As churches around the country begin to cautiously reopen, many parishioners may feel caught between their government’s advice and their pastor’s. As parishioners decide whether to return to reopened churches or are frustrated with a lack of movement to reopen, how should they respond? What do we do when we disagree? CT asked a variety of Christian leaders to weigh in.
Aaron Reyes, lead pastor, Hope Community Church, and dean, Vida House
Hebrews 13:17 says “have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority.” But submission, or “yielding” (as it implies in the Greek), doesn’t mean blind obedience. Regardless of what choice pastors make about reopening churches, we must all still act according to our conscience. Respecting our leaders doesn’t mean we can’t freely choose whether or not to worship in an actual building on Sunday morning. Rather, it means choosing, for example, to stay home until we feel it’s safer to be in public, while not openly criticizing your leader’s decision. We shouldn’t reach out to fellow church members, explaining why the leadership is wrong and trying to stir up distrust. Instead, kindly express your stance to the leadership. Lovingly inform them of your decision and continue to love the church whether you’re near or far.
Daniel Patterson, executive vice president, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
Regardless of whether you think your church is overly eager or overly cautious, it could be that the best place to start is simply with a resolve to assume the best of one’s pastors and church leaders. There are no courses on pandemics and contagions in seminary, nor are there easy answers or one-size-fits-all solutions to when and how churches should reopen. This means churches around the country are having to make difficult decisions they know will not be met with unanimous agreement. By all means, make the best decisions you can when it comes to the health of you and your family, particularly those in at-risk populations. At the same time, bear in mind your church will almost certainly understand if you’re anxious or cautious about returning to church immediately. What’s needed most, I think, is that we all strive to maintain safety and unity in equal measure.
Jamaal Williams, lead pastor, Sojourn Church Midtown
In general, when church members disagree with their pastors on when to regather, they should voice their concerns with respect, knowing that their leaders have tough decisions to make. After all, the majority of us are facing this type of crisis for the first time, and communities process data differently and are impacted differently. Moreover, each person must be careful not to cause division among other members as the unity of the body is essential. Each member of the body should “think of the other person as more significant than themselves.” Churches that walk in love are churches where both members and pastors respect each other’s consciences and give each other the benefit of the doubt; working toward the safety of all members, especially the safety of those most vulnerable.
Raymond Chang, campus minister, Wheaton College, and president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative
I would encourage people to hold the posture that assumes pastors and leaders are doing the best they can with what they know. Decisions about when and how to reopen are difficult. They can get even more challenging when reasonable stances and approaches become unnecessarily politicized. God’s people should seek the Scriptures for godly postures to guide them. Loving God by loving neighbor should be the energizing principle. Beyond that, I find 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 to be helpful. It is true that not everything that is permissible is necessarily beneficial, but verse 24 really gives guidance to decision making: “no one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” We need to understand how the Bible defines neighbor and extend our care to them. From there, we should also look to experts on virology and epidemiology to determine the nature of the virus, how it spreads, and what safety looks like as a result and make decisions (with the most vulnerable in mind) based on their expertise.
Mateus de Campos, assistant professor of New Testament and director of discipleship, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is written to a community facing severe pressure that was dividing the church. The apostle, therefore, urges them to do whatever it takes to attain a unity of mind (Phil. 1:27), shaped by the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5), which was the only way they would be able to stand. Unity of mind does not mean having the very same opinions but drawing from what we have in common—Christ, the Spirit, the Gospel, brotherly affection—to find a place of unity. The key in Paul’s admonition is this: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4). Pastors who decide to reopen their churches should be sensitive to members who may feel unsafe returning to public assemblies. Conversely, some battling loneliness might find that gathering together is in their best interest. Above all, unity has to be kept, so that when the pressure is down, the church is still standing.
Kathryn Freeman, seminarian, writer, and co-host of Melanated Faith Podcast
We should heed our church leaders’ decisions with humility and love. We trust that they have prayerfully considered all of the risks and benefits to their congregants and their neighborhoods. We lovingly and humbly join them in prayer about those decisions and then we trust them, even when we do not agree or understand. Our ability to submit to each other might be the true test of our commitment to Christian community and it also should be what is distinctive about the church. We should ask ourselves: am I only committed on my terms, and as long as my individual needs are met? If the answer is yes, I would argue that you are seeking a country club. The church is much larger than our own comfort.
Brian Gibson, senior pastor, His Church, and leader of the Peaceably Gather Movement
I believe that churches should open, with caring and compassionate protocol, while holding to our First Amendment liberties. The First Amendment of the Constitution provides protection to houses of worship. I’m not calling for a mad dash into the church house, simply a reasonable stance to protect the First Amendment. I believe the way to handle disagreements about this issue is with a spirit of honor. When you sow honor, you reap favor. I’m praying for God’s wisdom for leaders and parishioners across this great nation.
Tony Suarez, executive vice president, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference
They say one of the characteristics of a greater leader is his/her ability to adapt to change. Pastors, understanding the essentiality of the church, adapted early in this crisis to ensure ministry would not cease but continue via every medium of media possible. I believe their efforts were met with appreciation. Many of my colleagues reported an unprecedented number of viewers and inquiries regarding their church. What seemed like a catastrophe (speaking to suspending in-person services) turned into an opportunity to extend the reach of the local church. Pastors deserve and need our support as they now wrestle with the decision of when to commence with in-person gathering. There is no “one size fits all” answer. Our response in these trying times should be to pray for our pastor, share our opinions with our pastor, and ultimately support our pastor’s decision. These are unprecedented times and they call for us to come together.
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