‘If we are going to press for the continuation of public worship in Christian churches, can we get beyond the somewhat tepid assertion that it is good for our mental health?’
This post, in part, is an attempt to answer that very important question.
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It sounds dramatic, but the Apostle John warned us about the Anti-Christ. (1 John 2:18; 2:22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7) And Jesus told us to look out for false Christs that will seek to deceive us. (Matt 24:5) Kim Riddlebarger, if I’m channeling him correctly, said the sign of the Anti-Christ is when the machinery of the State is mobilised to persecute the church. The question is, is this what we are seeing now? Are we seeing movement towards that? When does it cross the line from a painful inconvenience, that we are told benefits our neighbour, to outright persecution? Are the powers that be acting with more subtlety than we see in China? In China we definitely see the State mobilised against the church – and against religion in general. It would be insulting and quite ridiculous to compare our situation with Christians that are losing their lives simply for being Christians. Or are we in the West seeing the proverb ‘Softly softly catchee monkey’ being played out. Would a full on assault be too obvious? You’ve heard of boiling frogs. Is that us?
My recent reading about Cyprian of Carthage (200-258), The Scottish Covenanters, and Martin Luther has raised all sorts of questions. Christians then were asking similar questions. I have a couple of quotes from the book on Cyprian that, I think, puts where we are at, or where some think we are at, here in the UK and the US. It’s a debate that is happening right now. Is the fact that church doors are closed and gathered Worship is restricted, some might say forbidden, demonstrating State persecution? Is the State boiling a few frogs?
The following quotes ‘might’ help the discussion.
‘Persecution and prosecution were the same thing in these cases. Being prosecuted for disobeying laws that violate religious conviction is germane to persecution. We empty persecution of its meaning if we do not include prosecution for refusal to do something that would violate a person’s faith. [The writer] Moss does not see it this way. She writes, ‘There is something different about being persecuted under a law – however unjust – that is not designed to target or rout out any particular group. It may be unfortunate, it may be unfair, but it is not persecution.’ p. 70 & 71.
Some feel that way now. Perhaps saying ‘The lockdown doesn’t seem fair, but it isn’t persecution. Christians aren’t being singled out.’ Brian Arnold gives a footnote to the comment above from Moss, saying;
”I understand Moss’s point and I believe the point is well-taken in certain instances. Take for instance Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was killed, not for his faith, but for his attempt to assassinate Hitler. Should he be considered a martyr? Perhaps not. But early Christians do not fit this category. They were killed because they were asked to do things that would have severed their souls from Christ for eternity.”This is footnote 21 on p. 71: Moss, The Myth of Persecution, 14-15.
Some say yes, or at least, we are close to it. Others say no. Did I say Cyprian experienced persecution and plague? He also had some interesting things to say, I thought, on the Lord’s Supper. He was eventually beheaded in the year 258.
Shifting or sifting?
Whatever it is the Lord is doing (some of which may be a sifting), in a few months we have shifted (a lot have anyway) from worshipping in our church buildings (whatever the building) to worshipping as an online church community. We say, ‘What a blessing from God this technology is that we can meet. It isn’t ideal but we can meet. How wonderful.’ And it is, but we all know this is second best to meeting together as a church. Right? I’m seriously wondering if our online church experience is really just boiling frogs. It’s a bit weird for the minister speaking into a camera, or just one or two techie guys there but it’s what we are doing. Some are a little further on from that and are working towards more being able to attend. I’m not quite sure what happens when the church building reaches its social distancing capacity. For us, we simply aren’t going to all be able to attend with the current regulations in place. That’s my understanding anyway. I’m amazed at how quickly habits can form. There’s no rush to make the meeting. There’s no inconvenience. There’s little or no discipline. There’s no need for punctuality. You can amble into your living room, if you get up at all, watch the service at your own convenience while still wearing your pyjamas and eating your breakfast. And, you can pause the service while you boil the kettle and make your cup of tea.
Jesus came in the flesh. He had a body while on earth. He still has a body on earth – it’s called The Church. There’s something deeply Incarnational about gathering physically as the church. The Bible speaks of giving the right hand of fellowship (Gal 2:9), or greeting one another with a kiss (1 Peter 5:14) or simply sitting down with one another. Speaking to one another face to face. And if your church practices it – washing one another’s feet! Or the laying on of hands or anointing. I must admit to not seeing a lot of anointing with oil. Still, these all require physical contact.
The Lord’s Table
Then there’s the Lords Table – Communion. Breaking bread together. I know some churches are managing to do this online. We can’t ask Cyprian or Luther what they would have done today, but Luther did say this:
‘The Lord’s Supper is given as a daily food and sustenance so that our faith may refresh itself and not weaken in the struggle but continually grow stronger…. The devil is a furious enemy; when he sees that we resist him and attacks the old man, and when he cannot rout us by force, he sneaks and skulks about everywhere, trying all kinds of tricks, and does not stop until he has finally worn us out so that we either renounce our faith or yield hand and foot and become indifferent and impatient. For such times, when our heart feels too sorely pressed, this comfort of the Lord’s Supper is given to bring us new strength and refreshment.‘ Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Though’ by Stephen J. Nichols, p.129.
We are moving towards a year now. When was the last time we physically assembled for the Lord’s Table? And when will we be able to celebrate again? Many of us celebrated (past tense) the Lord’s Table each month. Churches do this differently, but whatever the frequency, we must surely celebrate this means of grace at the minimum annually. Is it a command from The Lord Christ, or a suggestion? The State, however we frame it, intentional or not, is causing us to neglect the physicality of the Lords Table. This is how I see it. And it’s a problem. Isn’t it? When will we be able to celebrate this again and strengthen and refresh our faith together and say ‘Until He comes.’
Then what shall we say of Baptism? Will we have ‘Socially Distanced’ baptism’s? But perhaps we’ll leave that for another time.
Has the State over-stepped its authority? Surely it has no authority over the church of The Lord Jesus Christ. Meeting online, however convenient, is at best a very poor substitute for the physical gathering of the body of Christ – His church.
Now, what to do? That’s the question. We pray. We need a great deal of Grace and Wisdom from God. Be patient – for now. I am not suggesting we storm Westminster, or that we start a riot. And I’m not advocating for Civil Disobedience. Maybe in time that will come. There is some legitimate push back from some quarters. Remember, frogs that are slowly boiled eventually die (or submit). We should resist thinking an online church is a true expression of the church at worship. It isn’t.
Whatever happens, even if we never physically meet together again, the Lord has promised to build his church (Matt 16:18) in the face of the severest opposition, as we see in other countries today. And He will. The Lord has done exactly that in times past when in Cyprian’s day ‘the blood of the martyrs was the truly the seed of the church (Tertullian).’ However He will do it, He (The Lord Christ) continues to build His church. and will build it. And ‘He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied….’ (Isaiah 53:11)
‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.’ (Romans 1:16)
The call is to be discerning and ‘Know the times.’