From the Colson Center Audience:
“Our church is not closed. The building is closed. The church is not a building.”
[Editor’s Note: Normally this column is in response to a question or comment sent to the Colson Center, but this particular issue arose from something sent to the author directly. However, given that this reflects a common concern of our audience, we are providing the answer in this forum.]
The Colson Center Replies:
On the one hand, you’re absolutely right. The church isn’t a building and so it can’t be “closed” any more than a family isn’t a family just because it’s not in its house. On the other hand, I don’t think that’s quite the point.
There are those within the broader family tree of Christianity who are more keen than others on the specific location of worship. For many among the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Anglican traditions, the idea of sacred space is profound. However, for others, such as broadly evangelical denominations or my own Reformed line, this concept has less priority.
That being said, even for those who seek sacred ground, that’s not really been the point of contention in recent discussions. The primary complaint by Christians has not been the place of gathering but the mere fact of it. That is, they’re not annoyed that they can’t meet in their ordinary location; they’re bothered that they can’t meet in any location.
While some Christians have overreacted to legitimate state or municipal regulations, this isn’t just a matter of evangelical-enclave paranoia. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, the way that various government entities have treated, not just Christians, but all religious bodies, reveals that they do not properly understand the role of religion in society. Second, the way that many Christians are indifferent to the lack of meeting together displays a troubling gnostic flavor to our contemporary faith.
At BreakPoint, we’ve had a series of articles and podcasts chronicling the dangers of this first problem, with none less than Princeton’s Robert P. George taking center-stage in highlighting these concerns. The basic point is that both Christians and political leaders have an inadequate view of faith.
When liquor stores and marijuana outlets are deemed essential, but churches cannot meet as a body even when they take proper precautions, then we have a problem. That problem is that religion has been demoted from the very first right protected under the US Constitution down to the point that it’s the practical equivalent of sporting events or a comic book convention.
The ideas and beliefs that have inspired art and science, revolutions and liberations, crusades for civil rights and scholarship around the world are now relegated to somewhere below gardening and perhaps on equal terms with the local gym. Government leaders are treating this central fact of human nature and existence as though it’s an optional hobby that can be tended to when it’s convenient but can also be left aside to focus on what really matters.
The second failing belongs not to the state but to the Church. It is true that the Church abides regardless of buildings, but can the Church continue regardless of gatherings? That’s another question.
On the one hand, of course it can. In the face of suspending our meetings, the Church remains the Church. We can go without gathering, and the Church will endure. We can also do without caring for the poor or evangelizing or singing or the Eucharist or a host of other things, but what would it say about the Church if all we need have is our name as “the Church?” How many of our defining characteristics can we lose without losing our identity?
If our faith is such that we can practice it just as well alone as together, if our religion is the sort of thing where we can live it out in isolation, never needing the presence of others, for their good or ours, then are we truly still the Church?
While many would love to practice a spirituality that is divorced from all but individual contemplation on “higher thoughts,” this is not the faith of our fathers. What we would have in such a case is not the Christianity of the Bible but the pietism of Gnosticism. Our worship, our times of prayer and hearing God’s Word, our Faith itself, these aren’t for ourselves alone, nor can those be fully realized as a solitary experience. There is no true, biblical faith that is not enacted, enfleshed, lived out in the nitty-gritty of daily life.
Christianity is a strange religion. Indeed, it speaks notably of unseen things, of spirits and realities that cannot be apprehended by material means. But, it is also an uncomfortably material faith.
Its sacred rites use ordinary water and wine and bread. Its central act is the scandalous reality of God taking on flesh. Its first words are of the goodness of the physical form of the universe, its final story an unabashed celebration of food and marriage, an end-goal for humanity not where we sluff off our bodies but where our bodies are renewed and restored.
The Church isn’t simply the sum total of those who ascribe to an intellectual conception of the universe. The Church is the ecclesia, the called ones, the gathered ones, the community of the saints of God. We are not the Church if we are not “we.” “God’s truth abideth still” whether we gather or not, but meeting together is as much a part of being who God has called us to be as any other element we may consider.
In this time of pandemic, it is wise for us to work to flatten the curve. To meet together without precautions right now would be the opposite of loving our neighbors. Further, it’s well-within the sphere of the state to pass edicts accordingly, even if these ordinances suffer greatly from hubris, incompetence, and the mere fact that as a new situation, no one quite knows what to do.
But, while we adapt to these unusual circumstances, let’s not leave off what makes religion so important to the wider world or those things which make our particular faith unique and needed in our afflicted age.
Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series where Colson Center staff respond to questions and comments from our audience. If Christianity is true, as we say it is, then Christians should be willing and able to offer what Francis Schaeffer called “honest answers to honest questions.”
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