Tag Archives: Love

The Church and the Coronavirus Challenge

The Commission for Theological Integrity

By now it’s fair to say that not a single church has escaped the impact of concerns over the Coronavirus. Churches have been urged to consider measures to ensure people’s safety, along with schools, businesses, and virtually every other assembled group of people. Governors and public health officials have called for certain forms of activity to be suspended, especially when they involve even as few as 50 people. More recently our President has recommended we avoid groups of 10 or more.

This poses some obvious challenges to churches. The average church size is somewhere around 75 people. And many churches have a significant number of elderly members. While it appears that the virus is less deadly to younger people, they can in fact be carriers who transmit to it other persons. So any recommendations to suspend public gatherings are to be taken seriously, regardless of how we feel about them.

The Gospel Coalition and 9Marks are two parachurch ministries that have provided several helpful articles and suggestions on this topic you can easily find on their websites. But as Free Will Baptists try to think practically as pastors, church leaders, and laymen, we’d like to offer three key principles that ministries should follow during this challenging time. We won’t repeat all the important, standard reminders about washing hands regularly, not shaking hands, and covering our mouths when we cough. Suggestions of this sort have been well publicized by mainstream news organizations. However, we cannot help but view this situation in light of the theological commitments God calls us to.

We don’t experience this pandemic as generic American citizens; we’re disciples of Christ. We care about His church. Therefore, we want to see this situation through a specific theological lens, particularly three key doctrines:

Civil Obedience

Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, and 1 Timothy 2:1-2 are substantial passages on the relationship between the church and the state. How we as Christians and churches relate to governing authorities is not insignificant. Naturally we don’t always agree with everything our leaders say or do (when have we ever?). Yet it is essential that unless we are asked to disobey Scripture, we should otherwise submit to governing authorities. In our American context this includes local officials, state officials, and federal officials. It’s safe to conclude that the Center for Disease Control, in our system of government, would be included in that. Whenever we hear multiple, rightly authorized institutions giving a mandate, we need to heed it. Whenever they make a suggestion, we need to give it careful consideration.

In addition to obedience, we need to pray for our leaders. God forgive us for where we have spent more time criticizing our elected and appointed officials than we have praying for them! First Peter 2 deals especially with our attitude toward leaders, while 1 Timothy 2 calls us to pray. After all, when officials make wise decisions, it promotes peace, not chaos. We need to model Christ-like speech and Spirit-led prayer to help work toward that outcome.

Embodied Community

This article will be read by people in different states and localities. The recommendations given differ slightly from place to place, though increasingly they have moved toward the complete elimination of all non-essential travel or gatherings. What does this mean for the church, the ecclesia, which itself means “gathering” or “assembly”?

We aren’t the first believers in history who have had to be creative about maintaining an ongoing ministry of worship and witness in the midst of pandemic, plague, or persecution. History is filled with occasions when churches had to determine how to obey their government, while not compromising (in the bad sense of that word) the Christian principle of assembly.

A number of churches have already instituted measures to help them continue to gather, but to do so as safely as possible. Extensive facility sanitation, no hand-shaking or hugging, and other forms of social distancing have been observed. However, church gatherings have also had to get even more creative, especially since typical church gatherings are significantly larger than 10 people. Some churches have also sought to give their members some way to stay connected when they cannot physically gather. This includes livestreaming worship services through an online platform.

We need to be both charitable and wise as we view these practices, evaluate them, and consider how or if we may also implement them. One thing is clear: biblical community and worship is an embodied reality. People often point out that the apostles were absent when they wrote letters to churches. Yet notice how often these apostles emphasize the undesirable limitations of physical absence: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 Jn. 1:12). This is just one example among many.

The point is this: any measures we take to preserve an ongoing ministry of worship and witness that utilizes smaller group meetings (smaller than the actual congregation), online media, or other hybrid options, should be treated as temporary measures. Through God’s common grace, we have many helpful technological tools to facilitate some degree of ongoing contact and connectedness. They should be spoken of that way, and not seen as a lasting substitute. Some pastors understandably worry about the “new normal” that we may inadvertently be creating by implementing such measures. Yet this is an opportunity for ministers (ironically through digital means), to teach their congregants about the vital need for gathered, embodied community and koinonia, and to foster in them a biblically rooted desire to return to it as soon as possible (Again, it’s impossible for this to be replicated online). In the meantime, acts of service to those ill and/or elderly would be an appropriate expression of biblical community. After all, such persons are much more adversely affected by social distancing than others. Phone calls, text messages, cards, and similar gestures are always appropriate, and now more than ever.

Most people understand that in times of crisis we all make concessions we wouldn’t typically make. Examples include showering every other day in times of water shortage, or keeping unnecessary lights off when power grids are stretched in a region. Similarly, the church is wise to consider how to foster ongoing awareness of each other’s needs, delivering food to those who cannot leave home at all, and in some instances, providing online teaching content to be viewed from home. However, let’s pray to be reminded in this time of absence and distance of how this is not God’s ideal nor design for us. Let’s pray that when we do return to gather normally we’ll do so with deeper appreciation and hunger for our gathered life together.

Neighbor Love

In these polarized times, social trust is a rare commodity. Many polls and surveys show that people do not trust others in their communities as much as they used to. Certainly biased media coverage sometimes fosters distrust. But when we strip away all the political commentary, we have one profound command staring us in the face: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This principle cuts against the grain of our present culture, which is self-focused, self-absorbed, and self-exalting. But this second great commandment of Christ has so much to say to us in this moment.

First, we must take this pandemic seriously. Imagine one possible outcome if we don’t: People may die. Our public officials tell us people will die, and we think they should be taken seriously. But imagine that it simply increases the likelihood that people will die because of the carelessness of citizens. If that’s true, then we aren’t loving our neighbors very well by traveling or gathering unnecessarily, not observing safe, hygienic practices, or reposting or retweeting dubious news about the Coronavirus online. The great thing about neighbor love is that it has a way of stripping away the politics of this situation. It leads us to ask, “What if this is more serious than we think it is? What might be the cost for my neighbor? How might my careless rhetoric reflect on the Gospel, the Church, or the Christ?”

Second, what happens if we take the situation too seriously? In other words, instead of proactively praying and taking precautions, we yield to fear. We rush to the stores and buy far more than we actually need, making groceries less available to our neighbors, who have the same needs as we do. Neighbor love forces us to look at our attitude and actions closely and ask tough questions of our behavior. Do people see faith working through love in what we’re doing and saying? Do we love our neighbor next door enough to give them a call, and make sure they’re okay, too? The appropriate level of concern will help us get to the other side of the pandemic and hopefully have a stronger witness before a lost world.

Much has been made about the economic impact of this pandemic. Christians need to be reminded that this has not only been disruptive to their regular work life, but also to churches and Christian institutions of many kinds. These kinds of organizations take a significant hit financially during crises like these, and without people continuing to be generous they sometimes never rebound. While the government is preparing some financial responses, few if any of these monies will in any way make it into the coffers of churches or religious organizations. As Christians, let’s remember these important institutions in our life and the need to uphold them in prayer and financial support during this time.

A final caution is also appropriate as we consider the full range of implications of loving our neighbors. Christians, churches, and religious organizations will choose to take different measures to safeguard themselves and others during this time. Provided direct government mandates are followed, there is a range of specific decisions that can be made by people of good faith. In other words, not everyone who takes different steps is being unfaithful or unloving. We need to exercise generous patience toward one another. We need to abstain from using social media to shame other churches for “selling out” and closing their doors (or for keeping their doors open when ours has closed theirs). These discussions should be had privately as we mutually discern best practices in keeping with public health recommendations, and at the same time appropriate for our unique organizations. Blasting our brethren (or neighbors in general) for their choices is unwise and unloving.

Conclusion

The Lord will have the final word on how we choose to respond to the information we’ve been provided. Let’s respect civil authority, work diligently to cherish embodied community, and practice neighbor love. Our commitment to these biblical principles is central to our ability to navigate this turbulent situation. And together let’s pray that the fallenness of this world will continue to awaken us to the hope of the Gospel, for the end of earthly corruptions, the “freedom of the glory of the children of God,” and the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:18-30). May our temporal concerns press us to hope more fully in God’s eternal promises.

A Trinity in Name Alone is Not Enough

by Kevin Hester

In October of this year, Christianity Today reported the findings of a recent LifeWay Research poll commissioned by Ligonier Ministries. The poll was targeted at the evangelical community and surveyed a number of key theological topics and concepts including God, the person and work of Christ, the Holy Spirit, Scripture, and salvation. While these topics would seem to be basic Sunday School fodder, the results of the survey were disturbing. In most cases, 25-50% of Evangelicals reported a lack of awareness or assurance regarding the teaching of the Church on basic dogma.

One seeming bright spot was that 96% of self-reported Evangelicals believed in the Trinity. However, subsequent questions revealed that this affirmation lacked significant comprehension. For example, 31% of respondants said that God the Father was more divine than Jesus, and 58% believe that the Holy Spirit is a force rather than a personal being.

This survey reveals that our churches, while confessing dogma, are failing to adequately teach, define, and defend the basic beliefs of the Church. Evangelical ignorance of basic Trinitarian theology is especially troubling given the evangelistic efforts of anti-Trinitarian sects like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and various oneness Pentecostal groups. When these efforts are coupled with societal forces pushing the Church toward inclusivism, it is not difficult to imagine a new Socinianism arising.

In order to defend the faith, our churches must remain committed to theological catechesis in the home, in our Sunday Schools, and from our pulpits. Yet many forces press against such teaching. Emphases on practical Christian living and evangelism are needed, but not at the expense of doctrine. An identification of catechesis with “liturgical” or “liberal” faith communities pushes many Evangelical congregations toward a softer social focus. In downplaying doctrinal distinctions, the non-denominational movement has left many Evangelical churches devoid of any theological teaching at all. When these forces are coupled with a lack of education among the clergy and the arguments of the cults, we leave our congregants open to heresy and fail to heed the words of Paul (Ephesians 4:14) and Peter (2 Peter 3:17).

There are biblical, historical, and theological reasons for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. While the word “trinity” is not found in Scripture, the concept certainly is. God is clearly presented as one God (Deuteronomy 6:4, Isaiah 44:6, Romans 3:30). At the same time the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit are all clearly defined in Scripture as personal beings who do the work of God and receive the worship that is due only to God. The union of their purpose and will as well as their economic distinction is seen in Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17), the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), and in the great benedictions of the Church (2 Corinthians 13:14).

Historically, the Church has affirmed its Trinitarian belief in consistently rejecting teaching that sought to conflate the persons of the Godhead (Monarchianism) and beliefs which denied the full divinity of Christ (Adoptionism and Arianism) or the personality and divinity of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatomachianism). The Church established this belief in the foundational confessions of the Church at Nicea (A.D. 325) and Constantinople (A.D. 381) affirming that the one God exists eternally as three distinct (but not separate) personal ways of existing.

Theologically then, the Church teaches that God is one in number, purpose, and will, but three in relation to dispensation or work. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are united in one God all possessing the attributes of God in full measure. Because God cannot change this Trinitarian, existence is an eternal aspect of God’s ontological existence.

So what? Is this theological jargon really all that important? What is really at stake other than some old arcane creeds and musty hymns? The implications of the doctrine of the Trinity likely go farther than you would ever imagine. As we will see below, without the Trinity we have no way of understanding who or what God is. Without the Trinity, there is no Gospel and no pattern for governance in the world. Without the Trinity, there is no reason to love and no model for what that love looks like.

Personal, Relational God

Personal beings are beings that are capable of relating to others. If God does not exist as a Trinity, then there is no ontological basis for the relational attributes of God. To paraphrase Augustine in de Trinitate, what does it mean for God to be love (1 John 4:8) if there is no object of that love? God’s love means that God is a relational God who is infinitely loving. This love has always been part of God’s nature. Without the Trinity, God could be eternally existent, having omnipotence, and immutability, but these characteristics would be self-contained without reference to anything outside God’s self. There would be no underlying reality for its expression and therefore no creation, no redemption, no revelation.

Revelation

The Trinity serves as the basis for our understanding of God’s personality and as a consequence, God’s revelation. We are personal beings and therefore relate personally. Revelation cannot be separated from personhood. To deny the Trinity undercuts any basis for communication between God and humanity. It also brings Scripture into question. We have noted the way that Scripture speaks of both the unity and three-personal nature of God, but Scripture also bases God’s revelation in this fact as well. Jesus is the Word of God with all that entails (John 1). Jesus says when we see Him we have seen the Father (John 14:9). Hebrews testifies that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the representation of His nature (Hebrews 1:3). The reality, and by extension the accuracy of the revelation found in the incarnation, is tied to the Trinity.

Gospel

The Father’s sending of the Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit are revelatory, but they are also redemptive. The economy of God’s work in the world involves all members of the Trinity and they work together in creation, revelation, and redemption. The Father accomplishes redemption by sending the Son and accepting His sacrifice for sin. The Spirit applies the benefits of Christ’s death to the believer and works to draw the world back to the Father through the Son. The Gospel itself is therefore meaningless without reference to the Trinity. As Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out an ecumenism that denies Christ’s central role in salvation and its Trinitarian framework is devoid of the power of redemption (Trinitarian Doctrine for Todays Mission, passim).

Human Society

The loss of a rigorous doctrine of the Trinity not only impacts the relationship between humanity and God. The Trinity also serves as the basis for all human relationships in all areas of human society. Inasmuch as humans are created in the image and according to the likeness of God, we should expect to find traces of the Trinity in human relationships. The Trinity serves as the foundation for the equality of humankind (as all members of the Trinity are equally God) but also the order of society. There is a hierarchy of roles in the economy of God’s work in the world, but this is a functional subordination rather than an ontological division. While the Father sends the Son and the Spirit testifies to the Son, each member of the Trinity relates to one another in love and order. The obedience and order demonstrated in the economy of God establish important principles of human subordination as well without denying equality. Each member of the Trinity works in love to glorify the other members rather than themselves.

Love

Naturalism teaches that people are valuable only as they are capable of exercising their will to power; they are simply commodities. Christianity teaches us that humans are intrinsically valuable by nature and that our response to one another must be guided by love. This is indeed part of the greatest commandment (Mark 12:29-31). This commandment is based in God’s nature and is exemplified for us in the members of the Trinity. The interpersonal relationship of the Trinity teaches us how to love. The love for others we are commanded to have is a selfless love that glories in another’s creation in the image of God, recognizes their value, and willingly submits to God’s order. The doctrine of the Trinity helps remind us that love is an action rather than an emotion. As John has said, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

Conclusion

Part of loving then, is being willing to tell the truth. The Trinity is more than a word. It is more than a quaint, old-fashioned notion or a dusty dinosaur of a dogma. It lies at the very foundation of Christianity and cannot be removed without disrupting the entire edifice of the Church. Rather than a confusing distraction to the Gospel, preaching and teaching on the Trinity (and other foundational Christian dogmas) is the Gospel. Such preaching might just be the most loving thing we could do.