While many states have allowed individual churches to decide whether to meet in person amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Virginia has taken a hard line, banning all gatherings of more than ten people and trampling religious liberty in the process. A group of pastors, nearly 200 at present count, is calling on Gov. Ralph Northam to deem churches essential and allow them to meet so they can provide for the spiritual needs of their communities.
The signatories sent a letter to Northam on Monday morning (read the whole thing here) ahead of a planned afternoon press conference where the governor was expected to discuss the state’s stay-at-home order.
“As pastors of churches in Virginia, we thank you for your labors these last several months to care for the people of the Commonwealth,” the letter, penned by Arlington Baptist Church Sr. Pastor Michael Law, begins. “We have been praying for you. We write now to urge you to modify Executive Orders 53 and 55 to allow – at minimum – once-weekly gatherings of religious organizations, provided that reasonable public-health precautions are taken.”
“Many of our fellow Virginians have suffered the physical effects of the coronavirus, and many more have experienced fear, hopelessness, loneliness, and despair during this dark time,” the letter continues, explaining that “spiritual suffering” is among the very real harms from the pandemic.
“The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is a hospital for the spiritually sick,” the pastors say. “Yet corporate worship services of more than 10 people have been banned in Virginia since March 23, regardless of the public-health protocols in place and notwithstanding that groups are permitted to gather in settings such as non-retail offices and ‘essential’ retail businesses. Prohibiting corporate worship services has exacerbated the sense of sorrow, isolation, and fear felt by so many citizens across the Commonwealth.”
On Monday Northam announced a phased plan for a partial reopening of Virginia, beginning on May 15, transitioning from a statewide stay-at-home order to a “safer-at-home” order. Phase I includes continued social distancing and teleworking, and “easing the limits on business and faith communities.” No further details on what this might mean have been released, but Northam made it clear that Phase I would not be put into effect until the following happens:
- Downward trend: Percentage of positive tests over 14 days
- Downward trend: Hospitalizations over 14 days
- Increased testing and tracing
- Enough hospital beds & intensive care capacity
- Increasing & sustainable supply of PPE …then Virginia can move to phase one
The Virginia Department of Health did not return a request for comment about the specifics of Phase I or the pastors’ letter to Gov. Northam.
The Virginia pastors are concerned that ongoing restrictions on churches could force them into a position where they must choose between obeying the government or obeying God.
“Because corporate worship is central to Christian life, it is extraordinary for churches to forego meeting for even a single Sunday,” they write. “Thus, with each passing week that corporate worship is banned, as churches stand ready to implement reasonable public-health precautions, the government pushes Christians closer to the point where they must choose to sin against God and conscience or violate the law.”
“Ultimately, as Christians, we are compelled to obey God’s law (Acts 5:29),” they say, citing the Commonwealth’s Constitution, Virginia’s Act for Religious Freedom, and Virginian James Madison, who said, “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”
“The ban on corporate worship prevents Christians who believe that Holy Scripture commands them to assemble for worship (Hebrews 10:24-25) from acting as their consciences – and God Himself – dictates,” they add.
The ongoing ban puts churches in a tough position. Most churches have chosen to abide by the stay-at-home order, with many of them offering streaming services, but most have acknowledged that the situation is untenable and cannot go on indefinitely.
“Corporate worship is commanded by Scripture and has been a foundational element of Christian life for nearly 2,000 years,” the pastors explain. “Alternatives such as live-streamed services and ‘drive-through’ worship are not adequate substitutes to the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) united together in corporate worship.”
“God, through Holy Scripture, commands believers in the Lord Jesus to assemble,” the letter continues. “In Hebrews 10:24-25, the writer to the Hebrews exhorts Christians not to neglect meeting together, but instead to stir up one another to love and good deeds and to encourage one another. In 1 Timothy 4:13, the Apostle Paul exhorts Timothy, a pastor in the city of Ephesus, to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture.”
“People must be present for the reading to be public,” say the pastors. “Ephesians 5:19 tells Christians to address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Indeed, physical presence is vital for all aspects of corporate worship – prayer (1 Timothy 2:1), teaching (Colossians 3:16), preaching (2 Timothy 4:2 and Galatians 1:23), baptism (Matthew 28:18-20), and the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:27-34). The early church assembled weekly each Sunday, the day of the resurrection of Christ, to worship (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). Scripture is clear: God’s Word calls for the regular, physical assembly of God’s people.”
The letter concludes with a summary of what’s at stake in the situation. While the Executive Orders are rightly intended to prevent death, they explain, “The sobering truth is that, unless the Lord Jesus returns, each of us that survives the pandemic will still die. There is no escaping death, for death is the wages of sin (Romans 6:23), and we have all sinned (Romans 3:23).”
“But there is good news: The Lord Jesus came to save all who repent and believe through his life, death, and resurrection, and he will come again to make all things new. This gospel message means hope for sinners and the downcast.”
That, they say, “is the good news that the spiritually sick in Virginia need to hear in these dark days, and which churches long to celebrate corporately.”
They implored Gov. Northam to amend the Executive Orders so that churches may begin to meet again, “provided reasonable public-health precautions are taken.”
A website set up to raise awareness about the letter suggests the following for those who wish to make their voices heard:
Pray that the Governor would grant our request.
Ask your pastor to sign on (send a link to this website).
“We stand ready to serve the people of Virginia as ministers of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ,” the pastors vowed.