AC3 and Reopening Church

Hi AC3, I wanted to give you a special update from your elders and deacons.  We got together this week to discuss what if any changes we might make to our reopening plans, given the President’s declaration last week that churches offer essential services and should reopen.

Just this week, someone forwarded me a meme that was a venn diagram with all these sentiments from Christians about the crisis in overlapping thought bubbles.  They were things like: 

  • “You can’t open the church building yet, it’s a huge health risk!! You are wrong if you do.”
  • “It’s all a big hoax, a conspiracy, a media frenzy.  Read this article, don’t be afraid.”
  • “Here are the 25 things you need to do if you want to meet in your building again.”
  • “We need to open the building! God demands it and the authorities can’t stop it, what are we waiting for?”
  • “My family is going to stay home for a long while, kinda getting used to church in my jammies.” 
  • “COVID is deadly, here’s the names of my husband, dad, grandparent, uncle, sister who just passed away from it.”
    • Then in the middle of the diagram, overlapping them all is one word, “PASTOR.”

It was meant to humorously show the onslaught of wildly different opinions that’s coming to all church leaders which we’re supposed to sift through – try to make a decision that brings all these viewpoints together!!  At the outset, we’re confident that some at AC3 won’t like what we’ve decided.

But I hope you do appreciate that there is no monolithic Christian view of the Crisis or reopening.  I suspect in your own life, you have different, spiritually mature, Jesus following, biblically astute and devoted Christians expressing almost all those sentiments. I know I do.

So what will we do?  Well, one thing we could settle on as leaders quickly is that legally, constitutionally, the President’s words last week did not invalidate our own State of Washington decrees.  However, they did add fuel the growing frustration with lockdown which your leaders can very much relate to.

As spiritual leaders, however, we have to approach this first, not through the lens of our personal frustration but through the lens of theological principle.  Biblically our default stance toward civil authority is one of submission.  And we keep in mind that submission does not mean, obey because your overseer is always right and never makes decisions in their own self-interest. It does not mean, obey until you think your overseer is being dumb or arbitrary or unwise.  Christians are pro law and order, and anti-anarchy because God is a God of order, and civil gov’t is one way God imposes order on an unruly sin-bent human race.

But submission has its limits as we see in the three prime examples of civil disobedience in Scripture.  

  • The Jewish midwives disobeyed Pharaoh’s command to kill children for population control.  So if we are asked to do something immoral, we must disobey.   
  • The Jewish exiles in Babylon disobeyed a command to bow down to a giant golden statute.  So if we are asked to do something that violate our religious conscience, we must disobey.
  • The early Apostles disobeyed a command to stop spreading the message about Jesus in word and deed.  So if we are asked to reject our gospel way of life, we must disobey.

The elders and deacons asked, do these emergency orders command us to do something specifically immoral?  No.  Do these emergency orders command us to violate something we believe about our Christian Faith?  No, our consciences have not been violated.   Do these emergency orders command us to reject our gospel way of life?

Here the answer is yes.  

We have been commanded by authorities to refrain from many things core to our Gospel way of life: namely, gathering for worship, greeting each other, meeting in homes, visitation, communion and baptism and also singing, to name seven.  But these restrictions come with the caveat, “temporary”.  There is precedent for this in constitutional law, and Christian scholarly opinion agrees that temporary religious restriction during States of Emergency are not causes for civil disobedience.

But we had to ask ourselves when would religious restriction be a cause for civil disobedience?  When would we say with Peter, “we must obey God rather than men?”  When do we get to pull that lever? This is where the tension rises, in the Church overall, inside AC3 and even on AC3’s leadership team.  

Frankly, we are not all of one mind about this.  

However, in dialogue we collectively decided that the case for church wide rejection of the quarantine limits, has not been made conclusively.  This means we plan for now to follow the Governor’s phased plan for reopening.  This plan is in constant flux.  If the plan were to extend beyond a certain point, or move toward even a semi-permanent ban (for instance if bans are tied to extremely nebulous benchmarks) we will reconsider following the phases.  We plan to be in constant dialogue about the balance between our obligation to State and to Jesus and revisit the subject on a monthly basis.  

Speaking of flux in the plan, as of today the lockdown rules for churches have slacked some.  We can begin right now in phase 1 to meet outdoors with up to 100 people.  Also, meeting indoors with 50 or less has moved from phase 3 back to phase 2 which may begin in a couple of weeks.  This is encouraging, stand by for AC3’s adjustments to this news.

To those frustrated by this news:  Those who know me well know all about my internal torment over this.  I ask that if you are in this camp with me, that you ask yourself one question:  does my frustration rise to the level of righteous indignation, such that I feel my conscience before God cannot rightly abide the restriction on meeting any longer, OR does my frustration amount to resentment and annoyance at restrictions that I believe to be unwise or arbitrary or short-sighted?  

If the later, I think you don’t yet have warrant for civil disobedience, so for now a reasonable course is obedience to State for the purposes given to us, even if you have suspicion about those purposes, or their effectiveness.  If this is a matter of conscience for you, this decision is for our corporate response, you will not be condemned by AC3 for actions taken to follow the Spirit of God, provided you are prepared to endure the consequences of that path.

Finally, let us all remember this.  As the lockdown has dragged on, in our era of too much information, there has been a crush of statistics and figures and numbers from which one may legitimately draw many different conclusions.  So, to discourage anyone at AC3 from calling someone else either a “science-denier” or a “gov’t lemming”, I quote the Washington Post from today which said:

“With stay-home orders across the country expiring and businesses reopening, all the scientific data is being scrutinized anew. Basic questions about COVID remain unanswered:  How deadly it is?  Exactly how contagious? Are there different strains? …the numbers are often ambiguous, with large margins of error.  Because this is still an early phase of the pandemic, scientific findings, have to be couched in tentative, provisional, sometimes squishy language festooned with caveats and admitted limitations.”

AC3, this massive gray area of unanswered questions, explains two things:  A) there’s a reason we are all over the map, and at this stage, no one is crazy for having a different opinion than you.  B) where there is this much ambiguity, expect that Christians will sort out their responses based in their risk tolerance and their politics as much as their theology – but let us all agree, we must love and obey God over any human authority.

-Written by Rick Thiessen representing The AC3 Elders and Board of Directors

As of June 5, Snohomish County has been approved for Phase 2. View the service information and find registration details here.

Please give us your feedback regarding reopening church by answering this anonymous survey.

For all the current COVID-19 news and updates from AC3, including the Sunday service livestreams, visit our COVID-19 update post.

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