But Peter and John answered them,
“Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God,
you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
— Acts 4:19–20 —
But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.
— Acts 5:29 —
Since March of this year, the church in America has faced a host of challenges related to COVID-19, gathering, and government. While health concerns legitimately initiated the emergency closure of churches, reopening them has too often been dictated by governors making up and then remaking requirements. Such pronouncements have not only impacted churches gathering, they have raised concerns about the very nature of the church. What does it mean to gather? Can we do church online? For how long? Et cetera!
While Americans have enjoyed unusual freedom to gather and worship in our country, this is not the first time churches have faced the (1) task of articulating their greater commitment to God in order to worship, and (2) in accepting the consequences of those actions. To that point, John MacArthur and the staff at Grace Community Church have written an article explaining why now is the time to obey God and not man—when man commands the church not to meet.
Their God-honoring, Word-saturated, church-protecting words are worth considering. You can find the whole article here, but let me highlight one point that has been of greatest concern to me during the Coronavirus pandemic. Here’s what they say:
Although we in America may be unaccustomed to government intrusion into the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, this is by no means the first time in church history that Christians have had to deal with government overreach or hostile rulers. As a matter of fact, persecution of the church by government authorities has been the norm, not the exception, throughout church history. “Indeed,” Scripture says, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Historically, the two main persecutors have always been secular government and false religion. Most of Christianity’s martyrs have died because they refused to obey such authorities. This is, after all, what Christ promised: “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). In the last of the beatitudes, He said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11–12).
As government policy moves further away from biblical principles, and as legal and political pressures against the church intensify, we must recognize that the Lord may be using these pressures as means of purging to reveal the true church. Succumbing to governmental overreach may cause churches to remain closed indefinitely. How can the true church of Jesus Christ distinguish herself in such a hostile climate? There is only one way: bold allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is just it: “We must recognize that the Lord may be using these pressures as means of purging to reveal the true church.” God is not absent, nor passive in these days. He is using COVID-19 to accomplish his purposes. And I have to believe that one of them is to sanctify and strengthen his people. This is true individually and this is true corporately (read: in the church). In all circumstances, God is revealing who his true children are. And the combination of COVID-19 and government regulations is just one more example.
To illustrate the point, how often have we taken our gatherings for granted. We have reasoned: Well, I can’t make it this week, but I’ll always have next week. Yet, COVID-19 has taught us to treat gathering as precious and not unassailable. Likewise, as states like California impose ongoing stipulations denying churches the right to be the church, i.e. the assembly of God’s saints, Christians are again having to consider—what does it mean to be God’s people. This is hard, but it is good, too, as it makes us go back to Scripture and build our lives upon the foundation of the Word, and not just the Constitution—a point this article includes.
In this time, therefore, we need to consider again what the church is and what it means for us to gather, even when Caesar says not to. As Grace Community Church has modeled for us, our first allegiance is to the Lord sovereignly ruling in heaven, not the lord scrambling to regulate in our capitals. Again, let me urge you to read this article and consider what it means for you and your church to be the church. Then pray for your church and for the churches in California who will seek to gather—no doubt, with COVID-19 precautions remaining—in obedience to the Lord, who gives us life, and breath, and everything else.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds