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Church has always been essential

Dear Grace family,

I hope you were able to enjoy the holiday weekend. It was certainly strange not hearing the noise of children playing at the pool. We are definitely living in odd times, and even now that certain restrictions are beginning to relax, it is clear that we are not anywhere close to normal.

I’m sure that many of you, like me, are wondering, “When can we get back to in-person worship?” I thought I’d share a few thoughts that have been on my mind as we consider when to gather in person again. Hopefully, it will help you to have a better understanding of some of the things the session is considering, so that you can pray for them!

It was encouraging on Friday to hear the president state that he deems churches to be “essential”. We should always give thanks when our elected officials acknowledge the importance of the Church. But more than that, I think it is important to remember that the Church did not become essential on Friday. The church has always been essential. It was essential in the Old Testament, remained essential in the New Testament, and continues to be essential today.

Regardless of what any of our authorities might believe, the Church of Jesus Christ is essential, because it is the Church of Jesus Christ. It is his Church; he is the head and we are joined together in him. The Church plays an essential role in God’s plan of salvation. As the Westminster Confession makes clear, “The visible church…is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.2).

As theologians throughout church history have rightly emphasized: God is our Father, but the Church is our mother (Ps. 87, Gal. 4:26). In fact, Isaiah even describes Zion (think “Church”) as a mother who gives birth to children, nursing and comforting them.

The Church is the school where Jesus, by his Spirit, turns sinners into saints and trains us to live in a way that honors and glorifies him.

Don’t misunderstand – it is not as if the church saves us. You can be a baptized member of the church all your life and never repent and put your faith in Christ. Jesus alone saves, but Jesus chooses to save through the church. In this way, the church is like a hospital: you might find a doctor in the grocery store, but you can definitely find a doctor in the hospital. The church (where the gospel is preached, the sacraments administered, and discipline exercised) is the place where Jesus has promised to meet with his people and to be found by all who come to him in faith and repentance (Ex. 20:24, Song. 7:11-12).

The Church is essential because Jesus has deemed her essential. But this raises the question: if the Church is so essential, why have we not been meeting for worship this whole time? Pastor Stan has already touched on the tension we feel between submitting to our governing authorities (Rm. 13), and not forsaking to gather together (Heb. 10:25).

Often, we feel this tension, because we see ourselves in a position of deciding which of God’s commands to obey at exclusion of others. But this is not how God works. He never pits his commands against one another in such a way that you have to disobey one in order to obey the other. There is no conflict or division in God and so there is no conflict in his law. This means that our decision about how and when to gather for worship must be governed also by the command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism is helpful here. In discussing the 6th commandment, which is, “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13), the Catechism asks the following questions:

      Q: What is required in the sixth commandment?

      A: The sixth commandment requires all lawful endeavors [i.e. actions
      or efforts] to preserve our own life, and the life of others.

     Q: What is forbidden in the sixth commandment?

     A: The sixth commandment forbids the taking away of our own life, or
     the life of our neighbor unjustly, or whatsoever tends thereunto.”
[i.e. anything that leads to these outcomes].

While clearly it is not a long-term solution to refrain from meeting for worship in person, it has been a necessary temporary step to obey the 6th commandment requirement to preserve life.

At what point does this risk diminish to the extent that we can gather in person again? What will our services look like? How will things need to change? I don’t know. These are some of the questions that the elders are prayerfully thinking through. Please join us in praying that the Lord will give us wisdom in these decisions.

The comfort for us all in this time is that Jesus is the Head and King of his Church, the one who promised that he will build his Church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. The Church has been essential each week that we have been unable to gather for worship and it will remain essential until Jesus comes back. Until that day, whether in times of joy or times of sorrow, Christ’s Bride is secure in his hand and is guided and preserved by his loving care.

In Christ,

Pastor Eric