As many of you know, President Donald Trump remarked on the reopening of churches at a recent White House press conference. The president was emphatic and said, in part,
“Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It’s not right, and I am correcting that injustice.” He went on to say. “I call on all governors to allow churches and places of worship to open right now.”
President Trump also threatened to override the authority of any state’s governor who kept churches under quarantine during the balance of the pandemic.
While we agree with the president’s affirmation that the church is essential, his remarks pose additional questions. What do his comments mean for us as Foursquare churches? How should we view the president’s direction about reopening in light of prior decisions to comply with government mandates and CDC regulations?
Last week I proposed a framework when discussing church reopenings. At the risk of being redundant, let me briefly reemphasize the first three guiding questions of that framework before we look at the fourth, The Legal Question, in light of the president’s comments:
The Ethical Question: Is it loving and wise to begin meeting at this time?
Love is the preeminent motivation for the ethics of God’s kingdom. Unless we demonstrate our love for others in the decisions we make, they will not clearly hear what we say about God’s love for them. We become nothing and we gain nothing without His love (1 Cor, 13:1-7). While Jesus commanded us to love others, He also said that He was sending us out as “sheep in the midst of wolves” so we were to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matt 10:16, NKJV). When we act in ways that are both loving and wise, we can avoid foolish and reckless decisions. (James 1:5-8; Prov. 11:14).
The Missional Question: How can the church be a faithful presence and prophetic witness in the communities where we live?
Our future opportunities will be impacted by our immediate decisions. It is loving
and wise to ask: “What are we currently doing that advances our mission and what might hinder it?” The verses listed below speak directly to our presence and witness among our neighbors. Note the correlation of righteously living under governing authorities and how it impacts the gospel. Notice also the relationship between how we live among unbelievers and our testimony about Jesus. (Titus 3:1; 1 Timothy 2:2-4; 1 Peter 3:14-15; Philippians 2:5-11).
The Practical Question: What will it require to begin meeting again?
This third question raises two more: What practical steps must we take to keep people safe as they come to our buildings? What would that corporate experience feel like under current state and CDC guidelines? The answers to these questions will depend on the particular circumstances of each church and its community. As I wrote last week, one size does not fit all.
I believe that our answers to these questions will still help us as we plan for and implement reopening. However, in light of the president’s remarks yesterday, our fourth guiding question now offers some new considerations.
Joshua M. Best, Foursquare’s general counsel, continues to research the issues involved and consult with experts. I am grateful for his diligence in doing so while also keeping our ICFG by-laws in view. Given the president’s remarks, he offers this counsel on the legal question below.
The Legal Question: Can we reopen our buildings this weekend?
Joshua M. Best, Foursquare’s general counsel, shares the following:
Many of our fellow citizens are celebrating the president’s statement while others are calling into question the authority of it. Some question its authority because our government has a balance of powers among the three branches, executive, legislative and judicial. Our system of government also recognizes the rights of states that are distinct from the rights of the federal government. Even before the president’s statement, several states have been engaged in litigation, calling on the judicial branch to ascertain the legality of certain executive orders.
The recent statement by the president has added to the complexity and confusion of these unprecedented times. In particular, any pending legal decisions about whether President Trump’s statement (and any next steps he may engage in) takes precedent over a governor who maintains that his or her stay at home order prevents church gatherings, or vice versa, is too nuanced and unprecedented for Foursquare leadership to take a stand on without further clarification. In the event of disputes between governmental powers, which appears to exist in at least some situations, the decision of legality rests with the judicial branch.
Our Foursquare board has said that civil disobedience, which is willful defiance of clear governmental rule done as a matter of conviction, within the Foursquare family is not something warranted at this time and we have all been expected to submit to our governmental authorities. Our Foursquare leadership recognizes that it is currently unclear what is or is not “legal” in terms of church gatherings. For the time being, we recognize that should your church choose to reopen and gather, your decision and actions cannot clearly be seen as willful defiance in light of President Trump’s statement. We recognize, as should you, that some governors or other local officials may maintain that gatherings are still illegal, notwithstanding President Trump’s statement, and they could implement penalties such as fines or even arrests to pastors or congregants. The ultimate outcome on the constitutionality and proper use of power is yet to be determined and will inevitably impact the future, so God’s wisdom in decision making during these moments is critical.
While it appears that battle lines are being drawn, let us remember that we are called to be ambassadors of God’s peace, and to value love above all. These are confusing times, and the circumstances are frustrating. Some leaders are uncomfortable operating in ambiguity while others discern opportunity in the chaos. While the government sorts out the ambiguity of church gatherings, let us keep in mind that what is, or is not, legal may change quickly as our governmental process works to bring greater clarity.
Final Thoughts: Listening to the Shepherd’s voice
As you process all input that will inform your decisions, I encourage you to consult with your district supervisor. They are a godly and wise body of elders who love you, pray for you, and have gathered resources and insight on your behalf. They’ve observed churches throughout the country that are already reopening and are happy to share what they are learning with you.
In some communities, these early reopenings have been seen as premature, which could negatively impact future ministry efforts. That’s why we are recommending earnest prayer and a thorough discussion with your local church leadership teams. Seek input from your congregations. Many churches are doing surveys to gain additional insight. Moreover, as we rely on the Holy Spirit’s guidance in all we do, may it be said of us that we are not only courageous leaders but also loving and wise shepherds.
God is teaching us in this hour that we didn’t have a prayer problem. We had a comfort problem.
These are interesting times, aren’t they? The circumstances that impact our decisions change dramatically from day-to-day. Advice from trusted counselors that seems wise in one moment can quickly become outdated in the next. We all feel that.
I know that you care deeply about doing the right thing amidst the turmoil and that you are seeking the heart of your Shepherd, Jesus. He is a faithful Shepherd and the head of the church. We don’t need a president, a governor or a mayor to authenticate our identity or endorse our mission. That is the exclusive domain of Jesus and He’s already done so. Stay focused on the Lord. Find refreshment and strength as you prioritize time in His presence. Hear His voice and follow no other.
I have no idea when this chapter of the crisis will conclude. However, I do know we will be better because of having gone through this season. I remain thankful for the good things that we will recapture and see renewed in the life of the church. I long for us to retain our renewed commitment to prayer. I am deeply encouraged as I witness its rising level as the body of Christ navigates these choppy seas.
Hopefully, we won’t always need a crisis to remind us how important prayer is! However, we never despise what drives us to our knees. Desperate people pray. God is teaching us in this hour that we didn’t have a prayer problem. We had a comfort problem. If it took some pain to gain this insight, then we embrace the disruption, as C.S. Lewis stated, “a severe mercy.”
You are loved and prayed for.