Joel D. Fick
On March 17, in response to the global outbreak of COVID-19, Alachua County, Florida—where our church, Redemption OPC, is located—issued an emergency order including the injunction that “public gatherings of more than ten individuals are discouraged and may be ordered to disperse.”
This injunction simply mirrored what other local governments all across our country were doing and therefore what other sessions across the OPC were facing. What is the church to do when, in the providence of God, it is prevented from assembling? Should the church ignore the injunction of the state? Should the church assemble virtually? Is such a thing even possible? Is preaching actually preaching if no one is present? And what about the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper—how are they to be administered and received?
These are just a few of the difficult questions that your session has likely had to wrestle with, and these are difficult questions. So please understand that this article is not intended to diminish either the difficulty of the questions or the answers given to them by others. Rather, it represents the reflections of one session and of one pastor in response to this difficult providence, the principles that informed our response, and the practices that we adopted during the present crisis.
The first thing that we as a session wanted to affirm, acknowledge, and encourage our congregation to accept is that this present ordeal is part of the most “holy, wise, and powerful” providence of our good and gracious God (Shorter Catechism Q. 11). Being mindful that not a hair can fall from our head apart from the will of our Father in heaven (Matt. 10:29–30), we wanted to remind them that we can be “patient in adversity” precisely because “no creature will separate us from [God’s] love” (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 28). If, as Paul says in Romans 8, “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness or sword” will not separate us from his love, then surely COVID-19 will not either. It is simply one more aspect of the “anything else in all creation” which cannot break this bond. No, even in this “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” and “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:31–39).
But while it may not separate us from his love, it may in his providence temporarily serve to separate us from one another.
With God’s providence as our presupposition, we asked ourselves, “What are the principles that should inform our response?” We desired, of course, that our response might conform with the scriptural teaching that we should “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:17). All four of these biblical directives seem to be particularly relevant and to converge in this curious context.
And, of course, we wanted to continue to honor the Lord’s Day, calling God’s people to public and private worship, all the while maintaining some measure of continuity and community. We considered the Bible’s teaching that in this new covenant the locus of our worship is with the heavenly assembly. We remembered that when the Samaritan woman wondered on which mountain to worship, Jesus answered:
The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. (John 4:21–23)
Jesus was not saying that the Jews were false worshipers; as he plainly says, “we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (v. 22). Nevertheless the “true” worshipers of which he speaks are those who participate in the “true” and “heavenly” things of which the earthly things are but a copy. “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb. 9:24, emphasis added).
To worship in Spirit and truth is to gather and ascend the heavenly Mount Zion by faith. It is to come to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, which is the realm of the Spirit, and to Jesus himself, the Mediator of the new covenant who speaks from heaven (Heb. 12:18–24). And while this is a corporate covenantal ascent, the Apostle John, although alone, was clearly not prevented from being “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10).
With this heavenly orientation in our minds, we also remembered that we continue to confess that we are “strangers and exiles on earth” (Heb. 11:13). And as those on earth, this adversity is part and parcel of what characterizes our life and worship. The preacher of Ecclesiastes put it this way:
In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. (Eccles. 7:13–14)
Truly, God has not given us to understand just what he is up to, but we can trust that all that he is up to is for our good and for his glory.
With these principles in mind, here is how our session determined to proceed.
First, with a view to promoting and protecting the life of our neighbor, we have temporarily suspended all our midweek gatherings. When the bubonic plague was ravaging Europe, Luther wrote,
I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. (“Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague?”)
He understood that his absence might actually be the most powerful means of loving and preserving the life of his neighbor.
Second, while we have continued to call a corporate worship service, we are limiting its participation in order to conform to our county requirement of no more than ten individuals. We are then livestreaming this worship service to the rest of our congregation. Those who meet together are appropriately spaced out throughout the large sanctuary and included myself, an accompanist, and two or three other family units totaling no more than eight additional persons. By rotating alphabetically through the membership rolls of those who wish to be present, at least part of our body is corporately gathered each Lord’s Day. We publish a weekly bulletin to be printed out for use at the church or at home, we have dropped off hymnals, we have invited online giving, and we have encouraged families to gather to hear God’s Word and participate remotely. For the present, we have determined not to administer the Lord’s Supper because of the “communion” aspect of the meal, because we believe the sacraments should only be administered by those who are ordained to the task (which could not happen at home), and because the context of the meal is specifically, “when you come together” (1 Cor. 11:17).
Third, we are doing as much shepherding by phone as possible. Our elders and deacons are regularly touching base with those who may have health or financial concerns due to the crisis. In addition, I am personally calling through the rolls of the church every other week to encourage our members, to check on their welfare, and to solicit prayer requests for a shared sessional prayer document that I have unofficially dubbed “Operation CCC: COVID Calling Concerns.”
Finally, in an effort to encourage ongoing covenantal community, we are meeting Sunday evening via a video-conferencing platform that gives us the opportunity to chat together, pray with and for each other, and have a time of instruction and catechism.
None of this is ideal, and we long for the time when we can meet together again. Sometimes extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, but even extraordinary measures should be as prudent as possible. Our fathers at the Westminster Assembly understood this when they wrote, “In extraordinary cases something extraordinary may be done, until a settled order may be had: yet keeping as near as possibly may be to the rule.” This is wisdom for our times as we, like all of you, are laboring to “have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature will separate us from his love” (Heidelberg Catechism Q. 28).
The author is pastor of Redemption OPC in Gainesville, Florida. New Horizons, May 2020.