This Global Trial
There are many things I do not know, a reality that I have been reminded of throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. As a society, we lack so much knowledge when it comes to this disease and how to rightly respond to it, and all of the corresponding difficulties we are facing. As a pastor, I can say that leading people spiritually during a time when there is so much confusion, worry, and frustration is certainly challenging. I do not say that to elicit sympathy, but rather as a confession that I am keenly aware of my desperate need for wisdom when it comes to navigating this global trial.
I do believe COVID presents a real physical threat. The degree of that threat for each individual is quite simply unknown, but it is a dangerous reality. I both practice, and advocate within my family, taking what practical measures we can to offer protection to ourselves and others especially in public places. I do this in absolute confidence that God is sovereign, and that in his sovereignty, He sometimes chooses to use natural as well as supernatural measures to exercise care over His people. No safety precaution is completely effective, but that does not mean that we do not engage in it while ultimately looking to the LORD as our true and sure supply.
The Threat of Spiritual Isolation
But I believe it is important to consider another very real, but less talked about threat. One that we need to be aware of so that we can approach it with prayer and serious discernment. The danger I am speaking about is one of spiritual isolation. The physical threat of COVID is most commonly fought through distancing ourselves from others. I do not mean just standing back and giving people space, but I mean the type of distancing that involves going home and staying home if possible. A precaution that is meant to avoid interaction and engagement with other people in hopes of neutralizing the danger of the illness. But while isolation is a way to help protect ourselves physically in a pandemic, the bible tells us that it is a threat to the health of our souls.
The Christian life is meant to be lived inside of community. And while many aspects of that community may vary according to the area or time we live in, there are certain distinctives of the church and its people that are biblically non-negotiable. It is our charge to always listen to the words of the LORD, and then seek how to wisely and boldly apply them in any circumstance we face. This includes a pandemic.
I will use one of Paul’s exhortations to the church as a basis for my explanation of biblical community.
This instruction comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:11 and describes one of the purposes God has for the church. Paul uses similar language in Ephesians 4, a chapter in which he is urging the church to go through life together in love and unity. He further describes the church as a body that has differing parts, each individual helping the whole to function as it should. As the body grows it provides strength to each part, and as each part matures in its position and function the whole body is healthier. This illustration shows Paul’s view that biblical community is inseparable from a Christian’s life. It is simply not possible for a part of the body to function on its own, or a body to be healthy without all its parts. This is how Paul understood the critical nature of believers being together, helping one another to grow and live out the commands of Jesus.
This body is – in one sense – all of the church throughout the world and time. Yet we also see in the Bible that God designed locally centered groups of believers to gather together as an expression of this universal body. These congregations gathered in a variety of settings and group sizes in order to glorify God in worship and accomplish the task of maturing together in Christ. The word of Christ was central in their gatherings as the church received instructions, sang songs, gave testimonies of thanksgiving, devoted themselves to prayer, received communion, baptized new believers, and went on mission together for the sake of evangelism. You can see this throughout the New Testament in passages like Colossians 3, Ephesians 5, and most of the book of Acts.
So as I urge us to Biblical community as protection against spiritual isolation, I have in mind the type of interaction represented by the teaching and the narratives of the Bible: Unity and mutual love that is gained and practiced through activities that build up the individuals and the church as a whole. All of this is done so that the church can properly worship God and carry out his calling to them.
In isolation, not only do we miss out on the fellowship that strengthens others and the common purposes of the church, but we also endanger our own spiritual health. God commands us to “not neglect meeting together, but encourage each other…and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10). The spiritual encouragement you receive from being with other Christians is designed by God to protect your soul from being deceived by sin (Hebrews 3:13). To minimize the need to be in community with other believers is to either underestimate the danger sin poses to us or to overestimate our own ability to fight this sin. We need community not so much because we need people but because God has designed it as a means for our Spiritual health. This is his plan. He is so serious about this that He has even gifted each believer with certain abilities that are to be used to serve Him and build up other Christians to be more like Jesus (1 Peter 4:10).
When we are not together for long periods of time, we are deprived of the gifts of grace in others and they are deprived of the gifts of grace that are in us. If encouragement is derived from meeting together, then it stands to reason that discouragement is a product of spiritual isolation. The comfort and persuasion that comes from corporate fellowship is absent, leaving us more vulnerable to an enemy who desires nothing more than to devour us in heart and mind and spirit.
God was certainly not unaware that at times it would be hard, if not even dangerous, for the church to gather. Jesus taught that various threats to Christians would increase as the end drew closer (Matthew 24), yet also taught that in response, we should increase our time together. The more the world is falling apart around the church, the more we must be dedicated to the mutual love and service that strengthens us and causes us to shine brightly as a testimony to those who do not know Christ.
In this, I am not calling us to act foolishly or to ignore the physical dangers around us. There are times when we are sick, and we need to distance ourselves to not spread illness. And when we do gather in a pandemic we should do even the little things we can to help protect one another. When circumstance or travel or health dictates that we need to be away from our primary community for a significant period of time, we should still engage with each other through online tools or other means available to us.
In Worship with the Community
But the general pattern of the Christian life is one lived in community, participating in all of the activities that glorify God, build us up in the faith, and point the lost to Jesus. We must wrestle in prayer with how to properly deal with physical dangers, while not ignoring the spiritual ones that are just as destructive. I do not have a step-by-step checklist on how we do that. I have and will continue to cry out to God for wisdom, trusting that he will provide it. My encouragement to you is the same. Read His word. Ask him for knowledge. Talk to your church leaders about your fears for your situation. And then develop a plan that keeps you engaged and in worship with the community he has placed you in, using your gifts and receiving the gifts of others.
Scripture promises that God seeks out those who will depend on Him, so he can strengthen their hearts. He will not leave us unaware of how to obey His word in each and every circumstance if we are truly willing to listen and obey.
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