To Exiled Congregations
This is a letter that I sent to my congregation last week. In the state of Kansas, until Saturday, April 11th churches were exempt from the restrictions placed on public gatherings. Our Governor decided to sign an executive order no longer exempting churches. This was revoked by a Legislative Committee and the Governor filed a suit. The Supreme Court of Kansas heard oral arguments on Saturday morning and ruled on Saturday night that a committee didn't have the authority to revoke an executive order. This was hard news, and when Sunday morning dawned I experienced the sadness of Psalm 42 in a new way: "These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival."
As a bit of an advanced warning this may be a lengthy letter — depending on your metrics! If I can, I’d ask you all to take a few minutes and read it (to yourself or with your families). It’s written from a pastor’s heart to the people I am privileged to pastor.
Today the Supreme Court of Kansas ruled that the Legislative Coordinating Committee’s revocation of the Governor’s executive order prohibiting religious gatherings of ten or more people, was unlawful. To be clear, neither party nor the Supreme Court understood this as a question of religious liberty but whether or not the legislature being represented by a committee could overturn an executive order. Personally, I expect someone to now challenge the lawfulness of the prohibition itself. The Governor’s order doesn’t prohibit religious worship only the number of people that can assemble for that purpose. In light of the court’s decision the previous order (No. 20-18) is considered the law of the land, and is enforceable through criminal prosecution.
As an elder in the church it’s not my responsibility to sort these things out. Over the last few weeks I’ve often been reminded of Jesus’ question to the brother that wanted him to settle a legal dispute: “Who made me arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14). Certainly with perfect knowledge Jesus could have settled the argument. He didn’t. That’s because his purpose wasn’t to come and legislate civil and judicial matters. I’m not a political pundit, a constitutional scholar, or a lawyer but as a pastor I have some pastoral thoughts.
It’s extremely difficult at this time to distinguish the truth of COVID-19 from the narrative. It’s hard to know who to trust and who will give a reliable and accurate picture of what is really happening. However, regardless of the misinformation or politicalization of this pandemic one consequence of it all is indisputable: at this time we aren’t able to publicly worship God in the most ideal or even the most biblical way.
Public worship is a (if not the) priority of biblical Christianity. We teach our children that man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Individually that is true, but it’s also true corporately — together. We were not created to glorify and enjoy God by ourselves or alone and isolated. Rather, we reflect the purpose of our existence when we glorify him with one another. The Psalmist sings: “The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob” (Psalm 87:2). Simply put, God loves the place where his people gather publicly more than he loves your private home. He loves it more when we assemble together than when we stay apart. Public worship is one of the greatest privileges and benefits given to us and should be the highlight of our week.
But so much of what is happening right now in our culture and society is restricting this more and more. As a Christian it doesn’t make me angry or bitter, but it does make me tremendously sad. It makes me sad because I think it’s a clear sign of God’s Fatherly displeasure. A couple of weeks ago I preached from Amos 3:6: “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” I noted that it’s difficult to judge providence because the Bible gives several reasons why God brings disaster to a city. We simply cannot speak with absolute confidence. But it also wouldn’t be the part of biblical wisdom to throw our hands up in times of calamity and declare: “Well, we just don’t know!” What is needed is careful and biblical self-examination.
Even as I think God is, through this pandemic, judging the idols of our culture — money, sports, education, entertainment, busyness, comfort, etc — I also think we need to regard what is happening as the hand of discipline against the church. It’s a biblical principle that when God disciplines his people he often does it through revoking or removing privileges and blessings.
The Prophet Ezekiel told of the anger of God against his people for the abominations they committed in the temple — in the worship of God. The result was that God in a tremendous act of judgment drove his people from Jerusalem and scattered them among the nations in exile. The tragedy of exile wasn’t simply that these people lost home and country, but they were removed from the temple — the very place where God’s grace was displayed and administered. They lost worship. The Bible is clear about who, how, why, and when we worship, and God doesn’t tolerate his people abusing or neglecting this privilege and blessing.
Could it be that the church in America (and around the world) has neglected and abused the supreme privilege of public worship? Shockingly, for many people who call themselves “Christians,” the societal restrictions being placed on public worship will have little effect on their lives. Their attitudes and attendance will remain unchanged even as churches shutter their doors. Even more tragically there are, perhaps, those who secretly rejoice that now they have good reasons to not be present in public worship. This isn’t biblical Christianity.
But let’s not point fingers or pick the low hanging fruit. Let’s ask ourselves if we (you and me) have undervalued or even neglected the public worship of God. Let’s ask ourselves difficult questions. What is my attendance? What is my attitude? What is the attention I give? What are my expectations? What are my habits? What are my priorities? What is my response to worship? etc. An honest assessment might reveal that you and I have been negligent, apathetic, or even absent. If so, is it any wonder that God has revoked this privilege and through a pandemic and the orders of governing officials is removing from us the blessing of public worship?
What should our response be? Well, I don’t think our response should be to minimize the circumstances, or use this time to be foolishly stubborn, or be controlled by conspiracy theories, or practice civil disobedience. Even as God brought judgment on Old Testament Israel for their neglect and abuse of worship, still he warned: “Flee for safety, stay not, for I bring disaster from the north, and great destruction” (Jeremiah 4:6). It’s appropriate at this time that many (maybe even most) flee for safety. This is why I’ve encouraged social distancing even when it removes some from publicly gathering to worship.
But as many of you are distancing — and even those who continue to gather — our response should be of a different character. We should lament and be sorrowful that the situation is what it is and that we are experience discipline from our Father (see Lamentations 2:1-2). We should repent and plead for mercy and forgiveness for our attitudes, apathy, and absence in public worship. We should pray that the the hand of discipline would no longer be turned against us (see 2 Chronicles 7:13-14). We should persevere under the disfavor of God (see Proverbs 3:11-12). And we should hope for that day when we can gather together in unfettered praise and live out the privilege of being Christians.
This is a difficult time. In many ways it’s similar to the exile experienced by the Old Testament church. As the people were removed from Jerusalem and therefore from the temple and from worship, God was still there: “I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone” (Ezekiel 11:16). Why? Because he is the God of exile, and his presence and blessings aren’t limited by physical boundaries. Even in exile the people could have a measure of blessing (see Jeremiah 29:1-23). Our current situation is ultimately for his glory and our good. My prayer is that we would come out of it with a greater appreciation and expectation for public worship.
Don’t waste these days. Lament. Repent. Pray. Persevere. Hope. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:15). I have so much more I want to say but, Lord willing, there will be times ahead to do so face-to-face.
You remain my glory and joy before the Lord Jesus,