Dear SBC family,
Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The last few weeks have not been kind to South Africa or the South African church. The sudden rise in infections has led to lives being lost, hospitals being overwhelmed, and our churches being closed once again.
The government’s return to lockdown level 3 has sparked much discussion about what the church’s response to these latest restrictions should be. As elders we recognize that there is a great deal of confusion and frustration. Some of the restrictions seem arbitrary, even contradictory, and place a disproportionate burden on certain citizens and institutions.
How should the church respond? There have been calls for compliance and for civil disobedience. We recognize that there are differing views not only within the wider Baptist community, but also within our own church. Our decision will leave some frustrated, regardless of what we decide. This, however, should not be the basis upon which we make such decisions. Our goal should not be to appease the most people, but to obey and honour the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the head of the church (Col. 1:18).
The Lordship of Christ
As Baptist we believe in “the direct Lordship of Christ over every believer and over the local church. By this we understand that Christ exercises His authority over the believer and the local church directly, without delegating it to another” (taken from our Statement on Baptist Principles). Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord means that we owe him our total allegiance, loving service, and faithful obedience.
This statement of principle is rooted in Scripture. The Bible teaches that Jesus is Lord over all creation (Phil. 2:10-11), over every human institution (Rom. 13:1; Eph. 1:22-23), and over every church (Col. 1:18). Our primary aim in every sphere of life is to honour our Lord. In the words of Rev. 5:12: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing”.
Throughout history Christians have suffered for this conviction. The early church suffered because they confessed Jesus as Lord, not Caesar. Early Baptists suffered because they would not allow government authorities to dictate the church’s beliefs and practice. They disobeyed government and were imprisoned for it. Should we, with the current restrictions on religious gatherings, do the same?
Governing authorities instituted by God
What should our attitude to civil authorities be? Scripture teaches us that believers should “be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1a). There is an important reason for this: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1b). We are told that the government is “God’s servant for your good” and is “an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer” (v. 4). Elsewhere, we are told that government should “punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:14). Government, therefore, has a God-given duty to promote public order and peace, while also punishing evil.
The church’s role differs from that of government. Foundationally, the church has been called to glorify God by being and making disciples. We believe that the church is called to spread the gospel (Acts 1:8), disciple believers (Matt. 28:19-20; Eph. 4:11-13), and to minister in Christ’s name (Matt. 25:31-46). In doing so we are “salt” and “light” (Matt. 5:13-16), and a blessing to society.
When both government and the church fulfil their roles well it leads to harmony and blessing. This is a universal good and we are commanded to pray for it (1 Tim. 2:1-3). But what happens when government oversteps or interferes in the life of the church?
The importance of the gathered church
Hebrews 10:25 reminds us just how important the gathering of the local church is. Tragically, in our hyper-individualized society the gathered church has been forced to take a back seat to personal preference and convenience. This was a problem before the lockdown and has only deepened under the current restrictions.
How important is gathering as a local church? Scripture teaches that it is vital to the spiritual health of the believer and church’s ministry to the world. Heb. 10:25 reads: “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.” What does this mean?
When we read it in context, we find that verse 25 is part of one long sentence in the original Greek that starts way back in verse 19. In this sentence the author of Hebrews gives a three-fold admonition (v. 22-25), rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ (v. 19-21). Each of these admonitions are introduced by the phrase “let us”: “let us draw near” (v. 22), “let us hold fast” (v. 23), and “let us consider” (v. 24).
The first two admonitions, while corporate in nature (we do them together), are focussed on our relationship with God: drawing near to God and holding on to our faith in him. The third admonition reveals how our relationship with God affects our relationships with our neighbours: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (v. 24).
This means that very careful consideration should be given to how we can stir up, inspire, or encourage our fellow believers to fulfil our Lord’s commands to love our neighbour (Matt. 22:39) and do good works (Matt. 5:16). When the author of Hebrews adds “not neglecting to meet together”, he gives us the context within which this command is to be obeyed. The love and good works that are called for in verse 24 are the product of fellowship within the body of Christ.
We cannot fulfil these commands in isolation. In the words of Hughes: “The failure of love shows itself, then, in selfish individualism, and specifically here in the habit of some of neglecting to meet together. Such unconcern for one’s fellow believers argues unconcern for Christ himself and portends the danger of apostasy.” Without the encouragement of the local church the Hebrew believers were in danger of apathy (not taking God’s commands seriously) or worse, apostasy (abandoning the faith).
Neglecting the gathered church
Heb. 10:25 says that we should not neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some”. The term that the author used implies willful neglect or abandonment. It is the same word that Jesus used on the cross when he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). The apostle Paul also used it to describe Demas deserting him (2 Tim. 4:10). Some Hebrew believers were turning their back on the gathered church because of persecution. This weakened their already weak faith ever further. We need the gathered church.
What if you cannot gather? This is clearly different from the example above. There have been occasions where God’s people could not gather for worship. The Sons of Korah wanted to worship God in his sanctuary but could not because of their oppressors (Psalm 42:1-2). David also, when he was hiding in the wilderness of Judea, said: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you… So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.” (Ps. 63:1-3). He was overjoyed when he received the invitation to return to God’s temple: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (Ps. 122:1).
As New Testament believers we understand that God’s presence is not limited to a temple, or even to the church building! We worship God in “spirit and truth” (John 4:23). Yet we recognize that gathering as believers is an integral part of being a Christian. Think of the apostle Paul, who longed to see his fellow believers (Rom. 1:11) and yearned for them with the affection of Christ (Phil. 1:8).
When we cannot gather, we miss out on a vital part of Christian life and ministry. That is why these latest restrictions are difficult to bear. God has commanded us to gather. We feel the need to gather. What should we do when government says we can’t?
To gather or not to gather
The current restrictions on the gatherings of the church have been instituted to curb the spread of Covid-19. Since a new strain of the virus appeared in late October cases have been increasing steadily and hit a new peak in the weeks leading up to Christmas. A return to stricter lockdown restrictions seemed inevitable, but the closure of churches was unexpected. We complied with the initial two weeks, but even then, calls for civil disobedience were growing.
Should we continue to comply? Richard Baxter, a seventeenth century pastor, wrestled with the same question. He spent time in prison for refusing to preach what his government prescribed, but he also wrote: “If the magistrate for the 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.” Why? First, because these were exceptional circumstances and not the norm. Second, because we recognize that there may be good reasons for missing the gathering of the church for a short season. And finally, because by the omission of a few gatherings we may preserve the church to attend many.
For this reason, the elders feel that the church should abide by these restrictions. However, we fully support those attempts to use the channels God has given us to petition government for the opening of churches. We pray for them and eagerly await the outcome of these legal challenges and will reopen as soon as we are able.
Maintaining the fellowship
In the meantime, the elders have put the following measures in place to, as much as we are able, make up for the lack of a Sunday service and our Bible studies:
We trust that this season will pass quickly and pray that the Lord will use it for his glory and to build his church. Please continue in prayer for one another and for the health, unity, and witness of Strand Baptist Church in our community.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact the office.
Because of Christ,
The Elders of Strand Baptist Church