This is the third article released by Pastor Rickey in a series entitled, “Tensions: Navigating Current Issues as a Kingdom Citizen.” You can also listen to Part 1 and Part 2 of the podcast version.
The best definition for wisdom I have heard is based on Ecclesiastes 3, which begins by saying, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Wisdom is “knowing what time it is.” For example, a husband needs to recognize that there is a time to give advice, and there is a time to quietly listen. A wise husband knows what time it is.
The COVID-19 crisis has required Christians to exercise wisdom in how we should respond to health officials, state orders, and even other Christians with whom we disagree. There’s no proof text we can turn to in the Bible that provides explicit answers on face masks or how to engage with the church in a global pandemic. Instead, we have been required to make wisdom-based judgments, applying biblical principles to new and dynamic circumstances.
Unfortunately, not only has this health crisis proven polarizing in our country, it’s been polarizing in our churches. On one side, you have those who believe the danger of this pandemic has been overstated and that the government has overstepped its constitutional boundaries by mandating various safety measures. On the other side are those who believe COVID-19 is a very serious health crisis and thus not taking safety measures is a failure to demonstrate love and concern for people around you.
My goal in this edition of Tensions is not to settle the debate by picking “a side,” declaring who’s right and who’s wrong. Honestly, I understand both types of concern, and I believe both “sides” at times make good points that the other “side” could benefit from. I am not a scientist, epidemiologist, politician, or a constitutional expert. I am, however, a Pastor. And more importantly, I am a Christian who represents a King in a world that is not my home. And thus, my goal here is to provide some thoughts on how we as Christians should navigate these current issues surrounding COVID-19. Since we do appear to be approaching the end of this crisis, how should Christians reengage within a post-COVID world?
The answer to that question, in part, will be knowing what time it is. Stubborn rigidity on either side of this issue will lead us down a path that will not honor Christ. There will be times when greater caution is needed. There will be times when we should prioritize spiritual concerns over health concerns. The goal day-by-day will be to know what choices are appropriate in each particular situation. We will need to discern what time it is. As we pursue this goal, the qualities of balance, humility, and selfless love will be required with the aim of honoring Christ rather than winning an argument.
Provided here are two principles that attempt to help you consider how to navigate this season with wisdom, helping you to discern the right response for the right time.
Advocate for your convictions, but also count others as more significant than yourself.
Let’s begin with the matter of face masks. If you would have told me before this crisis began that face coverings were going to become a highly politicized issue in our country and the stated reason for people leaving their church, I would have thought you were crazy. And yet, this is where we are. People have left our church here at MacArthur Blvd for churches that do not have any face mask expectations, and as I interact with other Pastors, I’ve realized that we’re not the only church that has lost people over their approach to face masks. Transparently, this reality is grieving.
The famous “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13 was written specifically to describe the love Christians should have for their fellow brothers and sisters within the church. “Love,” Paul says, “bears all things… [and] endures all things.” Our bond and commitment to one another should be strong enough to withstand some of the worst challenges, disagreements, and relational struggles this world can throw at us. It is a hard pill to swallow that our bond at times is even too weak to withstand a facial covering. And yet, this reality exposes the deeper issue of a culture that has minimized the significance of one’s commitment to their local church. A consumerist and individualistic mindset continues to plague American Christianity and the latest face mask controversy has simply exposed a fault line that had been there all along.
My counsel for all Christians is that they should be slow, very slow, especially slow to leave their church during this crisis unless there are other issues, unrelated to the pandemic, that are driving that decision. It is almost impossible for any church to please everybody in how they respond to COVID. In the same way that married couples should not make huge life decisions in the midst of an emotionally-charged argument, our present situation is not a wise time to be making decisions on leaving the church family to whom you are committed. This is a time for patience, understanding, and endurance.
For many Christians who are opposed to wearing face masks, the issue is not merely one of comfort or convenience. It is important that we acknowledge this. It would be unfair for us to accuse a brother or sister of putting their comfort over our safety because they refuse to mask-up. Oftentimes, the objection to face masks runs deeper. For example, some object to face masks on scientific grounds, arguing that there is no scientific proof that the type of face coverings most people wear are effective in controlling the spread of this virus. Understand, the point is not whether they are right or wrong in that position. The point is that from their perspective, they are not putting those around them in any greater danger by not wearing a face mask since, from their perspective, face masks are not effective.
Another objection to face masks is a political one, which is that mandating face masks represents unjust, or even unconstitutional, actions by the state. The concern here is that these types of mandates establish a dangerous precedent that could lead to further government control over the health decisions of American citizens. Again, whether you agree with this objection or not, it is important that we genuinely seek to understand where people are coming from rather than blindly lobbing accusations that shame people without truly hearing their concerns.
Yet another objection to face masks is the belief by some that regularly wearing a facial covering may have long-term detrimental effects on our health by preventing necessary exposure that is needed to build a strong immune system. Thus, some object to face masks, not on scientific or political grounds, but on the same grounds as those who are in favor of face masks—health and safety. It is these types of mutually exclusive perspectives that have made the issue of face masks so polarizing and difficult to navigate.
As I said before, my goal here is not to argue for or against the scientific validity for the effectiveness of face masks or to render a verdict on the political objections or on the possible long-term effects of wearing face masks daily. That’s not because I consider these issues insignificant, but because there are others better equipped than me to speak to them. Instead, I want to encourage you to consider what a wise approach to wearing face masks might be within the context of gathering with your church family a few hours each week.
If you are of the perspective that there is not adequate scientific proof for the effectiveness of face masks, there is certainly a right time and manner for you to express that perspective with courage and conviction. If you are of the perspective that the government should not be mandating any face mask requirements and that doing so is an infringement on the rights of American citizens, there is certainly a right time and manner for you to advocate for those civil liberties. If you are concerned about the possible long-term health affects of face mask mandates, there is a right time and manner to express those concerns. However, might there also be a time to go ahead and mask-up despite these objections? I believe the answer is yes, particularly in the context of gathering with your church family.
What leads me to that conclusion? It is the fact that there are many within the church who genuinely believe that gathering with a group that is not wearing facial coverings is dangerous to the health of those within that group. Let’s allow that to sink in for a moment. When I gather with my church family for worship and refuse to wear a facial covering, it is causing some of my brothers and sisters to feel physically endangered. That feeling is keeping at least some of my brothers and sisters from re-engaging in the church and may cause others who are engaged to disengage. What would be the rationale for refusing to mask-up despite their feelings? That you consider their feelings wrong? Whether their feelings are right or wrong is beside the point. The point is that is how they feel. Love requires us to consider how our actions are impacting other people and to demonstrate compassion and selflessness.
Consider Paul’s instructions regarding eating meat sacrificed to idols where he calls Christians to lay down their liberties and rights for the sake of loving your brothers and sisters (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8). If me not wearing a mask may hinder a brother of mine from engaging in church, whether I agree with their thinking or not, I’m going to wear a mask because I love my brother. There is a time for me to advocate for civil liberties, and there is a time for me to lay down what I believe to be my rights for the sake of my spiritual siblings.
Also consider Paul’s words in Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than your yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also the interests of others.” Within a church family, we have an obligation of love to put others ahead of ourselves even if we believe we have better or more accurate knowledge than they do. “This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1).
I am not suggesting that those who have concerns about the long-term health effects of daily wearing face masks should always capitulate and wear them 24/7. Nor am I suggesting that those with an objection to face masks should not voice their concerns and advocate for civil liberties and scientific truth with proper attitudes and through proper mediums. There is a time for that. But there is also a time to put others ahead of ourselves by putting on a face mask for a couple of hours in order to gather with your brothers and sisters. There is also a time, on the flip side, for those who are passionately in favor of face masks to listen humbly to the perspectives and concerns of those with whom they disagree, extending the same understanding and compassion they desire for themselves. There is a time to advocate for your convictions, and there is a time to count others as more significant than yourself. Wisdom is knowing what time it is.
Demonstrate prudent caution for physical health, but also give careful attention to spiritual health.
Now let’s consider the issue of resuming in-person gathering with your church family. Again, there is no biblical proof text we can point to that provides explicit instruction on when every Christian should physically resume in-person gatherings within a pandemic. So, we must consider what the Bible does say and seek to apply the Scriptures to each of our own unique situations. What are some factors that we must weigh as every Christian seeks to discern when and how to resume in-person gatherings?
One factor will certainly be one’s physical health situation as well as the health situation of those with whom they must come into regular contact (e.g. elderly parent, grandparent, etc.). A younger, healthy person will be able to resume in-person gatherings quicker than a person who is in the high-risk category or who is caring for someone in the high-risk category. A high-risk individual who is taking a more cautious approach to re-gathering should not be accused of walking in fear. The Scriptures warn against the sin of presumption that might cause us to act foolishly just because we’re “not afraid of dying” (see Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness). There is a legitimate difference between fear and prudence. I put on my seatbelt in the car, not because I’m afraid to die, but because doing so is prudent. Genuine health concerns must be a factor we weigh when discerning the right time and way to resume in-person gathering with our church.
Two other factors include the local government regulations where one lives as well as the perception of one’s community toward large group gatherings and how that perception will affect our Christian witness. These are factors our Pastors weighed heavily early on in the pandemic when we decided to suspend, temporarily, all in-person gatherings. The Scriptures give clear instructions to submit to the governing officials who have been placed over us by God’s sovereign hand (Rom. 13). We should honor state guidelines insofar as those guidelines do not require us to sin against God. Temporarily (and that is the key word) avoiding in-person gathering is not, in itself, sinful.
I am thankful that the state where we gather (Texas) has been very careful to make places of worship exempt from various mandated restrictions on public gatherings, recognizing the importance of not infringing on the free exercise of religion. Churches in other states have been required to find creative ways to attempt to comply (as best as they can) to state mandates without neglecting long-term gathering of the saints. Submitting to governing authorities certainly does not prevent Christians from advocating for the free exercise of religion.
We should also keep in mind that the world is watching to see how Christ’s people respond to this health crisis. We hope the world sees in us an unshakable faith and courage in the face of any crisis. We also hope the world sees a people who demonstrate a genuine concern for their community. We do not want to unnecessarily (and that is a key word) give the impression that we don’t care about the health and safety of our neighbors and community. If there are measures we can take that allow us to continue to prioritize gathering together in a manner that demonstrates to our community that we care about them and wish to honor our governing officials, we would be wise to take those measures. We should always remember that, because we represent Christ, public perception must be a factor in how we live and the choices we make.
Another factor is our spiritual health. This is the factor that creates some tension with the factors already mentioned. God calls us to prioritize gathering together as Christians because He knows we need Christian gathering. There is significant spiritual danger to isolation. Isolation affects our affections for God and one another. It diminishes the accountability we need from our church family. It keeps us from receiving the relational connection and encouragement that fights against spiritual depression and drift. It makes us more susceptible to being led astray by false teachings. It keeps us from benefitting from the gifts of the Spirit manifested through our spiritual siblings.
And it’s not just our own spiritual health we must consider. We also must consider the spiritual health of our brothers and sisters who need us in their lives encouraging them, bearing their burdens, benefitting from our spiritual gifts, holding them accountable. The spiritual impact of distance must be a factor that we weigh as we consider re-engagement. We should also remember that while virtual engagement is a blessing, it is not a substitute for in-person gathering. It is a great temporary provision that has allowed us to maintain some degree of connection, but it cannot become a long-term plan. God made us physical creatures who need physical, in-person connection.
Each of these factors—one’s physical situation, government guidelines, our Christian witness before the community, and spiritual health—must be weighed when discerning when one should resume in-person gathering with their church family. One question we should each ask ourselves is: Am I giving any of these factors too much weight in my decision-making? For example, there will always be (I assume) some risk to resuming in-person gathering following a pandemic whenever you do it. Viruses can mutate, vaccines are not 100% effective, etc. If the physical health concerns are the only factor you weigh, you may never resume in-person gathering to your own spiritual detriment. On the flip side, if we give how the community might perceive our actions of re-gathering too much weight, then we might find ourselves allowing the world, rather than Christ, to determine when we come back to church. The goal is to consider all these factors, giving each one proper weight in our decision-making.
Another question to ask is: Are my stated reasons for not resuming in-person gathering consistent with how I am engaging in other aspects of my life? If I am traveling, eating out, or doing other activities in large group settings, and the Sunday gathering is the only one I avoid, it may give an indication that a concern for health is not truly what is keeping me from gathering with my church. Introspection would be in order.
I cannot give a blanket answer to when a Christian should resume in-person gatherings with their church. I can help you identify factors that we all must weigh when making those decisions. I also want to encourage you not to minimize the factor of your spiritual health. Isolation will, over time, negatively affect your walk with Christ. This is a factor that must be seriously weighed alongside your physical health as you consider when is the right time to re-gather. There is a time for caution for the sake of physical safety. At some point, the time will come to prioritize your spiritual health even if it means at least some degree of physical risk. Wisdom is knowing what time it is.
I am not so naive as to think that the few thoughts mentioned here will solve all the challenges or answer all the questions related to this pandemic. I do pray that this article provides a helpful, and distinctively Christian, way of navigating our current health crisis. The Christian response to this crisis should be distinct from the rest of the world. The world will respond to the issues surfaced in this article by speaking louder rather than listening better, assigning blame, lobbing unfair accusations, drawing firm lines on various issues based entirely upon political affiliation, and shaming those with whom they disagree. It cannot be so with the people of Christ. We must show honor even to those with whom we disagree, be slow to speak and quick to listen, fight to maintain unity within the body, walk with a courageous faith, and daily exercise wisdom. We must discern what is appropriate in each moment, prioritizing kingdom over earthly concerns, and putting others ahead of ourselves. We must remember that this world is not our home, but while we live here we represent Christ, and the significance of this responsibility cannot be overstated.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Wisdom is knowing what time it is. Walk wisely, brothers and sisters!