Pastoral Letter for May 16, 2020
The above graphic is a just another way of reminding us that the church is made up of the people in it. In fact, the word used most in the New Testament to describe the “church” is ekklesia, meaning “the assembly of the called.” Now, understanding the definition of ekklesia is an important component of understanding what the church is and what the church is to do. Ekklesia is a Greek word defined as “a called-out assembly or congregation,” most commonly translated as “church” in the New Testament. For example, Acts 11:26 says that “Barnabas and Saul met with the church [ekklesia]” in Antioch. And in 1 Corinthians 15:9 Paul says that he had “persecuted the church [ekklesia] of God.” The “called-out assembly,” then, is a congregation of believers whom God has called out of the world and “into His wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). The Greek ekklesia is the basis for our English words ecclesiastical (“pertaining to the church”) and ecclesiology (“the study of doctrine concerning the church”).
It is important that the church today understand the definition of ekklesia. The church needs to see itself as being “called out” by God. If the church wants to make a difference in the world, it must be different from the world. Salt is different from the food it flavors. God has called the church to be separate from sin (1 Peter 1:16), to embrace fellowship with other believers (Acts 2:42), and to be a light to the world (Matthew 5:14). Most of all, God has graciously called us to Himself.
This is the tenth pastoral letter of the coronavirus pandemic and I hope it finds you staying calm and handling the anxiety, that not only seems to be more common with this pandemic, but also seems to have taken a stronger hold on each of our hearts! Even those folks who don’t normally struggle with fear, worry, and anxiety are reporting that it’s affecting them way more than usual. So, for those who do normally struggle with such things, this has become a very difficult season for them to manage. Into this situation, the Apostle Paul speaks clearly. He says, Philippians 4:1 (I know, you were expecting 4:6-7, weren’t you?), “Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.” Paul explains that the gospel, in this context of coronavirus induced fear, worry, and anxiety, enables us to “stand firm thus in the Lord.” To stand firm means to be steadfast, unmovable; it’s a word often applied to a military sentry who stands vigilant against intruders.
Why am I writing about Biblical word studies this week? Mostly because I think we need them, not just as individuals, although that is surely true, but also as a church. We’re about to embark on something we’ve never done before. We are preparing a plan to resume in-person worship services. You’ve probably already figured that out because we asked you to fill out a survey on reopening this week. If you haven’t filled that out the survey yet, please do! (Links to the survey can be found on Realm, our Facebook group, in via an email we sent you). The more data we have, the better decisions we’ll be able to make. And yet we’re still in the midst of this crisis. We don’t know when it will end. And there seems to be as many opinions about what to do as there are people. And that’s the difficulty … and the danger.
Brett McCracken, in a recent article on The Gospel Coalition website, wrote about this dilemma, “As if the logistical details weren’t challenging enough — how to maintain social distance and limit crowd size, whether or not to require masks, to sing or not to sing, what to do with children, and so on — the whole conversation is fraught with potential for division. If a congregation — and within it, a leadership team — is at all a microcosm of our larger society, it will likely contain a broad assortment of strongly held convictions. Some will be eager to meet in person and impatient to wait much longer to get back to normal. Others will insist it’s unwise to meet at all until there’s a vaccine. Plenty will fall somewhere in between.
In such a precarious and polarizing environment, how can churches move forward in beautiful unity (Psalm 133) rather than ugly division? It won’t be easy. But by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit working to unify us in ways our flesh resists, the opportunity is there for us to be a countercultural model for the rest of the world.
For example, someone might find it personally difficult — even maddening — to have to wear a mask during church and stay six feet away from everyone at all times. You might think these precautions are a needless overreaction. But here’s the thing: even if it turns out you’re right, can you not sacrifice your ideal for a season, out of love for others who believe the precautions are necessary? Even if you personally think it is silly, or even cowardly, for someone to stay home even after the church is open again on Sundays, can you not heed Paul’s wisdom in Romans 14:13, “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”? Or 1 Corinthians 8:9, “Be careful, however, that your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”
Likewise, those who think the lockdowns should continue should not pass judgment on those who question the wisdom of the government’s ongoing restrictions. Churches should strive to honor people on both sides of the spectrum. Yes, it will be costly for churches to keep offering online services for those who don’t feel comfortable attending physical gatherings. Yes, it will be a sacrifice for church members who are sick of masks, social distancing, and Zoom to continue to use these for the sake of others. But little is more Christian than a posture of sacrifice (Romans 12:1). We should embrace it with gladness.”
We could all use a bit more humility, and the church should lead the way. As much as ever before, Christians should follow the advice of James 1:19 to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Listening well may slow down the process of deliberation and planning, but it is worth it. Whatever opinions church leaders themselves have on the matter of reopening, they should take time to humbly hear the voices of others [hence, the survey]. Church members should likewise model Christlike humility (e.g., Philippians 2:3) in how they react to the plans outlined by leaders, even if they don’t agree with every aspect of it. No one of us should assume we’ve arrived at the definitive answer on how to do this well. Let’s model humility by acknowledging that everything is not obvious, and we are all just trying to do the best we can in this “build the plane in midair” moment.
Patience is one of the rarest virtues in today’s insta-everything world. And yet patience has rarely been more needed, as many of us are antsy to break free of “stay home” isolation and get back to normalcy as soon as possible. To be sure, it is good and right to be eager to gather again as churches. We should take Hebrews 10:25 seriously when it says we ought not neglect meeting together. We should feel the ache of what is lost when we only meet virtually, and every Christian should long for the day when “church on Zoom” gives way to “church in a room.” That day will come. But we should be careful to not rush it. We should be careful to not go faster than governments allow, or faster than those in our community can understand. We should be patient with a timeline that might be slower than we’d prefer; patient with a reopening process that will doubtless be clunky; patient with leaders feeling the pressure of this complex situation; and patient with one another as we figure out the new normal. Those who are not comfortable with physical gatherings should be patient with those who are, and vice versa. As hard as it will be to practice patience, remember that in the scheme of eternity this season — whether it’s months long or years — will be but a blip.”
Charles Smith of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary recently wrote, “Prediction: one of the most challenging aspects of the #COVID19 recovery will be disagreements over acceptable post-COVID social norms between friends and family. Hurt feelings will abound if we’re not careful. Extend lots of grace. Everyone is different.”
I think those are wise words. We can extend grace. And we can do it extend grace even as we are, Philippians 1:27b, “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”
I miss seeing you all on Sunday! And I’m looking forward to worshiping together again!
Dr. David V. Silvernail, Jr., Senior Pastor
Potomac Hills Presbyterian Church