What Kind of Witness?: A Case for Churches Staying Open

The UK has entered its third national lockdown. Schools, restaurants, and non-essential businesses are closed again, and national morale has taken another beating. But what more can be done between a rock and a hard place? This isn’t a blog about lockdowns in general. Rather, this is about churches and how they have responded.

The Church of England was quick off the mark to close churches the first time around, even shutting the doors to their clergy. Churches were not only closed for Sundays, they were closed throughout the week, leaving vicars unable to enter their own churches to pray by themselves. In the second lockdown, churches were closed again, and while the Catholic archbishops immediately protested, and some independents kept meeting anyway, the Anglican hierarchy ummed and aahed a bit before asking the government to allow them to reopen. From the perspective of church history, this was everyone playing their part: Catholicism and non-conformism only exist in the UK because their leaders, at certain points in history, told the government that they aren’t allowed to tell the Church of God what to do. Since then, the Church of England has always had to maintain its relationship with the temporal powers more carefully.

However, when the third lockdown came along, despite the fact that they could stay open, many churches made the move back to voluntary closure. John Stevens, head honcho of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, said that while churches legally could meet, they ought to consider whether it was wise to do so. One key plank in the arguments from Christians to close churches was the argument of witness. In a pandemic, the argument goes, the Church ought to be a ‘good witness’, and not seen by others to be careless in the middle of a public health crisis. Here, I want to suggest that the ‘good witness’ argument cuts both ways, and I reckon it falls in favour of keeping churches open.

A clarification for the concerned: this does not mean that churches ought to return to all we were doing in January and February. I think we should still be careful, generally observe social distancing guidelines, wear masks, etc. etc. Some think the only options for churches are maskless covid-denying hug-and-cough-a-thons, or closed churches and streamed services. Not so.

All other lockdown politics aside, here’s why I think our Christian witness demands that we keep churches open, rather than closed:

1. We have a duty to worship God
This is the most important reason, and, to my mind, we could end here and the case would still be convincing. All humanity has been created with a purpose — all of us belong to God, whether just once by virtue of our creation, or twice by having been both created and redeemed by God. That purpose is ultimately worship. I personally don’t subscribe to the views of the Sydney Anglicans, that Sunday is simply a ‘meeting’, and that most of the Sunday traffic is horizontal encouragement. Worship is obviously broader than meetings, singing, and specific acts of devotion (Rom. 12:1-2), but Scripture certainly envisages meetings, singing, and specific acts of devotion when it talks about worship too (Gen 22:5; Ex. 4:31; Josh. 5:14; 1 Sam. 1:3; 1 Chron. 16:29; Neh. 8:6; Matt. 14:33; 28:9, 28:17; Luke 2:37, 24:52; John 9:38; Acts 13:2, 24:11 1 Cor. 14:25; Rev. 4:10, 5:14, 7:11, 11:16, etc., etc.). These obligations should not be considered lightly, nor should we consider live-streaming from home to be an appropriate substitute (especially since the Lord’s Supper cannot be privately celebrated at home, and our Lord did specifically command us to do that). One of the things that causes me the most pain in this situation is the God is not glorified as he ought to be, and it is rarely spoken of as a priority above the concerns of health and state.

I can’t emphasise enough that I think worship ought to be conducted safely, since I fear some will mishear me. I read of a Russian Orthodox bishop who claimed that covid could not be contracted in church, since it is holy ground, or in sharing the Eucharist from one common spoon, since it is consecrated bread and wine. This is not so, and it’s not what I’m saying. But the fact is that we can worship safely under the current circumstances, with individual cups, little bits of bread, and spaced out seats (though hopefully not spaced out occupants), and so I think we ought to. And bear in mind that many of our persecuted brothers and sisters worship in more dangerous places than us every week. Safety has never been a Christian value.

2. God may deliver us
Covid has not created, but revealed a spiritual vacuum in our society. Perhaps it has even revealed a spiritual hole in the church — the latent secularism that had been under the surface for decades. We Christians in the West are often unaware of just how secular we have become, since our benchmark is the atheism of the public square. Travel to any non-western country, be it Muslim, Hindu, or Christian in sub-Saharan Africa, and you’ll see how secular even Western Christians are. Consider this: where has the hope of most Christians been placed? You can answer that question by considering whether people pray, and what they pray for. What have people prayed for? I think I have heard more people pray for a vaccine than I have heard pray that God would relent and turn away the pandemic. Which begs the question: who is in control? Sure, we can hope for a vaccine, we ought to work for a vaccine as an outworking of prudence and the authority we have been given in the world, and we ought to give thanks for it as it arrives. We can, of course, even pray for it. But why not cut out the middle man? Why not pray as though God might do something? My suspicion is that we want to spare God the embarrassment of not doing what we ask.

3. The Church is more necessary than business
Church is obviously not a business (which some denominations would do well to remember in their branding and strategising), not is it a healthcare provider, and this has made it hard for people to judge what to do with it in the pandemic. The hierarchy of the Church of England essentially confirmed their own irrelevance in the first two lockdowns: when they were deemed ‘non-essential’ by the government, their response was essentially, ‘yeah, fair point, we probably are.’ So much for any prophetic voice. Others have pointed out that Church is a minority interest, and, in a secular society, we have to accept that we can’t ask for some special dispensation. Statistically true, theologically irrelevant.

The Church is, of course, more necessary than business. Creation does not longingly await the wedding supper of the Lamb and the FTSE 250, nor does Amazon display the wisdom of God to the heavenly powers. And yet the only eternal organisation on earth has pressed pause, allowing itself to be classed as though it were in any way comparable to a hairdresser or betting shop. Even playing the card of church attendance being good for mental health misses the point, as though the Church exists for what it can offer its individual members like a spiritual gym or health club. The Church is not comparable to any human organisation in any meaningful way. We can’t expect governments to understand this, but that doesn’t mean that we should only speak in terms that they can understand — we must bear witness to the truth of the matter.

4. Someone has to be the bearer of bad news
Now, more than ever, the Church needs to confront society at large with the reality of death, and to help people prepare for it. The avoidance of death is not preparation. Of course, all deaths are bad, and we do want the number of fatalities to be as small as possible, but the Church must remember that its job is not to help people avoid dying, it is to prepare people for the one thing they will not avoid. Someone, unfortunately, has to be the troubler of Israel, the Elijah, the John the Baptist. Someone has to break the news. Someone has to be a witness.

5. The most frequent command in Scripture is:
Here’s a good fun-fact question. The most frequent command in Scripture is ‘Do not be afraid.’ ‘Don’t be foolhardy’ might be in the Bible somewhere as well —it’s a very long book, I don’t know it all off the top of my head — but it’s rarely deemed a pastoral issue in need on confrontation. Few characters in Scripture spring to mind as being too brave, though there are some, like Nadab and Abihu, who don’t fear God as much as they ought to.

This is where the rubber really hits the road for central Christian doctrines. Let’s ask the blunt question: do we believe in the resurrection or don’t we? Pastoring people through a pandemic must require confronting the fear of death (which is a tool of the devil to keep people in slavery, Hebrews 2:14-15). Of course, reckless meetings that endanger the flock are a form of pastoral malpractice, but so is allowing a congregation to fear what Christ has abolished (2 Tim. 1:10). I don’t want to be overly prescriptive in how this might look, but all Christians must share these conviction: a) there are some things more important than staying alive, b) all who die in Christ will be raised with Christ.

Question: What kind of witness do we want to be?
What does it mean to be a good witness anyway? For many people, being a witness is about adorning the gospel of Christ, making Christ look good by acting in a way that is commendable and honourable. There is much that is good about this, but I’m not sure that witness is quite the right word. The whole idea of ‘witness’ is borrowed from the legal world. If you think that witnessing is about making sure that people like you, you’ve probably never testified against the mob, or entered the witness protection programme. Witnessing often requires courage.

Or, if you don’t like mob films, perhaps the Greek of the New Testament will be more your speed. The word we translate as ‘witness’ is the same root as our word ‘martyr’. Of course this doesn’t just apply to the current Covid-19 decisions, this is the constant question of Christian presence in the world. ‘Being a good witness’ has nothing to do with looking good in front of people who don’t understand Christians or share their priorities — witnessing is about testifying to the truth of Christ, whether the jury approves of the witness statement or not.

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