Calling a Timeout during the Pandemic

Below are the notes from what I shared with our congregation a few weeks ago. I was encouraged to share the following by a guest who attended our church who found the comments helpful as his own church wrestles with similar thoughts/concerns.

I love sports! I love the competition and love the pressure athletes face to perform under pressure. It is exciting to watch a close game and in any sport, when that happens, teams will often call a timeout in order to alleviate some stress and get everyone on the same page. We all need to take breathers in the midst of tension and hardship.

In many ways, I think the New Year is a great time for churches to call a “spiritual time out.” To be clear, calling this timeout isn’t to ignore the tensions and pressures of our society. Instead, calling the timeout should allow us to recognize them and to get our church on the same page.

Recognizing / Confronting Reality

Here are a few of the realities that we must accept as Christians. In recognizing these realities they will help us understand how we can get back out there and perform under pressure.

Reality #1: COVID-19 is Real and Dangerous. It should be evident by now that COVID-19 is real. The statistics are undeniable. At the very least, even the strongest of skeptics must recognize that the respiratory virus is highly contagious and puts certain portions of the population at risk of death. In our given area, we’ve seen a legitimate spike in positive tests. Southern California itself does have dwindling ICU spaces. I’m not a medical expert, but at this stage it would be foolish to say that COVID-19 is non-existent. It would also be foolish to say that it does not pose a threat to our loved friends, family, and neighbors.

Reality #2: The Bible says that Christians should gather regularly. The clearest passage that teaches us this reality is Hebrews 10:23–25. There, we are told to gather because it is how we strengthen our faith / confession (v. 23), it is God’s mechanism for us to practice or manifest our faith in works (v. 24), and it is how God intends for us to find encouragement (v. 25). We desperately need these benefits in the midst of all the discouraging circumstances that surround us. 

Of course, there are appropriate times for Christians to forfeit gathering. We recognize that pandemics and even, in some circumstances, persecution, might call for suspending the gathering those should be unusual circumstances. We must recognize there are legitimate reasons to think that a safe gathering can occur in our COVID-19 world. 

Reality #3: Churches are not driven by medicine or politics, but Scripture. Christians cannot allow medical journals or political commentary sway our commitment to the Lord. Ultimately, churches are governed by Christ through His revealed word. 

Yielding our obedience to a medical journal can have dangerous consequences. It may even reveal tendencies towards the heretical and damning health and wealth gospel. Christians have never been driven by medicine. Afterall, one of our core and uncompromising beliefs defies everything science has to say—that a dead man rose from the grave to live forever and grant resurrection to all who believe in Him. This does not mean that we shouldn’t be careful or responsible. I’m merely making the point that medicine doesn’t rule the church—Christ rules the church through His Word.

In a similar manner, the church should not be driven by the politics of the pandemic. Many are rightfully concerned about public policy, economics, public health, etc. Still, as the church we believe in a higher authority, the throne of the universal ruler, our God! Christ is King and we live under His dominion. Again, this does not mean that the government is useless. Rather, government must serve its God-given role on God’s earth (cf. Rom 13:1–7; 1 Pet 2:13–17).

God has given us His holy, inerrant, perfect, and authoritative word. We as Christians should observe that His Word is supreme. 

Reality #4: Church members will have differing convictions. The pandemic and the politics of today is so broad. Convictions involve a mix of beliefs in multiple disciplines (i.e., public policy, public health, role of government, economics, moral-ethical issues, etc.). Therefore, we should allow for a certain amount of variance of Christian convictions in these areas. In other words, not everyone will see eye-to-eye.

This is important because understanding that we will have different convictions on important, but non-essential matters will impact how we relate to one another. Christians should be so entrenched in Scripture that their discernment leads them to understand what is essential vs. non-essential. 

The gospel is not politics. The gospel is not public policy. Despite your personal convictions, there will be republicans in heaven. Despite your personal convictions, democrats will be in heaven. In other words, you can believe the gospel and have differing political opinions. With that said, Christians should aim to grow in biblical discernment and gospel understanding. 

Perhaps this is oversimplification of a complicated issue, but I think the core of the argument is legitimate. The details will have to wait for another blog/time.

Reality #5: Solutions require biblical wisdom. There is no one passage that gives us a definitive home run answer. Seminaries don’t include “pastoring through a pandemic” as part of their core curriculum, or their elective courses. The reality is that we are moving in unchartered territories (for our lifetime, but not in church history). 

In order for churches to work together through our current trials we will need to create a web of biblical wisdom to keep us standing. Stringing these passages together will take time, humility, and a lot of love among the brethren. It will require elders eldering—teaching, preaching, shaping and molding consciences with Scripture, and setting good examples. It will require members to respond in faith, humility, and action. It will be a hard and arduous process, but pursuing and practicing biblical wisdom will yield great reward.

What Wisdom Says about Our Situation

We all must embrace the above realities. The meshing together of those realities is where the conversation begins. How do we gather in light of a pandemic? How can we love and interact and still disciple one another when we differ on some very important convictions? Well, Solomon tells us that wisdom speaks and works (Prov 8:1–11). Here are a few ways that wisdom speaks to our current situation. 

Wisdom says: “Evaluate. Evaluate your character.” Difficult circumstances expose our true character. Christians, of all people, should constantly reflect and evaluate their character. Our understanding of sin and repentance should drive us to deep internal evaluation.

Wisdom says to evaluate our priorities. To be honest, it’s absolutely ok to be afraid of COVID. The descriptions of those who are infected are difficult to hear: fatigue, congestion, shortness of breath, etc. But the problem comes when we fear COVID more than we fear God. 

Wisdom says: “Emphasize. Emphasize the main thing.” There are a lot of important things to consider in the life of the local church. Things like where, when, and how to meet should all be considered by the local church; especially in light of COVID. Still, those details should function to uphold the most important things about the gathering of God’s people: the worship of God, the edification of the saints (discipleship), and the proclamation of the gospel (evangelism). 

The beauty of the regulative principle (worship = sing, read, pray, preach, and see the Scriptures) is that it can be applied with masks and social distancing. Even Scriptures call for believers to encourage one another is possible with the COVID restrictions in place.

This means that we should aim to keep the main thing, the main thing. Keep gospel at the center. Worship Christ alongside one another—cherish Him. Edify and disciple one another to follow after Christ with greater commitment and passion. Preach the gospel to the unsaved visitor and pray for their conversion!

Wisdom says: “Esteem. Esteem / respect your leaders.” These are tough times for everyone and that includes local church pastor-elder-overseers. Respect the decisions they make because they’re making them for the benefit of your local church, your people, your context. Even if you may not understand or comprehend some of their decisions it will be helpful to show humility and submit on non-sin issues. Children do not always understand why the rules of their home differ from the rules of others, but parents still ask them to obey. Similarly, local church members can easily compare and contrast how their church is handling the pandemic compared to the mega-church down the street, or the celebrity pastor’s church we all admire. Respect and value the leaders God has placed over you. You can do this by verbally encouraging them, texting them, and praying for them. Your pastors love you, they’re doing their best.

Wisdom says: “Engage. Engage your brethren through selfless service.” Wisdom says to participate in the life and body of the local church despite the pandemic. There are numerous ways we can serve one another during this unique time. Every church, in one sense, needs more hands on deck. Volunteers are needed to procure supplies for sanitation. People need to do the work of disinfecting. Guests still need to be welcomed, bathrooms still need to be cleaned. Someone can help with the livestream to serve those who are genuinely high-risk. The opportunities that COVID has uncovered are endless. It doesn’t matter if you’re single, married, married with children, young, old, new Christian, seasoned Christian—everyone can find something to do during these times. 

Putting your hand to the plow and working alongside of other Christians is a beautiful experience. It strengthens the unity and mission of the church. It reminds us that we’re in this together and that we all have the opportunity to contribute to the health and vitality of our local church. It is an exercise of humility and love and care to serve others. This experience should drive us to practice and experience the love of God through the brethren. 

Last Thought 

As a final thought, with all of these factors in mind it is important that above all Christ remain the center. It is important that in these endeavors we aim to cherish and exalt Christ as our Lord—the Lord of our lives, the Lord of our church. Look to Christ, love Him, cherish Him, and long to see others to do the same! 

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