From the self-giving love of Christ

by | Feb 11, 2021 | Reflections Blog

Photo by Ian Hutchinson on Unsplash.

I’m a bit of a Supreme Court fan. Not a geek-expert, mind you. But ever since a college course titled Psychology and the Law introduced me to SCOTUS rulings, I’ve found a bit of a thrill in constitutional law.

You won’t be surprised, then, to hear that I’ve tracked with triple interest the Court’s attitude toward California’s rules on pandemic-related church closures. And just last Friday—February 5—the Court came out with a new ruling.

The ruling is a temporary injunction. Until the Court decides whether it will hear South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, California:

  • may not prohibit gatherings for indoor worship;
  • may prohibit indoor gatherings that occupy more than 25% of a room’s capacity; and
  • may prohibit the use of singing and chanting as part of indoor worship.

In a prior finding on the same question on the same case, the Court denied injunctive relief on the first bullet point. This is the major change.

A New Choice to Make

Why do I use column space for this issue? Because it may affect your congregation in the months ahead. The State of California, at least for now, cannot prevent your session from moving worship indoors, so long as the second and third conditions are met.

I, for one, am glad that the Court has left the decision in the hands of the Church. But the fact that congregations in California can meet indoors legally does not make deciding easier. It simply changes the calculus.

Presbytery governance tells us that in matters of conducting worship, some choices belong to the session and some to the pastor. Co-Executives and Stated Clerks are not on that list.

But speaking as a Presbyterian minister, here’s my reminder to you: state rules and court decisions do not define us. We ultimately answer to Christ. So, without saying whether you should gather indoors or wait, I’d like to offer two frameworks for engaging the question—one for congregants, and one for pastors and session members.

For Congregants

If you are a congregant, I’d remind you of your affirmations when your leaders took office (Book of Order, W-4.0404):

  1. Do we, the members of the church, accept [names] as ruling elders or deacons, chosen by God through the voice of this congregation to lead us in the way of Jesus Christ? [We do]
  2. Do we agree to pray for them, to encourage them, to respect their decisions, and to follow as they guide us, serving Jesus Christ, who alone is Head of the Church? [We do]

I have been orienting new church officers and Clerks of Session to their work for over a decade now. All of those people (at least the ones who attended the orientation!) have shown up with a humble and sober spirit, a little intimidated by the responsibility but willing to carry it for the sake of Christ and his Body.

As a group, they want to lead and serve you well. They do not need your pressure—no matter which outcome your pressure seeks. They need your prayers and your trust.

For Elders

If you are on session—first of all, you have my prayers. You have agreed to guide your congregation during a painful time. (Even if you didn’t know you were signing up for this when you began your term, you have made the active decision not to resign. Thank you.)

When I think that some forms of indoor worship are now legal, a pair of verses from I Corinthians 10 comes to mind:

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial.
 “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.

The standard for American ethics might be freedom. But the standard for Christian practice must be the love of God in Christ.

The task before you—as it has been this entire year—is not to ask what you can do. It is to discern what is beneficial and edifying for your church community. How can the Body of Christ under your care “grow and become strong, filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40)?

What do your members need? What will communicate the Gospel best to your neighbors? Different sessions leading different congregations in reaching out to different communities will come to…wait for it…different conclusions. Each conclusion could be a faithful one, if made in submission to the Holy Spirit. “So, whether you… [worship indoors, outdoors or online]… whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (I Cor. 10:31).

Conclusion

It’s not for me to say what you should do. You know your congregants; you know your contexts.

But it is for me, as a servant among you, to nudge you toward faithful discipleship—a discipleship that takes its cues not from the principles of American democracy, but from the self-giving love of Christ.

And it is for you, then, to listen for the Spirit’s guidance as you figure out together what Christ’s self-giving love would have you do—for yourselves individual, and for your whole church. My prayers are with you.

Somewhere along the Way—

Forrest