By Mike Hess
“Are we there yet?” Any parents who have taken their children on vacation are well familiar with those words. The antsy children in the backseat constantly ask this question to reflect their growing impatience with the long car ride. Waiting. Longing. Anticipating. Many of us can relate to that sentiment in these strange times of not being able to gather as the visible church. Instead of asking, “Are we there yet?” we are asking, “Can we gather yet as a church again?”
The roughly 1,200 churches in North America that have voluntarily and congregationally chosen to fellowship with the GARBC are all sincerely asking the same question: “Can we gather yet as a church again?” Rarely does a day go by when I’m not communicating with a pastor on the dynamics of beginning the complex process of gathering as a church. Some have asked if I would give churches clear direction as to when they should reopen and how they should go about doing it. Let me give you a few reasons why I will not tell churches when or how they should reopen.
- As national representative, I have absolutely zero authority over any fellowshipping church. In my role I do not function as a “Baptist Pope.” And as a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, I wouldn’t even be willing to be called a “Cardinal.” It would be out of place for me and against the grain of our doctrinal position to exercise any authority over any local church. That authority is given to congregations alone, which are led by Biblically qualified pastors. Throughout the GARBC’s nearly 90-year history, it was never the intent for the national representative to function as a denominational head or authority.
- As Baptists, we value individual soul liberty. “Broadly defined, soul liberty is the responsibility that all believers share to understand and obey God’s requirements for themselves,” says Kevin Bauder in his book Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order. In other words, no one can read the Bible for another believer or obey for another believer or even be the conscience of another believer. The same is true for churches. No hierarchy decides what kind of music another church will sing or who a church will have as its next pastor or what the pastor will preach about. And the same truth goes for difficult decisions that individual churches must wrestle with as to when they will reopen during this pandemic.
- The situation varies geographically. In the big picture, the impact of the coronavirus varies around the country. Some states, and even regions within states, have been hit harder than others by the virus. My home state of Illinois is a great example of how the situation can vary for churches in different areas of a state. Churches in the city and suburbs of Chicago would obviously have a different timetable for reopening than churches in rural areas of the state. Biblical wisdom teaches us that no two churches are in the same situation. It would be foolish for me to recommend a one-size-fits-all approach to reopening our churches.
Undoubtedly, there will be pressure on individual pastors and churches to emulate the timetable of other churches beginning the process of reopening. Please consider that you are accountable for the stewardship of your church and not another church that God has entrusted to someone else.
Our goal as followers of Christ is the same one that Paul gave young Timothy centuries ago: “Now the goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5, CSB). Someone who serves as a representative of a national fellowship cannot obey that verse for you. Individually, as local congregations, you must decide from a pure heart, with a good conscience, and with a sincere faith what will best serve your church as our nation begins to reopen in a post-COVID world.
I miss church. In fact, I really do not like Sundays without physically gathering with the Body of Christ. The day just seems so empty—as if this is not the way it was supposed to be for followers of Christ. Like you, I am grateful for the ability to gather digitally and still be encouraged from the Word. But the real longing of our hearts is to physically gather once again in our churches. Until then, may God give us wisdom and love for those who may go about this differently than your church chooses.
“Can we gather yet as a church again?” A national representative of a fellowship of churches does not have the definite answer for each local church. But thankfully, the principles of God’s sufficient Word do. And in that we rejoice and find our comfort.
Mike Hess serves as national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.