Since yesterday, when the President of the United States proclaimed churches to be essential, I have seen two major themes emanating from my Christian Facebook friends and pages I follow. Mind you, these are from professing Christians, not some outside news pundits or any other kind of outsider.
- Churches are, in fact, essential, and should be allowed to reopen, because the government can’t tell the Church what to do.
- Since Christians can worship anywhere, and since God’s work can continue in the world through the Church without official worship gatherings, said worship gatherings are not essential.
Neither of these is convincing in the least, for me, at least.
Regarding the first position, the COVID-19 crisis is a real thing. It is not a hoax. It is not a concerted effort to take away your rights and freedom. If you disagree, frankly, you’ve been listening to too many fringe conspiracy theorists. You have taken your position from nutcase Facebook status updates from people with some sort of persecution complex. Christians in this country are, by and large, not persecuted. These restrictions are in place because large gatherings pose a huge risk to the people in attendance, and to public health in general. There are documented cases of this happening, both present and historical. Perpetuating this fear is both irresponsible and lacking in faith in Christ, our living Head.
Regarding the second position, of course public worship is essential. Suggesting that it isn’t essential is an indefensible position, biblically and theologically. We are explicitly called to assemble ourselves together. Liturgy is not worship in the same way personal worship is. No other time is the Church more “the Church” than when we participate as God’s gathered covenant people in the gifts of Word and Sacrament. There is no substitute for this. There is no communing with God done elsewhere that can satisfy and strengthen than these can. For people of faith, liturgy is a non-negotiable.
But the discussion cannot end there. You know what else is a non-negotiable, Church? Loving your neighbor. Loving your Christian brothers and sisters, and loving your community and the world at large. Gathering together before it is safe to do so is putting all of your neighbors at risk. To do so is a rejection of a fundamental tenet of your faith. Caring for other people trumps your individual right to assemble, morally if not legally.
So, until it is safe, we stay home. We don’t go about life as usual. We don’t assemble. We don’t gather. We don’t stage some ridiculous protest against government overreach. We only resume liturgy when it is safe, and we so in accordance with the precautions mandated by the consensus of legitimate public health experts.
That doesn’t negate the essentiality of liturgy. Because it is essential we feel this paucity in our bones. We grieve the loss of public liturgy. We are parched as we fast from the Eucharist. We yearn to lift our voices together again. This is not a normal situation. Forsaking worship should never be normal for Christians.
Nevertheless, here we are, deprived of something we need more than any personal freedom. But the One who built the Church will neither leave nor forsake it.
So what in the world are we so afraid of?