Saturday, April 18, 2020

Church In The Time Of The Virus: Faithfulness Requires Humble Obedience (Episode 6)

When churches suspended their weekly brick and mortar meetings, I decided to take some time to address online what it looks like for the church to be the church in times like this. Thus, The Church In The Time Of The Virus. I began posting this on my church's Facebook page several weeks ago; since then, I have had some thoughtful conversations sparked by some of the issues I addressed. Because of that - and because I like wrestling with important ideas - each post is going to follow this format:
  • Video
  • Transcript
  • Reflections
The beautiful thing about the reflections part is that I can constantly update it, so the conversation can continue! You are welcome to offer helpful comments in the comment section and be a part of this conversation/archival record (as local and modest as it is).

(Read and Watch Episode 1: Introduction)
(Read and Watch Episode 2:Fearless, Not Fearful)
(Read and Watch Episode 3: Bold, But Not Foolhardy)
(Read and Watch Episode 4: Sacrificial Of Self, Not Others)
(Read and Watch Episode 5: Faithfulness Involves Trust)
(Read and Watch Episode 7: The Church's History During Plagues)
(Read and Watch Episode 8: Thinking With Both Hands)
(Read and Watch Episode 9: Spurgeon And The Plague Of London)
(Read and Watch Episode 10: Thinking With Both Hands)
(Read and Watch Episode 11: A Few Thoughts Have Been Brewing)
(Read and Watch Episode 12: Is COVID -19 A Judgment From God)
(Read and Watch Episode 13: Romans 12-14 - Coronavirus Version)
(Episode 14: Dear American Christian)
(Episode 15: Civil (Dis)Obedience)

Episode 6: Faithfulness Requires Humble Obedience



James, the brother of Jesus, wrote the classic passage on obedience: “Faith without works is dead. You say you have faith without works; I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2)

“The Bible recognizes no faith that does not lead to obedience, nor does it recognize any obedience that does not spring from faith. The two are at opposite sides of the same coin.”  ~ A. W. Tozer 
“You and I must be willing to do what God tells us, as God tells us, when God tells us, because God tells us, but only strong faith will be equal to such complete obedience.”   Charles Spurgeon

In other words, faith and obedience are deeply intertwined. For that reason, it’s worth our time to ask what obedience looks like right now in relation to the virus.

Jesus summarized 600+ Old Testament Laws for his Jewish audience with two commands: The first is love God. The second is like it in nature and character: love others as you wish to be loved. Loving my neighbor is inescapably connected with loving God. So, being full of faith is going to include not only being full of love for God, but being full of love for my neighbor.

For the Christian, the means that at all times, we are on a mission to share the good news of the saving grace of Jesus. I would want others to tell me life-saving news; I will tell others. There are also a ton of ways the Bible talks about how our words, our character, our actions are all to be built and used in the service of God, which inevitable means the service of others. In fact, Jesus later amends his initial summary of the law and changes the last part: “Love others as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) That’s the radical, self-sacrificial agape love. How we love others ought to reflect something about how God loves us through Jesus.

Right now, I suspect loving God – the first part - is deeply intertwined with taking seriously God’s admonition to honor God’s authorities in our lives.

For the past three years, I have repeatedly heard that President Trump is God’s leader for this time, because God appoints or ordains leaders in government. Alright. Then be obedient. If all of our political leaders have been appointed by God for this time – and I think to be consistent you have to say they are – then be obedient to governors and mayors too. This past week, both President Trump and Vice-President Pence have pleaded with churches to keep meetings under 10 people. Unless our leaders call us to denounce Jesus or actively commit sin, our call is to be obedient.

I am sympathetic to the argument that meeting together as a church is a command, and if not assembling were a denial of our faith or an act of sin we ought to continue to do it anyway. In fact, a few friends and I are hashing this out now, and we don’t all agree. Like I said, I’m sympathetic – but I’m not convinced.

I’m going to try an imperfect analogy here. When we fast from eating, we don’t do so because we have given up on food, or hate food, or are embarrassed to like food, or because we will never eat food again. When Christians fast, the idea is that we are denying ourselves something good in order for something better to happen. And when we eat again, that something good tastes very good indeed. Jon Bloom wrote, in an article called “When God Is Silent,”
Deprivation draws out desire. Absence heightens desire. And the more heightened the desire, the greater its satisfaction will be. It is the mourning that will know the joy of comfort (Matthew 5:4). It is the hungry and thirsty that will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6). Longing makes us ask, emptiness makes us seek, silence makes us knock (Luke 11:9). It’s the desert that awakens and sustains desire. It’s the desert that dries up our infatuation with worldliness. And it’s the desert that draws us to the Well of the world to come.
Perhaps think of this as a time of fasting from corporate gathering, a deprivation that draws out desire, a desert that creates a longing for the richness of gathering with others around the Well. We don’t cancel meetings so because we have given up on church, or hate congregational gatherings, or are embarrassed to like church or love Jesus, or because we will never attend again. We are denying ourselves something good – meeting together - in order for something better – minimizing the death toll of the virus - to happen. And when we meet again, our fellowship will taste very good indeed.

Meanwhile, thanks to technology, we can read the Bible, pray, listen to worship music, post our own stuff (like this) and have Zoom meetings (like our small group does). If this were to become an ongoing reality of the world, I envision a LOT of negotiation on the part of churches to find ways to meet, and, as time passes, a lot of clever ways to meet that honor both the spirit and the letter of the law.  But as far as we know, this is for a relatively short season. It will pass.

So that’s looking at it as a citizen. Let’s look at it as a neighbor.

Right now, there are new and timely ways to be obedient to the command to love my neighbor. One way is to use whatever resources God has given me to help those in need of help. Another way is not to sicken or kill them by spreading this virus to them.

A couple things are worth noting:

  • First, gathering endangers the lives of others in and outside of the church not because we are Christians but because we are carriers or potential carriers, and our close physical proximity has a HIGH risk of causing death. Even if we are not afraid of death, we could leave a service and unwittingly take death to our neighbor. I think loving my neighbor includes doing what I can not to do that.
  • Second, those outside the church observe the entire church sacrificing something we highly value for the sake of the city’s health - I mean, is there a more practical way right now to show we value the good and flourishing of all of God’s image bearers? When the Israelites were in exile in Babylon, God told them to embed themselves in the city and pray for it’s good. We should do the same – and if one of our prayers is that the virus not spread, there is a very practical way for us to be an answer to that prayer: social distancing. The time of plagues is supposed to be a time when the church is known as being for the city, not against it. God forbid this devolve into an us vs. them standoff.

My faith compels me to observe protocol at this point, not ignore it. Even if I am not worried about myself, I am my brother’s keeper. Philippians 2:4 – “don’t just look out for yourself. Look out for others.” Paul has a whole section of writing in 1 Corinthians 8 about how those who are “stronger” have a responsibility to accommodate those who are “weaker.” Yeah, he was writing about spiritual freedom, but I think the principle holds on multiple levels. Just because I feel freedom to do something doesn’t mean I should. I must look out for others. If I think I am stronger and tougher and smarter, oh well. Maybe I am. But without love – which considers others - I am as obnoxious as someone banging a loud cymbal all the time.

Speaking of clanging cymbals, how does humility play into this? I will stand on Spurgeon’s shoulders once again.

"There is one thing that strong faith does not do which some think it would be sure to do-it never blusters, and it never talks big and boasts of what it will accomplish. “Though all men should forsake thee, yet will not I,” is not the language of strong faith, that is the prattle of Master Peter with his pride uppermost. Some men are in their own opinion in such a fine condition that they could push the whole world before them, and drag the church after them…. 
Yes, but there is a great deal of difference between confidence in yourself and confidence in God. I have noticed that the faith which goes forth against the world with the dauntless courage of a lion is the very faith which lies down like a lamb at Jesus’ feet. The next thing to “I can do all things” is “Without Christ I can do nothing.” Consciousness of personal weakness attends a brave reliance upon God, and shows itself in modesty and quietude of manner. Barking dogs do not often bite, and those men who promise much very seldom perform. 
Strong faith has a quiet tongue, and does the daring deed without preliminary boasting. It does not advertise its coming victories, but falls upon the Midianites at dead of night, and with its lamps and pitchers puts them to the rout. Point me to one boastful word that ever fell from Abraham. All the Scriptural heroes of faith were doers, and not blusterers. David said little to his envious brothers, but he brought home the giant’s bleeding head, and bade its dumb mouth tell of what he had done."

May I just say this: when people of faith shout their faith from the rooftops to boast of daring deeds and coming victories that will push the world before them as they drag the church after them….that’s not something that’s modeled in the Bible. Great faith will announce itself; it needs no herald to blow it’s own trumpet.

The faith-full trust that God and God alone is on the throne; the faith-full surrender to the will of the King with humility and service. “Trust and obey,” said the old hymn, “for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

Faith is trust the brings humble obedience. May we be faithfully and lovingly present with the measure of faith God has given us.


I could have addressed a couple things more carefully in this one.

First, I wish I would have given a little more time to the conflicted conscience of Christians about closing church services. It's a big deal in the Bible not to neglect gathering together (Hebrews 10:25). Failing to meet is not on par with denying the name of Christ, but it's always been crucial to the church. I suspect it's somewhat like the Sabbath idea: don't be legalistic about it - it's made for you, not you for it - but when it's not observed, it's not good (Mark 2:27). We put our spiritual flourishing in danger when we do not observe it. I think we have done the right thing by closing corporate services right now, but as some of my friends have noted, we may have done so far too easily. It ought to have happened with more fear and trembling.

Second, my fasting analogy was certainly imperfect. I will let some of my friends weigh in on this a bit more in my updates on this section. I don't want to steal their thunder, so I will just say this: I didn't mean to suggest (though I think I did) that, in the normal course of life, one ought to consider fasting from church like one fasts from food. I was attempting to put a redemptive spin on deprivation: let that time draw out godly desire in you, then remember and follow that desire. That way the time of deprivation is not wasted.

Finally,"loving my neighbor" almost certainly includes desiring my neighbor's economic stability. A financial collapse would bring a ripple effect of a lot of bad things, which generally (if the collapse leads to widespread poverty) quality of life issues that can also lead to a rise in death. I don't know how we balance those things perfectly. We probably can't. (Check out this article from on this very issue.) 

I am going to address this later in an Episode I will call "Thinking With Both Hands." Stay tuned.....

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