To Meet, or Not to Meet: Is it even a question?
This one is written with my fellow pastors in mind, and by extension for all of us under their spiritual care, the sheep about whom these dear undershepherds must give account to the Great Shepherd. Full disclosure: I am not currently the pastor of a local church. I was for about seven years before taking an opportunity to be a chaplain at a Christian undergraduate institution. Though the latter came without an official ecclesiastical title and that which the title implies and encapsulates, for all intents and purposes, I felt like and wanted to serve like the campus pastor. That position was eliminated last spring due to budget constraints, and man, does it still hurt. All of that to say this, to my fellow brethren in the trenches and having to make hard, heart-wrenching decisions these days about personal pastoral ministry and congregational life in general: I get it.
I admit, I don’t understand experientially the particular fire you are presently under, but I absolutely understand the fire in your souls to preach the gospel from the pulpit, to worship in the assembled congregation, to see those who do not know Christ come to faith and freedom, sometimes in that very same gathering. I know what it is to preach to the point where you want to pass out, absolutely exhausted but simultaneously exhilarated, somehow ready to do it again the second after you finish, in any setting, in any context, among any people. And I know the special satisfaction that comes to the undershepherd when ministering to the flock on the Lord’s Day, gathered as the Lord’s house in the peace that comes from a common desire to worship him and to rest all that we are in all that Christ is and has done. Believe me, I get it.
Lest this sound, especially to those who aren’t pastors, like self-indulgence or a hagiography of the pastorate, I’m just trying to give a window into the soul-deep passions of those called to the office, passions which, because we are sinful people, can get all fouled up because of pride. Notice, I’ve only mentioned pastoral ministry from the angle of what many if not most pastors know and love to do. I haven’t mentioned it from the side of the deeply self-sacrificial, sometimes miserable responsibilities that take us away from our favorite aspects of shepherding work, the drudgery and details which tend to drain our energy and maybe even make us question our calling. It’s the drudgeries, not the delights of ministry, which most clearly reveal the sincerity, or lack thereof, of our desire to serve Christ. In a time of deep, in some ways unprecedented, world-sized burdens, where drudgeries seem to increase by the day, pastoral ministry is becoming all the more crucial, and is therefore all the more vulnerable to corruption.
Every pastor knows this; every pastor feels this. That insidious pride which loves to wear the mask of gospel boldness, to masquerade as kind, sensitive care for those around us, which blazes like gospel fire in the pulpit and shines warmly as we speak less formally to those in the pew. The pastorate is such a wretched mix of forced humility – “who is sufficient for such a task?” we continually ask ourselves, sometimes really meaning and feeling it - and personal pride rearing its hellish head in the most inappropriate of times and places, among the people of God as we’re called to point them to the true, spotless, guileless glory of his Son. That pride can be so subtle. Sometimes it manifests as our pursuing with disproportionate passion those pastoral duties which are convenient, and come relatively easily to us. Oh yes, they require hard work, for sure. But if we’re honest, they’re the types of things we’d want to be doing anyway. And so if we can aggrandize those duties to the point where we neglect others, we might deceive ourselves to the point where dereliction of duty feels like doctrinal rectitude. How much of our pastoral ministry is more a function of our personalities and proclivities, than a deep, sincere, unconditional commitment to selflessly serve the living Christ?
Thankfully, in God’s kindness, he so often joins personal passion and particular pastoral duty, but the Enemy loves to use God’s kindness to cloak his own maliciousness, to prevent us from perceiving that terrible pivot point where we turn from serving God to serving ourselves, claiming and feeling what we think is the Lord’s approval the whole way. So, how can we keep cognizant of the Enemy’s tactics? How can we see the true state of our hearts? We can see the relative purity of our pastoral passions most clearly when some of those favorite pastoral practices are threatened.
What tends to press pastoral ministry, and pastors themselves, to the point where sin separates in their souls from the sanctifying work underway by the Spirit’s grace, rising to the surface of their conscience and cognizance in horrid moments of grim self-discovery, is trials. Especially unforeseen, life-and-death-level tribulation. Trials such as the global pandemic and consequent panic our world is facing now. Now, we get to see how much of our ministry is really a matter of clinging to Christ, and how much is really a matter of pride which has a much stronger grip on us than we’d ever realized. It’s no coincidence that James’s admonition to those who teach in the church (chapter 3) is preceded by his discussion of true vs. false religion at the end of chapter 1, and of trials in general as his epistle opens.
This past week, one burning focal point of that crucible of faithfulness has been the question of whether or not to cancel worship services. Note well, please! This post is MOST EMPHATICALLY NOT claiming enough knowledge to know and therefore to comment on all the particularities in all the particular places where federal guidelines have come to bear and to press down, hard – so I am not attempting to pass judgment on the ecclesiastical activities or the lack thereof of this past weekend. This post is commenting primarily on the events of last week, as regulations were just starting to be handed down, and had not become as tight as the President’s recent “no gatherings of ten or more” recommendations.
I’m particularly interested in the initial, gut reactions which came to the surface as governmental guidelines and rumors of more began to swell, guidelines which boded ill not only for public, face-to-face assembly for worship, but even for close, personal visitation to those most susceptible to catching the Corona virus from a-symptomatic, relatively healthy people – some of whom are pastors! For some pastors, the ministry fire burns brightest not in the public pulpit, but in private counseling sessions, in praying with and visiting the sheep. In just being there as a pastoral presence for someone who needs it. In certain heart-pressing circumstances, even this has come within the purview of regulations which seek to promote social distancing. How contrary to a shepherd’s heart! To move away from the sheep, when they feel and sometimes are most vulnerable! And oh my, the weight of what one beloved, veteran pastor calls “the guilt of the unpaid visit”!
The sense of failing to spiritually feed the sheep through word and sacrament in the assembled church, or of failing to counsel and comfort them with pastoral personal presence, is an acutely, essentially pastoral pain. Bearing it may cause us to do unwise things, to push ourselves past wisely placed boundaries in God’s providence so that we can be satisfied that the sheep are being well tended to. Even here, in fact especially here, self-deceit is just waiting to strike.
Reactions among church leaders to growing governmental restrictions this past week have ranged from “Of course we’ll comply” to “Of course we shouldn’t!” and everywhere in between; in each case the particular minister’s deepest convictions, and particular personality and proclivities, rose quickly to the surface in response. This is simply a plea for a theologically robust and a careful, contextually considered response to the challenges we face – and to the extent possible among churches aligned by common confession and geography, unity of purpose, and maybe even practice.
A theologically robust consideration requires a deep dive into the Scriptures, guided by the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. So, for example, the fourth commandment. Confessionally Reformed churches see it not only as the impetus for keeping the Sabbath in general but as practical guidance as to the practices of that day, most notably public worship and acts of mercy. The fourth commandment must be interpreted in light of the sixth commandment, which as the Westminster Standards exposit it requires every lawful effort to uphold and prosper the good and well-being of our fellow image-bearers. The implications, if not the exact applications, in our time of trial are obvious, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable in society and the danger which relatively healthy people may pose to them without knowing it. The fourth commandment must also be interpreted in light of the fifth, which the same Standards tell us requires lawful obedience to our civil authorities. And of course, the fifth and sixth must be interpreted in light of the fourth. In short – it’s complex! And even when we come to a clearer understanding of the doctrine proclaimed, we face the complexities of the truth applied to our times.
A careful, contextually considered response to Covid 19 and the societal strictures it’s occasioning, requires a deep dive study into the information provided for us by those on the front lines of fighting it. It is deeply unnerving to hear the response of some Christians who refuse, out of hand, to even consider closing down worship in light of Covid 19, because, in their minds, to do so is to bow the knee to a tyrannical state, to be cowardly when Christ calls us to courage - in short, to show a lack of faith. It is instructive that this argument so closely resembles the effort to live “your best life now” as “preached” by proponents of the health-and-wealth “gospel.” Those false teachers are also all about sanctified defiance of image-bearing instincts toward the preservation of life, all about faith that’s big and bold enough to not only avoid danger but to actively, willfully plunge right in because God is glorified in such displays. Please have a look at Matthew chapter four, and the use and literally Satanic abuse of Psalm 91 along these lines. Not all that sounds, or even feels, like gospel boldness really is gospel boldness. In our responses to national and global calamity, and even when tragedy hits locally, and privately, we must be careful that we do not twist a biblical doctrine of worship (or any other doctrine) into something that the Lord would rebuke as a neglect of the weightier matters of the law.
Sometimes what feels like gospel boldness is really just godless bravado. We who are pastors must be especially adept at recognizing the difference, and practiced in demonstrating that difference to the flocks to whom the Lord has sent us to minister. We must keep watch over our doctrine and ourselves, for the sake of displaying tangibly the true care of the Great Shepherd, who as every conscientious pastor knows, holds us to a stricter standard of accountability. We do this by careful searching of both the Scriptures and our cultural conditions, by submitting ourselves humbly to the Lord, asking his Word to search our hearts deeply for that damnable pride so eager to infect our ministries, by engaging in dialogue in a multitude of counselors, with a true willingness to learn and to be wrong, by doing so with our fellow believers, especially those on the front lines of this current fight, and with unbelievers giving their own lives to the same effort to curtail a stunningly powerful and pervasive plague.
Dear pastor, the Lord knows your heart, and he knows the heart he’s given you as a pastor. Take a deep breath. He does not depend upon your perfection to carry out his perfect plans for his people and for the world as a whole. Remember when your instincts to honor one of God’s commandments run against your natural understanding of another, that the Lord’s word is undivided in its truth, and that its author is kind toward our confusion. When King Josiah was zealous to restore the long-neglected Passover feast to Scriptural form, things did not go smoothly and by the book. Yet the Lord was pleased with the heart and the intent. None of our efforts will attain perfection. We always look only to the perfections of our true King. Remember as you seek to love the flock, as it’s tempting to fret about meeting as the church and meeting personally, that the first attribute the Holy Spirit lists in describing love – is patience. Therefore, if pastoral ministry is loving, it is patiently exercised, and a model of patience for the other sheep. When worship occurs across the internet rather than side by side, be grateful for such technology and remember that Scripture has you covered. Didn’t God give us Psalms written precisely when gathering as the saints was so desperately longed for, but providentially prohibited? Psalm 42 comes to mind! When you can’t pay the personal visit, remember that the Lord Jesus is with his people, always, even to the end of the age. Remember Romans 8, all of it. The church has been through fire, and always comes out refined in the righteousness of her Savior.
Pastor, the Lord has given you the privileged burden of spiritual leadership, and the promise of close friendship as you follow his ways. As you may find yourself walking a path into particular obedience you never thought possible, much less desirable, trust him with all the more of all that you are. Lean on the counsel of those closest to you, and the news coming from well-placed, well-informed sources abroad. Trust his Spirit and word to guide you through. Aim to be as the men of Isacchar, noted in their day for understanding the times, and knowing what Israel should do. Lead the flock by example, and know your closeness to the Good Shepherd’s heart as you do. Thank you for your service. I’m praying for you.