The Bible reveals the glorious reality that there is a perfect and holy God. The Bible also presents an apparent paradox for mankind: you are made for the Glory of God (Isaiah 43:7) but you will not and cannot glorify God, because you are a wretched sinner (Romans 3:23, Jeremiah 17:9). The diagnosis of man’s condition is that we were made for life but because of our sin we are destined for death. But our God is rich in mercy and love (Ephesians 2:4) and has sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose mission is death that His church can have life. This is the Gospel. It is Good News. It is a message of life in the face of sickness, disease and death.
This is the foundation of the church. Christ becomes a man, truly man whilst being truly divine (John 1:14, Philippians 2:6-7), to pay the penalty for the sins of His church in order to rescue and perfect her. This is why it is the Lord Jesus who introduces us to the importance and significance of the church in Matthew 16:18 when He declares that He will build His church (Matthew 16:18). Christ is doing so with Divine authority which He gives to His apostles as they preach Christ, plant churches and make disciples. The apostles then appoint elders to lead local churches, and the Scriptures make clear that it is the calling and responsibility of elders to spiritually lead and care for their flock. There are two important distinctions that we need to make in our current climate:
1. The primary responsibility of the church is not the physical health of the church but her spiritual growth as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.
2. The responsibility for leading the church is given to her elders and not to the state/governing authorities.
The church must be free to worship God without interference
What should be the response of the church to government guidelines and laws in the name of public health? Well, the important point to state is that it is the responsibility of the church leadership to lead and make such decisions, not the government. If the government tries to overstep their God-given role then it becomes a matter of the restriction or religious freedom. An enforced lockdown of church gatherings is just that. During the Spanish flu, which appears far more deadly per infected person than Covid-19, the government did not enforce church closures; this was the decision of the local church and this is something that the government has to recognise in this situation. And in terms of Scotland, the law does recognise this. This takes me to a crucial point in terms of Scotland–The Church of Scotland Act 1921.
In brief, this Act was written to recognise that This Church has the inherent right, free from interference by civil authority. This applying to the church throughout Scotland and not just the Church of Scotland when it also states, Nothing contained in this Act or in any other Act affecting the Church of Scotland shall prejudice the recognition of any other Church in Scotland as a Christian Church protected by law in the exercise of its spiritual functions.
I raised this Act with the Scottish Government and this was the response I received from Linda Gately, CC Communities in Scottish Government on 31st August 2020,
In order to understand the guidance with respect to your obligations I refer to the Church of Scotland Act 1921, which is available on-line at https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo5/11-12/29/introduction. The 1921 Act is an Act of the UK Parliament and has legal effect. The long title is “An Act to declare the lawfulness of certain Articles declaratory of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland in matters spiritual prepared with the authority of the General Assembly of the Church”.
This Act is defined as a ‘Public General Act’ which applies throughout the UK:
An Act of Parliament creates a new law or changes an existing law. An Act is a Bill that has been approved by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords and been given Royal Assent by the Monarch. Taken together, Acts of Parliament make up what is known as Statute Law in the UK.
Therefore, I strongly urge churches to read through this Act carefully, in relation to government interference over whether the church can gather in this current season. And on a related note, this will be worth knowing if any vicious legislation is passed by our government that could lead to an attempted assaulton the church.
What should churches do?
It has been clear that churches have been taking the threat of Covid-19 seriously, and almost all churches locked down in the spring during the uncertainty of its threat and in response to an enforced lockdown of the United Kingdom. Many in the United Kingdom are now facing another lockdown, with more data, with places such as education facilities and football matches still being permitted.
However, we must first realise what churches have done during the past four months when governments permitted churches to gather. It is true to state that churches (along with businesses and many other groups) are all faced with very difficult decisions. Businesses have tried to respond to safety measures at great cost (and risk!). Yet the majority of churches have decided not to do gather. Why? Everyone faces the same concerns over Covid-19, only these businesses do not have the message of eternal life and the command (and desire) to worship the Most High God.
For every church that has had a genuine struggle and limitation in being able to gather, there have been far more that have chosen not to when the majority of their congregation has been fit, healthy and able to do so. I strongly believe that the response of the church to this crisis highlights how far she has strayed from the Lord God in His Word. Countless denominations are now nothing more than apostate, and the evangelical church is increasingly softening the edges of Biblical teaching in the name of pragmatism. Thus, many churches are being driven by numbers, popularity, low cost, no commitment and high gain. I do wonder how much time churches spend listening to the voices of their congregation, particularly those with money and influence, as well as those in secular power at the expense of Scripture. It would not surprise me, too, if Godly leaders are being handicapped by church (and secular) politics in this current climate, and I am very much in prayer for such leaders at this time.
However, the argument by many churches for not gathering has been the concern for their own and other people’s safety. That is a valid consideration. Should churches close because of the risk of Covid-19? Let me be absolutely direct here: where they are able to meet, they must not close.
Online church is not Biblical church
Technology has been a blessing this year. It has facilitated ways by which Christians can still have interaction and a form of fellowship, and this is particularly valuable to those who are unable to go out. I thank God for this. I am also thankful for the reports of high numbers of people tuning into church services online. However, we must realise that the church of Jesus Christ is built by sinners being saved, then baptised and added to the church where they grow as disciples. Has this been happening this year? Contrast this with the startling reality that many disciples have fallen far, far away from any local church, and I am hearing increasingly that they are happy with the new online routine or even that they do not need church! Online church is not a good alternative, though it is the only option for some at this time. And for every Christian, we must surely long to gather together to worship our Lord (Psalm 63:2) because church is essential.
Church is essential for worship
I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known.
The church is Christ’s bride. It is by and through the church that we make the name of the Lord known. It is certainly true that members of the church can worship the Lord individually (and via Zoom), but the church is the assembled gathering of the Lord’s people in local settings (1 Corinthians 1:2, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35) where we worship our God, where we enjoy the spiritual blessing of fellowship with one another (Hebrews 10:24-25), where Biblical preaching to the congregation can take place, where we can break bread together and where brothers and sisters can be discipled and cared for. Church is essential.
Church is essential in order to love your neighbour
But does this mean we don’t care about the spread of Covid-19? Are we ‘not loving our neighbour’? Well, first of all, the church must not be flippant about sickness. It is serious. Therefore, if someone has flu or Covid-like symptoms, then they should not go outside to spread any virus and that means not attending a church service, hence the blessing of utilising online platforms for such vulnerable groups and individuals. However, the contention has come here with the ‘asymptomatic’ person who could spread the virus. There is still a risk, a very small risk, but this is a world of sickness, disease and death. Christ has overcome the grave.
This year we have heard of many churches loving their neighbours by providing practical and spiritual care and support to needy and vulnerable people in their communities. This is love to your neighbour and is certainly an essential service. Furthermore, we must reiterate that as threatening as sickness and disease are, there is a far greater threat that mankind faces, and that is the effects of their sinful rebellion which will lead to hell. This land needs Christ infinitely more than lockdowns or vaccinations and it yet again shows why the church is essential. The church must gather and be ready to welcome sinners to church services where they can hear the words of eternal life (John 6:68) and where the church is being discipled, equipped and sent out to proclaim this Glorious truth.
Therefore, at a time of national crisis, we must come before the Living God in repentance and worship, and this is a call to the church and to our government. The government has its authority from God, and so the church must not only stand strong and meet, but we must also call our government to recognise that church is essential and that they must come before the Lord in repentance and prayer. Our nation needs Jesus Christ, who came to give life to His bride, the church. And now is the time where the Church of Jesus Christ must stand upon this living hope as those saved by the blood of Christ, to the Glory of God.