Jersey and beyond. But we look forward with great anticipation to the day when we can once again meet publicly as one body in Christ.

[1] Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:27.
[2] Romans 15:6.
[3] Ephesians 5:19.
[4] First Corinthians 14:16.
[5] Second Timothy 3:17; 4:2.
[6] First Corinthians 5:4–5; Hebrews 10:24–25.
[7] Matthew 28:19–20.
[8] First Corinthians 11:17–34.
[9] For example, Acts 5:42; 1 Corinthians 11:18; 14:23.
[10] Hebrews 3:13.
[11] George J. Guthrie, Hebrews, NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 348.
[12] Romans 13:1–7; Titus 3:1.
[13] First Peter 2:13–17.
[14] Peter J. Achtemeier notes some of the historical evidence that early Christians were accused of certain forms of vice and “imagined crimes.” This includes Tacitus, Annals, 15.44 and Justin Martyr, First Apology, 26. See 1 Peter, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 185 n. 81.
[15] Verse 17.
[16] Verse 29.
[17] Verse 18 tells us that the night before, the apostles had been incarcerated in the “public prison” (ESV). This should not be taken to mean that the Sanhedrin was working in concert with the Roman authorities, since the word that is translated as “public” (Gk. dēmosia) is consistently used elsewhere by Luke as an adverb, not as an adjective (16:37; 18:28; 20:20). Thus, “publicly put them in prison” is a preferable translation. See David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 218 n. 40, and the sources cited there.
[18] Wayne Grudem, Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 88.
[19] Exodus 1:15–22.
[20] Esther 4:16.
[21] Daniel 3:13–30, esp. v. 18.
[22] Daniel 6.
[23] Matthew 2:7–12.
[24] Matthew 28:19–20.
[25] We note that an official gathering of the local church is not necessary for legitimate baptism, as the story about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch makes clear (Acts 8:26–39). The question of communion is less clear, since the biblical evidence indicates only that it is to be observed in such gatherings; it does not follow that it cannot be observed in other settings.




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