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Church and danger: now they are together

18 July 2020 13:35

Church and danger: now they are together

[To avoid any misunderstanding, it should be said that the following piece was written to help me think this matter through for myself and is posted in the hope that it may help readers do the same]

Church and danger. Up until recently it would not occur to British Christians to put these two words together. We associate church with many things. But not danger! Yes, there is the threat of child abuse by wicked clergymen. And there is always risk associated with listening to false doctrine. But in terms of simple church attendance who would ever think danger?

That, however, is no longer the case. The Covid-19 pandemic brought such a level of threat to society that in the interests of health and safety our churches were closed for several months. And still, though the lockdown is being eased and we are free to resume public worship, the virus hasn’t gone away. Significant restrictions remain in place. Some are nervous, therefore, about coming back to church. Others are choosing to stay away. For the first time in living memory – at least for most of us – church is associated with danger.

It’s tempting to say, “Welcome to the church of the past two thousand years!” Danger may be a new thing for us. Not for the church at large. On the contrary danger has been, and still is, a commonplace. And that for at least three reasons – war, pestilence, and persecution.

Christians have often met under the shadow of wartime hostilities. The danger of bombings or attacks has been a very real one. Then there is pestilence. It is fully a hundred years since we have had anything on the scale of Covid-19. But pestilences or plagues have been common things in the past – the more so the further back we go. They may have been more localised than the coronavirus. But they have also been typically far more deadly. We are not the first to be meeting under the threat of serious and potentially life-threatening infection.

The commonest danger I take up last: persecution. What threats that has posed to the gatherings of God’s people! Christians have met knowing that they might have been followed. Christians have met knowing that someone present might be a spy. Christians have met knowing that there might be a police raid. Christians have met knowing that they might be violently attacked. This has been the case all through Christian history. It’s exactly how it is at this very time.

The reality of danger from persecution gives us an excellent (and also humbling) lead-in to the issues facing us today. The question may be put like this: is danger a reason for not meeting as a church? Historically and globally the answer of the persecuted church is a resounding no. People’s Christian credentials have been carefully checked. Safe meeting places have been secured. Extreme caution has been used in letting people know about a meeting. Watchers or guards have been posted. And the church has met!

Often, too, at a cost. The discovery of the meeting place, raids and arrests, violent assaults, injuries and deaths – these are the all-too-common sorrows of the persecuted church. And yet the church has met! Danger has not been considered a reason for not meeting. Churches have gathered in spite of the danger – and paid the price.

You do have to ask why. For on the face it it doesn’t seem to make sense. Why endanger liberty and even life? Why not just stay at home and quietly read and pray? The answer is very simple. Church is too important. For one thing, it is the clearly revealed will of God that Christians should not give up meeting together (Heb.10.25). To gather as the body of Christ is a matter of obedience. It is also what believers in every age have wanted to do. The commandment has had its answering response in a heart that loves the gatherings of God’s people.

With good reason too. Being in the company of loved and loving fellow believers; sharing in the Lord’s Supper; singing and praying together; and, above all, listening to God’s word being read and taught – what a blessing it has been. And all the more so because of the danger. God has honoured his peoples’ courage and again and again has used these times to draw especially near to them.

It is right that we should practice social-distancing and do those other things that are designed to keep ourselves and others safe. It would be presumption to expect God to protect us from this virus if we made no effort to protect ourselves. But danger ought not to be pleaded as an excuse for staying away – not at least without very good reason. Christians throughout history have been in the very same place as we are. Danger has been a reality for them too. It has not stopped them from meeting. It ought not to stop us.

The hesitancy felt by many today is understandable. No one should look down on a fellow Christian who is afraid either for their own sake or for the sake of others to come back to church. The individual conscience needs to be respected too if, for what are believed to be God-honouring reasons, the decision is taken to delay return. But it ought to be every Christian’s goal to gather with the saints as soon as possible. That is our duty. That is in our highest interests. That is surely where our hearts are (and if it isn’t we have a very serious spiritual problem). And we may look to the Lord to bless us.

Will obedience guarantee our safety? No, it won’t. God doesn’t always protect his people from the dangers that threaten them. Our persecuted fellow Christians know that only too well. They would assure us, however, from precious personal experience, that Christians are not the losers by their obedience. And God will see to it that we are not the exception.