Pubs, Churches, and Government Rules

The strict and prolonged lockdown in Victoria has tested the most resilient among us. As the State slowly opens up we should not be surprised if we find ourselves affirming some decisions and disagreeing with others. Where discrepancies appear and they are irreconcilable, it is incumbent on the Government to explain and to justify their rationale.

The example I want to talk about here concerns churches. On September 28th Eternity newspaper approached me for comment on Victoria’s roadmap to recovery. I said, 

“The Premier’s announcement on Sunday was encouraging because it means 130,000 people are returning to work and primary aged children returning to school…While I appreciate this, most of Melbourne’s restrictions remain in place. In my view, the Government’s roadmap is treating churches fairly at the moment, although we are still a couple of months away from being allowed to gather in any sizeable number.”

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. As of today (October 19), in regional Victoria pubs and restaurants can now have 40 patrons indoors and 70 patrons seated outdoors. Churches, however, can only have 20 people gathered outside and no church of any size is permitted indoors. At the moment all churches in Melbourne are closed and so we are watching with interest the roadmap in regional Victoria. The disparity between churches and pubs is unfortunate. I trust this is nothing more than an oversight which will be quickly resolved, rather than the beginning of a longer term trend.

At yesterday’s press conference the Premier made a comment about why greater numbers of people are allowed in pubs than in homes. The reason given is,  restaurants and cafes are a regulated industry. But what of churches? I trust the implication isn’t that churches cannot be trusted to organise and regulate safe COVID-19 practices.

On the Neil Mitchell show this morning on 3AW, Victoria’s new Health Minister, Martin Foley, claimed that the reason for the differences between pubs and churches is that international and local evidence points to church communities being unsafe.  

Where is the evidence? What international scientific research is Mr Foley referring to? 

In July the New York Times in July made a similar statement and it was quickly proven incorrect.

On July 8 The New York Times published an article claiming that churches were Covid-19 super spreaders. The headline read, “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.”

The article alleged, 

“Weeks after President Trump demanded that America’s shuttered houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus are surging through churches across the country where services have resumed.”

The problem with the NYT article is that the maths didn’t add up. Even the evidence mentioned in the piece contradicted the main thesis. The article cites several churches where multiple cases of COVID-19 were found, and it also disclosed the total number of COVID-19 cases linked with churches: 650. At the time, the United States had 3 million confirmed cases. The total number of cases connected with churches across the entire nation represent 0.0002% of all cases in the country.  Writing for Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer noted that a tiny number of churches had not done the right thing, but the overwhelming majority were conducting church according to strict Covid-19 plans.

“Churches have been remarkable partners in the fight again the coronavirus, with the vast majority closing their gatherings all around the country. Yes, there have been a few outliers, but their paucity demonstrates the cooperation of churches with officials throughout this pandemic.

Churches have overwhelmingly been partners with health authorities and have carefully taken each small step.”

I know many pastors and churches around the world and interstate. As they reopen they are taking Government policies seriously and acting responsibly and pastorally toward the people under their care. It is part of what we do in loving our neighbours. 

Throughout the pandemic Church leaders have spoken regularly and consistently about obeying Government directives, and about ensuring churches have responsible plans in place for a return to public gatherings. We continue to pray for our Prime Minister and our Premier and all who lead in Government and in health agencies. Churches are not asking for special treatment, but it is not too much to request that churches be permitted to open up with parity to restaurants and pubs and other analogous organisations and events.

Governments play an important role in society, but they do not give meaning to people. Governments provide structures and protections for its citizens, but offering the message that nourishes the soul, brings forgiveness to transgressors, and eternal life is beyond their job description. Churches are essential for Victorian communities. In a year where millions of Victorians have struggled and where many have lost everything, we need a message of hope. We need good news of hope that surpasses the material and temporal, and a hope that is more secure and certain than what we had once relied upon. It is possible that churches have never before been so important for this State and the future wellbeing of the people.

The Bible offers a message of living hope, not only to churches but even for those who have considered themselves disinterested in things spiritual. By definition, it is a breathtaking announcement for people who have lost hope,

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Peter 1:3-4).

People are not disembodied beings. We are physical creatures who require physical presence and social interaction. We are also more than flesh and blood. We are mental and spiritual beings, who depend on more than food and sleep for life. It was Jesus who famously said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”

Churches provide one of the few remaining places where people can meet and share the joys and sorrows of life, and where supportive relationships are created. Zoom and social media are a blessing but they are no substitute for real and personal meeting. Indeed, church by definition is the physical gathering of Christians, meeting to worship God and to encourage one another. 

I trust the Victorian Government will correct this unnecessary discrepancy between pubs and churches, and avoid similar and further disparities in coming months. 

Churches, give people a message of hope

Tom Holland is the spiderman of historians. His latest conversation with Glen Scrivener is well worth the listen for it includes more than a few intriguing thoughts in the web of ideas.

I really appreciate his thoughtfulness and honesty. It was this reflection by Holland that especially struck a chord with me. He said, 

“I felt that over the course of this year the churches have been a let down. I think that the experience of pandemic, it sets you to asking why is this happening…it raises profound issues of theodicy.”

He mentions one moment that stood out to him, when he watched the Pope give an open air mass in the middle of an empty St Peter’s Square. Otherwise the message he’s heard from churches is much like what one would find on a Government help line. 

“I felt that the response of churches was a kind of pallid echo of public health announcements. That’s what public health officials are for. I kind of think that churches are there to give answers and to situate our happening.”

When Glen asked what Churches could be doing, Holland suggested,

“I think it can be expressed in open air services…an attempt to root what’s happening in the cultural and  the scriptural inheritance of what has gone before. I haven’t almost nothing about why this is happening…what does the Bible have to say about plagues…This seems to me an incredibly important source…”

Could Tom Holland, an agnostic, be urging churches to do church and to preach Bible messages that explain the world today through the lens of Scripture? I think so.

Holland’s remarks are like a bucket of icy water, or least they should be. It could also be likened to a defibrillator. The admonishment reminds me of the Church in Sardis. Jesus addresses this church in Revelation ch.3 and he rebukes her for having a reputation for being alive but in reality, the church is dying and has little breath remaining.

Holland isn’t knocking churches for talking about their buildings, social distancing and COVID-19 plans. He notes that these things are important. The overall presentation of Christianity that he has heard and seen over the last 6 months (and keep in mind Tom Holland is a studious observer of Christianity), the message he’s received is overall bland and uninspiring and offers little hope to a world he says is desperate for salvation.

I know enough churches, not only here in Australia but also win the UK and USA, to realise that Holland’s critique is partial. There are churches trying to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Sadly, this message is often drowned out by a cacophony of noisier and more appealing narratives and agendas.

It is also the case that many Churches are simply trying to remain alive during the time, keeping care of congregation members and encouraging some semblance of online discipleship. It is nonetheless worth considering the vision we are leaving the world during this time of pandemic.

For months the message from many of our churches has been dominated by hygiene rules and facial masks. In recent weeks I’ve noted that churches are increasingly calling Governments to allow a return to public worship services. Letters are being written and petitions signed, even here in Melbourne. I haven’t signed any such letter, but I understand Christians wanting their freedom back to worship God publicly in their church community. I am supportive of some reasons and may yet sign a letter in the future. It is interesting to note though how some of these arguments proceed. They explain that churches are essential; I agree. However, instead of offering the Biblical reasoning for Church, Christians are instead deferring to more secular rationales to convince Governments to reinstate public church gatherings. For example, church provide sanctuary and help for people struggling with mental health and with loneliness, and church provide so many positive contributions to local communities. This is all true and important, but it’s also falling into the same kinds of milky lukewarm explanations that Tom Holland believes are inadequate. Our community needs something more. Our world needs a bigger message, a greater story, and we have one to give and yet we are so often reluctant to tell it.

This Sunday at Mentone Baptist I’m preaching on Revelation chapters 4 and 5. The Bible doesn’t get any bigger than this passage. The message of Christianity is spelled out here with a grandeur and beauty and wonder that is unsurpassed. In our world that is despairing through a pandemic and with climate change and racism and geopolitical uncertainties, the vision of Revelation is truly stunning and shocking. 

Chapter 5 begins with a search for someone who is worthy to take the scroll from God, the scroll with contains the plans of God in the world. No one is found. John (the disciple of Jesus), is witnessing this heavenly scene and he weeps because there seems to be no answer. But then, a lamb appears. Not just any lamb but one who has been slain. This lamb however is called the lion, which means King. This lion/lamb is worthy to take and open the scroll. Who is this person? It is Jesus who was crucified, risen and now reigning.

Melbourne needs a vision beyond lockdown rules and the pandemic and eventual reopening and kickstarting schools and the economy. Churches, by the grace of God, have this vision to share and proclaim and preach to our city. Let’s do it

Revelation 5

“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign on the earth.”

11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
    to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
    and honor and glory and praise!”

13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
    be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

14 The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.”

An apocalyptic world needs healthy churches

“Do not put your trust in princes,

    in human beings, who cannot save.” (Psalm 146:3)

I watched the first Presidential debate yesterday. Over the last two months I have also been watching many of Premier Daniel Andrews daily press briefings during the Melbourne lockdown. To say politics has been both enthralling and disturbing in 2020 is an understatement. There is much that is concerning, polarising, frustrating, and even dangerous.

At Mentone Baptist we made the decision to preach through the book of Revelation during the latter months of 2020. We settled on this last book of the Bible for several reasons, among them is how Revelation reminds us that the local church  is key to God’s eternal purposes. 

Jesus authored the book of Revelation. He tells John to write down everything he sees and hears and to have messengers send the manuscript to the 7 churches. These 7 churches were real and historical churches, each located in what is today Western Turkey (Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and  Laodicea). In apocalyptic literature the number 7 also denotes wholeness, suggesting that Revelation is not only for those original 7 churches but for the entire church. The timeframe in which Revelation is set (from Jesus’ resurrection to his return) and the way Jesus addresses those who are forgiven and are made citizen of his kingdom, all strongly suggest that this book is for all churches regardless of time and place. 

Importance in our society is laid at the feet of Governments, education institutions, and celebrity opinion. Public conversation and newspaper columns are filled with stories about politics, disasters, and sport. What is remarkable about Revelation is that as Jesus interprets the world and defines justice, life and death, it is to his churches that he speaks. He does not address Governments, Prime Ministers or Presidents. His attention is not toward political representatives, corporate CEOs or university Vice Chancellors. His message is for his churches. 

Not only is Revelation addressed to the church, the message is largely about the church. The central message is the triumph of Jesus Christ over death and evil, but this Gospel is tightly connected to the church, both the challenges they will face in this temporary world and the hope that is guaranteed to all who persevere to the end.

For example, the first of two visions that are recorded in Revelation (1:12-20) explains that the Son of Man is among his churches. Jesus Christ is described in terms of holding sovereign authority and majesty and yet is found among the 7 golden lampstands. He is with his churches and he is concerned for them. The seven letters  that follow this vision (chs. 2 and 3) demonstrate the love Jesus has for his churches, whether he is consoling them or correcting them. Not only is the Son of Man addressing his churches, but God reveals the Church to be more pivotal than any other institution, and to have greater influence than even an Empire such as Rome and an Emperor such as Domitian. 

This vision strikes a different song to the one our own culture plays on repeat. Keep in mind that this was equally the case in the First Century AD, only those churches had even less public capital and fewer legal protections. As apocalyptic literature reminds us, what we see and what is, are not always identical. This is no excuse for entertaining speculations and gnostic theories about Governments and cultural power brokers. The function of Biblical apocalyptic is to reveal that which would otherwise be veiled. In a world like ours where secular ideals takes centre stage and where progressive religion serves as priest,  Revelation reminds us that the message is Christ triumphant and his church is where God is centralising his work and purposes. 

In other words, the best thing Christians can do in this unhealthy political environment is to invest in your local church: join, commit, persevere, serve. There is an important role for Christians in politics and in the public square, but we must not engage at those levels at the expense of the mission and life of the local church. As Jonathan Leeman often reminds, the best solution to the mess and fears and divisiveness that mark our culture is to ‘build healthy churches’. 

Is this counter intuitive? It is certainly counter-cultural, for it means investing in a covenant community that is assumed by many as irrelevant, antiquated, and even as a threat to society.   That is why Jesus’ words to his 7 churches are so poignant for churches today. Let his word rules our hearts and let his purposes set our agenda. If the Son of Man identifies his church as central to the purposes of God, how can we suppose otherwise? 

Perhaps we are suffering from an Ephesus problem. Have we forsaken the love we had at first? Our attention and affection is drawn elsewhere and we have little time for giving effort in our local church. There are plenty of distractions and demands on us and Jesus recognises that Church life is not always easy. The 7 letters to the church show how church life can be rocky at times, and yet see how Jesus persists with even erring churches. 

Are you concerned about ideological changes that are grabbing hold of our society? Are you concerned by the lack of integrity and humility that so often absent from the public square? Are you frustrated by dangerous theories that are sexualising our children in perilous ways? Do you fear the lack of resolve among political leaders to address issues that effect the most vulnerable in society? 

Instead of entrenching ourselves into partisan politics, we need deeper roots in our local church. Rather than sliding into the ditch of either pole in the culture wars, and lobbing tweets at opposing views, our allegiance to Jesus Christ expects us to hold tightly to his word.

In an apocalyptic world there remains one message of salvation; the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even in an apocalyptic era, the one who is the Alpha and the Omega remains with his churches; this is the testimony of Revelation. Jesus’ words being true, how can Christians therefore consider abandoning the local church or diminishing ones commitment? In this fracturing world we need healthy local churches more than ever. Recent Barna research indicates that during the pandemic many Christians are deciding to think less of church and even of leaving altogether. For any who confess the Lordship of Christ, to take that route is to ignore the words of the Son of Man and to be played as fools by the world around us. 

As Christ said to the church of Sardis,

“Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; hold it fast, and repent’