This post is somewhat of a continuation of my last post “COVID-19 and the Local Church” and I want to give some more thoughts from the unique perspective that I have concerning all that is going on in our world in relation to the local church.
There are many words we can use to describe this time: uncharted, uncertain, unusual, unexpected, unprecedented, unknown. And even though I agree with all of these and everything does feel unfamiliar, there is one familiar feeling to everything that is going on. There is an attack against the local church that is all too familiar. After doing ministry in China for eight years and continuing to train and work with pastors there, there are some things that we learned from this “closed country” that might help at such a time as this.
1) God Over Government.
One of the constant frictions that you see in the Bible is God over the government. Worldly governments, even though ordain by God, they aren’t the ultimate authority. Governments have been ordained for a certain purpose, from which they can overstep the bounds of that purpose. As believers, we ALWAYS put God before the government. This is a notion that most governments or authorities hate. We have one loyalty, Jesus, above all else!
Thus, don’t be surprised when your government seems to turn on you as a believer. In China, all the missionary work we did (evangelize, church planting, etc) was illegal from the standpoint of the government. But the decision for us was already made: God over the government. (For more on this topic of authority and government, read these articles: What Does The Bible Teach About Authority? and Where Is Our Loyalty In The Face Of Persecution?)
2) Assembly Over Fear.
I have often told people the most dangerous thing we did in China as missionaries was assemble for our Sunday morning gathering because it was our largest gathering and if the police came, we were simply caught red-handed. Now, understanding the truth above, that the “government doesn’t have the authority in the affairs of the church, nor should it regulate its spiritual functions,” we didn’t decide what we did as a church, such as having services based on the government’s permission or recommendations. This was a decision made by our local church in obedience to our head, Jesus. Yes, we might have to pay a price for it, but we are followers of the Persecuted One, we don’t expect anything else. As we follow Him, they will treat us like Him. (For more on going forward in hard situations, read this article: How Can We Go Forward In The Face Of Persecution?)
A local church does not make decisions about assembly based on what the government says. We can choose as a church what is best for us and our community. We can listen to certain recommendations but ultimately it is a church’s decision to choose to meet in spite of anything else.
A snow day. I grew up in Ohio. Many churches would cancel services when is snowed because they didn’t want to put their people in harms way for one service. Understandable. With this virus, many are doing the same thing with moving to online services. No Church wants to become the center of this epidemic and cause the virus to spread to all of its members and community. But this where common sense and wisdom comes in. Understand this isn’t just about a virus, but there is *still* a spiritual battle raging, the enemy would love to do nothing more than to take advantage of this situation and cause chaos in local churches to prevent them from assembling for the longest duration as possible. As believers, we have a different worldview. Fear and misinformation CAN come in the name of safety and health to keep the church from assembling. (Think about it: there is no guarantee that social isolation without a vaccine or cure will fix any problem long-term; there is no proof that a local church cannot take proper measures to keep the virus from spreading and continue to have services. If government offices, hospitals, grocery stores, and gas stations can all continue to function and yet take proper safety precautions to function… the church could do the same thing.)
After all, one of the main reasons that I believe we as believers need to keep assembling according to Hebrews 10 is because we risk abandoning the faith over time by not assembling.
How long can you wait? How long will you wait? I understand this is a controversial topic and it is all based on how to interpret the information you are given. Some agree with the assumptions while others disagree with it. But it does seem that those who are fine with social isolation and not assembling until the government gives approval, even if it takes a year, and those who don’t long for that fellowship with their church family, are most likely those who were already not faithful to church to begin with. This is not trying to down anyone just simply saying we view church assembly differently.
A side note, and possibly a topic for another article, one thing that we have experienced through persecution is that it causes maturity and purging in the church more than numerical growth. We usually report the encouraging stories, but there is a toll taken on the churches. I think the same idea applies here, when the church has to make a tough decision and there are hard times, even if it isn’t persecution like we experience in China, I think you will see a natural purging of those who “were not of us”.
3) One Another Over Individualism.
In China, as I mentioned, just about every aspect of our ministry is considered illegal. The only part that is technically legal would be having a “personal faith”–meaning you can believe it but you can not live it out in any public form (unless approved by the government). Sure you can pray, read the Bible and sing in the privacy of your own house with just yourself or family, but that is not what we are called to do as followers of Jesus and that is not what a local church is. (Note: If you are in the government or part of the communist part, then you aren’t even allowed to believe it.) We are to live out the Victorious Christian Life in a community of faith and reach out to those who have yet to become a follower of Jesus. “One another” is a key component that can’t be dismissed.
I think many are realizing that “online community” is not satisfying. Yes, it is helpful and a “stop-gap measure” meaning that it is filling a void until something better can be done (at least until the internet companies realize that our message is offensive), but it doesn’t check of the relational boxes that we so desperately need. And it shouldn’t be. Certain things can’t be virtual or at least shouldn’t be virtual. Any online community I’ve ever been a part of has not ultimately brought the community that I need. It is dangerous because it engulfs your time but leaves you missing in your real life interactions from those that need you the most, specifically your family. For what online community can actively include your wife and your children (spanning all ages).
I feel this pain with the pastors I am training in China. Sometimes I have to communicate hard truths to them, and I wish I was there to “be with them” so they can feel my love and concern. To share a meal and know that fellowship of being in person. Paul shared this longing. He longed to be with the brethren. He could write letters, even send others in his place, but that longing was still there. He knew that only certain things can be truly done in person and taught in person. (See: 1 Corinthians 4:17; Philippians 2:19-30; 1 Thessalonians 2-3; 2 Timothy 3:10-11.)
4) Hard Path Over Easy Path
Thus, knowing that everything we do in China is illegal, what changes for us? Practically, nothing changes unless we are forced to do so. This means that we would continue to have church services even though we are told not to until we were forced and are physically unable to do so.
5) Love Over Hate
We have learned not to be known for an “anti-government” stance, even though the government is extremely anti-Christian. We try to succeed in our love for the people that make up the government, pray for them and see them as souls that also need to be reached with the gospel. (Note: I believe that one of the reasons for persecution is so that those in hard to reach places, such as government leaders and officials, have a chance to hear the gospel…in the midst of persecuting believers. Under normal circumstances these people often don’t have a chance to hear the gospel.)
6) Occupational Hazard Over Isolation
When we make decisions for our local church, it can’t be based on a arbitrary information. Rumors, misinformation, scare tactics are a constant normal within ministry in China. If we cancelled services based on that information, we would have to be cancelling services all the time. We have to look for accurate and trustworthy information, listen to those who have our good in view and understand our perspective. If a decision is made to stop assembly for a “time” the heartbeat should always be to try and assemble again as soon as possible. But we need to remember on thing: there is going to be risk (health, persecution, etc.) in assembly. Assembling has always been hazardous for the church its entire existence…its an “occupation hazard”.
7) Independent Church Over Government Church (A Warning!)
If you did some quick research on China, you would quickly find out that there seems to be a thriving public Christian community there. But what you are seeing is a government-controlled church. They offer peace, safety and even financial help in place of control over your church. How much control? They tell you where and when you can meet. The regulation who can and can’t attend (under 18 not allowed – that is brainwashing). They regulation who can preach and what they can preach about (not all messages and books of the Bible are approved.) Not to mention all the bad doctrine and the false gospel often spewed from false teachers.
That is why it is important to keep the government separate from the church…because they will want to control certain aspects of your church life and ultimately turn it into something that isn’t a church.
Have your guard up. Know there is a spiritual battle. Don’t be fooled. Don’t be foolish with the virus either. Take precautions. Use Wisdom.
Expect there to be an anti-assembly tone…even from within the “church”. Purging will take place. True colors will be shown. Avoid them.
Belief in the mission will be challenged. People will move towards self. World evangelism will be on the back burner for many. You have to decide what you believe is right.
Church, we are on a mission…
…let’s go with courage, conviction and compassion.