When the lockdowns and stay at home orders first started to impact the large group gatherings of local churches, the conversation very quickly moved to matters of loyalty and legality. Is it appropriate for churches to obey the mandates of the local health unit NOT to gather when the New Testament clearly encourages us and expects us to do so? That was a very useful conversation and it appears to have resulted in a general, though not universal consensus, that there are certain circumstances in which it would be wise and prudent to defer our large group gatherings, and controlling a fast-spreading virus such as COVID19 would appear to meet that criteria.
As the lockdowns stretch on and the burden becomes increasingly difficult to bear, the focus has begun to shift toward the issue of legality. Is it legal for the government to impose restrictions on the worship and gathering of God’s people? Can the current restrictions be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society? Such questions are even now working their way through the courts systems and will no doubt be decided in due time according to the laws of the land.
As useful and necessary as these conversations have been, it appears to me that there is something missing in our current discourse. Very few Christians are asking the question why, as in “Why has God shut us down?” There is no excuse for not asking that question, after all, the Bible says:
“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” (Deuteronomy 32:39 ESV)
That is a claim to absolute Sovereignty. That is God reminding us that our primary focus ought to be on the ultimate author of our situation, not the immediate agents. So perhaps we should be spending less time railing against our government and more time repenting before our Creator.
Could it be that God ordained this virus specifically, though not exclusively, to shut down the worship of the church?
That possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand. It has happened before, there is no reason to think that it couldn’t happen again. In Amos 5:21 God said, to the covenant community:
“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” (Amos 5:21 ESV)
Is it possible that God takes no pleasure in our solemn assemblies and has ordained this virus with all its various complexities, in part, to shut down the worship of the Christian church? Is there any Biblical precedent for such an extended and severe time out being imposed on the general population of God’s people?
In fact there is.
The Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC effectively put an end to Old Covenant worship for an entire human lifetime. The temple was destroyed, the sacrifice stopped, the music and the worship suspended. Many people living in Judah at the time felt it their duty to fight against the imposition of this bondage to the bitter end. They saw the crisis in purely political terms and the identified the agent of their captivity as an enemy that ought to be opposed. But God sent the prophet Jeremiah to rebuke them. He said to the King of Judah:
“Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people and live. 13 Why will you and your people die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, as the LORD has spoken concerning any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon? 14 Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are saying to you, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon,’ for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you. 15 I have not sent them, declares the LORD, but they are prophesying falsely in my name, with the result that I will drive you out and you will perish, you and the prophets who are prophesying to you.” (Jeremiah 27:12–15 ESV)
As for the articles and accoutrements of the temple, so necessary for the performance of Old Covenant worship:
“They shall be carried to Babylon and remain there until the day when I visit them, declares the LORD. Then I will bring them back and restore them to this place.” (Jeremiah 27:22 ESV)
There would be no temple worship until the Divinely ordained punishment had been endured, and presumably, until the Divinely administered tonic had been assimilated. Those counselling resistance and rebellion were not speaking for God:
“I have not sent them, declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 27:15 ESV)
It was the will of the Lord to impose that particular shutdown and anyone who opposed the agent soon found himself in conflict with the author.
That is an important episode in the history of the covenant community that should at least caution us as we navigate through this current crisis. We should at least consider the fact that it is possible and it is within God’s character to ordain an extended shutdown of the church. If that is the case then it suggests that the best way to end this lockdown would be to examine ourselves and to repent of anything and everything that is currently out of order.
Consider this an open-ended list.
Among the many things we may need to be repenting of the following 7 come very naturally to mind:
Our failure to tremble before God’s Word
The church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be made up of people willing to obey his Word unconditionally:
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46 ESV)
The narrative of the Bible makes it clear that accepting God’s Word as God’s Word is de facto what it means to be a believer in any real and meaningful sense. Questioning God’s Word was the beginning of original sin:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1 ESV)
Did God actually say?
To be a rebel; to be a citizen of the kingdom of hell, is to negotiate with and discount the Word of God. To be a child of God, to be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven is to bow, unconditionally before it.
“But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66:2 ESV)
How are we doing with that?
It is hard for me to comment on “the church as a whole”; all I know is that in the part of the church I live and move in there is less humility, less contrition and less trembling than ever before. We are not tethered to the Word of God; our relationship is more “sea anchor” than fixed chain. The Word of God serves to restrain and slow us in our march towards the norms of the culture, but it no longer arrests us. We are slightly less sexually immoral than the general population; slightly less inclined to divorce; slightly less addicted to porn; slightly less in debt; slightly more courteous; slightly more charitable.
But just slightly.
We are not salt anymore, we are not distinct in our allegiance and loyalty, we simply have one more influence to consult before acting like gods, deciding right and wrong for ourselves.
For this sin alone God would be right to shut down the church in the world.
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matthew 5:13 ESV)
A church that is half diluted is entirely useless. It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
Are we absolutely sure that our current experience isn’t merely one possible application of that principle?
Our uncritical adoption of worldly leadership paradigms
Jesus was very clear that leadership in the church was to be categorically different than leadership in the world.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25–28 ESV)
There is a will to rule within each one of us that must be given no liberty and no opportunity to flourish in the church of Jesus Christ. His disciples lead by serving. They are best compared in function and lowliness to shepherds. Their job is to feed, tend and carry. The image of a shepherd lifting a lamb out of a hole or carrying a sheep with a twisted leg is as far removed from the image of a CEO or a Social Media Influencer as is possible to imagine, and yet, in truth, today’s pastors too often look more like the latter than they do the former. When the NY Times is running articles questioning whether it is appropriate for pastors to be wearing $5000 sneakers, it ought to be obvious to all that we have traded our birthright for a mess of pottage. When glory-seeking, congregant-bullying pastors are only fired when they are accused of trying to hire a hitman, we have forfeited all claims to a distinct and Christ-like ministry.
Again, while I cannot speak usefully or insightfully about “the church in all the world” I can speak about the church that I have experienced and in that church, the leadership models have typically looked a lot more like those on display in Fortune 500 Boardrooms than they do in the pages of Holy Scripture. A pastor should teach. He should speak to the mature and to the young in faith. He should challenge the strong and encourage the weak. He should bear with the awkwardness and slowness of spiritual growth. He should rejoice over sins renounced, callings discovered, services undertaken, gifts received. He should know the names of his people and if no one outside his parish or membership knows his name, he should not be disturbed in the slightest.
And he should not work alone.
Plurality is a distinctive feature of leadership in the New Testament. Even in a time of crisis, the church thought and discerned and decided in plurality. We see that approach on display in the narrative of the Jerusalem Council. Paul and Barnabas were sent by the church in Antioch to consult with the church in Jerusalem concerning the matter of Gentiles coming in great numbers into the church. Should these Gentiles be forced to become Jews before they became Christians?
“The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.” (Acts 15:6 ESV)
No one voice was allowed to dominate the discussion.
The same cannot be said of the church in North America. We have increasingly fostered and enabled a professional approach to ministry and we have too often allowed our congregations to become theatres for the performance art of a dominant pastoral leader.
COVID19 seems almost engineered to put pressure on our current pastoral excesses. It has virtually eliminated the large group gathering. Small services are still permitted, teaching is still possible, phone calls, porch meetings, and crisis counselling are all still on the table but none of those tools offers the same opportunity for the display of a dominant personality. The pastoral stage has shrunk dramatically. The pulpit doesn’t punch as hard as it once did. It is hard to be charismatic or dynamic when standing alone in a room before a camera. The crowd has been taken from us – and many pastors aren’t sure what to do with what is left.
We need this.
We need a total reformation of the ministry. If COVID19 is the agent of that reformation, then so be it. As Spurgeon said:
“I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.”
Our lack of commitment to world mission
In my childhood in the church it was common for congregations to give 10% of their total offerings to the cause and support of foreign missions. The 10% number remains an aspirational target for many churches, but the understanding of where and how that money ought to be spent has changed dramatically.
In a recent analysis published by tithe.ly 61% of a church’s mission budget is spent locally, 20% is spent nationally and only 19% is spent spreading the Gospel in foreign lands. To be clear, I am not arguing that there isn’t mission work to be done in our own cities and neighbourhoods, I am just saying that instead of slicing up our mission budget pie into more and more smaller pieces, we ought simply to have baked a bigger pie.
If churches are going to balance local and global commitments (and they should) then they should double the percentage of their budgets allocated for this purpose. How can we justify building bigger and bigger buildings (not to mention $5000 sneakers!) when we are sending less money overseas, by percentage, than any previous generation in the history of evangelicalism?
When $100,000 for a sound system makes sense but 20% of the total budget for missions, foreign and domestic, doesn’t make sense, then there is something terribly wrong with our theology of church.
You can’t do maintenance on an airplane in flight. If you want to make serious changes the plane will have to be grounded for an extended period of time.
Maybe that’s what this is.
Maybe God is sending us to our rooms on timeout to think about what we have done and to think about where we went wrong. And maybe we won’t get to come downstairs again until we figure it out.
So before you write an angry letter to your local MP or Congressional Representative, maybe you should write a letter to your church treasurer. Ask what percentage of your total church budget has been allocated to foreign missions. If you don’t like the number, maybe you should start protesting that.
Our inability to even talk about injustice
Perhaps the surest sign of our confusion and sickness as a church, is our complete inability to even start a conversation about injustice. This is something we were supposed to be good at.
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 ESV)
Christians are supposed to be the “do justice” people. We are supposed to know what is right and fair and kind and compassionate and we are supposed to lead the way in doing so. Old Testament and New that expectation is everywhere on the pages of Holy Scripture. Paul said:
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:9–10 ESV)
Christian justice is active justice. Our Lord expects more from us than merely that we would “do no harm”. He expects us to do that which is good – even to those to whom we have no natural or tribal affiliation. That’s kind of the point of the Good Samaritan story. We often focus on the features of the story and miss entirely the Lord’s closing exhortation:
“Go, and do thou likewise.” (Luke 10:37 KJV)
Go! Find people who have been beaten up by the world! Go and find people who have been the victims of violence! Go and find people who have been neglected by the pious and the hypocritical! Go to them! Find them! Love them! Pick them up, bind their wounds, carry them to shelter and pay for their healing, restoration and recovery.
That’s what the Good Samaritan did!
“Go, and do thou likewise.” (Luke 10:37 KJV)
But to speak that way today in the church is to risk being labelled a Marxist. To care about people outside your tribe and to have sympathy for their treatment and abuse is to be accused of subscribing to CRT.
How did it come to this?
How do we make it stop?
Or better yet: what might God do to make it stop?
When I hear my kids arguing and acting like animals I clap my hands loudly and send them to their rooms without supper.
Maybe that’s what this is. Maybe we crossed a line with our callous discourse around race and injustice in 2018/2019. Maybe this is the thunderclap of God against our brutish nonsense.
Our failure to mourn over all that is broken in the world
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4 ESV)
Luke records a fuller version of that saying; apparently Jesus paired each of his blessings with a “woe”.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:25 ESV)
The people of God do not live easy in the streets and cities of the world. They mourn. They weep. They feel. They lament. The imagery comes from Ezekiel 9. Prior to a great outpouring of wrath upon the city of Jerusalem God spoke to an angel and said:
“Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” 5 And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. 6 Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.” (Ezekiel 9:3–6 ESV)
In this story God marked as approved and spared from judgment all those who sighed and groaned over sin. The rest were identified for destruction.
Christian people are not supposed to be happy with the way that this world is. They should be disturbed by what they see and they should be saddened by what makes everyone else around them laugh.
That is the normal experience of the people of God on this fallen planet.
But that hasn’t been our experience as a church over the last several years. Christians used to find “worldly television” hard to watch. Now, even to use the word “worldly” is to run the risk of being mocked by fellow Christians. I realized that something had changed when Kevin DeYoung was attacked mercilessly online for asking whether or not it was appropriate for Christians to be watching Game of Thrones on TV. Kevin is a little younger than I am but like me he recognized that had Game of Thrones been released in our childhood it would have been considered soft core pornography. It would have been kept on the shelf in that little corner room in the Video Store behind the purple curtain underneath the neon light.
Now it is on cable television and has a remarkably loyal following among young Christian men.
How did that happen?
And how did The Bachelor and The Bachelorette come to be the show of choice for so many young Christian ladies? A show that glorifies sexual immorality and celebrates immodesty and superficiality?
How did we get here – and how do we make it stop? I know that when I find my kids watching things they shouldn’t be I turn off the WIFI and send them to their rooms to read a book.
Maybe that’s what this.
Maybe we’ve forgotten who we are and maybe we’ve forgotten how to mourn and maybe we won’t be released from this lockdown until we remember.
Our over reliance on political means and solutions
For most of the last generation the church in North America has been slowly losing its grip on privilege and power within the culture. Our initial instinct was to use the levers of politics and statecraft to consolidate our holdings.
That has always been a temptation for the people of God. It was in fact that temptation and tendency that led to the destruction of the northern kingdom in the 8th century B.C. Hosea 5:13-14 says:
“When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his wound, then Ephraim went to Assyria, and sent to the great king. But he is not able to cure you or heal your wound. For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of Judah. I, even I, will tear and go away; I will carry off, and no one shall rescue.” (Hosea 5:13–14 ESV)
When you don’t go to God to solve your problem, God becomes your problem. That seems to be a fair assessment of our current predicament as a church. Thomas Kidd, the American church historian, says here:
“All but the most hardened evangelical Republican insiders will readily concede that American Christians tend to put too much hope in politics and politicians. Yet we keep doing it.”
Yet we keep doing it.
We keep doing it even when doing it is the most likely explanation for our current crisis.
We need to stop running to Egypt and Assyria to protect and preserve our privilege. We ought to instead think and say as John the Baptist:
“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.” (John 3:27 ESV)
Why do we think we are entitled to a position of influence in this or any other culture? Why do we seek to convert with the sword or to compel the conscience with legislation? We should make an argument by word and deed and let influence and privilege take care of itself.
This is not an argument for pietism, though it will likely be characterized as such by some, rather it is an argument for focus, realism and repentance. As Bradford Littlejohn writes:
“Our engagement with politics should be measured and realistic, recognizing the provisionality of the political order. Perhaps the greatest error of evangelicalism in the past generation has been the temptation to think that more could be achieved through politics than was realistic, and sometimes that more must be achieved through politics than was appropriate.”
If that is the greatest error of evangelicalism, and there are many legitimate rivals, then perhaps it is most to be blamed for our current circumstances. Perhaps it is this sin that we should most focus on as we sit in silence during this lockdown.
“I, even I, will tear and go away; I will carry off, and no one shall rescue.” (Hosea 5:14 ESV)
There is no one coming to save you. There is no one strong enough to open what God has closed or to loosen what God has bound. This will end when God says it’s over. And not a day or hour sooner. Our protests aren’t interesting to God. In my house, with my kids, your time out begins when your crying and moaning ends. When you are quiet and thinking about what I want you to be thinking about – that’s when the clock starts ticking.
So I vote for that.
I vote for less protest and more penitence – and God, may it start with me.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here.
 If we are spending 19% of our mission budgets (10% of total) on foreign missions, that equates to 1.9% overall.
 W. Bradford Littlejohn, The Two Kingdoms: A Guide For The Perplexed (The Davenant Trust, 2017), 86.