The DC Mayor Doesn’t Get to Define Church

"Like millennia of Christians before them, CHBC believes (as do I) that something that never assembles, such as separate services or sites, is not actually a church." - Jonathan Leeman

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

There's a bit of space between "never assembles" and "doesn't assemble in one place at one time for several months." There's even quite a bit of space between "never assembles" and "several years."

For what it's worth, my take:

  • CBC has done the right thing by finding ways to be obedient to Romans 13, etc., while seeking legal means of relief from the restrictions.
  • It's absolutely best if a church can meet altogether at one time in one place every week.
  • Much of the thinking going on is rooted in the feeling that the pandemic is not really that severe.

On the third point, I'm not really trying to debate whether it is all that severe or not, but it needs to inform how we frame our principles. What if we had a plague in which two out of three people who met together outside their homes dropped dead? Would we be arguing that a church that can't meet all in one place at one time physically is no longer a church?

We've probably all seen church Sunday gathering canceled before for one reason or another. Here in rural Wisconsin, it happens every winter at least once, usually more than once, due to weather. Did we stop being a church when we failed to meet one Sunday? Nobody would say yes.

So what if it was two Sundays? Three? How many can it be, and doesn't it depend on what the reasons for not meeting are? What if your building burns down? What if the roads are literally impassible? 

My point is that in many cases we're overstating/incorrectly framing what Scripture defines as a church because:

  • Someone in government is telling us our meeting is restricted
  • We think the government response is disproportionate to the threat to public health

We should be straightforward about that or we may find ourselves eating our words if/when we're faced with a far more serious disaster.

"Welp, hurricane wrecked our building and there's too much rubble to meet there.... got nowhere else to meet... guess we're not a church anymore."

So, there's a problem with framing the issue solely in terms of ability to physically gather in one large group all at once in one physical location. If there are any conditions under which we would not physically meet yet remain a church, that definition is invalidated. A more flexible definition would be a truer one.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

....as on another thread, could the early church have met this definition while Paul and many other pastors were in prison or dead, and where building an actual church building would have been impossible?  I'm thinking that, just as believers in closed countries often improvise, they did back then, too.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

G. N. Barkman's picture

It's easier to ask questions than to arrive at solid answers.  The question about churches not meeting together in one place for several months is assumed to answer that such an inconvenience does not constitute the abolishment of a local church.  Would the same answer satisfy if the question were expanded?  What if the government forbids churches to assemble for several years?  Would that tip the answer in a different direction?

I think Jonathan Leeman probably has the right approach.  However we answer the above questions, the fact remains that churches decide such theological questions, not government.  That is the guarantee of the First Amendment.  Thankfully, CHBC challenged the government and prevailed in court.  (If Biden wins, we may well see fuirther erosion of freedom of religion in America.)  

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

Here's a conundrum for you related to the definition of a "church." We do Sunday evening bible studies in homes twice per month. Attendance was ok before COVID. Now, it's not good. One thing we're pondering is whether we should just move Sunday evening bible studies to Zoom entirely. We did that for our bi-monthly theology class back in February, and I actually prefer it. We all have great fun. If we held theology class at the church, many people who attend by Zoom would not come.

The primary reason for our sunday evening bible studies is fellowship; not necessarily bible study. So, can we do the bible study by Zoom and still grow together as a family? We do it for theology class. I'm tempted to say yes. We shall see. It isn't ideal, but it is the reality of the situation.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Mark_Smith's picture

The church should not be tying itself into knots over this. The problem is not the definition of church, or how we gather, etc. The question is: does the the government have authority in this crisis as it has rolled out and manifested itself, to tell churches they cannot gather.

Focus.

TylerR's picture

Editor

You wrote:

The question is: does the the government have authority in this crisis as it has rolled out and manifested itself, to tell churches they cannot gather.

Yes, it does. I do not know why this point is so difficult for some Baptists to acknowledge. My acknowledgement says nothing about how long, or what conditions must be in place before the government goes too far (etc.). These are local and context-specific determinations. But, the brute fact of it is that of course the government has that right in a public health event. I continue to believe Dever's "comply + resist" approach is far superior JMac's "defy + resist." JMac's video he released, urging churches to open up and again suggesting COVID is a manufactured issue, is simply disgraceful.

This is really a worldview divide. JMac and many other fundamentalists and Christian Nationalists seem to have coalesced on this issue over a shared view of "the government" as evil, and a gleeful insistence on "fighting the good fight" on this one. That distrust and cynicism about government informs their actions. Dever (et al), however, do not appear to take that approach. My sympathies are clearly with Dever.

This is really, in the end, the broad difference between the fundamentalist and evangelical ethos and philosophy of ministry playing out right before our eyes.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Mark_Smith's picture

So you surrendered the Free Exercise Clause, so what?

Why are you letting the Governor of CA and VA, and the mayor of DC, divide the body of Christ? This isn't about Romans 13. Its about our 1st Amendment rights.

Mark_Smith's picture

its bigger than that. Its about the Obama administration effort to change "freedom of religion" to "freedom of worship." The Left and Democrats want to limit your freedom to freely exercise your 1st Amendment right to freedom of religion. Its plain as day. They wanted to restrict "freedom of religion" to be that you can do what you want on Sunday morning, but Sunday afternoon through Saturday night you'd better be a good secularist. Hence they used the term "freedom of worship." Now those same people want to cut off church attendance in the name of a disease that turns out to be bad, but not atrocious. In the name of "public health" they want to limit church attendance inside. Well pardon me if I doubt their sincerity or authority.

At the same time, these hypocrites talk about how sacred the right to vote is and the right to protest is. But, the right to gather in worship. Well... that can be cut off as irrelevant.

TylerR's picture

Editor

These are the people you must reach with the Gospel. Why do you appear to despise them so much, and why are you so surprised that pagans don't care about your right to worship?

I believe we look at the world very differently, even as we share precisely the same concerns.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Robert Byers's picture

Tyler, I'm not surprised that pagans don't care about our right to worship.  I'm surprised that YOU don't.  

Dan Miller's picture

Assemble. That's the command. How do we apply it? 

The point is that churches like CHBC are asserting the right to follow their conviction about how "Assemble" should be applied. Churches have a right to form those convictions and follow them. And individual believers have a right to form those convictions and follow them.  

If you look at the decision on CHBC, the fact that the W,DC Mayor had attended large protests was a key part. It showed that gatherings were not the problem. Churches were. 

Mike Harding's picture

Praise the Lord for this victory.  My best wishes and prayers for Dever and his congregation.  Marxism is an all-out assault on Christianity.  The Dem party is fast becoming the Marxist party or Maoist.  It deeply hates Bible Christianity.  America as we know it is on the line as is the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.  Don't take your freedom for granted. Vote!

Pastor Mike Harding

Mark_Smith's picture

TylerR wrote:

These are the people you must reach with the Gospel. Why do you appear to despise them so much, and why are you so surprised that pagans don't care about your right to worship?

I believe we look at the world very differently, even as we share precisely the same concerns.

What does whether a mayor or a governor has the right to tell a church how they gather have to do with sharing the gospel?

I fight the system of liberalism and leftism, not the people.

Just was in a 90 minute faculty senate meeting full of people that support 100% LGBTQ rights and gay marriage in the name of "freedom"... but they will not hesitate for ONE SECOND to cancel Spring Break to "protect" students from gathering or returning home to party in groups either. These same people want to ban smoking on campus. What happened to freedom?

Bert Perry's picture

Mark_Smith wrote:

The church should not be tying itself into knots over this. The problem is not the definition of church, or how we gather, etc. The question is: does the the government have authority in this crisis as it has rolled out and manifested itself, to tell churches they cannot gather.

Focus.

Certainly the 1st Amendment comes in here, and yes, certainly the government is bound from treating churches in a way that other institutions are not.  On the flip side, I'm thinking more and more that this crisis is an incredible opportunity for churches to learn the habits that made the ancient churches thrive.  They didn't have buildings, their pastors were always being executed, they had to hide and use code to talk to each other, and they turned the Roman Empire upside down.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

What if the government forbids churches to assemble for several years?  Would that tip the answer in a different direction?

It would.

Which is kind of my point in my first comment. Obviously, we have a problem (actually more than one) if

  • The church doesn't physically gather at all (or for a very long, but hard to quantify period of time).
  • The government has told the church not to meet and has no legitimate public safety reason for doing so.

What we don't want to do is take the actual present situation and read the two points above into it, then develop a definition of what a church is based on that.

"It's not a church unless everybody meets every Sunday" shouldn't even be on the table. I pastored for more than decade. When was everybody there? And, as I've noted, we skipped Sundays sometimes for weather. Sometimes nobody was "there."

So, it's important to separate the question of "what are the essential characteristics of a church?" from the question of "what should the government not do?" and separate both from "What should churches do when the government does what it ought not to do?" 

These are closely related but distinct issues. We'll be more biblical in our thinking if we consider them separately. (But we need to consider all of them.)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

G. N. Barkman's picture

But what if Covid-19 is still with us for several years, so that the government may seem to have a legitimate reason for restricting churches from meeting?  How long before churches say, "We have to meet before our lack of assembling results in serious damage to the church?"

Covid may continue for a long time.  Government's restrictions are often inconsistent.  Just this morning, I read that WHO is now saying that total lock-downs aren't such a good idea after all.  Not because they are ineffective, but because the harm they cause is greater than the resulting good.  Such reasoning is highly subjective.  Who gets to decide when it is necessary for churches not to meet, and when the absence of assembling causes unacceptble damage to the church?

G. N. Barkman

Jim Welch's picture

I am pretty sure that pagans do not care one way or another about what we do.  I am pretty sure that those without Christ have their eyes blinded by Satan.  I am pretty sure that the argument that we will win them if we comply with the state is wrong.  Can we point to one group of believers who are winning pagans to Christ because that group is complying?  

Yes, our attitudes most always be checked by the Word.  Yes, we must be Christ like.  

We live in a nation that has a wonderful Constitution:  the basis for our rule of law.  In that Constitution, we have certain liberties that other people groups do not have.  I do not want those freedoms taken away.  I will continue to live like an American citizen who enjoys the freedoms that I have under our Constitution.

 

TylerR's picture

Editor

Jim wrote:

I am pretty sure that the argument that we will win them if we comply with the state is wrong.

That's not what I'm suggesting. I'm saying the vitriolic anger at "the left" is strange coming from Christians, when we're not supposed to hate our mission field. You can't reach people with the Gospel when you hate them.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

G. N. Barkman wrote:

But what if Covid-19 is still with us for several years...

[...]

Covid may continue for a long time.

I agree.  In fact, Covid is out, and like every other virus, it's never going to go completely away.  The question will be how we handle it.  Will it be like Ebola, which is mostly ignored unless there is an outbreak?  Will it be like the flu, with vaccinations every year, with multiple variations for the different strains, but otherwise we continue with life as usual?  Or will it be something "special," something too "deadly" to handle like the flu, where we have to live in essential lockdown for the rest of our lives?  If it's that latter, we'll have to figure out how to have church even if it's forbidden by the powers that be.

Pandemics come and go, and as you noted, even the WHO is saying that the cost of lockdowns is greater than the potential good.  I hope that eventually our government realizes we can't live the rest of our lives in fear, and we can't do this every time a new virus is discovered with a higher-than-average mortality rate.  But as others have noted, maybe churches can use this to develop ways to carry out their purpose and mission if this should happen again (or, God forbid, never get back to normal).

Dave Barnhart

Don Johnson's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

Who gets to decide when it is necessary for churches not to meet, and when the absence of assembling causes unacceptble damage to the church?


 

of course, WHO decides, naturally

 

I'm not sure what What and I Don't Know get to do, though, this ain't baseball

 

-- sorry, Stan, couldn't resist. 
Ollie

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Don Johnson's picture

nuts, double post, that will teach me to be a smart aleck

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Dan Miller's picture

TylerR wrote:

Jim wrote:

I am pretty sure that the argument that we will win them if we comply with the state is wrong.

That's not what I'm suggesting. I'm saying the vitriolic anger at "the left" is strange coming from Christians, when we're not supposed to hate our mission field. You can't reach people with the Gospel when you hate them.

I don't hate the left. But I do hate very much a lot of what they're doing. BLM, for instance, while seemingly supporting of African Americans, actually plays on their fears and deals them a horrible hand by trying to make them (and many others) dependent upon the state. It is, in my view, a racist movement.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Dan, I agree.

On a related note about my concerns with conservative Christians and social engagement generally, the most striking tidbit so far from Tara Burton's "Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World" (https://amzn.to/378QbtM) is below. It captures my own concerns with the Religious Right so well. The same concerns, but very different framing. Burton writes:

Even the institutionalization of white evangelicalism in the past few decades—bolstered since the late 1970s by evangelicals’ alliance with the Republican Party—is rooted in narratives not of ecumenism but of cultural resistance ... the sense of meaning and purpose these evangelical organizations provide their adherents remains the narrative of the brave underdog, valiantly fighting against the encroaching forces of post-1960s secularism.

So much of the focus has been on cultural resistance in (unwitting?) service of some form of Christian nationalist impulse, not the Gospel. I share the concerns. My framing is just different. I suspect JMac and Dever share the same concerns, but their framing is also quite different. I suspect this divide over whether "cultural resistance" is a legitimate philosophy for a local church is at the heart of this difference in framing.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?