One of the greatest challenges for the church through the season of social distancing has been the need to maintain and cultivate Christian fellowship. We have been told to isolate into our personal bubbles and to forsake assembly as much as possible through this pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control have encouraged social distancing practices from the beginning in order to flatten the curve.
If local churches are not intentional—this season of social distancing will flatten far more than a COVID-19 curve.
The Call to Assemble and Fellowship
The basic component of the local church is our visible identification with Christ in a public manner. Our conversion is something that happens internally as a work of the Holy Spirit. Our repentance may or may not be visibly seen at the moment when we call out to God. However, our profession of faith in Jesus Christ and the subsequent reality of our conversion is very much a public event at our baptism (Acts 2:38). Following our baptism, we are called to assemble together on a normative basis as the Christians gather in local churches for the purpose of worshipping and serving our Lord (Acts 2:42-47; Heb. 10:24-25).
The early church prioritized Christian fellowship in a way that is almost embarrassing to the modern local church. In short, there should be a clear difference between the friendship that is developed at the local ball field and the friendship that is developed in a small group Bible study in the local church. A friend that you fellowship with in Sunday school on Sunday mornings should have a deeper and more solid connection than your friend at your place of employment.
Social distancing is antithetical to the calling of the local church to assemble. Limitations on personal interactions and fellowship is a true hindrance to the God ordained functionality of the local church. We must beware of the damage that a pandemic can do to a local church family. We must see the threats of politicizing a pandemic and how that will have a massive impact upon the health and strength of the local church. We can do without restaurants and college football, but we cannot do without the local church.
The Threats of Social Distancing
With all of the talk of flattening a growth curve of the pandemic, many Christians have likewise flattened the growth curve of their local church. No, I’m not just focused on the numerical growth curve of membership. I’m referencing the growth curve of friendships that occur through the bond of Christ as well as Titus 2 discipleship opportunities.
Friendships take time to grow. The strongest and most valuable solid Christian friendships are cultivated over long periods of time where trust is earned and much of the development of such friendships occurs through service and worship opportunities within the life of the local church. While deep conversations over a good cup of coffee help—it’s the normal ebb and flow of serving together, worshipping together, and breaking bread together that serve as the bedrock foundation to genuine Christian fellowship. This doesn’t happen during a season of social distancing.
Social distancing threatens the unity of a local church. With more than five months apart, the members of the local church have navigated the pandemic differently. Some have taken in far less information from the media than others who are watching every news report and news briefing on a weekly basis. Just as our world is divided on many different political issues, the pandemic has created new dividing points regarding data on masks and other vaccine related controversies.
Add to the COVID-19 politics the ethnic division surrounding George Floyd and opportunities for division drastically increase. Unless the pastors and members are very intentional about maintaining the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3), the cultural controversies can sweep right into the church and create massive dividing points.
What does maintaining the unity of the Spirit look like during a season of social distancing? How do pastors shepherd people when they aren’t assembling? How do members love one another and work out differences through pixels on a screen? All of this requires great sensitivity and intentionality in demonstrating love toward one another.
Personal Responsibility of Membership
It doesn’t matter if you are a member of a local church that does not have a specific church covenant that is recited every time you gather for the Lord’s Supper or if you have no official church covenant that makes up your governing documents. In either case—as a member of a local church, but the very nature of church membership, you are in a covenant with one another that is established by Christ.
We live in a day where there is a prevailing low view of church membership. People join local churches flippantly and then “transfer” their membership to another church down the road if they have something more attractive to offer their family. The idea of consumerism has replaced the covenant in the membership of the local church.
As membership who covenant together—we have a responsibility to engage in the life of the church. What does this look like during a season of social distancing? Regardless of the size of the church, both members and pastors have a responsibility to connect with the church family during this pandemic season.
Intentional Connection Opportunities:
- Physical Letters
- Phone Calls
- Text Messages
- Private Gatherings (unofficial church gatherings)
Some individuals who have underlying health conditions are unable to return to the life of the church as fast as others. However, there are still opportunities for such individuals to engage with the church. Consider online meetings and fellowship opportunities. While it’s not the same as in-person gatherings, it’s nevertheless an opportunity for reconnecting and having much needed conversation with church members.
If you have simply turned into a hermit and avoided the church for five months, you might be feeling the pain of isolation and the coldness that comes with a lack of Christian fellowship. In such cases, rather than blaming other people for how you feel, consider asking yourself what you’ve done to engage in the life of the church and overcome the challenges of social distancing during this season.
Since the call to Christian worship and church fellowship involves the basic component of public assembly—it is our duty to avoid isolating ourselves away and cutting ourselves off from the church for lengthy periods of time. Fight through this season. Exercise wisdom. Maintain unity. In order to make your church strong rather than weak, it will take effort on your part and other members and leaders in the church who are striving for God’s glory to be made visible through the love and fellowship of the local church.
A popular campaign that many churches are promoting in our day is titled: “I Love My Church.” How many churches do you know who may pass out bumper stickers or T-shirts with this slogan, but in reality, they merely tolerate one another?
The culture today is swimming in a sea of tolerance. The politically correct behavior today is centered on tolerance and we’re commanded to tolerate everyone and every idea that comes our way. Interestingly enough, many Christians in the church stand directly opposed to that type of ideology and rightly so. However, many of the same Christians are unwilling to tolerate false doctrines and cultural movements, but they want to merely tolerate their fellow church members rather than engaging in the hard work of love.
One of the greatest errors of many church members today is the idea that God is perfectly happy with us merely tolerating one another and refusing to love one another in the life of the church. God’s Word clearly teaches his people to love one another in a way that involves more than tolerance and casual passivity in the hallway of the local church building.
Love Is Commanded
In multiple places in the Bible (Rom. 12:10; Eph. 4:2; 1 Thess. 3:12; 2 Thess. 1:3; Heb. 10:24; 1 John 3:23; 1 John 4:11-12), we see God’s children being called to engage in the hard and often messy work of love toward fellow Christians. Love is nowhere in God’s Word considered an option worthy of consideration in the church. God drives his point home with crystal clarity that he has called his people to a life and ministry of love rather than mere tolerance.
Far too many people in the local church live as if 1 John 4:7 reads as follows:
Beloved, let us tolerate one another, for tolerance is from God, and whoever tolerates has been born of God and knows God.
While most Christians would stand boldly before the person who would dare to change God’s Word and pervert the holy Scriptures, but often they live in such a manner that seems to change love into tolerance. We would never do this with a pen, but we do this with our attitudes. We would never promote such an agenda in the world of academics, but we often promote it in the world of our local churches by how we live out 1 John 4:7.
Love Requires Sacrifice
It is impossible to love others without some means of sacrifice. For instance, in Romans 12:10, the apostle Paul writes, “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.” When Paul insists that the Christians in Rome should outdo one another in showing honor, this type of behavior will be one of sacrifice. It may not be a financial sacrifice (although it could be), it will certainly involve some form of sacrifice such as time, resources, or talents.
To the church at Galatia, Paul said:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
In serving one another, you sacrifice some of yourself, some of your time, some of your money, some of your energy, and you pour into the life of another person. You can’t serve someone that you don’t love. Have you ever tried to serve someone out of a fake love? Your heart wasn’t into it and perhaps the only reason you did it was in order to appear holy or to avoid showing your real dislike for another person or group. True love requires a measure of sacrifice and that is never an easy thing. Pride is natural and sacrifice is not only abnormal—but difficult in many ways.
Love Honors God
When we consider the fact that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that God demonstrated his love for fallen sinners in a sacrificial manner (Rom. 5:8; John 3:16), to engage in the labor of love and the lifestyle of love is to genuinely pursue God. As Christians, we know that we’re called to be holy—in essence we’re called to be like God. Have you ever considered the reality that we are never more like God than when we are engaging in true love for others? The opposite is likewise true. To refuse to love others is to refuse to be like God.
Tolerance may be something that the culture teaches, but if we genuinely want to be like Jesus and to pursue holiness as followers of Christ—we must go well beyond the borders of tolerance. We are called to a life of love and that’s not an easy thing.
John 13:34 — A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.
In 1 Peter 4:7-19, Peter instructs the Christians of his day to serve and suffer – all for the glory of God as the end approaches. These Christians were experiencing trials, but the most difficult and fiery trials were still to come. Yet, Peter encouraged them to remain faithful in their service and in their suffering in order to bring great glory to God and to prevent the Word of God from being blasphemed.
Love in the Midst of Discipline
Peter emphasizes love and continuing in “fervent love” one toward another within the church. According to 1 Peter 4:8, love covers a multitude of sins. Now, it is important to realize the context of this passage before just lifting that sentence out of the surrounding text and using it to say something that Peter did not intend. Peter was not encouraging the church to sweep sin under the rug, turn a deaf ear to sin, or to pretend that a fellow brother in Christ is not committing adultery on his wife. He was not saying that at all. He was merely emphasizing the fact that as brothers and sisters in Christ, we are all full of imperfections that should be laid to rest when possible in order to love one another and worship together.
What Peter was not saying was that we should overlook a brother or sister who is living in rebellious and unrepentant sin. Those who use this passage to override church discipline are seeking to align Christ and Peter against one another. In fact, church discipline is not the opposite of love – it is love. John Leadley Dagg, the author of a well-known and influential church manual of the nineteenth century, noted, “It has been remarked, that when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it” (A Treatise on Church Order p. 274). For a body of believers to allow a person to continue in a pattern of unrepentant sin is the opposite of love. The very people who claim that church discipline is a bad thing do not understand biblical church discipline. Dr. Mohler also says, “Without a recovery of functional church discipline-firmly established upon the principles revealed in the Bible-the church will continue its slide into moral dissolution and relativism. Evangelicals have long recognized discipline as the ‘third mark’ of the authentic church. Authentic biblical discipline is not an elective, but a necessary and integral mark of authentic Christianity” (Discipline: The Missing Mark In Polity (2001): 43-62.). Therefore, those that Peter was writing to were able to allow genuine love to permeate the church, cover sin, and reign in their hearts at the same time as they practiced discipline upon those sinning members who were unwilling to repent.
Love in the Midst of Suffering
If there is one place in the world where Christians should be able to find a safe haven from the world – it is in the community of the church. In Peter’s day, the Christians were suffering greatly under trials and persecution. When they came together, love was essential for healing the wounds caused in the world. It was a support group. It was a place of love and support where hurting hearts could experience healing. Peter encouraged these suffering Christians to continue in fervent love in order that their love would cover sin.
Unfortunately, today’s church seems to do the exact opposite. Often Christians find themselves being beat down, discouraged, and further stressed out by the gossipers, backbiters, and complainers that assemble with them for worship each week. In many cases, young Christians either slack off greatly or find another church in hopes that their problems will be solved. Most of those Christians end up figuring out the pattern within the local church. That pattern is often not summarized by the word “love.” Is it any wonder that pastors leave churches every two years? Is it any wonder that most churches are not growing and remaining strong? The majority of the churches today are focused on problems, critical toward one another, gossiping about one another, and involved in practices that do not honor God and bring glory to His name. Love is the key to having a great church that glorifies God and cares for one another. The assembly of believers is the one place that all Christians should be able to retreat from the suffering and problems of the world. The church should be a place of love.
1 Peter 4:8 – Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins (ESV).
Pastor Josh Buice