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‘How can we best obey God when we can’t do as we’re commanded?’
Church Life in a Pandemic.
The last few months have seen the upheaval of our lives on a scale that most of us have never seen. Schools, workplaces, weddings, funerals – all have had to come quickly to grips with a new operational reality, a Covid-19 reality. The church is no exception. We are, as many have noted, in a sort of exile: isolated from the communities and practices of faith that have sustained us throughout our lives. We’re sitting by the rivers of Babylon, wondering how best to sing the song of the Lord.
Of course, the church is always in a state of exile, pilgrims and strangers in the land, longing for the consummation of all things at the coming of Christ. Our gatherings as God’s people are outposts of the kingdom, glimpses into the perfect fellowship and worship we'll partake in around the throne of heaven. But even these glimpses of the things to come have diminished under the constraints imposed on us in the time of the coronavirus.
How does the church operate under such constraints? The way that we read the Bible tends to focus heavily on the question ‘What are we to do?’ It’s good that we have this emphasis; it isn’t mere legalism. Our desire to obey is deeply connected to our love for Christ (John 14:15) and for each other (1 John 5:2). We don’t wish to follow the example of God’s people in the time of the Judges when ‘everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 17:6).
However, we can sometimes find ourselves unequipped to answer the question, ‘How can we best obey God when we can’t do as we’re commanded?’ This isn't a new question. There is, as the Teacher puts it, nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). God’s people have struggled with this in one form or another through the ages. One such example is found in 1 Samuel 21 when David, fleeing the violence of Saul, fed his hungry men holy bread, ‘which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests’. Christ, recalling the episode, reminds the Pharisees of God’s priorities: ‘I desire mercy rather than sacrifice’ (Matthew 12:3-8). Another example is found in the Didache, an early Christian teaching text from the second century. Regarding baptism, it says:1
After reviewing all of this teaching, baptise in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in running water. But if running water is not available, then baptise into other water; and cold is preferred, but if not available then in warm. But if neither is available, pour water three times upon the head in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
My intention here isn’t to discuss the efficacy of affusion (pouring of water on one’s head) as a replacement for immersion. The Didache serves here as an historical example, not as an inspired authority. Rather, I seek to understand how such a practice arose. In the beginning, affusion was the answer of these early Christians to the question above: we know that we should be immersed, but how do we obey that command when sufficient water isn’t available? As found in the Didache, affusion was, in some respects, an echo of the Israelite cry, ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ Over time, however, affusion became in many places the default practice: its ease and convenience taking priority over the teaching and practice of the apostles. What was this but the church growing comfortable in exile? The song of the Lord they learned to sing out of necessity in Babylon had become the only song they remembered.
Fast forward to today. Our assemblies haven't stopped, but they’ve changed. In the span of a few weeks, churches have had to make decisions about how best to meet, sing, pray, and break bread together. Many of the solutions we’ve come up with are less than ideal. We sing, but accompanied by a recording, not our brethren; we break bread not from one loaf, but from whatever bread each house has at hand; our fellowship time now is devoid of hugs and consists of ‘Hello everyone!’ and ‘Good to see you all!’, exchanged in an online cacophonous chatter.
Of course, not every change has been detrimental. Christians who were previously remote or housebound can now participate in online assemblies. Some who’ve fallen away have the chance to re-connect with brothers and sisters who love them. Some churches have invited a wide range of guest speakers, often from overseas. Others have enjoyed the convenience of participating in church committee meetings from the comfort of their own homes. But, although we might enjoy dragging ourselves out of bed five minutes before our assemblies start, we musn’t mistake comfort for flourishing. We ought to parse carefully which changes are genuinely beneficial – and thus should continue past the time of pandemic crisis – and which are expediencies to be set aside with joy as soon as we’re able.
The wonderful truth is that Psalm 137 is a song of the Lord. Our faithful attempts to obey God in times of crisis are looked on by him with favour. But let’s not get comfortable in exile. Let’s long to return to our homeland where we can obey God’s commands more perfectly.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! (Psalm 137:5)
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1 For online translations of the Didache, see:
Dale Christensen works in science. He and his wife, Gina, are members of the Southeast Church of Christ in suburban Melbourne. email@example.com