Posted by Paul Tautges, Pastor
On behalf of the elders, I presented the following communication at last Sunday evening’s annual meeting of our members. However, we thought it best to follow up through this correspondence as well. As elders, we have spent many hours and many meetings praying together, looking at the Scriptures, weighing out different scenarios, listening to the counsel of medical and infectious disease professionals, and considering how the Church has handled prior pandemics. We have had to make more difficult decisions in the past six months than most of us remember having to make at any other time while serving as elders. This is also true of our church staff. So, thank you for your patience, prayers, and support during this strange and exhausting time. It really means a lot!
After three months of assembling outdoors, for which we are exceedingly thankful, it’s time to return to worship indoors. Therefore, there are a number of matters we wish to communicate concerning where we’ve been and where we are headed at this point.
Where We’ve Been the Past Six Months
Once the initial stay-at-home order subsided, we were excited to reassemble. Though we could’ve moved back into the building right away, we instead chose to meet outdoors. The primary reasons for holding the Sunday service outdoors were our desire to keep the Cornerstone family together as one, and because it’s safer to meet outdoors. We knew that when we moved back into the building we would have to hold a minimum of two services. Therefore, we wanted to keep our church family together as long as possible, for the spiritual health of the body, and we used the time to plan wisely. This is also the reason we extended our initial six-week outdoor plan to seventeen weeks. Throughout this time, God has graciously given us beautiful weather, having had to cancel the morning service only twice. This has been such a delight for all of us, which is evidenced by 2/3rds of our church family gathering regularly since June 7th. We praise the Lord for this grace gift!
There are innumerable and varied opinions on how churches should now meet, while continuing to demonstrate love, patience, and concern for one another’s wellbeing. We have looked at and evaluated the example of some others, but, at the end of the day, Scripture teaches that we will be held accountable for how we shepherd this congregation, not a group of believers in any other city or state—always taking into account our own ministry context (Heb. 13:17). Through all our decision making we have sought to honor the Lord and his admonition to provide a Christlike example to follow: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). None of us pretend to be faultless or all-knowing; only God can rightly claim that character. However, to the best of our knowledge, we have acted according to biblical wisdom, faithfulness, love, and grace. At all times, we have aimed to be reasonable (Phil. 4:5; James 3:13-18), and obedient to the two greatest commandments to love God above all, and our neighbor as we naturally love ourselves (Matt. 22:36-40). Many of you have assured us of your constant prayers during this time, and we thank you for this demonstration of love and humility.
Four Biblical Principles that Govern Our Thinking
We want to walk you through the biblical line of reasoning we have followed in our decision making, which will help you to understand how we arrived at our current procedures for indoor worship services.
1. Generally speaking, human government serves to protect its citizens.
Clearly, as you well know, this is not always the case in real life. Some governments are downright evil, and not every individual in political authority is righteous or more concerned about others than themselves. However, the Bible teaches that God, as a gift of common grace to both believers and non-believers, has delegated some of his divine authority to human government to protect the righteous, and punish the wicked. Romans 13:1-7 says,
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
In response to this God-ordained authority structure believers are commanded to honor and submit to civil leaders. Honor refers to our attitude, while submit refers to our actions. God commands us to put on Christlikeness in both attitude and action.
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. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Pet. 2:13-17).
Remember, the wicked Emperor Nero was in power when Peter penned those words. If anyone could have modeled or encouraged an anti-authority or anti-government attitude, it is the apostles, but they did not. In fact, they taught and modeled the opposite.
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. (Titus 3:1-2)
This obedience, however, has a limit. That is, if governing authorities command us to disobey God, or willfully prevent us from fulfilling biblical responsibilities, we must obey God rather than man. One example of this is found in the book of Acts.
And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
Honoring the guidance of our governing authorities for the sake of public health is one means by which we trust God in the exercise of our faith. Thus far, we choose to believe the guidance from our governor and health department is for the general wellbeing of those whom they serve. For this reason, we have sought to heed those guidelines as long as doing so does not cause us to disobey God. If their guidelines restrict our ability to function as God’s church, or forbid us from preaching the gospel, we will choose to honor God rather than man. Thus far the guidelines seem to be reasonable, given the concern over the coronavirus. It is a joy to say that, through it all, the ministry of Cornerstone has continued unstoppable and, in some ways, has even been more effective. This is totally due to the power and grace of God who turns all things toward our good (Rom. 8:28), uses difficult times to open doors for the gospel (1 Cor. 16:9), and employs the refiner’s fire to prove our faith and cause our sinful attitudes to float to the surface and become visible, so that we may repent and grow in Christlikeness (1 Pet. 1:6-9). In biblical counseling, we like to say that trials don’t make us respond in sinful ways, but reveal who we already are in character (Matt. 15:18-20). God is giving us opportunities to be sanctified.
2. The local church is a body made up of many interdependent parts, and every member is indispensable.
In church life, it’s not enough to do various activities together. We need to do them together as a community, a family, as we learn to follow Christ and love one another. If we simply gather to attend “the main event,” without cultivating an atmosphere that breathes grace, acceptance, and full involvement, then we are merely a religious organization made up of a bunch of independent people. But the local church is much more than that: it’s a functioning body (1 Cor. 12:12).
As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Cor. 12:20-26)
Some parts are strong and more prominent, while others are weak and unseen, but each is indispensable to the overarching purpose of God. To knowingly do harm to one member of the body (in either attitude or action) is to do harm to the body itself. This means that we need to look out for one another, especially those who are weaker. We are “doing life together,” as our Together disAbility ministry likes to say. In the body of Christ, we are called to especially honor and watch over the weak who are among us. This includes our elderly and immunocompromised members as well as those with disabilities.
3. We are called to maintain a good testimony to unbelievers.
Many unbelievers are very afraid of this virus. While we are not acting out of fear, it is fitting for us to consider how our actions affect our testimony to the very people we are trying to reach with the gospel. This is not caving in to the world, but simply recognizing that our example matters. In fact, even church leaders must have a good reputation with outsiders in order to be spiritually qualified (1 Tim. 3:7). We are called to walk wisely in this world (Eph. 5:15-16). Creating an environment where unbelievers are welcomed and feel physically safe, while still faithfully preaching the Word of God to them, is not unlike the apostle Paul’s decision to make accommodations for the sake of the gospel.
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Cor. 9:19-23)
Paul was willing to yield some of his personal rights in order to meet lost people where they were, so that he could preach the gospel to them. Giving up our personal right to be mask-free, for example, is a pretty small sacrifice for the sake of gospel outreach to immortal souls. We would do well to ponder how a Christian’s posture of protest may at times be fueled by the flesh, not the Spirit, and might actually hinder his or her witness for Christ. As we learn to be joyfully flexible, even when we don’t personally like the current guidelines, we maintain a consistent witness to our community, which has been an increased burden in our church. Sadly, the Community Day we had planned for May was cancelled for this year, but we now have more time for planning next year’s outreach.
4. Humility and love make up a two-part epoxy for unity.
Four years ago, we learned this principle from our sermon series through the book of Philippians, specifically regarding how these two virtues help to maintain the foundations of unity. In other words, Christlike humility and love for one another should characterize our local fellowship.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:1-5).
Church leaders and members should demonstrate humility and love toward unbelievers and one another by considering others as more important than ourselves. As we do this, while setting our minds on Christ, the God of peace will be with us (see Phil. 4:8-9).
Procedures for Indoor Worship with the Cornerstone Family
The application of the above biblical principles has led to some difficult decisions for how we should proceed with meeting indoors beginning Sunday, October 4th.
- Initially, we had planned to do as we have outdoors; that is, for masks to be optional, based upon each person’s level of comfort regarding their own safety and the safety of others. However, in keeping with the governor’s current order for any building that is not a personal residence, masks or face coverings will be required in the church building. As the orders change, our procedures will be revisited and adjusted. Nothing is set in stone.
- We will need to begin by having two services (9:00AM and 10:30AM). This will enable us to maintain more spacing with smaller crowds. Between services the common and high-contact areas will be cleaned, while the Worship Center is sanitized with an electrostatic sprayer.
- Growth groups will begin on Zoom. We decided this because space for groups is limited in our church building, and our homes are not well equipped to handle groups of 12-20 people.
As we have done the past six months we will continue to monitor the situation and stay abreast of the guidelines coming from the governor’s office. As conditions change we will modify our procedures, while remaining prudent. This current plan is not forever fixed, but fluid. Thank you for your understanding and cooperation as we all navigate new territory, and work together to carry out the ministries of Cornerstone Community Church with patience and perseverance.
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12)
May God receive glory and honor as we all strive to be faithful to the Lord and one another!
In the grace and peace of Christ,
The Cornerstone elders