November 17, 2020 · C.E. Carter
I recently posted something on a certain social media platform yesterday that I wasn’t proud of. I took it down after a couple hours, but not after it had been seen by a lot of people. The “something” was in relation to pastors going along with the false view that the most loving thing they can do during this pandemic is go along with the state if the state decides to shut down churches, as if thing their congregations need the most is to be isolated at home for fear of viral infection. This post was made, in part, after reading this Tim Challies article. Tim Challies lost his son, and because of COVID restrictions he and his family cannot grieve with their community and their church; as of today, they haven’t even had the chance to bury him and have a proper funeral. There are many like Tim Challies who are and were experiencing some kind of grief, loss, mental health struggle, or other life crisis who are unable to be comforted and strengthened by the community around them due to COVID rules. Theoretically the State of New York could fine you $10,000 for failing to social distance and abide by other restrictions if you are caught grieving with a group of people over the loss of a family member. That’s the cruel mercy of the wicked (Proverbs 12:10), and it makes me quite angry. For churches to shut down for the sake of protecting their congregations from infection is a similar kind of misordered love; the kind that keeps your brothers and sisters from getting sick with COVID, but deprives them of their real need for community and support.
Now, I still stand by all of that. I’m angered by the situation Tim Challies is in. I think what the state is calling “quarantine” departs from the Biblical definition of quarantine (the isolation of the symptomatically sick), and is therefore unjust. Cruel mercy is an apt term for the shutdowns. I think churches should stay open for the sake of their congregants, even if New York decides they should close, since Christians need to gather to admonish one another to love and good works much more than they need to avoid coronavirus. Barring that, a church which chooses to close during this time should almost definitely not do it for the sake of avoiding “being part of the problem”; the gathering of believers to worship God and admonish one another to love and good works is never a part of the problem, it doesn’t matter what the problem is. I pray that those are the points that made it through, but I doubt they did.
What I wasn’t proud of was the way in which I failed to render honor where honor is due, especially to pastors as those who shepherd the flock of God. I don’t envy that job at all. Being a pastor is a worthy task, full of difficulty, loneliness, and all the hardships of being a God-appointed leader. I didn’t intend to conflate “the cruel mercy of the state” with the intentions of a pastor who merely goes along with the state by shutting their church down. Some pastors actually do think it’s more important that their congregation stays COVID-free than that their congregation is strengthened and admonished in the word of God, love, and good works, by mutual encouragement. This was the idea I wanted to attack most harshly and directly. Instead, I picked up a pump action shotgun when I should have reached for a rifle; this is not how I like to do things. I don’t think that all pastors who close their churches are of the disposition that gathering together is a good outweighed by the evil of COVID. There are other things at play: the probability and magnitude of a fine from the state, the probability of a lawsuit which could shut the church down indefinitely, the proportion of the congregation that is in the “at risk” category, etc. are factors which must be taken into account before a decision like that is made. Times of injustice are times to be boldly shrewd and shrewdly bold, and that’s some nuance I didn’t add to that post. Gathering as Christians is a non-negotiable, but if the option of taking a stand by keeping the church building open on Sundays isn’t wise, then you have to look at other solutions, like equipping your congregation to meet regularly in homes, moving services outside (yes, even now), or having meetings underground. Zoom calls and live-streamed sermons are only “gathering” in a pretend sense. To say to your congregation, “we are closing because we don’t want to be part of the problem” is the wrong message. To say instead, “our benevolent governor wants to shut down our worship, but we are going to be bold and stay open”, or “our benevolent governor wants to shut down our worship, but we are going to be shrewd and meet together in homes by taking this plan of action…”, etc. leads the flock well by elevating the truth that Christians are commanded to gather for the sake of the well-being of one another, without appearing to compromise the authority of Christ with the authority of civil government.
This is a two-way street, and I also wasn’t proud of how little support I offered to pastors who may be facing that decision. Pastors are appointed by God to lead from the front, and the front is a lonely place. I’ve spoken to many young men over the past couple days who would prefer to keep their own church open if a shutdown order was made by Cuomo, and who would support and stand with their pastor if he chose to be bold, or who would gladly offer their time and effort to make a more underground meeting solution work if need be. Pastors should know when their men stand with them, and often they don’t. Unfortunately, this support can be lost or muffled in a cloud of angry emails and angry social media posts. I want to be a guy who communicates feedback, correction, and encouragement to his pastor in a way that is clear, firm, interpersonal, and winsome, and the stuff I posted could have been construed as indirect feedback to my pastor (it wasn’t indirect feedback, but it could be construed that way).
God’s grace is given to us that we may risk obedience. Risk is opportunity. Harsh words are sometimes the kindest. In my opinion, I took a risk to be obedient, and failed at obedience. That’s not something I take lightly.