01/18/2021 17:20 EST

Churches Flouting Pandemic Rules Need A Come-To-Jesus Moment

Rather than opposing measures designed to protect people, we Christians should lead the way.

COVID-19 has been difficult on everyone, and the church and the people of God have certainly experienced the same hardships. I started my current pastorate at the height of the lockdown in April. It was three months before I preached to actual human beings instead of a camera.

As 2020 has progressed, and the various restrictions have been strengthened and loosened, churches have not been immune to the challenges those restrictions have brought. Pastoral care and counselling presented new challenges despite heightened need. Children’s and youth ministries had to adapt to ever changing guidelines while trying to stay relevant and teach biblical truth. 

Jonathon Shierman
A view from the pulpit. The writer, a Baptist pastor, and his church started streaming services online to prioritize the safety of their congregants.

But we adapted. We adapted because we wanted to continue connecting with people while also balancing the sanctity of human life. We found new ways to offer church programming and we got creative as we cared for one another. We tried to be responsible when we were permitted to return to in-person gatherings, and we made sure we were diligent in following the various governmental regulations.

Or at least most of us were. 

By now all of us have seen the headlines about churches willfully ignoring the safety of their congregants. Pastors who are “honoured” to be paying fines for flagrantly disregarding public health orders. Faith leaders who claim that any restrictions on in-person gatherings amount to persecution

It seems that whenever we hear or read about any of this, the biblical truth that each life being endangered is created in the image of God and therefore sacred is conveniently omitted.

Claiming that we’re being picked on is as ridiculous as it is insulting.

I am not a doctor, or a civil rights expert, or a politician — and there are many reasons that I am not any of those things. So, I can’t speak to the science or law or decision making. But I am a minister of the gospel. I’ll stay in my lane. I’ll speak as a minister to communicate openly how I believe believers should be behaving in response to our current circumstances. 

Because we Christians need a come-to-Jesus moment.

And let’s start with perhaps the most dangerous line of thinking that seems to be expressed at ever greater frequency and volume. There is a perception that the restrictions we face are an attack on the Christian church. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If anything, churches and other places of worship have seen preferential treatment over these last nine months. Each jurisdiction has a whole set of rules that were developed in consultation with faith leaders to allow for many exemptions that do not apply to businesses and other institutions. Governments have allowed these exemptions for many reasons, not the least of which is the crucial role that churches play in supporting people’s spiritual, emotional, and mental health. They also recognize the legal ramifications of limiting free expression of religion. 

Claiming that we’re being picked on is as ridiculous as it is insulting. We are not under attack from our government and to say that we are belittles the millions of Christians worldwide facing honest-to-God persecution from their government. It demeans the very real struggle and mortal danger they face simply because they believe. Limiting numbers for in-person services or asking churches to move online temporarily is small potatoes comparatively. 

Jonathon Shierman
Many churches across Canada are required to limit in-person gatherings, but in some high-profile cases, churches have ignored pandemic restrictions outright.

Gathering in large numbers with little or no safety measures is not only irresponsible, it also runs counter to everything Christians stand for. It has been my experience that my people are quick to point to freedoms we (rightly) have in this country. Freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. These are rights that are guaranteed to us and they are being used as weapons by those claiming that government has no authority over churches. 

But why are so many of us so focused on having our freedoms granted to us without any thought or expression of the responsibility that comes with those freedoms? The object and perfector of our faith, Jesus Christ, set the example of laying down rights and freedoms for others. The Bible teaches us that it’s not my rights and freedoms as an individual that come first, but rather the welfare of those around me. Our freedom can be a weapon and how we wield it defines us.

And so, given the current situation and restrictions, Christians and churches should be the most compliant demographic. I could fill pages with Bible verses calling to this simple truth but let me quote just a few.

In the gospel of Mark Jesus makes clear that — with exception of loving God — there is nothing more important than loving our neighbours (Mk 12:31). How can one love those around them while placing them in avoidable danger?

This isn’t a biblical story of a king insisting that we worship him instead of God. This is our leaders and health experts limiting our activities to keep people safe and healthy.

The Bible is also clear that submission to our earthly leaders glorifies God Himself (Romans 13:1-5 and 1 Peter 2:13-17). Our leaders have asked many things of us. Some of them simple but inconvenient like wearing a mask. Some of them far more intrusive and painful like postponing or altering wedding and funeral celebrations. But scripture informs us that following these rules is not simply something that we should do because we must. We should do it because God is glorified through our submission and sacrifice.

Contrary to what many of my peers are claiming, nothing that’s been asked of us contradicts or prohibits the full adherence or expression of what we believe. All that has changed — temporarily, I might add — is the method by which we engage. This isn’t an unjust ruler forcing believers to take part in activities counter to our faith. This isn’t a biblical story of a king insisting that we worship him instead of God.This is our leaders and health experts limiting our activities to keep people safe and healthy.

We are free to disagree, we are not free to disobey.

Jonathon Shierman
Gathering in-person isn't what defines a church and its congregation.

It seems to me that Christians need a reminder of what our calling is, of who we are and of what is required of us.

“What is good and what does the Lord require of thee?” The prophet Micah, speaking for God, answers this great question. “To act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” It’s a simple prescription that for some reason, too many of us have forgotten. 

And so, I am calling all believers back to these fundamental truths. Rather than opposing measures designed to protect people, let us lead the way. Let us follow the spirit of the restrictions, not just the letter of them. 

It’s time that we take Jesus’ words in Mark 12:17 to heart. It’s time for us to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

As a church — global and local — we will find new ways of ministering and fellowshipping. We will once again adapt and discover God’s providence for the umpteenth time.

Because the church is not something we do, it is who we are. We, the followers of Christ, are the church. God is bigger than COVID and the church is more than Sunday morning. 

On Sunday, I will be behind the pulpit once again in the same way that pastors have been for thousands of years through times much more difficult than what we find ourselves in now. A small group of people may be present physically while others will be watching virtually — many still comfortably in their pajamas — and God will still be present.

Because God is bigger than COVID. Church is more than Sunday. And the people of God will continue to care for those around us. May it be so on earth as it is in heaven.

A version of this article originally appeared on The World Spectator.

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