Church and State: The Importance of Corporate Worship and Submission to the Governing Authorities
Church and State:
The Importance of Corporate Worship and Submission to the Governing Authorities
by William Klock
I spent this week preparing a sermon for the Sunday after Epiphany, a sermon about the young Jesus in Jerusalem after the Passover and Mary and Joseph searching for him frantically, perhaps with the naïve hope that the health order shutting our churches would be lifted this week. With the order extended for another month, it seems appropriate to address that subject instead.
Like every church, you all have a variety of opinions on how we should be dealing with the pandemic and with the current health orders. I’ll say at the outset that I’m thankful you’ve been pretty gracious in dealing with differences. This has been a difficult time for pastors, caught between demands that we obey government orders (or even go beyond them) and others demanding we defy orders. I’ve lost count of the pastors I know who have been fired for making the “wrong” choice or who have simply broken down and quit. I am not looking forward to the aftermath to come, because there will likely be a lot of split churches in future. In our own church, we’ve lost one person who, apparently, felt we should be continuing with our normal activities, despite health orders, and we’ve lost a couple of people who were upset that we continued meeting in the Spring and didn’t impose our own mask order in the absence of one from the province. I’m not a doctor and neither is anyone else in our congregation. Health experts, like our Provincial Health Officer, are there—even given emergency dictatorial powers—for a reason. They’re qualified to address these issues. No one here is qualified to make these decision and so we abide by the orders and guidelines given by those who are. If the experts issuing health orders, for example, leave the wearing of masks up to private judgement, a pastor or vestry with no medical expertise has no business ordering they be worn, binding the conscience of believers, and effectively excommunicating anyone whose private judgement dictates otherwise. If the health officials tell us we must wear masks indoors, we will—not because I or the vestry thinks it’s a good idea and issues an order for the church, but because those in authority in the government who are qualified to issue such orders have told us to and as good Christians we submit to the civil magistrate.
Now, that said—and I’ll come back to this issue of obedience to the civil magistrate later—I think it’s important to address these issues. And here’s how I’m going to address it today. First, I want to look at ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is the branch of theology that deals with the church—ekklesia is the Greek word for “church”—and so this branch of theology addresses who and what we are, what we do, and how we do it. Our ecclesiology answers important questions like “What does it mean for the Church to gather?”, “Do we have to do it in person?”, “Can our gatherings be ‘virtual’?”. Things like that. Second, we need to look at our political theology. How does the Church relate to the State and the State to the Church? Where does the authority of one begin and the other end? What do we do when they overlap or seem to be in conflict? And, finally, we’ll bring this back to our current situation, which has been complicated by a broad failure of the Church to adequately address these issues.
So, first, ecclesiology. The greatest failure, I think, has been here. It’s not surprising. For generations a large swath of Evangelicals has downplayed theology. Get a group of pastors together and try to recite the Creed and most can’t do it. I’ve been sitting there more than once when it happened. So it’s no surprise when the people sitting in the pews are theologically illiterate. Ecclesiology was one of the great subjects of the Protestant Reformation, but we’ve reached a point where we’ve got pastors who don’t even know what the word means. A big part of the problem is that for the many years—especially since the 1970s—Evangelicals have been doing church, not based on well-thought-out ecclesiology, but on pragmatic principles—based on whatever will get the biggest number of butts in the pews or reach the biggest number of people, but a great deal of what we’ve done has undermined the integrity of the Church. We’ve downplayed commitment and sacrifice and submission to the Lordship of Jesus, while turning the faith into a therapeutic and private spiritual hobby that we do by ourselves. And the problem is that when something like the coronavirus hits us, we have nothing solid on which to base our response—or, as we’ve seen, we fall back on the faulty, unbiblical foundations we’ve been building for the last fifty years.
It’s sad, but not surprising that a church that for decades has promoted the idea—whether overtly or not—that you can “go to church” in front of the TV in your pajamas and with your coffee, has so quickly adopted this “virtual church” model. Consider that in the Spring, almost every church in British Columbia stopped in-person services. The fifty-person cap imposed on us certainly made things difficult for larger churches, but we’ve since seen that it’s not an insurmountable problem. Our Roman brothers and sisters, for example, understanding how important it is for the Church to gather in person, eventually worked out a system of two services a day, six days a week. For many churches like ours, the limit posed no problem at all. But most churches didn’t even try. Most simply went to some kind of “virtual” model. Now most understood that this was a stop-gap measure, that this isn’t how things are supposed to be. That said, however, there have been quite a few pastors failing to make this distinction and even some touting it as a “new normal” that’s better than what we had before. I fear what the fallout will be. I can no longer count of the number of people who have said something like, “I don’t know that I’ll ever go back. It’s so much easier and comfortable to watch at home and I can do it at the time I want” or “This has been such a blessing. We don’t have to get the kids ready for church. Hubby and I can just watch in peace while they play. This is so much better.” And all of this is reinforcing that old half-truth as I hear people say repeatedly, “The Church is not a building,” by which they mean that gathered, public worship is not of the essence of the Church. The polls being done in recent months say that when this is over, church attendance will be down something like 30%, either because people will be watching from home or will simply have dropped out after months (or a year) of non-attendance. That’s a staggering and tragic number and those who shut down when they didn’t have to are big contributors.
Brothers and Sisters, in-person worship is part of the essence of the Church. It is not an optional add-on to something we otherwise do privately. Let me go back to that statement that the Church is not a building. I said it’s half true. It’s true that the Church is the people, not the building. But the statement is misleading. To be the Church, the people have to meet together and that requires a place, whether it’s a cathedral, a storefront, a house, or the shade of a great tree on an African plain. You see, there’s no such thing as an ecclesiological vacuum. If we don’t take the time to develop a biblical ecclesiology or at least to listen to our forefathers in the faith who worked out a biblical ecclesiology at great length, some kind of half-biblical and poorly-thought-out ecclesiology will fill the vacuum—and as this pandemic has put pressure on the Church, this is exactly what’s been revealed.
So what does the Bible say about the Church? A year’s worth of sermons could easily develop to answer that question, but I’ll try to answer it briefly here. Let me go back to that statement that the Church is not a building. There’s a reason why church buildings are so closely associated with the people who are the Church, that we’ve come to refer to both as “church”. To gather together in some place established for that gathering is of the essence of the Church. Consider the very word “Church”. The Greek word used in the New Testament is one you’ve heard before: ekklesia. The word literally means “assembly” and the New Testament writers use it to describe both the people who assemble and the assembly of those people—pretty much exactly parallel to the way we use “church” to refer to God’s people assembling together and the assembly of God’s people. But the key here is the assembly. The ekklesia does not exists apart from the assembly. The members can go off to their own homes, to their work and other affairs and be apart from each other, but they remain the ekklesia, because they are the part of the assembly when it gathers together. The church is defined by its physical gathering for corporate worship. It’s defined by other things as well, most importantly our union with Jesus, but it’s also defined by its nature as a gathered people. There’s no such thing as a loner Christian. A person who, due to extraordinary circumstances can no longer be part of our corporate gathering—say they’ve had to move into a nursing home—remains a part of the Church, because they’ve been part of the assembly. But you can’t be part of the Church if you’ve never been a regular part of the assembly. This is part of the problem with so-called “virtual church”. It may serve as an emergency stop-gap in times like our own, it may even be a good thing in that respect, but it’s not “church”. It’s the church doing its best to maintain connection and some kind of venue for teaching and worship in extreme circumstances. But if virtual church—whether today’s livestreams or the TV broadcasts we’ve had for decades—are all you’ve ever been part of, you’re not part of the church. This has always been the danger of the broadcast church and it’s why responsible evangelism, while it may use these methods to reach unbelievers, always stresses the need for those it connects with by TV, radio, or Internet to join the physical gathering of the local church and to take part in the very physical sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, that mark God’s people out as his own, as the Church.
We see this gathering, this physical coming together, throughout the New Testament. We don’t have time to look at all or even most of those passages, but let’s look at a couple of them. First, let’s look at St. Luke’s description of the Church just after Pentecost. Acts 2:42-46:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.
Fellowship, together, attending. These are the sorts of words that characterize the Church through the New Testament. It’s in our name, because it’s what we do. Those early brothers and sisters were known for gathering together to hear the apostles, to fellowship, and to worship together. They shared common meals as part of their gatherings and, in those early days, the Lord’s Supper was part of those meals, not merely a ritual meal as it is for most today. All of this requires presence. And, Luke says, they were devoted to it. That word “devoted” in verse 42 is something we might pass over, but it’s vitally important, particularly today. Even before the pandemic, many Christians showed a lack of devotion to the gathering of the Church. There will always be occasional necessities, travels, illnesses that prevent our attendance, but Luke’s description here should prompt us to ask if we’re really devoted. Do we prioritise gathering with the Church to worship on Sundays? Or is it something we do when we don’t have something else to do? Does our devotion inform our other commitments? There are lots of competing options these days. Do sports or clubs take us away from the Church? Sometimes it’s a more subtle sort of competition. Do we neglect things that need to be done in preparation for Monday, leaving them to the last minute so that we end up missing church to get them done? Do we do things on Saturday (or Saturday night) that we know will leave us exhausted and unwilling or unprepared to get up for church on Sunday? Maybe we know getting the kids ready will be a hassle on Sunday morning, but we neglect to do everything we can to prepare them Saturday night. These are all things that reflect our priorities. In the pandemic we might look at things like our non-church activities that expose us to infection and raise our risk of passing the virus to others when we gather together. If I have to limit the number of people I’m around during the week, I want to do everything I can to prioritise my activities so that I can safely include the Church in that limited circle of people.
The other passage I’d like us to look at is Hebrew 10:24-25:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
First, notice how the gathering of the saints together has a familial aspect to it. We gather to exhort and to encourage one another in the faith. It’s a means by which we love each other and put that love on display for the sake of the world. In a day when Christianity has largely morphed into an individualistic and private affair—me, my Bible, and Jesus—the writer of Hebrews reminds us that that is not the nature of Christianity. As St. Paul tells us multiple times, we are part of a body. That body requires all of its parts to function and each of the parts requires the body to survive.
And, it’s important to note, that this comes here in Hebrews as an apostolic command. Do not neglect to meet together. Like the command to keep the Sabbath, this doesn’t mean that we’ve sinned by missing church due to some necessity. There are good reasons sometimes. You may be ill. There may be some emergency. For some few who might be at truly great risk in our current situation, there may be good reason to stay at home. There may be a health order issued by the government. There are sometimes good reasons to miss the assembly or even to cancel the assembly for a Sunday or for a short season, but we may not neglect it without such a good reason.
And, I think it’s important to add in light of what has happened across our province, it is wrong for church leaders to deprive the saints of the opportunity to gather, short of such a reason. It is one thing for members of the Church, in their private judgement and assessing their own risk, to absent themselves by choice. It is another thing entirely for the pastor or the vestry or even the bishop to suspend the church’s services, depriving the people of the sacraments and the opportunity to gather for worship. This is, I think, a grievous wrong. It is one thing if necessity or emergency dictates it. Perhaps a wildfire surrounds us or an earthquake has made it impossible to gather or the governmental health authority issues an order closing churches, but absent such a situation, the leaders of a church must at least offer the opportunity to gather to the people of the church.
Finally, the New Testament puts the Lord’s Supper at the centre of our worship, alongside the preaching of the word. You can, as you are now, watch a recording or a livestream of a sermon, but the Lord’s Supper requires physical presence as much as it requires physical bread and physical wine. Sadly, we’ve even muddled this up today. I’ve watched pastors on livestreams send people to the kitchen to get “something to drink and some kind of bread”, even if it’s orange juice and Doritos. I watched one pastor pantomime the Lord’s Supper, pretending to drink from a pretend chalice and to eat pretend bread, and then pretending to pass it through the computer screen. Some in our own tradition have taken to distributing pre-consecrated bread and wine for people to eat during the livestream of a service and others who think they can consecrate bread and wine in someone’s home via the Internet. None of these things is the Lord’s Supper. The key to the Lord’s Supper is not the consecration of the elements. When Jesus blessed the bread and wine, he was giving a simple blessing as we do over our own meals, giving thanks to God. The bread and wine don’t change into something else to make the Lord’s Supper the Lord’s Supper. The key to the Lord’s Supper, just as it was the key its precursor, the Passover, is the presence of the family, the people of God, gathered to share in a meal by which we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus, in the events by which he has delivered generation after generation of believers from the bondage of sin and death and made us a new people. You cannot celebrate the Lord’s Supper alone. Like the Passover, it requires the gathering of the family around the Table, physical presence, to eat real bread and to drink real wine.
People have said to me, “It’s unfair. We don’t get Communion, but you can have it whenever you want!” Brothers and Sister, that’s not true. I know there are ministers who do that, but for me to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with my own family in private would be an abuse of the sacrament. It would be like the father depriving his family of food while he eats himself. No, your fast is my fast and I will eat the Lord’s Supper for the first time again with all of you, when we’re allowed to meet again together.
So now that we’ve established that gathering together is essential to being the Church, what authority does the State have to restrict our gatherings? Does it have any authority at all to do this? Most churches have exposed a dearth of thinking about ecclesiology, but in the last few months a few pastors have been preaching things more or less along the lines of “Jesus is the Lord of the Church and the State has no right to tell us what we can or can’t do!” Some of you have forwarded links to those sermons to me. This is a problem, too. I admire their willingness to take a stand—and at some point in future that kind of stand may be necessary—but at this point in time, these guys are ignoring half a millennium of well-developed Protestant political theology.
These arguments claiming that the State has no authority over the Church are all rooted in a misunderstand or misapplication of principles of political theology that go all the way back to Martin Luther and the Reformers. Before the Reformation, the Church claimed authority over everything: the Church, the Family, the State…everything. The Reformers changed that. Luther wrote of “three estates”: “But of holy orders and true religious institutions established by God are these three: the office of priest, the estate of marriage, the civil government.” In other words, what Luther is saying is that God has established three orders or spheres of governance in the world: the Family, the Church, and the State. More recently, the Dutch statesman and theologian, Abraham Kuyper, developed a similar and related idea known as “sphere sovereignty”. The idea being—and it’s a biblically grounded one, as was Luther’s—that these God ordained “spheres” such as Family, Church, and State each have their own authority. Kuyper’s “sphere sovereignty” has held a major place in Protestant Reformed Theology in the last century, so it’s not surprising that a lot of these sorts of sermons are coming from that quarter.
So I think most everyone can agree that there are God-ordained spheres or estates, each with its own authority, but apart from the Old Testament law, which was unique to Israel, the Bible doesn’t draw crisp, clean circles around these spheres the way some folks today would like to think. That would make things easier on paper, but it would lead to chaos in the real world. The problem is that in the real world the spheres overlap. So it’s easy to look at our current situation and declare that the State has no authority to suspend church services, but in reality none of us actually believes that. There are all sorts of situations in which civil authorities can legitimately interfere with our services. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes the freedom to peaceably assemble, but the Charter also includes what is known as the “reasonable limits” clause, which recognizes that these rights are not absolute.
So when it comes to something like our doctrine, there is a very clear boundary between the authority of the Church and the authority of the State. The Minister of Health, for example, has no authority to dictate to us what our doctrine is or should be. He would be seriously overstepping his authority to try tell us we should believe this or that as justification for closing our churches, for example, saying that “virtual church” is just as good as regular church. That’s a matter of doctrine.
But in other matters, the State may intrude on the Church’s sphere. The State has no say in how a church chooses or ordains pastors, but there are circumstances—say I was caught embezzling funds—in which the State can rightly bar a guilty clergyman from his job. We readily accept that the civil authorities can put occupancy limits on our building for reasons of public safety and noise restrictions on our musical activities so that we don’t become a public noise nuisance. We accept that the fire marshal or building inspector can close our building due to safety concerns. That happened right here in 1974, when the cenotaph was dedicated. They wanted to hold a dedicatory service in the building, but the building was in such disrepair that the Fire Chief barred them from using it. That Fire Chief was Lawrence Burns, a man most of you know as a devoted Christian and leader in the local church. In times of war, the State may restrict how and when a church may meet. During the Blitz, Londoners were barred from churches after dark, lest the light become a target.
Plague and pestilence have—until now—been such a thing of the past that most of us have forgotten that the Church has addressed these issues for us already. Richard Baxter, one of the finest of the Puritans, wrote this in his catechism:
Question 109: May we omit church-assemblies on the Lord’s day, if the magistrate forbid them?
Answer: 1. It is one thing to forbid them for a time, upon some special cause, (as infection by pestilence, fire, war, etc.) and another to forbid them statedly or profanely.
- It is one thing to omit them for a time, and another to do it ordinarily.
- It is one thing to omit them in formal obedience to the law; and another thing to omit them in prudence, or for necessity, because we cannot keep them.
- The assembly and the circumstances of the assembly must be distinguished.
(1) If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him. 1. Because positive duties give place to those great natural duties which are their end: so Christ justified himself and his disciples’ violation of the external rest of the sabbath. ‘For the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.’ 2. Because affirmatives bind not ‘ad semper,’ and out-of-season duties become sins. 3. Because one Lord’s day or assembly is not to be preferred before many, which by the omission of that one are like to be obtained….”
Notice, first, that Baxter acknowledges the authority of the State overlaps that of the Church here. The civil magistrate has every right to impose limits or rules or even to suspend our gathering if it is justified in doing so for public health and safety. As Baxter quotes Jesus, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Baxter also reminds us that while a sin is always a sin—in other words, when God commands, “Thou shalt not murder,” there is never any circumstance in which it is okay to murder—the same is not always true of God’s positive commands. We are obligated to gather together, and doing so should be normative, but there will be times when it’s okay not to. Think again of the Sabbath. Israel was commanded to keep the Sabbath, but that didn’t mean leaving your donkey in a ditch or your son down a well to do so. The command to keep the Sabbath is not absolute in the way the commands not to murder or not to commit adultery are. And, finally, he points out that it may be prudent to suspend Sunday worship for a short time if not doing so would mean having to suspend it for a longer time. I think that’s particularly applicable in our current situation—or at least it is potentially so.
Now, Baxter’s catechism never had any official authority in any ecclesiastical jurisdiction, so let me quote a short bit of the Augsburg Confession, which is one of the formularies of the Lutheran Churches:
Article XXVIII: Of Ecclesiastical Power
… Therefore the power of the Church and the civil power must not be confounded. The power of the Church has its own commission to teach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments. Let it not break into the office of another; let it not transfer the kingdoms of this world; let it not abrogate the laws of civil rulers; let it not abolish lawful obedience; let it not interfere with judgments concerning civil ordinances or contracts; let it not prescribe laws to civil rulers concerning the form of the Commonwealth….
There are aspects of the civil magistrate’s authority that rightly and justly overlap the authority of the Church and—with some exceptions amongst the Anabaptists—Protestants have always recognized this. This is part of the practical outworking of St. Paul’s exhortation in Romans 13 to be subject to the governing authorities:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Romans 13:1-2)
Are there circumstance in which Christians may or are even required to disobey the civil magistrate? Of course there are. But this isn’t one of them. If the magistrate were requiring we do something sinful—say offering a pinch of incense to Caesar—we would be bound to disobey. But suspending church services for a limited period of time because of a pandemic is not one of those situations. It is not a sin to cancel our corporate worship out of necessity.
Now, finally, what if we disagree with the health orders? Let me approach this from two angles.
First, there’s been a lot of talk about these health orders and the persecution of the Church—as if our government is hostile to Christians. Something like that may be going on in other jurisdictions, but it’s just plain foolish to think that in British Columbia. First, our Health Minister and our Premier are both church-goers. They belong to very liberal churches that we would likely consider heretical in belief, but they are “religious people” and they’ve made it clear that they value religion and even “church”. Second, the health orders in BC target everyone, not just Christians. We haven’t been singled out. I think it’s important to stop the persecution talk right now. That may really come someday, but it’s not now.
But, let’s say these orders were unfairly aimed at churches. I think the best test to determine whether or not that’s the case is to look at what’s happening with theatres and concerts. Is the government allowing theatres to operate? Can people gather for a concert? In terms of a pandemic, those venues are comparable to a church service. If churches were ordered closed, but theatres were still open, we’d probably have just cause to claim persecution or, at least, that we’re being unjustly targeted. But that’s not the case in British Columbia. I know it seems stupid that you can’t go to church, but you can still buy liquor and dope, but the fact is that shopping—whatever your shopping for—is a less risky situation than sitting in a room full of people for an hour or two.
But if we perceived the health orders to be imposing an unjust bias on us, would we be justified in engaging in civil disobedience as some are doing? No. Here’s why. Scripture obligates us to be subject to the governing authorities. That means that we must first avail ourselves of the means of redress that our system of government has provided—and it has provided them. We can contact our MLA. We can write to our Premier, our Health Minister, and—while they haven’t made it easy—even our Provincial Health Officer. If that doesn’t get us anywhere, we have recourse to the Courts. These are all avenues that we need to exhaust before we can justifiably engage in civil disobedience when the issue at stake is not one that involves sin. If we did otherwise, we would be disregarding Scripture’s command to be subject to the governing authorities, and that would be a problem.
Why is this important? Consider how our relation with the civil authorities impacts our witness as Christians. This is what lies behind most of what the New Testament has to say on the subject. Paul urged Timothy to pray for those in authority. The idea, he writes, is that we “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Christians should not be known for creating chaos and constantly raging against the civil authorities. Paul similarly wrote to Titus
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. (Titus 3:1-2)
Paul hits some of us close to home. It’s easy to quarrel about these things and it’s easy to cross the line from legitimate and godly criticism and into speaking evil. I know the struggle, but struggle we must. This is part of our witness. Peter, in particular, addresses that aspect of it:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. (1 Peter 3:13-15)
Christians are the last people who should be known as trouble-makers. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand up for our rights, but it does mean we need to make sure that when we do, we do it in the least disruptive and most gracious way possible.
And that gets to the final point I want to make. Part of what’s going on in BC is our own fault and we need to own that. The day before this “social lockdown” was put in place, Adrian Dix and Bonnie Henry held one of their conference calls with “faith leaders”. In that call they thanked religious communities for having done such a good job. There had been no issues with public religious gatherings when the protocols they’d given were followed. This is why so many were shocked when, the next day, the health order issued shut us down. Archbishop Miller, the senior Roman prelate in BC, wrote a letter of protest. A law professor at UBC wrote a letter stating that this kind of action was likely unconstitutional. You can’t suspend a charter right without good reason and none had been given. When Dix and Henry responded, it was to say that with the goal of keeping businesses and schools open, they were curtailing what they deemed to be “social” activities. This makes sense to an extent. We’ve seen that most business and educational activities haven’t posed great threats. Community spread was happening largely in social gatherings and that’s what they targeted. The problem is that churches had proved ourselves safe and low-risk and the authorities admitted that freely literally the day before. When confronted about this the next week in a press conference, Henry brushed it off, rightly pointing out that social gatherings have been a problem, but then unjustifiably lumping public religious gatherings into the same general category. Legally, the authorities need to provide some kind of reasonable evidence that our services are a credible threat to public health before curtailing them, but that has never been done.
This is a point that could be challenged in court, but it’s unlikely to go anywhere. Why? Because the vast majority of Christians in British Columbia sent a clear message back in the Spring. The health authorities permitted us to meet with caps on attendance nd with safety measure in place, but the vast majority of churches shut down anyway. When other jurisdictions were ordering churches closed, the authorities here, knowing how important our public gatherings are—or, at least, should be—allowed us to continue to meet. I was overjoyed at the time. We were one of the few Reformed Episcopal Churches on the continent still meeting during March and April and May, because our health authorities knew it was important we be able to meet. And yet what happened? Every other church in the Comox Valley closed its doors and the same happened across the province. We were handed a great privilege and were in a unique situation in North America—and most Christians in BC threw it away. The church at large in BC sent a message to our authorities, who had bent over backwards so that we could continue to meet, that the corporate gathering of the saints isn’t really that important after all.
And that, I think, is a good reason for us to be circumspect in our protest. The majority of our church leaders, our brothers, and our sisters have sent a message to the government that it’s okay for the government to shut us down without demonstrating that we pose a threat to public health. And so the response from the government and the response from the public to protest and to the churches that are defying the orders is something like, “Stop being trouble-makers. Physical gatherings aren’t that big of a deal—see all the churches that shut down even though we didn’t ask them to. The Church isn’t a building.” And our witness goes down in flames. I don’t have all the answers as to how we rebuild from here. It will take a lot of wisdom and a lot of wise Christians working together. It will take the education of the Church at large. Consider, I’ve said nothing here that is new or that’s my own novel interpretation. Everything I’ve said this morning is what the Church has been saying for hundreds of years. The problem is that much of the Church has stopped listening to our forefathers, to our history, to our own doctrinal formularies. Brothers and Sisters, we need to pray for our leaders, for our community, and for the larger church. And we need to be faithful in our witness to the best of our ability. This means being good citizens under the current circumstances. I think it’s also a time in which the Lord is reminding us that there’s more to being the Church than gathering on Sunday mornings. We aren’t able to do that, but there are so many other things we can be doing to witness Jesus to the world—things that we haven’t done very well in the past when we were meeting regularly together. Some words of that great Anglican divine, Richard Hooker, are fitting. He wrote at a time when there was a great deal of contention and quarreling going on in the Church of England and this is what he wrote:
In the meantime, shall there be no doings? Hardly! There are the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These things we ought to do; and these things, while we contend about less, we leave undone. Happy those whom the Lord comes and finds doing them instead of quarreling…
Friends, we cannot meet together, but we can be faithful in witnessing the justice and mercy of the kingdom and I can’t think of a time when the world needs that witness more than it does now.
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, we come to you this morning, a people dispersed by order of our government and pray for your mercy. Deliver us from this time of sickness, give wisdom to our leaders that they might deal with us justly, and restore us to our fellowship. Fill us with wisdom and grace, we ask, that we might respond to our governing authorities with humility and work for the reformation of your church with all godliness. We ask this through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
 Luther’s Works, 37:365
 A Christian Directory, pp. 870-872.
 The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in Modern English, Preface.vi.5.