Dear Holy Trinity Family,
It has been a long hard year! But spring has come and there is a sense of anticipation in the air as we long for the end of this pandemic. Although the news coming in from around the world is a mix of the tragic and the hopeful, we seem to be making progress toward opening up here in Raleigh.
So where does this leave the church? What are our plans for the months ahead?
Throughout this past year we have been faced with countless decisions about when, how and where to worship. During this time five different biblical mandates have served as a matrix for making our decisions. These will continue to guide us in the months ahead.
Biblical Mandate #1: Gather in Corporate Worship
The first mandate is for the Church to gather in corporate worship. Scripture is unmistakably clear in calling us to worship God as his gathered people. From the first days when God gave his law to Moses (Deuteronomy 5-6) to the vision of God’s people in the new creation (Revelation 19), corporate worship is central. Not only is worship essential to the Church, it is at the heart of what it means to be human. We were made to be in relationship with God and to give him worship. Corporate worship looks different in different times and places throughout history, but the mandate is clear: God wants us to gather as his people for worship.
Biblical Mandate #2: Care for the Vulnerable
The second mandate is for the Church to care for the vulnerable. The Old Testament is unmistakably clear in showing us that God has a special concern for the weak, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the fatherless and the foreigner (Psalm 146:5-9 and Isaiah 58:1-10). When God sent his son to redeem the world, a significant part of his mission was devoted to healing the sick and tending to the needs of the poor and outcast (Luke 4:38-41). And Jesus commissioned his disciples to do the same. Part of the way in which the Church fulfills her mission is by caring for the weak and vulnerable. This has been especially important during the pandemic as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions have been particularly vulnerable.
Biblical Mandate #3: Respect the Public Authorities
The third mandate that has shaped our decision-making this year is for the Church to respect the public authorities. Both Paul and Peter teach this in their letters to the churches (Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-16). These men wrote to communities that lived under the ruthless rule of the Roman Empire, and still they wrote “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14). While we serve the “king of kings” first and foremost, we are also to obey our public authorities insofar as we are able to do so without disobeying Jesus.
Biblical Mandate #4: Submit to Those in Authority Within the Church
The fourth mandate bears a close resemblance to the third, but is importantly different: We are to submit to those in authority within the Church. Jesus gave his disciples special authority (John 20:21-23) and he continues to give authority to the chosen leaders of God’s people (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thess. 5:12; Acts 14:23). I have a special responsibility as your pastor, but I serve under the authority of our bishop and archbishop. When we make decisions for Holy Trinity, we do so under the spiritual guidance and authority of those who have been set apart to shepherd God’s people. Throughout the pandemic we have received guidelines from our bishops about worship and gathering that we have been careful to follow.
Biblical Mandate #5: Bear Public Witness
The final mandate is for the Church to bear public witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Peter puts it so well when he says, “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15-17; and see 2:11-12). Our conduct as believers should be above reproach and indicative of the truth of the gospel. Everything we do is part of our witness and should show forth the goodness and glory of the gospel. This includes the decisions we make about our life together that have the potential to impact public health.
There is a sense in which these five mandates have been in tension with one another during this pandemic season. We trust, however, that the Lord has not given us conflicting instructions. So we prayerfully make decisions as best we can in keeping with these mandates. All of this leads to the question: How will we continue to move toward unhindered public worship while caring for the vulnerable, respecting authorities and being a good witness? Here is what I can tell you.
First, we will continue to make changes in a progressive manner to our worship services as we seek to get back to normal. Throughout this past year, we have constantly adapted, adding elements back into Sunday mornings as soon as we felt able to do so. This Sunday we will reduce our distancing requirement from 3 chairs between groups to 2 chairs. This shift from 6 feet to roughly 4 feet is in keeping with recent guidelines for schools. As we make these changes, we will continue to do our best to care for the vulnerable.
Second, we will continue to respect those in authority – both in the public sphere and within the Church. While there are no legally binding limitations on churches in place in North Carolina, there are guidelines, and our governor has asked churches to honor and apply those guidelines. This means that we can have discretion in decision-making while still showing respect for authority. We also have guidelines from our bishops, which we will continue to follow.
Our vestry believes that the next significant opportunity for loosening restrictions will come when every adult in North Carolina who wants to be vaccinated has had adequate opportunity to do so. We will reach that point around the beginning of June, and we hope to be able to open up further at that point. Does this mean we will remove our facemasks? At this point it is hard to say. We hope to remove that requirement as soon as we can, but we will wait to make that decision as we monitor guidelines from our bishops and from the state, while paying close attention to relevant public health figures in Wake County.
Our Mission Stays the Same
My hope is that sometime this summer we will be able to return to worshiping as normal on Sunday mornings. As the vestry and I make those decisions, we will do so prayerfully and in accordance with the biblical mandates above. In the meantime, I want to remind you that there is so much more to the life of the Church than Sunday morning corporate worship. You are the Church and your mission to proclaim the gospel, exalt the Lord and serve those around you is the same as it has always been. So, keep leaning in and stepping up. We will get through this season together.
Yours in Christ,