Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God’s the things that are God’s.
—Jesus (Mk 12:17)
Gratefully, in our region at least, we’ll be able to lawfully gather together as Christians again this Lord’s Day. My heart goes out to those brothers and sisters for which this won’t be the case (and the prospect that the entire province might face yet another lockdown in some future 3rd wave).
What is curious, however, is that schools in Grey-Bruce returned to in person learning on January 18; many other regions of the province returned on February 8 and schools in the GTA returned this week, February 16; all before churches being able to reopen (or in some cases without them being with a prospect of opening). In Grey-Bruce that means schools returned to in class teaching 5 weeks before churches have been allowed to reopen. What is curious is twofold: a) the logical inconsistency in this approach and b) the apparent apathy of the Government to places of worship.
Note 1: I sympathize with the mammoth task Government has in dealing with a pandemic and the pressures this puts upon them. This is not intended to be a gripe but a constructive conversation starter.
Note 2: Throughout the pandemic I have, personally and as a Christian leader, sought to model and exhort Christians and all people to cheerfully submit to the Government. We have also been open about praying for our leaders. We want to be good witnesses (1 Pet 2:12). While I believe in the command to worship, I likewise believe in the command to submit to the government and love our neighbours, something which a pandemic, I believe, calls us to in the name of public health; to grievously and temporarily pause large worship gatherings in favour of alternative forms (online, small groups, etc). However, I have not been without my reservations of Government policy, which I have expressed to the appropriate authorities with charitability. Yet, compliance does not mean disengaging critically. In fact, democracy dies when its citizens fail to engage and when its politicians fail to listen. Most Christians think there is a line in the sand on these matters somewhere, but it can be difficult to determine exactly where it is. Could the issue of schools and churches be a legitimate marker? Put another way, would this inconsistent Government approach pass from the realm that justifiably requires submission to one that justifiably requires obedience to the “things that are God’s”?
Firstly, the act of opening schools (and some businesses) yet not churches is one logical inconsistency in the Government’s approach. The interests of some commercial and educational interests seem to be ahead of places of worship. Now, I believe people need to eat and work and learn, but the Government needs to be consistent in these matters and help people—through media—understand their actions. This builds trust.
Returning to schools and churches, both important places in local communities (churches often preceding schools in the formation of our country); how is it that schools that host hundreds and hundreds of children and staff, meeting together in one location 5 days a week, can reopen when churches (at 30%) of say dozens and dozens of people meeting in accordance with Government guidelines predominantly once a week must remain (or did remain) closed. If it’s unsafe to reopen, let there be restrictions. If it is safe for schools to reopen, why not churches? See the inconsistency? Why does this exist?
To me the simple answer is religious apathy or a disinterested ambivalence, even if it is arguably passive rather than active. This is something that should be a cause for concern regardless of whether you are a person of faith or not.
In both lockdowns I have perceived that the Government has held a disinterested ambivalence toward places of worship. This is partly because “religion” is such a complex area of society that the Government finds it difficult to provide a catered approach. It’s also largely because the Government, like much of society, has embraced a horizontal naturalism in which religion, particularly the Christian faith, is not real and so comes second behind more real matters like business and education. It is also because, culturally, classic liberalism which championed individual rights is being replaced by the philosophy of neo-liberalism that champions the rights of one group over another. This is why places of worship are treated inconsistently, they lack a priority in Government eyes. (Yet churches remain important centres where millions of Canadians find meaning and hope; necessary things, especially in a pandemic. See the Halo Project for more on the economic benefit churches bring communities).
While I speak the language of Scripture, allow me to speak the language of Government, the “Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982)” (click here to view).
Religious gatherings, as the Government calls them, are not optional or something Christians just do. A Christian’s faith in Jesus Christ, central to which is fellowship and corporate worship, is fundamental to who we are. It is not a mere option or something we do like playing soccer or attending the cinema. The Charter 2.a recognizes this by describing freedom of religion (including assembly, 2.c), along with conscience, as not just any right but the most fundamental ones. The freedom of religion and conscience is the number one listed right in the charter.
I realize that the Charter likewise lays down where these rights can be temporarily limited (section 1 and 33), however, this must be justifiable so. I recognize that a pandemic qualifies for a temporary limitation; however, consistency of approach is central to validating the necessary nature of the limitations put in place. If it is deemed safe for schools to reopen (hundreds x 5 days/week, not a fundamental right) but not places of worship (where dozens and dozens gather predominantly once a week, and which is a fundamental right) then to me and many others, there is an inherent inconsistency that seems to abrogate the temporary limitation of the right put in place by the Government. In other words, favouring education over places of worship is not only logically inconsistent, it not only displays apathy, it is dangerous to our fundamental Canadian freedoms.
Why is religious apathy dangerous? Because our Government is supposed to be a champion of our personal liberties, chief among them being freedom of religion. The neo-liberal shift to privileging certain freedoms over others, as evidenced by this subject, should not only concern people of faith, particularly Christians, but our neighbours. An erosion of freedom of religion and of conscience toward one group (places of worship) is a destabilization of the freedom you enjoy; might you in some way be on the receiving end of this trend in future?
What can you do?
Covid-19 has been a challenging time for many visible churches.
During lockdown many closed completely, some for want of means of continuing virtually (etc), while others persevered into varied forms of creative ministry, gathering and worship. We continued to hold our worship services through live-stream, Life Groups and leadership meetings via Skype and Zoom and Facetime and communicated congregationally through our print and e-newsletter (along with many other means).
From June 12 places of worship in Ontario were permitted by the government emergency order to emerge from the lockdown returning to physical worship services at 30% building capacity. We safely re-opened our morning and evening services on the Lord’s Day, June 14, also continuing our live-stream for those at risk or still uncomfortable; a few other local churches did the same not long after. However, there are many, many visible churches that remain closed with all or most of their ministries shut down. Many of them cite health concerns for this, which is something genuine to assess, however, “where there is a will there is a way” (i.e. if you have a reason to meet and a purpose to exist you will labour to find a safe means to accomplish it. See also: 2 Ti 1:7). A participant of one such church confided in me his dismay at their church’s decision wondering if anyone would return come September?
You see, if something stops for a week because of a snow storm, it is not terribly life changing, but the moment you speak of ceasing to do something for weeks and months and seasons, it becomes habit forming and life altering (for good or ill).
This raises two important and interrelated points:
ONE. If a church’s god is the only God, perfect, almighty, all-wise and most holy, sovereign, loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abounding in truth and goodness, the rewarder of those who seek him and the judge of all who don’t (I’m referencing the 2nd London Baptist Confession, 2.1) and if you know this God through faith in Jesus Christ then YES, absolutely, you have a reason to bring Him the corporate worship He has commanded and to fellowship together with other believers. Nothing, not persecution, or want or pandemic will stop you from doing this. If this is NOT the case, then naturally why would you gather to worship a God who you think is not really real or worthy, or immanent or knowable or known by you?
TWO. If a church, made up of redeemed or purchased people—bought by the blood of the lamb—has been commanded by their Saviour to publish Good News to all people, a message of repentance and transformation, to glorify Him in all they do, a life lived in gratitude to their King, then YES we have a purpose to exist for we have a Great Commission to fulfil and God to glorify. If this is NOT the case, if church is only a social club or a good works hobby, couldn’t I spend my time better somewhere else?
IF you answered yes to the above questions but are still not gathering and labouring as part of your local church, then appeal to your church leadership, grant leave to gather with a small handful in your home or outside, or temporarily worship with another church.
IF you are still watching the live-stream from home and not personally and physically worshipping and serving and don’t have a legitimate health risk (i.e. you’re going to the grocery store, shopping, eating out and visiting family but not participating in your church) then it is time to lay down your excuses and do so. Live-streaming is a great outreach and it was and can be a short-term substitute, but it is a long-term compromise from the real thing; don’t grow comfortable with it.
Among many other things Covid-19 is affecting on the church and spiritual landscape of our land is the separation from the wheat and the chaff; with some churches being pruned and others experiencing growth. The churches that will continue post-Covid will have these two things in common: a reason to meet and a purpose to exist.
Birds are a great wonder in Creation. Maybe you’d heartily agree with me, or maybe you’ve never paused to consider. Consider the way they fly, their plumage or song or even their habits. Did you know that the sparrow is not native to Ontario but was introduced by the pioneers? Or did you know farmers used to wait to plant their corn until the swallows had returned? These two birds wonderfully came up in this week’s Life Group Study on that wonderful Psalm about delighting in God’s presence, the 84th Psalm:
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house,
ever singing your praise! (Ps 84:3–4)
Why are birds mentioned here? One would think they would be shooed away but no they were welcomed in the Temple, a lesson that all may freely access the presence of God through faith in Jesus Christ. And what is produced by a life who’s encountered Jesus? It is a life of praise. Commenting on our Lord’s reference to sparrows in the Sermon on the Mount, Martin Luther considered, “the birds, our teachers.” Indeed, their consistent, heartfelt and beautiful praise of their maker is a great inspiration for the Redeemed to go and do likewise.
If you like birds and are interested in meditating upon their frequent reference in the Bible you might enjoy, The Birds, Our Teachers, by John Stott, who was himself an influential preacher and bird watcher.
A BBC article caught my eye the other day, it was billed as “the virtual reality church that isn’t shutting its doors.” This church holds virtual services in many different time zones. They’re even church planting in different virtual cities and worlds. That might be hard to get one’s head around but it is a creative expression of the Great Commission. Though I’m supportive of using technology to a degree, I also believe the idea for Christian fellowship is not virtual but live, face to face. Acts 2:42 says:
And they [the early Church] devoted themselves to…the fellowship…
One of the things the apostolic Church devoted themselves too was fellowship, an interactive sharing in the bond of the Holy Spirit. Though some professing Christians minimize the importance of it, fellowship is indeed part of the bread and butter of the Christian life, an essential ingredient, and an ingredient that Christians around the world are longing to return to post-Covid-19.
In the meantime, in light of the reality of Covid-19, the short term social distancing measures and public health measures to ban religious services, these need not stop the Church from gathering to worship and to enjoy fellowship. I am very thankful our church is in the position to be able to find creative ways to minister at this time:
And this is my great hope, not only that we will find creative ways to minister at this time, but that when Covid-19 is past, we will all join together in person to worship our Lord, and what a day of rejoicing that will be! It is my hope that Covid-19 is teaching us the eternal importance of Christian fellowship and that we’re all longing for the day when we can put social distancing behind us and fellowship in person, together, the way God designed it to be.
Until then, we’ll see you online/by phone, in one form or another.
 In sharing this article I am not endorsing this church.
The highest church building in England is that of Brentor, Devon. Build atop a large Tor on the edge of Dartmoor the church rises hundreds of feet above the village below. Until a new church was built in the village in the 1800s worshippers literally had to “go up” to the house of the Lord.
Such was the case in ancient Israel with the Temple. The Temple Mount actually sits atop Mount Moriah which itself is overshadowed by higher hills around it. It is a sort of hill within a ring of hills. It is this image of having to ascend from the valley below to the Temple that the pilgrim had in mind in Psalm 122:1 when he said:
I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go up to the house of the LORD!’
Under the Old Covenant the Temple was the centre of the sacrificial system for making atonement for sins and the presence of the LORD on earth. His public worship, as prescribed by countless commandments, was therefore centred around the Temple where the Israelites were “to go up” to benefit from these two primary functions. Though under the New Covenant the function of the Temple has been replaced by the Cross and the Holy Spirit, “to go up” is still relevant for it refers to the act of Christians gathering together for public worship.
Whilst Christians are to worship the Lord through every aspect of their lives, and can also do so privately, to gather together for the public worship of the Lord on His appointed day is a chief form among them all. To enter into His presence, sing His praises, hear from His Word, have the ordinances (baptism and communion) administered and fellowship with other believers; these are all reasons to attend public worship (duty) and do so with gladness (delight). “To go up” means the process can be demanding of us in some way, but that any ardours melt away when we consider the end of our worship, the LORD, and when are efforts, or rather our faith in this means of grace, is rewarded with untold spiritual blessings. The Lord and not the location or building, the pastor or the people, is the object of this act of worship and the reason for going. He is the centre and spring of all of our gladness along with our desire to go. If we love Him, we’ll love “to go up.”
The Lord’s Sweetest Blessings,
Author: Chris Crocker
Pastor, historian and beekeeper.
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