One of the many unfortunate side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the practice of government officials deciding which businesses and entities should be considered “essential” and which ones “non-essential.” While I understand the need to organize a strategic effort to stop the spread of a dangerous virus, I cringe inside every time I hear church referred to as “non-essential.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that churches all over the world have willingly chosen to follow governmental recommendations by suspending in-person meetings for a season and adopting policies to protect the health of those who are medically vulnerable. But I wholeheartedly reject the categorization of the church’s weekly gathering as “non-essential.”
Jesus’ authority is higher than any earthly government. The church has been entrusted with the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:19). Jesus died to gather a church on earth in order to spread the message of the gospel to every nation (Matt. 28:18-20) and to “bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Eph. 3:9). When the church gathers, the reconciling power of the cross is on full display for all the world to see.
According to Jesus, the gathered church is essential, and no earthly governor has the authority to change that fact.
While the church may decide to temporarily suspend in-person gatherings out of love and concern for neighbor, any indefinite mandate to stop gathering is simply out of the question for followers of Jesus. Gathered worship is essential, and throughout the history of the church, disciples of Christ have been willing to give their lives in order to preserve this privilege for which Christ died.Gathered worship is essential, and throughout the history of the church, disciples of Christ have been willing to give their lives in order to preserve this privilege for which Christ died. Click To Tweet
While the follower of Christ should enthusiastically celebrate societal advances in safety and well-being, we adamantly reject the cultural impulse to make personal health the definitive criteria for all of our decisions. Whenever we expect anything other than God to give us the eternal peace and security that only God can give, we are in danger of committing idolatry.
Jesus teaches us that there are certain pursuits that are worthy of self-endangerment. Those who follow him are willing to take up their crosses daily (Luke 9:23). The Apostle Paul honors Epaphroditus for risking his life in service to the mission of Jesus (Phil. 2:29-30). While we should never needlessly put anyone in harm’s way, there comes a point when the risk of danger must be weighed against the divine necessity of the calling.
In response, I know many will say things like, “The church isn’t a building; it’s the people. We can be the church at home. Our church has livestream.” The church, by definition, is an assembly of people called out from the world by the sovereign grace of God through the redemption of Jesus Christ and formed into a Spirit-filled community organized under the authority of God’s Word. While the church is certainly not a building, it does require that God’s people actually physically gather (Heb. 10:25). Jesus did not save us from a far-off position in cyberspace; he took on flesh to dwell among us (John 1:14).
We can’t fulfill our mission without being physically present with one another. Our eternal destiny will include physical and resurrected bodies dwelling in a physical and renewed creation gathered around a physical and exalted Savior. God has not given us the liberty to cheapen the physicality of what Christ has accomplished.
Others may say, “I don’t need a church to worship God,” and it’s certainly true that in Christ all of life is transformed into worship (Rom. 12:1). While you can certainly worship God alone on your lawnmower, you can’t worship God in the fullness of what he has done without other people. The church gathered reveals “the manifold wisdom of God” in a way that you’re camping trip simply can’t do (Eph. 3:10).
We are in the midst of a difficult season, and Christians should be practicing the gospel by giving one anther the benefit of the doubt about tough decisions on when to return and what policies to institute going forward. Undoubtedly, we aren’t all going to agree on these complicated matters and that’s alright. Some churches are already meeting in-person and others have chosen to wait. Some Christians have returned to in-person gatherings and others are still waiting.
But one thing that’s absolutely non-negotiable for every follower of Jesus is that the gathered church is essential. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). When the church gathers, we hear the Word of God from the mouth of God together. In that sense, your church service is more essential than Kroger.