Here we want to summarize the key principles that are directing the decision-making process by which the shepherds continue to evaluate when and how to regather as Christ’s church.
On May 25, 2020, the California Department of Public Health issued official reopening guidelines for places of worship. This did not authorize local churches to reopen. Such authority has been delegated to the counties. On June 1, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department issued an amendment to the current shelter in place order under which Trinity Bible Church is subject. In this amendment, it is stated that religious gatherings “must occur entirely outdoors” and have “no more than 25 persons … at any one time.” It also states that “no singing or shouting is allowed” and “all participants must wear face coverings at all times.”
These restrictions redefine how we gather. How we gather encroaches on how we worship. We hold that our manner of worship is to be directed according to Scripture and observed according to conscience. This right and responsibility we have from God (Exodus 8:1; Acts 2:42; 1 Corinthians 11:23; Romans 14:5; Colossians 2:16; 1 Thessalonians 4:2). This also is our heritage from the Reformation to the Puritans coming to this land, who said that their purpose and aim was “to have the right worship of God and discipline of Christ established in the church, according to the simplicity of the gospel, without the mixture of men’s inventions, and to have and to be ruled by the laws of God’s word, dispensed in those offices, and by those officers of Pastors, Teachers, and Elders, etc. according to the Scriptures” (William Bradford). Later (1623), they gave thanks to God for this very thing: “He … has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.” The worship of God is governed by the church, not the state.
The shepherds of Trinity Bible Church are of one mind to lead us through this with the utmost care. We are not meeting under the present restrictions that our county has issued. The following three key principles will guide us as we continue to evaluate when and how to regather.
The first key principle has to do with submitting to governing authorities as a church. We are not anarchists (having no head or authority over us). We are not autonomists (governed by self-law). We are people under authority. Submission is the peculiar characteristic of our own Lord—our highest authority. Being submissive means that we are willfully obedient to authorities that are over us.
Christ plainly articulated the separation of heavenly and earthly authorities (Matthew 22:21; John 18:36). Scripture just as plainly sets forth the reality that while heavenly authority is over all earthly authority, we—the Lord’s people—are to be submissive to appointed governing authorities:
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, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
ROMANS 13:1–7 (ESV)
We are to notice also that our obedience is not contingent on our agreement with the governing authorities over us. Though Peter would plainly disagree with and be martyred by order of the emperor, he writes,
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. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
1 PETER 2:13–17 (ESV)
Likewise, Paul was imprisoned and martyred by the governing authorities about which he wrote. Still, in his instructions to Titus, his pastoral delegate, he writes, “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:1–2).
Some point to Acts 4:19 and 5:29 to imply that the church is not under any obligation to submit to civil government. While it is true that some situations may sanction a form of civil disobedience, a closer look at the context indicates that such is the narrow exception and not the rule. Each of the statements given above were in response the governing authorities explicitly forbidding the apostles from preaching Christ. In response to their preaching (Acts 3:19–21) they were arrested and put in custody (Acts 4:3). They were then charged “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). It is in this context that “Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4:19–20). They were released and again preached Christ. Consequently, they were again arrested and imprisoned (Acts 5:18). They were sternly reminded, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:28). Again, in this narrow context, Peter and the apostles answer, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Submissive means that our default should be respect and obedience to our governing authorities. The default of most people, even in the church, is to treat civil law as suggestive. If they are personally convinced that it is right, then they will obey. Or if they consider the consequences for disobedience too great, then they obey. But our obedience should not be contingent on our agreement with authorities over us. Rather we are under a normative principle of authority. This means that we are to obey our civil government unless it commands us to do something God forbids or forbids us to do something God commands.
Does the principle of submissiveness preclude effecting change within the civil government? Absolutely not. To the contrary, we who are also citizens of America have a moral obligation under God to influence our representative governing authorities. We must be good stewards of our system of representative government.
In our present situation, we do not see our governing authorities taking discriminatory action against the church because of our beliefs. While we may question their appreciation for the unique and vital role that the church serves in society and the unique aspects of a religious assembly, they are not singling us out. For this we should be thankful. More importantly, they are not forbidding us to do what God commands in principle. Yes, the church is called by God to gather regularly (Hebrews 10:24-25). But just as personally missing church because of illness would not constitute disobedience, so a limited exception may also be applied here given the present circumstances. The governing authorities are not banning our gatherings indefinitely. They are not denying the church the right to assemble in principle. We may say that their orders show a legitimate interest in the wellbeing of the people. May we as a church conduct ourselves in a most honorable manner before a watching world. This explicitly includes submitting to our governing authorities (see the connection of 1 Peter 2:12 to 2:13 and following).
The second key principle directing our decision-making process is the importance of shepherding. This is our priority of love for all of you. It is not that we do not know, trust, and rest in the fact that the Lord Himself will build, provide, and protect His church. Rather, this principle arises out of a deep, Christ-given love for you—Christ’s church (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
As under-shepherds, we are responsible to lead the church in submission to civil governing authorities. We are also to take responsibility over you in the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:12). We are to care for you personally and sincerely as you are precious to Christ Himself (Acts 20:28). We are to be sensitive to each and look out for those of you who are more vulnerable (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Exercising such oversight involves feeding and caring for the whole flock (1 Peter 5:1–3). We must make decisions that have the wellbeing of the entire flock in mind.
God loves the church graciously, sacrificially, and powerfully. To this we must continue to strive. Your health and wellbeing, both spiritual and physical, is one of our greatest concerns. Caring for each and all of you is a key principle that directs our decision-making process.
This means that we must take the potential risks of exposure to COVID-19 seriously. Out of love and care for each of you, we intend to do all we can to protect you from harm and provide a safe environment for us to gather and worship. Also, any negligence on our part would result in massive liabilities if any infection could be linked to our assembly. We must give an account before the civil authorities and more importantly before God for how we lead the church through this. We can truly say, and appeal to your own hearts, that we love you and have your wellbeing in mind in the decision-making process. We acknowledge that there are differences of opinion and changing professional advice concerning the threat of COVID-19. We intend to follow the guidelines provided by the Santa Clara Public Health Department.
Shepherding Christ’s flock bears a particular responsibility to love and care for your souls. Though genuine care includes the body, we are specifically accountable and will give an answer for your souls (Hebrews 13:17). This responsibility falls uniquely to the overseers of the church. It is not the role of any other governing authority.
This obviously factors significantly in our decision-making process. We pray for you daily, but it is exceedingly difficult to shepherd a flock without being among them. This is our greatest concern: your spiritual health. This concern does not arise out of suspicion or the false notion that apart from us you will not do well. No. This concern stems from our love for you, the purpose of our calling, and the intangible and underestimated value and power of being together—life on life (1 Thessalonians 5:11; Colossians 3:16; Romans 12:9-15; Hebrew 3:13; 10:22-25; etc.). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, reminds us, “Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous his isolation.”
When and how we reopen will also be guided by the important principle of shepherding in both its physical and spiritual dimensions.
The third key principle directing our decision-making process is the importance of serving—one another and Christ. It is important that we understand the difference between wanting to gather for social reasons wanting to gather to serve Christ and His church.
This guiding principle reminds us that while we long to gather with a sheer desire to be with you all, we gather as a church primarily for Christ and others and not ourselves (for more on this see Longing to Gather).
When the church gathers, it acts out a demonstration of God’s total plan and purpose. Church is not the mere intersection of individuals seeking personal encounters with God, it is a manifest demonstration testifying to the power and hope of the gospel. We gather together to remind one another of and rehearse the gospel in tangible togetherness. We celebrate, sing, praise, give thanks, proclaim, pray, lament, rejoice, serve, admonish, encourage, exhort, comfort, equip, and disciple together, testifying to the worth of Christ. We participate in the ordinances of the church, the Lord’s Supper and baptism, to publicly make much of Christ as His people. Also, the gathered church is the appointed forum for both planned and spontaneous acts of care and service to one another. Our assembly is for both expressing and receiving the grace of God through the gospel to the praise and glory of Christ. All of these things we group under the principle of serving.
Long before the pandemic, Iain Duguid insightfully wrote:
Why can’t we worship just as well in front of the TV set, where the music and the preaching may well be more inspiring? The reason is that as the covenant community together we are the new temple … There is something about corporate worship which is not present in individual worship, and that ‘something’ is a fuller expression of the reality of God’s presence.
We would add that a key distinguishing aspect is serving. Watching church on a screen is quite private. It does not offer public service to Christ in the company of His redeemed. When we leave our homes and travel to gather with God’s people, we are serving Him. The act of gathering is itself part of our worship–it is part of our service.
The church may be likened, in our vernacular, to a “team.” Teams work together. While apart, they may still be members of the team but they cannot serve as a team unless they are together.
We would do well to remember that worship is communal in its nature. Worship was never intended to be a solitary event. To be sure, true worship is very personal, coming from the heart of a soul that is right with God—and all of life is lived before the face of God. But from beginning to end, worship is communal not solitary. Creation itself testifies to the diverse yet interconnectedness of bringing glory to God. From the very beginning of creation, the angels worshipped God in community (Job 38:6–7). The purposes of God in the nation of Israel repeatedly testifies to the importance of public, gathered worship (Psalm 22:25; 35:18; 40:10; 68:26; 107:32; 111:1; 149:1). The heart that extols God desires that others would join him: “Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Psalm 34:3). This desire extends to the nations with a summons for people from every nation to gather and worship the God of all praise (Psalms 67)! God’s glory is worthy of the vastest praise—worldwide worship. The true worshipper never wants to keep what is so worthy to himself. Every scene of worship in heaven from the book of Revelation testifies to God’s desire for gathered worship. No one would think that a great championship game was very glorious if no one showed up to the arena. In fact the sports industry is right now struggling over the idea of resuming professional sports without in-person spectators. LeBron James even said, “If I show up to an arena and there ain’t no fans in there, I ain’t playing.” The point is that there is a realized difference in private and public, gathered and non-gathered, worship. God deserves the greater glory. In all the world, only the local church regularly gathers together to make much of Christ. And this should be of supreme value to us.
We gather to serve Christ and one another. If our ability to serve Christ in open public worship according to Scripture and conscience is impeded, we will not gather. If we cannot serve one another in love, we will not gather. Where these thresholds are in practice is a matter of wisdom and discernment. This is the nature of what we as shepherds in plurality are working through together.
The county has indicated that we can expect a reassessment around June 21. Since the current amended order does not afford us the ability to gather in a manner that reasonably satisfies these guiding principles, we will not be meeting in person until modifications to the order are issued that do. We are intending to reopen as soon as we are reasonably able, which will likely mean that it will be phased and somewhat restricted at first. We will keep you posted. We appreciate your continued faithfulness and support of the ministry. We thank God for you and sincerely value your prayers on our behalf. We love you all.