Christians say, with the apostle Paul, that for us to live is Christ, and to die is gain — yet at the very thought of death, so many of our churches slammed our doors shut and are keeping them closed. What does that say about our faith?
By Kylee Zempel
The coronavirus pandemic has made little liars out of our Sunday school selves. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” we sang. “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine. Don’t let Satan blow it out, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
Instead of shining amid fear and uncertainty, churches have closed their doors, trading cowering under a bushel for hiding behind a mask, and allowing anti-religious government tyrants and their petty orders to blow out the lights. For a time, compliance was warranted as we learned more about whether coronavirus is as lethal as some feared, but not anymore. Some churches have decided it’s time to shine again, and they’re right. It’s time to open the doors.
For months, churches have been bending over backwards trying to preach the gospel and minister to their congregants, abide by state and local mandates, keep their members and communities safe, and remain above legitimate criticism. Some churches ceased meeting altogether, while others resorted to Zoom meetings or sermon livestreams. Some congregations gathered in parking lots or minuscule rotational services that fractured their church bodies.
One Wisconsin pastor I spoke with back in April said his congregation had spread throughout the 17 rooms of their church building, with no more than nine people in each room, to comply with the governor’s order.
“My desire is to see all churches open back up so that we can start seeing folks come back to church, and be able to hear the gospel and be able to hear a message that will be helpful and encouraging to them,” he told The Federalist.
Authorities Cracked Down on Churches
Instead of opening back up, however, churches met increasingly onerous restrictions even as hospitalizations and deaths declined. State and local leaders cracked down on Christians, with corporate media running cover for them, blaming religious folks for the virus’s spread. While rioters screamed in the streets, so-called health experts warned that congregational singing could be deadly.
One Democrat governor used state power to surveil churchgoers, sanctioning law enforcement to record church attendees’ license plate numbers to issue quarantine orders. “This is the only way we can ensure that your decision doesn’t kill someone else,” he said.
Before green-lighting mass Black Lives Matter protests, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio threatened to permanently close churches that held worship services.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Wuhan virus executive order treated churches differently than secular gatherings, such as casinos. When one church sought injunctive relief, the case reached the Supreme Court, which denied the application in a 5-4 decision. “In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion,” observed Justice Neil Gorsuch in his brief and fiery dissent.
Enough Is Enough
Now after months of spiritual suicide, some churches are finally changing their posture, submitting to divine rather than government authority, for the latter has detached itself from the people’s consent through elected legislatures as governors indefinitely and in some cases illegally extend emergency powers. After refusing at the end of May to open his church in defiance of a Ninth Circuit Court ruling, since it was “sadly the law of the land in California, and we gladly submit to the sovereign purposes of God,” Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles has said enough is enough.
“We cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings,” MacArthur and the elder board said in a statement.
The statement came in response to Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom announcing new COVID-19 restrictions, prohibiting certain counties on a designated “monitoring list” from holding indoor church services. Los Angeles County, the site of MacArthur’s church, is one of the locales on the list. The church filed a lawsuit this morning challenging the state discrimination against their operations as compared to marijuana dispensaries, retailers, abortion facilities, and political protests.
“In response to the recent state order requiring churches in California to limit or suspend all meetings indefinitely, we, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction,” the church’s statement said. “Faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services.”
Churches Are Essential
Another California pastor echoed that sentiment. In response to the same Newsom restrictions, Greg Fairrington, the lead pastor of Destiny Church in the Sacramento area, resolved to stay open. “We decided, we’re going to continue to do what we’ve been doing. We’re going to meet in person,” Fairrington told The Federalist.
Fairrington said that while most churches shrunk back and complied with the restrictions, Destiny Church has resolved to keep its doors open. “It is vital. It’s so important,” Fairrington said. “We’ve got to have church in our communities.” That’s why his church has started a social media campaign called #OpenTheDoors, seeking to encourage other churches to fulfill their essential function in their communities.
“People are losing their jobs, people are losing loved ones, and they can’t have a memorial service. They can’t have a wedding,” Fairrington said. “The church is so much needed in this moment — we’ve got to open the doors of the church.”
According to Fairrington and his church’s press release, Destiny Church has taken drastic safety precautions, including limiting its indoor seating capacity to 25 percent of the usual 1,500, installing sanitation stations, requiring temperature checks upon entry, and requesting that people wear masks when they enter and exit the building. Congregants are socially distant throughout the services and prohibited from gathering in groups.
The church has even set up an outdoor venue as one of its service options, in addition to its continued televised sermons and online livestream. Chairs and bathrooms are sanitized between services. Yet under Newsom’s order, the church still isn’t allowed to hold services.
Fairrington told The Federalist there’s a Costco directly across the street from where his church gathers where hundreds of people constantly bustle around without similarly burdensome restrictions.
“We all know that the virus only shows up at church,” Fairrington jabbed. “It doesn’t show up at Costco, doesn’t show up at Walmart, doesn’t show up at Target. Our airports are open. … We have protests here in California. There’s no requirements there about how they can protest. The church is being singled out.”
Walk by Faith, Open the Doors
He’s right. Health experts and politicians can pretend protesters and congregations spread the virus differently. The media can spin choirs as cesspools of infection and Christians as grandma-killers, and churches can continue to cower in fear of government power and the possibility of being misunderstood by anti-religious bigots. All the while, however, Christians are starving for community, and communities are dying without the hope of the gospel.
“Our society is crumbling. Our values and what this nation was built on — we’re losing all of those,” Fairrington said. “I believe that if the church would unite together in this moment and we would open our doors together en masse, we would not only see a move of God … but we would see our culture move in a different direction.”
Somebody might contract the virus at church — or she might contract it at Costco. Christians say, with the apostle Paul, that for us to live is Christ, and to die is gain — yet at the very thought of death, so many of our churches slammed our doors shut and are keeping them closed. What does that say about our faith?
Are we, the church, so afraid of physical death that we would hasten the spiritual death of searching people by hiding our proverbial light under bushel or letting Satan blow it out? At the first possibility of adversity, have we forgotten about the eternal life secured for us through the gospel? How long are we willing to let masks muffle our worship? How long will we forgo intimate fellowship?
The church wasn’t created to function only under ideal circumstances. Jesus didn’t command Christians to go forth and make disciples with the caveat “but only when it’s safe.” If our manner of life is to be “worthy of the gospel of Christ,” we must be “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by [our] opponents.”
Christians have been blessed in recent U.S. history with broad religious liberty, free from any serious persecution. This crisis, however, has shined an ugly spotlight on our level of comfort. Our Americanized gospel is showing, whereby we “preach the word,” declaring it to be of utmost importance in our lives, and gather faithfully with other believers as scripture commands us to do — until we sense danger or experience criticism.
Is our current plight really more threatening than Paul’s imprisonment? Than Stephen’s stoning? Than our Savior’s crucifixion? Christians who cease to follow Christ aren’t worthy of the name.
The church is the gathering of believers. If we want our gathering to reflect our faith and the unwavering hope we possess in the gospel, we must proceed without fear. We must worship without restraint. We must perform our essential function. We must open the doors.