One of the biggest questions that has been posed during the COVID-19 pandemic has been on the essential nature of the church. Is the church a necessary component to life, such as groceries and gasoline, or should it indeed be labeled as non-essential? To answer this question, we must first address the nature of the church.
Well, just like when studying the Bible, Christians must exercise appropriate hermeneutics [a user’s method or theory of interpretation] in all arenas of life even when conversing with others. Therefore, when someone says the word, “church,” what do they mean? The reason this is so crucial to grasp is because it could save us from needless debates with others who, come to find out, agree with us but are simply using the word in a different way.
What is the Church?
With that said, let us begin by taking a look at the church from a Biblical standpoint. According to Oxford Dictionary the very first definition of “church” is a building used for public worship services. Though this is indeed one way the word could be used, and sadly the most common use today, the Bible often defines it much differently. In fact, the first way Scripture defines the Church is as the entire collection of God’s people from Pentecost to the Rapture (cf. Matt. 16:18). Thus, the church is a physical building with a physical gathering, but the Church [take note of the emphasis and capitalization] is the spiritual congregation consisting of all of God’s people – past, present, and future.
Then What is Really Essential: the church or the Church?
Now, to be fair, there are two things we must remember: (1) the world never has and never will consider either the church or the Church to be essential, and (2) no Christian would ever say the Church is non-essential as this would be an oxymoron since salvation does not exist outside of God’s Church.
But what about the local church? Is the physical gathering of believers in one particular building absolutely necessary during this time? Though this is perhaps not the popular opinion, I believe the answer to that question is “no.” Sitting in a pew surrounded by other people is not the answer because nothing can straighten out your kids, rescue your marriage, or save you from your sins apart from the Word of God – which you still have in your possession.
Are we missing out on a deeper level of community the Church was designed for? Absolutely. Is every local church reaching its fullest potential? Not at all, but no current organization or business in America is currently functioning as it was intended. We must remember that we are not the only one’s suffering.
Yes, the governing authorities have deemed the church non-essential, but they have not deemed the Church non-essential and there is an eternal difference. The purpose of the stay-at-home order is to prevent large physical gatherings in order to not spread the virus; it is not to permanently remove the Church from the world. As the Church, we still have the full legal rights and means by which we can practice our faith – we can still live godly lives, still meet face to face via internet platforms, still love the people around us, still preach and teach the Word of God, still pray, write blogs and books, sing Christian music, etc. As long as we can worship God without fear of death or imprisonment, then our freedom is a night-and-day difference from other parts of the world. Yet, if persecution is coming, then what that means is that God has deemed it essential for His people – the Church – to conform us more into the image of His Son!
Within our culture, even the Church culture, we emphasize community, but sometimes we emphasize this above everything else. Absolutely, it is important to gather together. Hebrews 10:25 instructs us to not neglect meeting together because there is so much value in learning and growing together. We need others in our lives to encourage us when we feel like giving up and to correct us when we are veering off course. It is impossible to truly live the Christian life in isolation. But a temporary ceasing of in-person gatherings should not cause us to lose heart.
The Lord knew this time of physical separation was coming and has a purpose and a reason. Maybe one of the things God is doing right now is teaching us what it means to truly love, honor, submit to and even pray for those in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-7)? Perhaps God is seeking to strengthen family units by raising up parents as the spiritual leaders in their children’s lives? Could it be that He is seeking to grow us in prayer and dependence on Him by taking us out of our routine? The Church is known for community, but is it known for exemplifying the public expression of submission, honor, and prayer for those in office?
So, what is really essential during this time? The Church. But let us also be a Hermeneutical Church that is able to accurately discern both the meaning of Scripture [the church and the Church] and our moment in time [we are not experiencing religious persecution] – that we may not be swept up in sensationalism or emotionalism but stay rooted and confident in the Lord and His unchanging Word. Yes, the church is a building, but the Church is a people not defined by walls.
For more thoughts regarding this topic, please view my video Submission to Government.
* Disclaimer: there are examples that we can cite from recent weeks of governors going too far but I am referring to majority not the exception. Likewise, there are businesses that have been deemed “essential” that may seem subjective. However, I’m not seeking to argue over which businesses have been labeled “essential” and “non-essential” since everything ultimately is essential.