I sat and listened recently to a group of Pastors "check-in" as we always do on a monthly basis and the conversation turned to our frustration at Government restrictions that are holding us back from being the people God ordained us to be - worshipping people.
The discussion was broad and had different perspectives, but what was clear was that we were predominantly not happy with what the guidelines were restricting us from doing when seemingly others in our community in the hospitality industry are permitted to go beyond what churches are allowed to do. We need to sing! There is a desperate thirst in our church families to do what our Heavenly Father has created us to do.
And today in the media, Andrew Lloyd Webber has thrown down his gauntlet in regards to the June deadline, saying he is prepared to open his theatres on "Freedom Day" come what may and is prepared to face arrest if regulations block him. Of course, performance is quite different to worship, isn't it .......well yes and no! You see agree or disagree, this is one of the major stings of Covid to churches: performance has become our current thing rather than true biblical corporate worship, because of the regulations! Six can be involved in worship from the front only - no one else can sing. At the moment we consume, we watch and we view. We are making the best of it, but we thirst for corporate worship with all singing their hearts out!
Now don't shoot me before I've finished laying my cards out. I would be one of the first to absolutely say that our Baptist Theology, Principles, and Heritage does not limit worship merely to singing. We worship when we come around the Communion Table, we worship in prayer, we worship through liturgy, we worship through silence, we worship when as we hear the Word of God preached, and we can raise our hands or clap in response to inspired songs - but at the moment, only those that are leading from the front can sing! And so you see I still want to say "I miss the singing!" In fact, at times I ache for the singing to return.
So - all good so far! You know what I mean. And in the church I Pastor we have obeyed the guidelines and regulations and we have prayed that the day will come soon when we will soon sing again! We have for good scientific and medical reasons obeyed the advice and we have put government guidelines and science before our faith - for the good not just of the church family, but for the good of the community and indeed for all! We have trusted what we have been told and done what is necessary. And now it's almost all over, and infection rates have vastly reduced and the risks are significantly lower. All good! Yes, there is still minor unfinished business, but the consensus is that we are way past the very worse, and we are into better days. So maybe we should continue the way we have been going and continue to do as before, without question!?
Except I have a gnawing sense of unease that's started to grind away within me, and the question is I think: "What will happen if we can't sing?" What if the government continues to say that we cannot sing - then what?! So far we have been good as a Union of Baptist Churches and the advice from the government has been translated and interpreted and passed down into our churches and we have obeyed. We have made our buildings Covid Safe by risk assessments and practical steps and we have worked hard to make socially distanced worship workable. In the meantime, numerous aspects of the life of our churches have been savaged and destroyed, and some churches may indeed struggle to ever reopen again. And we have done so at the expense of our religious freedom and with the trust that this was the right thing to do because we trusted the advice was right.
And now we have a set freedom day and the days are counting down towards it. I hope and I pray that this will indeed be held to. But what if another two weeks are added on? And then another two weeks? What if it turns into a month? And another month? And still, we cannot sing. Should we obey the government or should we put our faith first and our desire to sing and worship the Lord?
There are some key Baptist Principles here for us to consider when pondering this question:
The principle of RELIGIOUS LIBERTY, namely that no individual should be coerced either by the State or by any secular, ecclesiastical or religious group in matters of faith. The right of private conscience is to be respected. For each believer, this means the right to interpret the Scriptures responsibly and to act in the light of his conscience.
The principle of SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE is that, in the providence of God, the two differ in their respective natures and functions. The Church is not to be identified with the State nor is it, in its faith or practice, to be directed or controlled by the State. The State is responsible for administering justice, ensuring an orderly community, and promoting the welfare of its citizens. The Church is responsible for preaching the Gospel and for demonstrating and making known God’s will and care for all mankind.
These two principles are worth carefully reflecting upon. On the face of it, they seem straightforward. But what if the state ceases to govern well, fairly, or appropriately? Then it is right and proper for the church to dissent. Now Baptist Christians are not idiots or weirdos, nor are we anarchists, nor are we extremists! Generally, we are amongst those who would be described as careful, level-headed thinkers who pray for those in authority, not least those in government. But we are also people of the Word and Spirit who have had our hearts won by the Lord Jesus Christ, and desire to follow his call to live differently and often radically.
Dissent begins with the weighing up of what is being required of the citizens of a nation, with what is set out by the principles of God's Word. Are we being cajoled into something which is against God's good principles? Dissent continues with honest reflection and questioning - often in a prayerful way - consider Daniel's precise approach in a similar scenario that led him into the end to the decision to face several sets of lion teeth than compromise! And dissent then in reality ends up with some kind of blunt choice - to obey the state or to obey God. Church leadership teams need to beware at this point and carefully consider the arguments placed before them. The choice is surely not simply reduced to obey the government and do what it says, or choose to seemingly disobey and go our own way! Is that really the sum total of the argument?! Of course, leaders are trustees these days and such positions carry heavy responsibilities. Does that mean that a church leadership team might feel compromised to choose to stay within the law rather than obey God? Good question!
All that's pretty heavy - and what has that to do with singing? After all, some would point out that we are not restricted from worshipping how we want to in the open air! Good point, but why should we feel pressurised into accepting second best - particularly if it's pouring down with rain and we want to worship? But we don't believe in the church as buildings, but as the family of God's people - we can worship anywhere! Yes, Yes, and Yes! Even in the days of Old Testament exile, God's people found themselves worshipping him in a strange land. And therein maybe lies the truth - we must worship as we want to and indeed need to, and as God has told us to. Our primary goal is to worship God and to please him. Everything else is secondary.
What will happen if we can't sing? Well, I hope that we will be allowed to and that freedom day will indeed come, and also that we will indeed be virus-free as a nation. But let's not just follow the standard dribble that is being poured out without asking important questions. Let us sing the song of the Lord once again and may it be really soon!