April 1, 2020
Dear Grace Family,
I am sitting in the library with a heavy heart. The world’s mockery of the Church and of her Lord is being displayed in the headlines, “Pastor arrested.” As I researched the details of both the Louisiana pastor, and the Tampa pastor, I noticed several things in common. They are both heretical churches. They have a false gospel because they believe in a false, modalistic god. Because they believe in a false god, they have a clouded view of scripture, law and grace. And in both churches, the visible cause to gather appeared to be either to test their god, and/or to thumb their noses at civil government.
Everything about these two churches I want to avoid. I don’t want to be associated with them in any conceivable way. Yet, (because of the inability of evangelical churches to take a stand against heresy) these churches are used by the media to represent Christianity. The glory of Jesus is impugned. Every church that now gathers for worship will be lumped together with these churches and labelled as “reckless.”
So again, I am faced with the question do we gather for worship? And once again, I am examining my motives. For us, this is to be an issue of conscience, not law.
“Safer at Home” Order
As I stated in my last letter, civil disobedience is not a sufficient reason to gather for Worship. Nor is wise to gather with complete disregard for the realities of this disease. That is why I believe our county has crafted a wise order that walks the fine line of freedom and responsibility.
We are in a different situation than both the Tampa church and the Louisiana church. In both of those two areas, the “safer at home” order expressly prohibited such gatherings. In Pinellas County, such is NOT the case. Here is the section of the order that is relevant to GCC:
C. All places and entities conducting public and private gatherings are ordered to:
1. Comply with CDC guidelines of social distancing, except as otherwise exempted in this Order.
2. All public and private gatherings of any number of people not meeting CDC guidance occurring outside a family unit, single household or living unit are prohibited, except for the limited purposes permitted by this Order. Any gatherings involving groups of ten or more may be told to disperse.
[As I am editing this letter, Governor DeSantis has just issued a statewide “Safer at Home Order” in which he declares that worship is an ESSENTIAL ACTIVITY. So, gathering for worship is no longer a legal issue.]
What is my motivation? The answer pastorally and personally is Psalm 27:4. “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.”
I realize than many churches have closed their doors and are substituting online activities for corporate worship. There could be a benefit in this; it is certainly safer than corporate worship. However, online activities are not the same as corporate worship. Virtual gatherings, at least as they are currently conducted on YouTube or Zoom, fall short of the true gathering of the church. The first evidence of this is the simple fact that the Lord’s Supper cannot be rightly administered. The second evidence is the fact that there is no accountability. If you fall asleep at home, no one knows. If you fall asleep in the service, chances are I will see you. So, while virtual gatherings are not that same as true gatherings, they can be supplemental to our faith, especially in times when true gatherings are not feasible because of providential conditions.
If you are not able to attend, or for conscience sake have chosen not to attend, what should you expect from the online activity? How should online activity affect you?
First, at the very least, online activity should stir up within you an anticipation and longing to gather together. Just as our earthly worship experience falls short of the heavenly experience and so stirs up a longing for heaven, so too should virtual gatherings stir up a longing for true gatherings. This was the sentiment Paul was expressing when he said in 1Thessalonians 2:17, “But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face.”
Second, in addition to increasing your anticipation, it should also increase your patience. James 5:7-8 says, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”
Third, people who are waiting righteously are also working in preparation of what is to come, and our work is to pray. Therefore, the absence from true gatherings should be forming in us an increased desire to be with the Lord in prayer. 2Peter 3:13-14 says, “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.”
Fourth, you should expect to receive information. True sermons occur as the preacher preaches to the specific people in front of Him in a corporate worship. Messages occur when people listen to someone speaking. The great preacher Martin Lloyd Jones was not fond of people recording his sermons because he did not want people thinking they had heard a sermon when they were not in the congregation. I make this distinction because what you hear outside of the congregation is more akin to a lecture, and thus, should be treated as such.
By listening to a message online, you cannot participate in the “give and take” of a sermon. Even though I write a full manuscript for each sermon, when I am actually preaching, I often tweak and change my sermon to fit the people in front of me, sometimes even correcting what I just said because of the looks I received! It becomes personal to those in my presence. Those overhearing a sermon can and should gather information from it. They should evaluate its accuracy and truthfulness and its applications. And while it might be relevant to them, because they were not in the congregation they cannot say “He was preaching specifically to me.” Therefore, it is incumbent upon the listeners to find the application out of the information that he has gathered.
There is an economic tsunami headed for our country as a result of the world’s wisdom. The spray from this wave is now misting across our land. What will happen if the wave crashes?
In times of disaster, people are often forced to consider what is important to them and what the purpose of their life is. I anticipate people searching for answers. I anticipate people evaluating priorities and motivations. This is as true for those in the Church as for those outside.
Psalm 73:16-17 says, “But when I thought how to understand this [calamity], it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.”
The ministry of the Church is to preach the Word of God to the people of God for the Glory of God. This is God’s prescribed way of equipping, preparing, healing, comforting and changing His people. Now more than ever, God’s people must be soaking in God’s Word. It must be permeating our thoughts and our hearts.
For those who are convicted of their need for worship in accordance with the fourth commandment and are not convicted that Wuhan Flu constitutes a providential hindrance from worship, we wish to make available corporate worship.
Let me close by reminding you of the words from one of my favorite hymns, This Is My Father’s World.
3. This is my Father’s world, O let me ne’er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world; the battle is not done;
Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heav’n be one.
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever,