Church Closings

The past two weeks, I’ve written broadly about the Christian response to our pandemic. I’ve cautioned against two opposite errors. The first is presumption: acting as though God has promised us immunity from disease and harm, when he has promised no such thing. The second is panic: acting as though this pandemic is outside God’s loving and sovereign control.

This week, I want to consider a very practical question in our current circumstances. How ought we think about government shutdown orders with reference to the local church?

This question raises a lot of issues. It makes us ask, first, whether gathered meetings of the church are actually necessary. Many churches are making their services available online now—is this an adequate replacement for being physically present? I’ll address this further next week.

But let’s assume for now that the ordinary practice of the New Testament church is that we are obligated by Scripture to meet together, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some,” as the author of Hebrews instructs us.

If we are commanded by Scripture to meet, and the state forbids our meeting, how should we respond?

A large church in California (who received the shutdown notices early in this process) framed the question in relation to two Scriptures. The Bible instructs believers to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). But it also gives us the example of the early church, who proclaimed, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Which text governs our response here? And how should we relate our answer to the freedom of religion we have protected for us in the First Amendment?

It is profoundly important that we note that churches and religious groups are in no way being uniquely targeted by these requirements. That makes a difference. If churches were commanded not to meet while everything else could go on as normal, that would be a good case for obeying God rather than men.

But our current circumstance is not a matter of religious persecution. Churches are not being singled out for special treatment; they are being asked to respect the same health guidelines that all other institutions are.

In addition, we should observe that in Michigan, our governor has specifically said that churches are not subject to prosecution if they meet. I am grateful that she has made this distinction. It means that churches that cancel services are doing so voluntarily, rather than under government compulsion. I believe that closing for now is wise and good, and I’m glad to do so as a choice rather than by government order.

That distinction matters in our country. Just this weekend, the mayor of NYC announced that religious groups that refuse to shut down may be forbidden from ever re-opening. He was likely addressing orthodox Jewish congregations, but that warning should be chilling to any American who cares about religious liberty.

The weeks ahead without gathered church services will be hard for believers. But I contend that there is little case here for churches defying governmental authority.

The Faith of a Child

Many Christians know that Jesus said that we should have the faith of a child. But what does Jesus mean by this comparison?

Some have taken Jesus to be advocating simplicity in faith. According to them, we shouldn’t think too much about Christianity. Deep theology is a liability to true faith.

But that is certainly the wrong idea. To be sure, the Bible does use this metaphor this way, but not as a compliment: “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child” (Hebrews 5:12–13).

The childlike faith Jesus requires, then, is not simplicity. It is humility.

This is evident in the context of Jesus’s words. In Matthew 18, the disciples ask him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Unstated in their question, but certainly assumed, is that one of them is the greatest.

Their expectation was that, when they get to Jerusalem, Jesus was going to establish his earthly Kingdom. So their question is essential, “Who’s going to be the prime minister? Secretary of state? Who’s going to have the highest rank in the Kingdom?”

The question betrays their hearts. They are ambitious and arrogant.

In response, Jesus calls a small child in front of them and says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

First, notice how stinging this rebuke is. They are debating how prominent they will be in the Kingdom. Jesus warns them that apart from humility, they won’t even enter the Kingdom.

And second, the story makes clear the point of the comparison with a child: it is humility. The point is not that children are always models of being humble. The point is that children are objectively humble. They have nothing about which to boast.

We need to be careful here. Our culture is very different from that Jesus’s day. We tend to exalt children as paragons of innocence and wisdom. Such a notion is foreign to Scripture.

In a culture that saw children as offering nothing of value, Jesus’s words are shocking. His point is that we must see ourselves as those with nothing to boast about before God. We have no leverage in negotiating with God. God isn’t lucky to have us.

Instead, entry to the Kingdom is limited to those with the humility of a child, a child dependent for everything on his parents.

This makes us (as Matthew 18 goes on to explain) Jesus’s “little ones.” It helps us see how gently and kindly we are to treat our siblings in the faith. Truly, then, there is no Christianity where such humility is absent.

Built Up in Love

Paul’s letters share a common format. Most often, he begins with theology. Sometimes his theology is complex and profound, other times direct and simple. In either case, Paul is concerned that we begin with truth.

Only after laying a foundation of truth does Paul begin to tell us what to do with truth.

The letter to the Ephesians is a marquee example of this kind of Pauline writing. There are six chapters in Ephesians. In the first three, Paul doesn’t tell us to do anything. There is no practical instruction there. Instead, Paul teaches us about God’s plan for the ages. In particular, he explains God’s majestic saving work, bringing us Gentiles into fellowship with him through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Consider chapter 2. There, Paul speaks of salvation in two ways. The first, in verses 1-10, is that we were dead apart from Christ, but we have now been made alive. This is all by grace, for dead folks aren’t able to do anything to save themselves.

The second way Paul speaks of salvation, however, is very interesting. He says that we were once cut off from the people of God, but now, in Christ, we have been made members of God’s household. In other words, an important way to think about being saved is that saved people have been brought in to the people of God.

So then, as Paul begins to apply his teaching in chapter 4, he tells us to walk worthy of our calling. What does it mean to walk worthy of this calling? Interestingly, it isn’t simply a matter of our individual growth. Rather, we walk worthy of our calling in how we treat others in the body of Christ. Paul writes that we should live “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

To be sure, Paul teaches us that there is ultimate one body of Christ, sometimes called the universal church. All those redeemed by Jesus belong to the universal church.

But notice this: our being called by Jesus is supposed to show up in how we treat others in the body of Christ. This means that, while we are members of the universal church, Paul expects that all Christians will belong to real local churches, where they interact with real other Christians, to whom they must show real patience and gentleness.

There are those who claim salvation who refuse to be part of a local church. Often, their reason for neglecting church is the people, whom they find objectionable for one reason or another. For Paul, this is no reason to abandon church: learning to graciously live with each other, even with our differences, is one of the reasons that church exists.

If you are a Christian, you have been welcomed into the people of God. Let me encourage you, then, even as this new year begins, to demonstrate that by being part of a local body of believers in a church.


CeCelia Miljevich entered her heavenly rest on Monday, November 20, after 93 years of life. She was the last remaining charter member of Calvary Baptist Church—over 60 years of membership in our church!

I had the honor of being Millie’s pastor for only a very short time. I’ve been the pastor at our church for not quite six years. Millie was a member here for over ten times as long as I’ve been the pastor. She was a member here not only longer than I’ve been alive—she was a member here longer than my parents have been alive.

Realistically, it’s unlikely I’ll ever have the impact on our church that Millie had in all her years. I’ve heard a couple of our church folks say that Millie’s passing represents the end of an era at the church, and this is right.

It is good for us to ponder a life of faithfulness. Throughout Scripture, we see examples made of God’s faithful servants. Indeed, one famous chapter of the Bible (Hebrews 11) is sometimes called the “Hall of Faith.” This chapter is a catalog of believers who continued in the faith all their days. These are examples for us, encouragements to us to follow in their steps.

At the funeral, we considered a text from Psalm 71: “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.”

The psalmist’s words found fulfillment in Millie’s life. She was not only able to declare God’s power to another generation: she was able to speak of God’s power to multiple generations.

The irony of the funeral service this week is that, as much as I had the chance to get to know Millie, she wasn’t one who wanted folks to make a fuss over her. I expect that she, like the psalmist, would prefer that we make much of the God she loved.

The reality is that Millie’s faithfulness is admirable ultimately because she had placed her faith in a faithful God. And God’s faithfulness to Millie is not found primarily in the good life that she lived, although she did live a good life. God’s faithfulness to Millie is just being found out now, as Millie has gone beyond death to the everlasting life promised her in Jesus Christ.

In the words of the psalmist: “Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you? You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. You will increase my greatness and comfort me again.”

The Folly of Christ

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

This is Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 1:20. In the surrounding verses, Paul highlights a truth that runs all throughout Scripture. There are two kinds of wisdom: God’s wisdom and the wisdom of this world. And they are incompatible with each other.

In either kind of wisdom, we seek to make the best choices to obtain what is valuable. But these are aimed at different values. Worldly wisdom concerns itself with the good things of this world. Those who prize worldly wisdom aim to acquire possessions, for instance. They are deeply concerned with seeking justice for themselves.

In summary, worldly wisdom is consumed with living one’s best life now.

But the life and teachings of Christ compel Christians to have an entirely reoriented set of values. Consider Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: he tells us that, when slapped and insulted, not only to take it, but to be willing to take it again. He tells his followers that if an occupying soldier compels them to carry his bag for a mile, they should carry it two.

He tells us to love not only our friends, but to love people who hate us and want to harm us. Indeed, it’s at this point that Jesus notes the uniqueness of this way of living. Normal people, he says, love people who love them back. He’s calling us to a way of life that goes well beyond that.

Now, this kind of living seems to make no sense: be willing to be struck again? Love our enemies? If we’re living for our best life now, Jesus’s words are insanity.

This is why Paul calls the cross folly: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

And Paul is reminding us that it is the cross of Christ that becomes the center of the conflict between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world. From an earthly point of view, the cross signals the defeat of Christ. But from the wisdom from above, the cross accomplishes Christ’s great victory: the redemption of a people for his own possession.

The wisdom of Christ makes sense only if we believe that there is a life beyond this one we’re currently living. It makes sense only if we believe that God really will do justice to all people, so that I am liberated from seeking my own vengeance. It makes sense only if we take seriously Jesus’s words: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

These two wisdoms are utterly at odds with one another. From a Christian point of view, a life lived according to the wisdom of this world is being thrown away. And from a worldly point of view, a life lived according to the wisdom of Christ is being thrown away.

Gambling and My Neighbor

Certainly, not every branch of Christianity takes a dim view of gambling, but some have. I belong to a segment of Christendom that has historically opposed gambling. Here, I simply want to offer a brief case, from a Christian perspective, against gambling. My hope is that professing believers will give this argument a fair hearing.

First, we need to get some handle on what we mean by gambling. Too often, discussions about the morality of gambling are sidetracked because the essential nature of gambling is misunderstood.

Gambling is not primarily about risk. All of life is full of risk, and so it makes no sense to oppose gambling simply because it involves uncertainty.

Further, gambling is not wrong merely because it is motivated by profit. It is no sin to acquire wealth, particularly from honest labor. A person who begins a business risks his capital to buy tools and stock and hopes to turn that capital into greater profit. In and of itself, there is nothing morally questionable about this. Indeed, the book of Proverbs encourages just this kind of industriousness.

What separates gambling from other activities is this: when we gamble, we hope to make a financial gain at the expense of another person. That is to say, gambling is a violation of Jesus’s command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In gambling, we can only profit if someone else is harmed. This is a lack of love.

Paul gives us a striking description of the generous heart of a Christian: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Christian love provokes us to work hard, to turn a profit, so that we might share with others. Seeking gain through gambling turns this instruction on its head.

We can illustrate the point by comparing gambling to investing in a stock. Both gambling and stocks involve risk with the hope of financial reward. But if my stock goes up, it doesn’t at all demand that your stock sinks. The stock market as a whole can increase in value. My profit does not demand your loss.

And in normal business, my hope of financial profit is not at the expense of my neighbor. Rather, I give a customer something of value, whether a product or a service, in exchange for his money. My hope for a profit and my love for my neighbor exist simultaneously.

By contrast, with gambling, if I win, I only gain because I’ve removed money from someone else’s pocket, giving him nothing of value in return. And this remains true even if my winnings come from a casino or the government lottery. The prizes offered by governments and casinos are directly funded by those who played and lost. In every case, that money that I hope to win has come from my neighbor’s pocket. My hope of winning inevitably demands a hope that ill would come to someone else, even if I would never say so.

“Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

Loving Our Enemies

Love is the distinctively Christian virtue.

Such an assertion requires explanation, for we live in days in which love is universally lauded. Indeed, the greatest black mark on person’s character today is to be, in the vernacular, a hater. So to say that love, genuine love, belongs exclusively to Christians is an audacious claim.

In Matthew 5, Jesus preaches a sermon on the Law. In each section, he reveals that the commandment is not kept by mere external obedience, but by an obedience of the heart.

The culmination of his argument is found in verses 43–48. There, he says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” Don’t misunderstand: Jesus isn’t teaching that we become God’s children by loving our enemies. Rather, he’s working on the principle of “like father, like son.” If God gives good gifts (like sunshine and rain, both needed in an agricultural setting) to the evil and the good alike, we show our family resemblance to our Father if we too love both friends and enemies.

And then he makes this point: if you don’t love your enemies, you’re just like those who aren’t God’s people. Even the Gentiles love people who love them back. That is to say: loving your enemies is a defining mark of whether you’re a child of God.

But how in the world are we supposed to love our enemies? How can we ever desire good for people who desire our hurt? How can we forgive those who have wounded us? How can be for the very people who stand against us?

From the perspective of this world, this kind of love can only be counted foolishness. How often are we told that we must love ourselves before anyone else will love us? The relentless message of this world is that you have to protect yourself. If you want justice, you have to go get it yourself.

Do you see that this is precisely the opposite of what Jesus demands of his disciples? And do you see why this opens a deep chasm, then, between genuine Christianity and all else? Christians are commanded to love their enemies, and this makes no sense to those of this world.

We are to love those who desire to harm us. But note: we do not give up justice here. Jesus’s own words indicate this: we love our enemies. We are not simply pretending their evil away. We love them, even while recognizing the evil as evil.

But we love them, because we are to have perfect confidence that, in the end of all things, Jesus Christ will judge in the world in perfect justice. I can love my enemies, I can seek good for those who seek my evil, not because I’ve gone squishy on justice. I can do this because I know the one before whom all people will one day give account. They do not answer to me.

Such love is the true test of whether we trust the goodness and justice of Jesus. I trust him to do right, and then I love—even my enemies—as he has commanded.

Jesus Is Lord

As our church has been studying the early chapters of Acts, I’ve been struck with the content of the sermons recorded there. Both Acts 2 and 3 are dominated by sermons of the Apostle Peter. I’m fascinated by what Peter says—and what he doesn’t.

Let’s set a bit of context. Jesus had been crucified, raised, and had ascended. The followers of Jesus, following his instructions, had remained in Jerusalem. At the feast of Pentecost, the Spirit is poured out on them in such a way as to draw a large crowd.

Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is an explanation of those things that the crowd has witnessed. But note this: it is also a gospel sermon. This is important, because the gospel is the core message that we are to proclaim.

What I want us to notice is that the core of the Peter’s message has to do with the identity of Jesus of Nazareth.

Peter doesn’t tell the crowd that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their life. He doesn’t even explain how Jesus’s death pays the penalty for their sins. These things may be true, but they don’t form the core of this early apostolic preaching.

Rather, Peter makes clear that God the Father has exalted Jesus, both in his earthly ministry and now in the Ascension. The climax of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is this: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

The question that Peter places before us, then, is this: “Who is Jesus?” Peter gives a clear and unyielding answer: he is Lord.

This is the same answer we see in Paul’s great hymn in Philippians 2. Jesus, though in very nature God, humbled himself by taking on a human nature. And he humbled himself yet lower by dying a degrading death on the cross. Paul’s conclusion: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul’s point here is worth contemplating: every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. On the whole, Scripture teaches that not everyone is finally saved. In fact, Jesus tells us that the way is narrow that leads to life.

So if not everyone is redeemed, how is it that everyone will confess that Jesus is Lord? The answer is that it is possible for us to acknowledge a truth, even while hating it. There will be those who make the confession that Jesus is Lord, but through clenched teeth.

The redeemed, however, have a different heart toward this confession. It is with delight that they acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And this becomes evident in their lives, as they gratefully acknowledge his right to rule them.

Jesus is Lord. Do you rejoice in this truth, or resent it?

Being a Disciple of Jesus

The final words of Jesus before his Ascension give the Christian church its marching orders: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20).

Pardon some nerdiness for a moment, but the grammar of Jesus’s command is worth our attention. In English, we might read Jesus’s instruction as four commands: go, make disciples, baptize, and teach.

In the original language of the New Testament, though, there is only one command here: make disciples. The other three phrases explain how this task of making disciples is to be accomplished.

Obviously, if we’re going to make disciples of the nations, we must go. So that instruction is clear enough.

What intrigues me is that Jesus commands his followers to make disciples by baptizing and teaching. That is to say, if we are going to obey Jesus’s commission, we only do so if we’re seeking to see people baptized and taught. This is how our Lord instructs us to make disciples.

The flipside of this is that, if you want to become a disciple of Jesus, you do so by being baptized and taught.

Given Jesus’s instructions here, then, we should not be surprised at all by what happens in Acts 2. In this chapter, Peter preaches the inaugural sermon of the church. He is explaining the Spirit-given phenomena that the crowd has witnessed.

The core of his explanation is Jesus Christ. Peter’s message is that his audience had rejected their Messiah, crucifying him. God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, exalted him to heaven, and given him the promised Holy Spirit. It is Jesus, then, who has poured out the Spirit on the apostles.

The crowd is conscious-smitten, and they cry out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter’s answer: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

We are then told that three thousand people obeyed Peter’s word. They were baptized and added to the church. And what was this new body of believers known for? “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

Let’s tie this together: Jesus commands his followers to make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them all that he commanded. In Acts 2, Peter preaches and people repent. These people are baptized and then devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching. This is no accident. The apostles were doing exactly what Jesus commanded them to do.

The final command of Jesus remains our mission. We are to go into this world, making disciples. But if we take Jesus’s words seriously, we cannot make disciples without baptizing people and teaching them all that Jesus commanded. And we cannot claim to be disciples without being baptized and being taught the apostolic doctrine.

Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain

What does it mean to take the Lord’s name in vain? In common understanding, the Commandment forbids using the word God as a profanity. And ultimately, this ends up being a legitimate concern, although I have come to believe that it misses the central point of the prohibition.

The challenge we have here is that the Bible doesn’t define taking the Lord’s name in vain. And there are several very reasonable alternatives as to what it might mean.

Here, I want to offer my understanding of this Commandment, with the biblical reasons for it.

The Ten Commandments (both in Exodus and Deuteronomy) form the core of God’s covenant with his chosen people. As his covenant people, they were to swear their loyalty to God and God alone: “It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear” (Deuteronomy 6:13).

By swearing their covenant allegiance to God, they became identified as the people of the Lord. The prophet Micah says it this way: “For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever and ever” (Micah 4:5).

This means that the people of God bear his name. They have taken the name of their God. In this sense, “taking the name of the Lord” is not primarily about saying the name itself. It is rather a statement of identification.

The New Testament people of God also bear the name of the Lord. Just before his ascension, Jesus commanded his disciples to go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded them. In true Christian baptism, as we publicly swear our allegiance to the one true God, we take upon ourselves the Triune name. We bear the Lord’s name.

The question, then, is whether we bear the name in vain. We take the Lord’s name in vain, I believe, not simply by saying it lightly. We take the Lord’s name in vain when we, who claim to be his people, live in a way indistinguishable from those who do not bear the Lord’s name.

When we do this, we make God trivial in our churches and in our culture at large. When those who bear the name of the Lord seem essentially the same as those who don’t, who could blame people for coming to the conclusion that God himself is inconsequential?

Yes, there are other ways of making light of God, and using the Lord’s name as profanity is one of them. It is right, I believe, to consider such talk a violation of this Commandment.

But Christian, while you might be bothered by the flippant use of the Lord’s name by an unbeliever, the more pressing question is this: how are you bearing the Lord’s name? You, not the unbeliever, bear the name of the Father and Son and Spirit. Are you bearing that name in vain?