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Worship in the Midst of a Pandemic

12.09.20 | Social Issues, Corporate Worship, Church Issues, Worship | by Joshua Claycamp

Worship in the Midst of a Pandemic

    Is it right to halt the worship of Jesus Christ for the sake of the Covid-19 pandemic? Who has authority over the Lord's church? What does the Word of God say about these things?

    At a time in British Columbia when the government was ordering the closure of churches and issuing fines to churches that refused to close, Pastor Joshua Claycamp delivered the following message to the congregation at First Baptist Church of Kamloops on a Wednesday evening, December 9th, answering the question, biblically, of who had authority over the Lord's church and whether or not it was right to halt the worship of Jesus Christ for the sake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The church solemnly endorsed this message, joyfully persisted in gathering together for worship, all while praying for God to bless the elected officials of the government with His wisdom as they sought to bring surging cases of covid-19 under control.

    Worship in the Midst of a Pandemic

    By Joshua Claycamp, December 9, 2020

    “So, Gad came to David and told him, and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Shall three years of famine come to you in your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land?’ Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to him who sent me.”

    Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” So, the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from the morning until the appointed time. And there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba 70,000 men.” (2 Samuel 24:13–15, ESV)

    Facing Difficult Decisions

    To the beloved Brothers and Sister of First Baptist Church,

    We have entered into a time of unprecedented decision. We find ourselves today at a crossroads of obedience to government, love for our neighbor, and the irrepressible urge to gather in worship to God. Despite our desire to do all three, we must choose one path forward that may collide into others of these interests.

    Shall we worship God against the order of the government and at the risk of possibly contracting the disease? Shall we obey the government, forsaking the worship of God for a season at the risk of still possibly contracting the disease? Shall we avoid each other in order to ensure we don’t give each other the disease? It’s not an easy choice. We desire to obey the government because we recognize the governing authorities are instituted by God for the common good and the flourishing of society. We are equally repulsed by the horrible prospect of contracting the disease and spreading that disease to loved ones who could potentially die. But most of all, we deeply love our God and sense an irrepressible and abiding urge to gather in worship of Him.

    King David once faced a decision between three very disastrous paths. However, when David faced the decision, he determined that he would choose the path that kept him in God’s merciful hands. As we make this difficult decision, let us follow David’s example. Let us accept that we cannot anticipate every circumstance, nor control the outcome. What we can do, is we can give ourselves over to God. Let us hope in the mercy of God as we surrender ourselves to His will.

    After many hours of discussion and late nights of prayer, both your Pastors and all of your Deacons are convicted, all together and unanimously, that we should continue gathering together for worship, while simultaneously protecting the vulnerable among us.

    It Cannot Remain “A Matter of Conscience” Indefinitely

    But first, before I get to that, I would like to begin by offering some loving correction. We have noticed that there are a great many Christians active all across social media and other internet forums who have literally rejoiced at the prospect of not feeling obliged to go to church. Indeed, the impression one comes away with is that some of these “Christians” are relieved to have an excuse for further avoiding the church.

    The Pastors and Deacons of First Baptist Church rebuke this attitude. We were redeemed for the purpose of worshiping God. The only appropriate sentiment that a truly born-again child of God could possibly have in the face of such an obstacle to the worship of Christ is one of heartbroken sorrow and grief.

    Despite these ungodly voices dominating every corner of the internet, we have also noticed that there are other very sincere, well-intentioned brothers and sisters striving to honor God and wrestling with the Scriptures. These brothers and sisters are looking deeply at passages such as Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, which clearly teach that Christians are to be subject to the governing authorities. There have been heartfelt exchanges about these passages, and sincere differences of opinion.

    Unfortunately, many have found that they cannot seem to come to agreement, so they appeal to the freedom of the conscience to leave these matters undecided. They suggest that there could be different ways of understanding the Scripture under the current circumstances. They further propose that we should leave each other free to do what we all think is best in our own eyes. 

    With this, we can never agree. God’s Word speaks clearly and singularly. We may struggle to understand it, but we can never be correct in concluding, or otherwise suggesting, that God might be saying two different and contradictory things in any given situation. God is not divided against Himself, and the Scriptures cannot be broken.

    In response, that we should leave such decisions to the individual’s conscience, we exhort everyone to humble themselves and wrestle further with these passages pertaining to government authority, being mindful of the Apostle Paul’s instructions regarding the “conscience.” Paul writes in Romans 14,

    “Therefore, let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.

    So, do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:13–19, ESV)

    Paul reminds us that we must not condemn brothers and sisters with whom we may disagree. Disagreements can never be resolved in a tempest of furry, so it is wise for us to lay aside all anger and malice. Furthermore, Paul encourages us not to conduct ourselves in such a way that we may put a stumbling block before another believer.

    The context of this passage involves the eating of meat that has been sacrificed to an idol. We learn that eating meats sacrificed to idols has no real spiritual significance to the Christian. Worship in form without a matching spirit of devotion is not worship at all.[1] Nevertheless, there is the possibility that a Christian, who lacks maturity and knowledge, may observe the more mature and knowledgeable Christian brother eating such meats, and incorrectly conclude that the mature Christian brother is engaging in genuine worship of an idol. The weaker brother may be tempted to indulge in this practice that he believes is wrong. If He does, he acts against his own conscience, harming his conscience and sinning against God. Especially where brothers and sisters are unable to see the motivations of our heart, we must not act in such a way as to encourage other brothers and sisters to harm their own conscience and to sin against God.

    But the careful student of God’s Word will also notice that Paul doesn’t leave it at that. He gives further instruction that we, “…not let what [we] regard as good be spoken of as evil,” and “let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” The mature brother is negatively commanded not to cause his weaker brother to stumble, but the mature brother is further positively commanded to educate the weaker brother by not allowing what is good to be spoken of as evil. It isn’t enough to refrain from a behavior that may be misunderstood as sinful. The stronger brother must assume the responsibility of “pursuing peace” and what would make for mutual upbuilding.

    In other words, Paul was saying that there must be unity in the church on such matters, and that all members of the church have a responsibility in striving for that unity in order that all may be mutually edified and sanctified.

    As this pandemic has dragged on, we have seen many appeals to the “freedom of the conscience” as a means to insist upon perpetual disagreement about these things. It may take time for brothers and sisters to come to unity in understanding the godliest course of action, but we are convinced the godliest thing to do, under the present circumstances, is to gather this church together to worship God in obedience and faithfulness to Him, while simultaneously protecting the vulnerable.

    Not everyone in First Baptist Church may have arrived at this conclusion at the present time, but we urge everyone to find their way, with the help of the Holy Spirit and God’s Word, to this Biblical conviction, with care but also with much haste.

    Obeying the Government in the Sphere of General Society

    You may be wondering how we can say that? How can we say that the godliest thing to do is to gather the church for worship? You might be tempted to think that we must be unaware of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Yes, your Pastors and Deacons are very much aware of the passages of Scripture that command obedience to the government, and we agree that in the normal course of events there is seldom ever a reason to disobey the government. We all understand that God has established the government to restrain evil and do good for the nation, and citizens should, in general, be subject to the government and obey its laws for the greater good of society. Paul writes:

    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. (Rom. 13:1–2)

    Similarly, Peter tells Christians, “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” (1 Pet. 2:13–14). These passages teach that people in general, including Christians, have an obligation to obey the civil government.

    But how far does our obedience to the Government extend? Nobody denies that the Scriptures teach, in general, that we should be obedient to our governing authorities. Everyone in leadership understands it and fully acknowledges it. But surely there is more. Surely, this exhortation to obey the governing authorities has limitations. Surely the Scriptures do not mean to tell us that we ought to do whatever the government says without question, without careful examination, without placing these matters before the Lord? Surely, there must be more to it than this? It is a great stumbling block that so many simply refer to Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 without careful exegesis of those passages, and without any regard for the whole counsel of God’s Word.

    The question we are asking ourselves is this: what do we owe the government, and what do we owe to God? In one dramatic encounter, Jesus’ opponents tried to trap him with a question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matt. 22:17). To say yes to Roman taxes ran the risk of appearing to support the hated Roman government. To say no to Roman taxes would make Jesus sound like a dangerous revolutionary against Rome’s power. Taking his opponents by surprise, Jesus said, “Show me the coin for the tax,” and “they brought him a denarius” (v. 19). After that, here is how the teaching unfolded:

    And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:20–21)

    This is a remarkable statement because Jesus shows that there are to be two different spheres of influence, one for the government and one for the religious life of the people of God. Some things, such as taxes, belong to the civil government (“the things that are Caesar’s”), and this implies that the church should not try to control these things. On the other hand, some things belong to people’s spiritual life (“the things that are God’s”), and this implies that the civil government should not try to control those things.

    In Jesus’ statement about God and Caesar, He established the broad outlines of a new order in which “the things that are God’s” are not to be under the control of the civil government (or “Caesar”). Such a system is far different from the Old Testament theocracy. Jesus’ new teaching implies that all civil governments—even today—should give people freedom regarding the religious faith they choose to follow, and how they worship God. “Caesar” should not control such things, for they are “the things that are God’s.”

    This distinction leads us to two conclusions:

    1. The civil government should not attempt to regulate or govern, “the things that are God’s.” It is clear that God never gave the government the authority to regulate the spiritual life of the church, which includes its worship. All authority is derived from God, and any attempt by the governing authorities to control our church are unauthorized in God’s eyes.
    2. Secondly, and most disastrously, churches all across Canada have now fallen into a very dangerous trap. Somewhere along the way, in this horrible pandemic, we have inadvertently abdicated our God-given responsibility to govern our church and to determine our own church’s times of gathering and worship.

    Now listen to me, brothers and sisters. In our current situation, the greater culprit in violating Jesus’ teaching on, “giving to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar” and “giving to God the things that belong to God” is not the government. It is us! If we are waiting for permission from the government to make a decision for ourselves about our own worship services, then we are sinning against the Lord. This will never be the government’s decision to make! This is our decision!

    What we owe to God is this: we must not allow the government to dictate to our church how, or when, we worship the Heavenly Father. We owe it to God to take up these decisions for ourselves. We may decide to close the worship services later tonight when we take a vote on these matters. We may decide to stay open. Whatever we decide, we must be the ones to decide. When Christ says to “give to God the things that belong to God,” He never intended for us to concede any decision regarding our worship of Him to anyone else, including the government.

    You Are Never Free to Disobey God Even When the Government Orders You to do so

    As we look more closely, not only do we see that the government was never given authority over the spiritual life of people, but we also understand that God does not hold people responsible to obey the government when obedience would mean directly disobeying a command from God. This principle is indicated by a number of passages in the narrative sections of the Bible.

    One clear example comes from the early days of the Christian church. After Jesus had commanded the apostles to preach the gospel (see Matt. 28:19–20), the Jewish governing authority, the Sanhedrin, arrested some of them and ordered them “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus,” (Acts 4:18). But the apostles Peter and John answered, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard,” (v. 20), and later Peter proclaimed, “We must obey God rather than men,” (5:29).

    This is a clear affirmation of the principle that God requires His people to disobey the civil government if obedience would mean directly disobeying God.

    Other passages also establish this. In Daniel 3:13–20, King Nebuchadnezzar commanded three Jewish men—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—to bow down and worship a golden statue that he had erected. But they refused and said, “We will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up,” (v. 18). God showed His approval of their actions by rescuing them from the burning fiery furnace (vv. 19–30).

    When it was against the law for anyone to come into the presence of King Ahasuerus without being invited, Queen Esther disobeyed the law, risking her life to save her people (see Est. 4:16). Daniel likewise disobeyed a law that prohibited him from praying to God (see Dan. 6:10). In addition, when King Herod commanded the wise men to return and tell him where the newborn King of the Jews was to be found, they were warned by an angel not to obey this command, so they disobeyed Herod and, “departed to their own country by another way” (see Matt. 2:8, 12).

    The requests by these governing authorities, which sound patently outrageous to our 21st century ears, were not at all outrageous to the kings and rulers who initially made these requests. In fact, they considered it outrageous whenever someone disagreed, much like today. It was always the governing authorities who were stunned whenever a Christian refused to go along with what they were suggesting, however reasonable it may have seemed to themselves at the time.

    Now, let us consider the current crisis. In the case of Covid-19 what we are seeing is that the government is not applying the law generally, but selectively and in a discriminatory fashion. Furthermore, the government’s case as to the severity of this pandemic is questionable. Christians should not (1) feel themselves bound to forsake worship for the sake of obeying health regulations that are not sufficiently justified, (2) nor to honor laws that are applied selectively and discriminatingly against their worship of God.

    (1) Christians should not feel themselves bound to forsake worship for the purpose of obeying health regulations that are not sufficiently justified.

    First, despite all the reassurances that this plague is a terrific killer, we simply do not see the evidence of this. We complied in March with the request that churches cease holding worship services because there was so little known about the virus at that time. Since that time, it is obvious to all that the mortality rate in Canada has not gone up. Recent statistical data shows that fewer people have died in Canada in 2020, not more, despite the government’s claims that this disease is highly infectious and a lethal killer. When comparing the mortality rate of British Columbia for 2020 to previous years, there is no statistical jump in deaths whatsoever.

    Regarding the numbers of people who are reported to be infected each day, numerous medical professionals and scientists have testified openly to the incredible propensity of the RT-PCR diagnostic test, the laboratory test that is used to diagnose the infection of Covid-19, to show false positives for individuals who are neither sick nor infectious with Covid-19. One medical expert suggested that the prevalence of false positives could be as high as 60-90% in all tests conducted.

    Most importantly, the government has refused to explain or give any accounting for the relationship of Covid-19 deaths to comorbidities, that is, other diseases or health concerns that were the real cause of death and perhaps may have been further exacerbated by the virus. We are simply no longer persuaded that Covid-19 is as serious to the general population as has been hysterically hammered upon us by the government.

    (2) Christians should never feel themselves bound to honor laws that are applied selectively and discriminatingly against the worship of God.

    What has become clear in recent days is that the government is discriminating against worship and religious gatherings. For example, the government has allowed public schools to continue gathering for education, but the government has shuttered the church’s Sunday schools, AWANA Programs, and Youth Groups. What is the difference between a Sunday school and a public school? There is NO difference. Not one single difference between the two. It is the same number of kids from the same grades with the same basic ages, along with a handful of teachers. The only difference between these two is that one teaches about God and the other one teaches secular humanism and atheism. That is the only difference between the two that I can see! Yet one is considered essential by the government, and the other one is shut down.

    Furthermore, supermarkets are allowed to continue operating as essential, with patrons coming in very close proximity to each other without any consideration for a maximum number of people within the establishment. Social distancing is not enforced, and hundreds upon hundreds crowd into the supermarket. If you visit the shopping mall in Aberdeen, you will discover thousands of people milling around the mall doing their Christmas shopping. Yet churches are ordered closed, all while fully supporting social distancing and limiting their worship gatherings to a maximum of fifty people. What is the difference between the two? Both the shopping mall and the church have paid employees. Both venues provide for the livelihoods of those who work there by welcoming visitors. Both the mall and the church perform services or offer goods to their patrons. But one is a purveyor of materialism, while the other emphasizes spirituality and faith in Jesus Christ.

    What about taking a flight to some other place in Canada? A businessman is permitted to take an airplane to the other side of the country packed into a small fuselage with hundreds of others, but Christians can’t go to church with only fifty others spread out and socially-distanced inside a large auditorium. Those who need particular help with their addictions can attend a Twelve Step Program or some other self-help group meeting, but no one is allowed to attend a meeting of the church where they can get help from God. Again, and again and again, I keep asking, what is the difference between these two, apart from the fact that one is teaching about Jesus Christ while the other is teaching self-reliance and idolatry?

    The Government Now Considers Itself an Authority Over Spirituality.

    The difference lies in how the government views its authority over spirituality. In the 1920s, when the Spanish Flu was raging across the globe, the governments of the various provinces of Canada asked the churches to close. They asked. They did not order. And the churches agreed to close for a period of about three weeks. The various churches met together, and decided individually, church by church, that they would help the government by closing down for three weeks. In other words, in 1920 the government had tremendous respect for the church and understood that some things were simply off-limits even for the government to touch. The government could ask, and then make its case, but the decision was ultimately up to the church.

    This time around, it should be painfully clear to us that the government does not care what the churches think. When the issue was raised repeatedly, ad nauseum, by myself and hundreds of other pastors across the Province about the importance for the lonely and widowed within our congregations to gather with brothers and sisters during the holiday season in order to avoid depression and to be reminded of the goodness of God, the government responded to me directly by letter and email, saying that if anyone was depressed or suicidal they could contact the appropriate governmental health authorities and government-funded suicide prevention hotlines. The implication was clear. The government is now in charge of spirituality and the care of souls, not churches.

    Anyone can see that the government is making decisions based on their own evaluation of the importance and necessity of worship, or rather, the lack of importance and necessity thereof. The problem with this is that our Charter of Rights recognizes our freedom to worship ought not to be subject to anyone else, regardless of what they think about our faith. But please remember that this privilege to worship God comes from the mouth of God, Himself, not the Charter of Rights. His Word does not need any recognition from any governing authority or any founding document. It must simply be concluded that since the government does not consider it necessary for people to worship God, they order Christians to stay home, and they do so completely in violation of the previous assurances that have been given to Christians about the protections afforded them within the Charter of Rights.

    Is It Right to Forsake Worship For the Sake of Prolonging Our Lives?

    Brothers and Sisters, let us attend to this question of worship gatherings for ourselves, shall we? This is our decision, given to us by God. This is nobody else’s decision. It is ours. So, I ask you courageous and fearless brothers and sisters tonight, what shall we do? What are the reasons for the government’s encouragement to quit gathering together to worship God? The government says that the numbers of Covid-19 cases are simply too great within the Province to allow for indoor gatherings, because these indoor gatherings will spread Covid-19 and lead to more deaths. So, the government has shuttered the church for the sake of prolonging our lives. But the question we must ask ourselves is this: is it right in God’s eyes to forsake gathering ourselves together and attending to His worship in order to prolong our own lives?

    Someone recently objected to me that it is not necessary to worship under the current circumstances of Covid-19, because nowhere in the New Testament is there a positive commandment from God to go to church. I find the notion that we are not positively commanded to worship God to be completely absurd.

    Everywhere in the New Testament it is assumed that we will go to church to worship God in the same way that it is everywhere assumed in the world that we will drink water or breathe air. Is it necessary for God to command us to drink water, or will our thirst naturally drive us to the fountain? Of course, God does not need to command us to drink water as we will naturally seek to satisfy our thirst. He created us in such a way that we will naturally seek out the satisfaction of our desires. When it comes to worship, people naturally seek to satisfy the longing of their souls. God does not need to command worship because everyone is already a worshipper of something or someone. When we look at the Scriptures, we find that God guides our worship to its appropriate form and structure, and that He guides our worship to its appropriate conclusion or end. What we find in the Scriptures is that gathering for worship with the Church (1) is just as vitally necessary as water, (2) everywhere implied and assumed as a universal characteristic of all true Christians, and (3) expressly commanded and directed by God.

    The early church observed regular times of worship with other Christians under harsh government oversight. From the very first days after Jesus ascended into heaven, the early Christians, “were continually in the temple blessing God,” (Luke 24:53).  After Pentecost and the gift of the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit, “day by day” the early Christians were “attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes … praising God and having favor with all the people,” (Acts 2:46–47). All of this was done under the glare of the governing authorities, the Sanhedrin, the very same individuals who orchestrated the death of Christ.

    Why? Why persist in a worship service that the government does not approve of? Because it was vitalizing to the lives of Christians. It was like drinking water for the weary and dehydrated soul in a desert land! The New Testament Epistles contain dozens of “one another” verses indicating that Christians regularly and habitually met together for worship: “Welcome one another” (Rom. 15:7); “Greet one another” (16:16; also 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Pet. 5:14); “When you come together to eat, wait for one another” (1 Cor. 11:33); “Comfort one another” (2 Cor. 13:11); “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19); “Teaching and admonishing one another” (Col. 3:16); “Encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess. 5:11); “Confessing your sins to one another and praying for one another” (James 5:16); “Showing hospitality to one another” (1 Pet. 4:9); and “Loving one another” (1 John 3:23). Christians attended these worship services in defiance of the government opposition they faced, and their lives were enriched for it.

    The conclusion from these passages is that it is a normal part of the Christian life to meet together at regular times with other believers for worship. It is obviously vital to our souls, and intrinsic to the essence of a true Christian. But the Scriptures go even further. God tells us that the very essence of our lives, our entire existence is lived for the purpose of worship. A worship gathering with fellow believers is the quintessential expression of a Christian’s new nature. To have in our essence this irrepressible drive to worship God is a part of our inheritance, a part of the new nature that God gives to us when we trust in Christ.

    Paul writes in Ephesians 1,

    “In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, so that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, would be to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:11–12, ESV)

    εἶναι εἰς ἔπαινον δόξης αὐτοῦ...”[2]

    Paul writes, literally from the Greek, that we who hope in Christ would, “…exist for the praise of His glory.[3] Paul uses the simple verb of being to convey the idea that our very lives, our existence is lived for the purpose of praising and worshipping God. It is certainly the case that when Paul says that we live and exist for the praise of God’s glory, he means more than the Sunday morning worship gathering. Now, Paul may mean more, but he certainly doesn’t mean less. Therefore, we exist to gather in worship of God.

    Presently, we are commanded by the government to quit gathering together to worship God in order to prolong our lives and the lives of those around us. By not gathering, we are told that we will not catch Covid-19 and we will not die. But the question needs to be asked, “What are our lives without worship? What is the point of living if we do not live for the worship of God?” Do we choose to believe the government’s lie that we should seek to live longer and yet ignore the care of our souls? Or will we ponder Christ’s question of ultimate priority and wisdom: what is the profit in gaining the whole world but losing your soul?

    “Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24–26, ESV)

    The nation of Israel, with far more primitive means of health care, beset by far more enemies on every side, and always in a perpetual state of war, would regularly gathering themselves together as a nation and worship God, even singing songs about the importance of worship as part of their worship. In the midst of every calamity, Israel would sing songs about the priority of worship. Consider the following Psalms:

    Psalm 63:3 (ESV) – Knowing God and His love is worth more than life itself.

                    Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.

     Psalm 84:10 (ESV) – One day worshipping the Lord is worth more than years upon years of life.

                    10     For a day in your courts is better

    than a thousand elsewhere.

                            I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God

    than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

     Psalm 16:11 (ESV) – The soul understands its worth and purpose through worship.

                    11     You make known to me the path of life;

    in your presence there is fullness of joy;

    at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

     Psalm 73:25 (ESV) – We should not want anything more than to worship God.

                    25     Whom have I in heaven but you?

    And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.

    Should we stop worshiping together because of the possibility of dying? Should we stop gathering together to worship the Lord because there is the chance that we could die? Or should worship come before a thousand days spent elsewhere?

    The Scriptures are clear. Worshiping God is more important than life. In fact, we live to praise Him. Our lives are for His praise. Therefore, as the Board has unanimously agreed, those who are able ought to go to church on Sunday morning and worship the Lord.

    Protecting the Vulnerable & Avoiding Legalism

    Nevertheless, we must remember that the steadfast love of God sustains us through every trial and every tribulation. It is true that God calls us to gather together to worship Him. However, in calling us together, God does not call us to a mindless, robotic response of obedience, disregarding the circumstances or the challenges that we are facing.

    If we called you to a slavish obedience to attend the worship gathering, regardless of your personal circumstances, we would be like the Pharisees. Jesus warned against slavish, pharisaical obedience to any activity or tradition that was divorced from faith and love. In Matthew 12 we read,

    “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”

    He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Matthew 12:1–7, ESV)

    Jesus tells us that a full knowledge of God should lead us to the understanding that our God is an incredible God of mercy and love. He desires to help us, and to care for us.

    The disciples of Christ were plucking grain and walking on the Sabbath. The accusation leveled against them was that they were not worshipping God properly by breaking the rules of worship on the day of worship. In this context, Jesus teaches, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”

    With Christ’s teaching clearly in our minds that God desires mercy, not sacrifice, the Pastors and Deacons of First Baptist Church do not insist that those who are most vulnerable to Covid-19 expose themselves to greater danger, perhaps even the danger of losing their very lives, by attending worship services during this time. To insist upon such a thing would be the equivalent of applying a pharisaical, legalistic stricture upon the worship gathering, enjoining our seniors to participate in a worship service that could result in the death of our elderly brothers and sisters. The Gospel as we understand it is that our God has called us to mercy, not sacrifice.

    Under the current circumstances of this plague, we see the need for our older brothers and sisters to stay home, while simultaneously affirming that worship is more than life. We call on every single one of our vulnerable brothers and sisters, who choose to stay home, to still affirm that worship is more than life.

    We soberly remind everyone that there will be other circumstances in the not-too-distant future where gathering to worship God could cost your life through acts of violence perpetrated by others. We can embrace mercy in the face of the plague, but we must call for courage in the face of violence. It is God’s expectation that you would give your life gladly in order to worship and praise Him in the day of murder and tyranny. As it is written in Revelation,

    “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” (Revelation 12:11, ESV)

    Let us affirm together this undeniable truth: the worship of God is MORE than life itself.

    It is a paradox, but it is the deepest truth of the universe. If we run from the worship of God in order to save ourselves, we will lose our lives and our souls. If we run toward God in worship, we may lose our lives and suffer death, but we gain our souls back from the worship of God, and we also receive back our lives. With this knowledge firmly in mind, we must insist and testify to all that the worship of God is more than life.

    Unity & Diversity: Applying the Word of God to Ourselves

    We are a bunch of individuals who are on a journey together as one. There are many of us here at First Baptist, but we are one body. Each of us have reached different places in our lives with unique circumstances, and we are all impacted differently by this pandemic. Everyone of us must make decisions according to our own unique circumstances, yet we are all called to testify together to the truth of God’s salvation in Christ that sets us free to worship God, which is the essence of our existence. How shall we do that in unity with loving appreciation for our diversity?

    We, your Pastors and Deacons, propose the following:

    1. We call upon all members of First Baptist Church, young and old, to boldly affirm in truth that the worship of God is more important than life itself; and to testify to the same to anyone who may ask of them why our church continues to gather for worship during these dark days.
    2. We, your Pastors and Deacons, hereby direct that worship services continue, being open and accessible to the whole church in obedience to God, without belligerence or animosity for our government. We further ask that all other health protocols be followed strictly, when in the community. We respect the government’s desire to reduce the effects of this plague and we seek to abide by the laws and health orders of the Province where it does not intrude upon our worship of God.
    3. We call upon all those who are young, healthy, and not at serious risk of illness due to Covid-19 to honour their membership covenantal responsibilities and to attend worship services weekly. In this we obey Christ, not Caesar, for the church is under the dominion of Christ, not the government.
    4. We call upon those who are elderly, infirm, or vulnerable to Covid-19 to join with us for worship in the Spirit, while maintaining distance physically. It is by the steadfast love and mercy of God that we can celebrate our seniors’ decision to withdraw from the worship gathering, physically, in order to protect their lives, which are precious to us all! We rejoice in the grace of God that our elders can still participate with us in worship, safely, by means of modern technology such as internet streaming and radio. Let us treasure their health and well being just as God does. They are so very precious to us.
    5. Last of all and most importantly, we call for a sober awakening of all our brothers and sisters to understand that darker, more sinister days lie shortly before us. This pandemic is clearly a sign given by God to alert us to the difficulties that lie directly ahead, and to beckon us all to a firmer resolve to prioritize gathering as a church for worship, even at the expense of our safety. For worship of God is more than life.

    Four years ago, the government mandated the teaching of SOGI123 in the public schools. We all rushed around in a tremendous fury for over a year and a half to start the school, to spare our kids from being taught to experiment in sexual perversions, taught to embrace transgenderism, or otherwise being encouraged to worship at the altar of sexual identity. Once we had accomplished that, we all together breathed a huge sigh of relief and wiped the sweat from our brow, and we told ourselves, “Now things will settle down to a more normal pace. Now we can return back to something like the old status-quo.”

    But things are not going back to normal. Things are not getting any easier. Things are only getting worse and worse. The government is continuing, all the time, to continue to press its agenda against us. What we are witnessing is no return to normal or the status quo. Rather, we see only the persistent, aggressive, downward-spiraling exertion of coercive force being leveled particularly against the church and believers. It started fifty years ago with prayer no longer being allowed in the schools, and it concludes today with the encouraging of our young people in the public education system to dabble in sexual idolatry that is clearly an affront to God.

    What is starting today is also rather simple…don’t you think? It’s really simple, says the government. We just want to be kind to everyone, says the government. It is similar to the removing of prayer from the schools fifty years ago. It is thought that the closure of churches is necessary and allowable for the sake of the greater good, in much the same way that the removing of prayer fifty years ago was suggested to make for a more peaceful learning environment, that it was necessary for the greater good. The government decides today that, for health purposes, churches must close their doors. But it only starts this way… It only starts this way… My question is, what will the next government do when the next disease or crises comes? How far will that government go? And what about the one after that? When the day arrives that governments decide to shutter churches for reasons not related directly to public health, what does the church do at that time when she has been conditioned in the present moment to accept the “guidance” of government officials?

    Let me now repent before you all. This all started six months ago when the government first ordered churches closed. We reluctantly agreed at that time. We should never have agreed to it then at that time, allowing them the place to decide for us what needed to happen in our own sanctuary…but we did. And it was a horrible precedent to set. It was wrong then, and we are all firmly agreed that it is wrong now. We, your Pastors and Deacons, repent and ask your forgiveness for our part in what was done six months ago.

    Now… tonight… we chart a different course for you. We may very well decide to close our church worship gatherings tonight. That is your prerogative as a congregation. But let us all be firmly clear about this one thing. Whatever else may happen, we must all agree to this: THIS is THE LORD’s church, and in devotion to the Lord, WE decide if it closes or if it opens. Not the government. We decide!

    Reading This Pandemic the Wrong Way

    As I said previously, we are on this journey together. Anytime you take a road trip, you are given signs along the side of the road in order to tell you how far you are from your destination. There will be signs posted that will inform you what the maximum speed is, and there will be other signs directing you to take certain turns and exits off the main road in order to arrive at your destination. Travel requires the use of signs. When it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are being given a prophetic sign from God. And I fear that we are reading it the wrong way…

    Regarding worship, the author of Hebrews gives us this incredible commandment:

    “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.” (Hebrews 10:24–25, ESV)

    What is often not considered is that we are exhorted to do this more and more as the Day of the Lord draws near, not less and less. The author of Hebrews is exhorting Christian brothers and sisters to be even more diligent and faithful in their pursuit of gathering for worship as the signs of the Day of the Lord grow more and more common.

    Is this plague of Covid-19 one of the signs of the coming Day of the Lord? Who among us can deny that this is the case, that Covid-19 is a sign of the darkening times? This is a world-wide pandemic that has gripped everyone in fear. As a sign of the coming Day of the Lord, this road marker should be received by Christians from the hand of God as a “turn now” sign, an encouragement to press forward with the worship gathering, not an excuse to fall away from worship.

    What are some of the signs of the coming Day of the Lord? Luke tells us in Luke 21,

    “And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.” (Luke 21:8–11, ESV)

    Pestilence is clearly and explicitly a sign of the coming Day of the Lord. As we see the Day drawing nearer, we are to be more persistent in gathering as a church to worship God. The Lord certainly did not give us signs to look for, signs that would indicate the approaching Day of His return, in order for us to use those same signs to justify falling away from the rest of the church family and avoiding the worship gathering. He gives us these signs as an encouragement to continue worshipping Him and to continue gathering in worship.

    If you see headlines of the spread of Covid-19 and conclude that you are meant by God to stay home, especially when you are not at serious risk from the virus, you are not reading the sign in the right way. God is giving you the sign of Covid-19 as an encouragement to go to church. Let us receive this sign in faith and submission to Him.

    The Epidemic Lead David to Worship

    What has happened is this pandemic has led many to walk away from worship, believing it is just too dangerous to worship God. An entire generation of Christians now believes that they can have church simply by watching the worship services online, and not going to church in order to be together when they worship the Lord. It’s now been reduced to a private consumeristic affair, quite on accident everyone assures us. Certainly, it was no one’s premeditated plan to divide the church into a thousand little pieces as has clearly been done. Regardless of the fact that everyone has acted with the best of intentions, the hardship of the pandemic has been clearly used by Satan to convince Christians all over the world that they need not gather and worship God, that the worship gathering can allowably be forsaken by the brotherhood.

    We started with David in 2 Samuel. Now let us conclude with the brave warrior King. When faced with his own pandemic… what did David do? David chose to receive the hardships of his own epidemic as an encouragement to press closer to God in faithful worship. Our passage from 2 Samuel 24 concludes,

    “And Gad came that day to David and said to him, “Go up, raise an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” (2 Samuel 24:18, ESV)

    “Then Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take and offer up what seems good to him. Here are the oxen for the burnt offering and the threshing sledges and the yokes of the oxen for the wood. All this, O king, Araunah gives to the king.” And Araunah said to the king, “May the Lord your God accept you.” But the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” So, David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. And David built there an altar to the Lord and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings. So, the Lord responded to the plea for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel.” (2 Samuel 24:22–25, ESV)

    In the midst of an incredibly deadly epidemic, David was told by God’s prophet to go to worship. The world would say, “What an incredibly stupid thing to do! The only line of defense that David had against this raging disease was self-quarantine and isolation!” This is true. It was indeed his only line of defense… apart from the grace and mercy of God!

    The prophet Gad told David to go to worship. Why did it take the prompting of the prophet for David to go to worship? Because David was no idiot! He knew perfectly well the dangers of this disease. Over seventy thousand had dropped dead in less than a week, so David was obviously hiding away in his house from the contagion in much the same way as we do today.

    Yet the prophet spoke, and said, “Go worship the Lord at a particular place.” David went with his royal courtesans, his family and a host of others. And they worshipped God, together with the household of Araunah. And do you know what happened? After David’s worship of God, God averted the plague from Israel.

    As counter-intuitive as it seems, the way for us to be the very best neighbors, the very best citizens that we could possibly be for our country, under the present circumstances, is to go to church and worship God. We would do so in opposition to the government, and that seems wrong on its face. But to gather and worship God and to pray to Him is still the surest way to secure His blessing for our land and to heal this disease.

    And do you want to know whatever became of this place where David worshipped in the midst of a plague? This place, the threshing floor of Araunah, would eventually become the sight where Solomon would build the Temple. Yes, dear brothers and sisters!! The Temple location was revealed out of an epidemic. In the midst of a savage epidemic, God sovereignly directed David by the mouth of the prophet Gad to worship at a place that would become the House of God until that time that Christ should come and build His Church, the Temple of the Lord that would be indwelt by the Holy Spirit… which is you and me gathered together. So, we must understand that the church of God is here for just such a time as this terrible pandemic, and it may be this pandemic that God is striving to use to direct the lost and the broken to the House of God, which is us!

    The world today would look at David’s decision and wonder if there were any brains left in his head; but we read this Scripture today, and we cannot mistake the faithful confidence in God that was in King David’s heart! Of us, the world will say that we are foolish for wanting to go to church in a pandemic. But the world thinks we are foolish anyway, even during the best of times! The real question facing every man and woman here today is, what will God see in my heart? Will God see in our hearts what He saw, long ago, in the heart of David?

    This is a spiritual warfare in which we are engaged. It is brutal. It is cruel. And there is no quarter. The enemy takes no prisoners, and he has no tolerance for differences. But, make no mistake about it, this is a spiritual fight way more than it is a physical fight against disease. We are being demanded to conform to the world’s sinful opinion of the worship of God at every turn.[4] We can never give in to this demand to be conformed.

    We are not alone on this battlefield. We must remember to pray today, in gratitude, for God’s blessing upon the brave brothers and sisters of Riverside Calvary Chapel in Langley, and Free Grace Baptist Church and Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack. With law enforcement officers lingering in the parking lot, and media filming them from every angle, with news commentators pouncing upon them as cooks and quacks, they were not timid or tepid as they boldly entered into the worship of God. For their crime of hoping in Christ above all else, they were issued a $2,300 fine and threatened with worse. But they declared to all of us, and all the world, that they would not give to God only the cheap sacrifices that cost them nothing. They showed us that God was worth everything to them. They have given their testimony before the world.

    I wonder what kind of house we will be for God and His Holy Spirit? What kind of testimony will we give?

    Do we believe, as King David did, that gathering together and offering heartfelt worship to God, to seek His blessing is the best way to restrain this virus and to avert further catastrophe? Can we say with Job, “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him,” (Job 13:15, ESV)? Are these things true of this House of God gathered here tonight?

    What shall we do? I answer tonight, we shall go to church this Sunday and worship God! And we will go every Sunday, so long as God gives us the breath and strength to continue to praise His Name! Even if it kills us, let our dying words be for the praise of Christ! Until the end of the world, let no one and no thing silence the worship of the church for her King!

    The health authorities have said that this outbreak of Covid-19 marked the arrival of a very sad and tragic day in our Province. That is indeed true. But there is another note which I am convinced is ringing forth, aside from the sadness of it all. For me, there is a feeling of thankfulness that, as these trials being experienced among our brothers in much the rest of the world come upon us in Canada, there is a generation of brothers and sisters here at First Baptist, now ready to prove themselves worthy defenders of the faith, and ready to show everyone that they are noble servants of Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Great Physician over all other physicians, and the crowned Victor over death!

    What kind of house will we be? What kind of house will we be? What kind of house…? As I look out tonight at each and everyone of you, I know that I am standing in the home of the brave and the company of the faithful. I stand tonight with those who worship the Lord!

    May the Lord make it so. Let us pray for His help.



    [1] I’m reflecting on John 4 and the Samaritan woman that Christ encountered at Jacob’s well. He says to her, “The hour is coming and is now here, when we will worship neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. But those who worship the Father must worship Him in Spirit and truth.”

    [2] Eberhard Nestle et al., The Greek New Testament, 27th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1993), Eph 1:12.

    [3] εἶναι is the infinitive verb of being. Translated, literally, it means, “be” or “exist.” It can also be translated as, “live.”

    [4] This demand to conform to the government's perspective of the non-essential nature of worship is contrary to God’s command that we not be conformed to the world, but be transformed in the renewing of our minds. Cf. Romans 12:1-2. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1–2, ESV)