(This article originally appeared on the Christian Voice Ireland website—written for an Irish context, but the principles discussed still apply.)
I’ve been asked to put my thoughts down as to the principles which have guided us as elders in our church over the last few months.
We’ve been hugely disappointed not to be meeting in person, and disappointed by the government’s disregard of the importance of public worship, but yet we decided that we would, for the time being, meet online.
How are such decisions to be reached?
I think there has been a tendency among some to reduce Scripture to one verse. Either saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), or “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1). But we mustn’t be single verse Christians.
We need to have a whole Bible approach to this. There are multiple parts of Scripture and multiple strands that need to be woven together. We’ve found it useful as elders to consider at least 4 circles of biblical truth.
• Circle #1 – God’s command to gather for worship (e.g. Hebrews 10:25)
• Circle #2 – God’s command to love our neighbour—both in our congregations and in society (e.g. Matthew 22:39, Ex 20:13)
• Circle #3 – God’s command to honour and submit to the governing authorities (e.g. Romans 13:1, 1 Peter 2:13-17)
• Circle #4 – God’s command not to dishonour Christ before the watching world (e.g. 1 Cor 10:31-33, Romans 2:24)
These four circles are not unconnected, but overlap to varying degrees. If we do not see the necessity for all four we risk being unbalanced and unbiblical in our response. Some responses risk harming our neighbour and leave us answerable to God for that. Some responses fail to fulfil our obligation to those in authority, which includes calling them to rule according to God’s word. Some responses may bring the cause of Christ into disrepute in a community.
We must not absolutise any one of the commands to the exclusion of the others. Instead I believe that the biblical answer lies in the overlap of those four circles. We need to hold all factors together in our response.
As we have sought to approach the issue of gathering for worship we have tried to weigh each of these and hold them together. That doesn’t mean we have always agreed on how much weight we give to each circle, or how we think we fulfil each aspect, but it has given us a framework for balanced biblical discussion.
We have also found that changing circumstances change the consideration each circle requires. Whilst we have tried to bear in mind all four aspects, at certain times some aspects have a greater prominence. High infection rates in a locality may mean that our obligations to Circles 2 and 4 require more consideration. The nature of our obligation to the governing authorities (circle 3) may change over time too. We are still obligated to honour them, but if having sought to engage with the government on the restrictions on churches, they choose to arbitrarily restrict churches while easing restrictions on the rest of society, then churches should consider how they apply the other three circles, whilst continuing to engage with those God has placed in authority.
And that consideration may lead to different conclusions for different churches, depending on a whole host of factors particular to their locality and congregation. Two different churches might weigh up all four considerations just as seriously as the other yet make different decisions. The nature of the building or outdoor areas available to them, the vulnerability demographic of the congregation, and the local rates of transmission will all shape the decisions of individual pastors and elders.
Whatever our approach is though, we need to ask ourselves:
• How are we seeking to fulfil God’s command to gather for worship?
• Are we doing all we can do to ensure the physical welfare of others?
• Have we sought to honour the government in our response, and are we dealing respectfully with government authorities if we have interaction with them?
• Is our response bringing unnecessary reproach or dishonour on Christ?
The overlapping zone of these four circles is where we are aiming for. It is where biblical obedience is to be found—obedience that seeks to hold biblical truth in balance.