During our COVID-19 shutdown, Pastor Zekveld plans to provide a personal reflection from Tuesday through Friday.
Who Allows the Church to Gather?
In response to a letter sent by hundreds of churches, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that, as of May 19, the Government was allowing drive-in religious gatherings, as long as vehicles are at least 2 metres apart, only members of the same household are in one vehicle, people don’t leave their vehicles, and no more than five people may conduct the service at one time from outside a motor vehicle, and they must stay at least two metres apart.
Well, if you’ve recently visited your grocery store parking lot, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that few, if any, of these restrictions apply there.
But my main concern in the Government’s response is the word “allow.” Can the Government allow worship services? Does it have that kind of authority?
Back in March when we suspended worship services, we were not obeying a Government edict forcing the shutdown of church assemblies. We were obeying the Lord’s command to love our neighbor by cooperating with the Civil Government’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
As church leaders we were careful to acknowledge we were not being forced by the Government to shut down; we chose voluntarily to cease meeting for a short time, out of love for neighbour and respect for our government, while civil and medical authorities were trying to get a handle on the seriousness of the pandemic and bracing themselves against overburdening our health care system and workers.
I’m convinced that was the right thing for our churches to do. As Christians, we do not fear death because of the resurrection hope that is ours through Christ, but we deeply desire to show love to all people. (Letter re: Reopening Ontario Churches)
Just as the Lord permitted a temporary delay in the celebration of the Passover in the days of Hezekiah because of the condition of the people of Judah (see 2 Chronicles 30), we sought the Lord’s blessing on a temporary suspension of worship gatherings, even though the Lord commands us to assemble, especially on the Lord’s Day, to hear God’s Word, to break bread, and to pray together; to speak to one another in spiritual songs; to bring Christian offerings, and to stir one another up to love and good deeds. (see Exodus 20:9-11; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; Hebrews 10:24-25; Acts 2:42, 20:7).
Today, the virus concern continues, but the virus crisis is past. We can be thankful for immediate steps taken by all members of our society to mitigate COVID’s potential damage.
But now, God’s call to us to gather for weekly worship, to minister personally to the distressed and dying, compels and impels us to re-open our churches. Gathering is an essential and vital service for all God’s people. We need to gather at least weekly in order for our faith to flourish and the church to prosper.
The gathering of the Church is also crucial for the well-being of our society. As Jesus said, the Church is light of the world, the salt of the earth. (see Matthew 5:13,14) Even if our province and nation do not recognize it, they need the Church too. Our culture needs the truth of the Gospel, the strong faith and witness of Jesus’ followers, and the Church’s service to the poor and disadvantaged in our communities. That’s God’s gift at least as much as any other front-line service.
I appreciate the work being done in Ontario by Pastors Aaron Rock and Joel Boot, and also by Legal Counsel Andre Schutten, to appeal to Premier Ford to stand with our churches and support us in Jesus’ call to His Church to gather for the ministry of the Word and sacraments, and for the ministry of mercy. (see the correspondence at reopenontariochurches.ca).
Their letter on behalf of many churches to Premier Ford includes this very important testimony: “We would respectfully remind the civil government that the church does not exist by permission of the state, for its establishment and rule is found in Jesus Christ himself.“
The letter goes on to implore Premier Ford “that we must start meeting very soon because of our obligations to God and because our people need us. We cannot delay.” It does not ask the Premier to allow churches to assemble but simply “to support the reopening of churches and ministries by early June, pending any unforeseen circumstance.” (italics added) The letter includes a specific plan that honours government guidelines for social distancing.
At a time like this it’s very important for Christians to recognize proper spheres of authority. The Civil Government exists and functions by Christ’s authority, not by the Church’s authority. It’s equally important for Christians to recognize, especially at this time, that the Church exists and functions by Christ’s authority, not by the Civil Government’s authority. The state does not have the power to allow churches to gather. It can only support – or refuse the support – Christ’s command for churches to gather.
The Church is called, in obedience to our Saviour, to decide when it’s time to gather. That decision does not lie in the hands the Civil Government. We should collaborate with our Government on this for wisdom, but in the end its our task to decide this matter in obedience to Jesus Christ.
So with the courage of our convictions, let’s all do our part, for the honor of Christ, the well-being of His Church, and the good of society, to press for re-opening soon. Let us urge our local and provincial officials to support us in that calling we have from Christ.
Let us pray that God would continue to grant us the blessing of religious liberty in our nation.