Apr 182020 6 Responses

Churches, Love Your Governors

Churches teach that a basic tenet of Christianity is to love your neighbor. At the church I pastor, we say our mission is “to find life in Jesus, love our neighbors, and make God’s Kindom known.” Right in the middle of our mission statement is the idea that we are to love our neighbors. Then we expect to live the rest of our lives, discovering how deep the word love is and how wide the word neighbor expands.

One neighbor American churches need to love, especially at this time, is their Governor.

Churches Not Meeting

COVID-19 has placed a burden on every aspect of American society. No one is immune from their lives being affected and having to make tough choices–if we visit grandma, she might get infected, but if we avoid her she could suffer ill-effects from isolation.

Churches have not been immune from the struggle. A core strategy of every church I know is a weekly gathering for corporate worship. Other in-person meetings are also vital to the organization of the church. Yet under the threat of a pandemic, churches have wisely avoided these meetings and moved to online gatherings.

But a few have objected. Wrongly (in my opinion) applying the New Testament command not to forsake gathering together, some have boldly flaunted their gatherings as though it was a great act of faith. For some, this has cost them any influence over their non-Christian neighbors. For others, it has cost people their lives as pastors and congregants have died from the virus. (See: When It’s Cool to Mock Christianity)

It has also placed their Governors in challenging positions.

Freedom of Religion

One of the great qualities of American life is the freedom to practice religion without fear of government interference. Americans don’t just have the freedom to worship (what happens for an hour on Sunday); they have the freedom to exercise their religion within their lives. It’s such an important quality, it’s the first part of the first amendment before freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and our ability to petition the government. And as Dave Chappel quips, the second amendment is present in case the first amendment is threatened.

Churches have a right to assemble no matter what the government says. Yet they should have the brains and hearts not to gather when that assembly could threaten their neighbors.

When the government asks churches to avoid meeting in person because of a pandemic, we should happily oblige. Our task to love our neighbors, not endanger them. Thankfully we live in a day where we can effectively worship together through technology. We may have had more people tune in to our services the last five weeks than had we met in person. Online gatherings aren’t the same as in-person fellowship, but they are effective alternatives for times like these.

Yet some have wrongly conflated two different issues during this time. States asking churches not to meet during a pandemic is not the same as governments attempting to restrict the free exercise of religion. The first is common sense leadership; the second is a threat to the American way of life. The former is what’s taking place now; the latter is a legitimate fear we might one day face. But the issues are currently different.

This Is Not Persecution

Churches are rightly paranoid about the over-involvement of government. There is a long history of religious persecution from governments. Outside of America, there is a great deal of religious persecution in the world, especially of Christians. There is also a challenging debate about how to honor the freedom of religion amid a pluralistic society. How do I freely exercise my religion without infringing on your equal rights?

There is no question that a possible pandemic raises the tension between governments and individuals, between what’s best for the community and what are the rights of individuals. It is good to question if our government has overextended its reach in the name of safety. (See: How Persecution Will Come to America)

However, we should not foolishly create fights that are not necessary, and churches should not recklessly fabricate persecution when it does not exist. Churches who have met in person during these last few weeks have failed to love their neighbors. Churches who race back to in-person meetings before medical experts believe it is wise will also be failing to love their neighbors.

Love Your Governor

One of those neighbors is our statewide leadership. No Governor wishes to tell a church it cannot meet. Every politician understands the danger of messing with the first amendment. While a few politicians might try to pick a fight to garner the media attention, far too many churches seek the same fight for the same reason. It’s not Christian.

A day might come in which the government oversteps its boundaries, and I might be called to break the law on behalf of my faith. Peaceful civil disobedience is a rich tradition within the Christian community. While I should have courage if that moment finds me, I do not need to seek out those moments. While persecution will likely come to America for Christians, it is not significantly present now and is not present in the conversation of COVID-19. We are trying to flatten the curve and lower the suffering of a vulnerable population.

If I wanted to meet now, I could. Some members are ready; I could claim we must stand against the oppressive government and boldly live out our faith. But what position would that place my Governor? As a man of faith himself, he would choose between ignoring my actions and risk sending the wrong message to others even as I endanger my community or to use his power to punish me for exercising my religious right. It would be an impossible situation for him, and it would be unloving for me to put him in that scenario. (See: Jesus Loves the Politicians)

Be Patient

So we must wait. Churches must show wisdom and discernment. It is far more pressing for a restaurant to re-open than for a church to begin meeting in person again. The church exists just as powerfully now as ever, but the restaurant will not make it unless it serves customers again.

Churches will return to in-person gatherings soon, but we don’t have to be the firsts to gather. We don’t have to seek to make some point about faith by rushing our meetings while ignoring the medical experts. As a pastor, I also have to recognize my responsibility. With our leadership, we must make the best decision possible for our people and our neighbors while understanding other churches might draw different conclusions.

As for me, I want to love my neighbor. That includes my neighbor in the Governor’s mansion in Little Rock. Until he gives us the all-clear, we won’t meet. When he gives approval, we will then consider whether meeting in-person is wise for us.

6 Responses to Churches, Love Your Governors
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