The essential Church

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The other day, during a storm, power went out for much of the county in which I live. At our home, the power wasn’t back on for about ten hours.

I didn’t know how long it would be out but I did know that there were employees and contractors of the power company out in the storm working to restore power. I said to my wife that I was glad they were providing “essential services.”

Some “essential services” are easy to understand. Hospitals provide essential services. Law enforcement and fire service are essential services. The purchase of food and fuel is essential.

Truckers provide essential services since nothing would be in the stores without them. The military, the postal service, delivery services such as FedEx, UPS, and Amazon, to name a few, are among those services deemed as essential. There are countless others, of course.

Yet, almost without exception, churches and the provision of spiritual care have been categorized, by many state and local governments, no less, as “non-essential.” This, in a country that designates abortion mills and liquor stores as “essential businesses.”

In a nation where over half of the population believes in the non-constitutional concept of “separation of church and state,” national, state, and local governments have demonstrated that, when it fits into their plans, the state, can indeed, impose its will on religion.

For the most part, because they are responsible leaders, clergy are trying to protect their people from the coronavirus and are willingly complying with the government guidelines. But that doesn’t erase the fact that the state is ordering the closing of churches and the cessation of public worship services that do not fit very narrow guidelines.

The very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Two things stand out in light of current conditions: (1) “prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech,” and (2) “the right of the people peaceably to assemble…” Yet, the government(s) have done just that — they have prohibited the free exercise of religion and they have forbidden the people to peaceably assemble except under their strict conditions. And if the peaceable assembly is forbidden, is not the freedom of speech also denied?

The governments’ ham-handed mandates, however well intentioned, is wrong. Would it not have been better to use persuasion of religious leaders before resorting to the force of edict and the threat of arrest?

The mayor of New York City has threatened non-compliant religious organization with permanent closure. Those are his words … he threatens to permanently close churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship. He has also encouraged religious believers to inform on their leaders. Welcome to the Soviet Union.

What is really dismaying about the term “non-essential” as it applies to faith communities is that even a number of those within the community itself agree with the designation! I suspect that there are even clerics who would see their churches and synagogues as “non-essential.”

If something is truly non-essential then it is not far from being “unimportant,” or “unnecessary,” or even “undesirable.” In the former Soviet Union, priests and bishops were considered and were called “parasites” by secular leaders. History records that the Soviets and their satellites tried to destroy the church and, over a period of seventy years, systematically murdered hundreds of thousands of clergy and millions of believers.

Now, the United States is not the Soviet Union. Not yet, anyway. But the warning signs are there. Leftism in America, which despises orthodox biblical Christianity, is on the rise. As long as the church stays in its place, remains behind closed doors, keeps silent, and does what it is told, then all will be well unless, and until, faith communities are seen as undesirable.

Having said all this, our church, and the churches in our diocese, are trying to comply as much as possible with the COVID-19 guidelines, including the shelter in place edicts. Adjustments are being made, some activities have been cancelled, other meetings postponed, and a handful of people are trying to live stream the services. Other innovations are taking place. All this because we understand the crisis and we care for the safety of our people and for the safety of the larger community.

But what about next time? And there will be a next time. What if there’s an energy crisis? Can and will the government shut down the churches to conserve energy because they are “non-essential”? What if there is a shortage of suitable property? Can and will the government order the churches closed and eminent domain imposed? Eminent domain is the power of a state or national government to take private property for public use. And who decides what the highest and best use of the land is? The government decides.

This year, for the first time in the history of the republic, the churches of American will be virtually empty on Easter, Christianity’s highest and holiest day. In days past, when there was a national crisis, people flooded to the churches to pray and seek comfort. As recently as 9/11, following the terrorist attacks on over 3,000 innocent citizens, church attendance swelled. Not now.

Now the believers are to buy into the lie that churches are non-essential and cower in fear alone and at home. Even the President and his COVID-19 medical task force do not practice social distancing during the daily press conferences as they crowd together on the dais in a crowded press room. But you religious folk must limit your meetings to 10 or under unless you can guarantee at least a six-foot separation.

I get the purpose. I understand the point. But, again, what about next time? In some countries, pastors are ordered not to speak about abortion. In others, a pastor who speaks against an LGBTQ lifestyle can be charged with a hate crime. What about a pastor or priest who declines to marry a same-sex couple? Will he be in trouble? Yes, to all of the above. Once the government encroaches, it almost never draws back but only increases its interference.

Whether one holds to a biblical or evolutional progress of man, worship has always preceded government. Ancient man sought out and worshipped “the Other” before human systems were devised. Worship was deemed essential before government was conceived. Corporate worship in Christianity is not just essential, it is biblically mandated. In a conflict between serving God or man, biblically, devotion to God wins every time.

In the New Testament, it is clear that the Church is not a creation of man but is divinely instituted. As such, it is the most essential of organizations in the history of mankind.

Three times I have been threatened with the possibility of legal action or jail unless I revealed what someone told me in the Rite of Reconciliation, which is our term for sacramental confession. Once was on the stand in a courtroom. Thrice, I have respectfully declined, knowing that I might be jailed.

If the issue is right, I am willing to take a stand. This particular issue, at least at this point, is not the time or the issue for the church to stand and resist. But, if what I fear will be the encroaching role of government in the life of the church, the time is coming.

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the crisis, the church is live streaming at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays at http://www.facebook.com/cctksharpsburg/. He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]

14 COMMENTS

  1. Because this hit dog barks, I reread the column. My suggestion is, if you think your church is being treated as nonessential, become more essential. Have you ever wondered how many people substitute government for God? In the United States, churches maintain too many privileges to get worked up about what may happen tomorrow. There are enough difficulties today. Ironic, isn’t it?

    I truly appreciate your understanding and cooperation by not assembling for services.

  2. DavefromTyrone, thank you. Apparently a bunch of folks either did not read the article with clarity or they saw only what they wanted to see. I said, “This particular issue, at least at this point, is not the time or the issue for the church to stand and resist.” But, is history is a guide, the government cannot seem to pull back once it gets its hands on something. In 1898, a telephone tax was imposed for the purpose of financing the Spanish-American War. That tax was FINALLY permanently retired in 2006. The scriptures plainly state, to the church, “Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together, as is the custom of some.” While we are co-operative because we care about the health of people, the Church will, if necessary, choose to “obey God rather than man.”
    David Epps

    • Bishop Epps, you seem to want to have it both ways. You regularly tout fraternity with the Marines and their unflinching activation in service of duty. You rattle your saber loudly with warning. Then when this call to arms is well perceived by your readers, you reply, “I was merely cleaning the sword. No worries.”

      But just as you look to history, so do many of your readers. You represent a deity in whose name millions have been killed over the last 2,000 years. I take very seriously your not-so-veiled threat of a religious uprising against our government if you perceive some disrespect to your god. The Middle East stays in constant turmoil because of perceived threats to Allah; it could easily happen here in a populist, Trump America.

      So as you assert determination to “obey God rather than man,” don’t be surprised that rational people become wary. Aggressive obedience to gods has a long history of arbitrary identification of good and bad guys and bloody outcomes, and your interpretation of the 1st Amendment offers no solace.

      • God grief. Could you possibly twist my words any more completely? You infer that resistance means some type of aggressive warfare. I already resist certain actions. Even back in the day, I resisted segregation in a segregated South. I resist legalized abortion by exercising that 1st Amendment right.I resist the decline of the historic, traditional family.I now may have to resist, at some future point, a directive for the church not to meet. And somehow you twist that into a perceived terrorist threat? Some sort of armed “uprising?” That’s pure poppycock and you know it.

  3. If what I read in the Bible is true, in Jesus time lepers were considered unclean and were not allowed in the Temple. Lepers were forbidden to come any closer than six feet and if they did they could be driven away by hurled rocks

  4. Fr. Epps,

    Looks like the usual trolls have come out to rebuke you for your column-some harshly; some less so.
    Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have read it carefully. My takeaway is that you are expressing concern for what MIGHT happen, in the future, as secular progressive ideas become more mainstream.
    While I share this concern, I am wary that the ‘slippery slope’ argument is often overly broad. We can return to the days of limited government and observing the original intent of the Constitution without reinstituting the evils of disenfranchisement and slavery.
    Oh, and by the way, should the Secretary of Electrical Rationing order the power to your ‘non-essential’ Church cut off, others and I will gladly haul our generators to you and help you power up the lights and the organ!

    • Many of those “secular progressive ideas” are founded on the most traditional religions, literally thousands of years old. I like the idea of limiting government; my focus is on the “who” that does the limiting of “what.” As for “trolls,” diversions from civility in public discussions was once unacceptable in the public’s eye and certainly not mine. I maintain a great respect for David Epps, he strikes me as sound, thick skinned, and Faithful. I’m willing, even honored, to share a foxhole with him. I’m also confident he is fully equipped to address any comments raised by his readers, whether publicly or privately. He may even earn some “essentiality” credits as a vehicle for truth, honesty, and humility in a public forum. “We, the people” need that, too.

  5. Pastor Epps, you may want to take out your copy of the U.S. Constitution and read the preamble. If your copy is the same as mine, you will see that it defines one of the roles of government is “to provide for common defence, promote the general welfare….” I suggest that this is exactly what our government is doing with restrictions on harmful behavior that threatens the lives of other citizens.

    Perhaps we Christians should take this unusual time of crisis to reflect and ask, who or what do we truly worship? Are we worshiping the god of American nationalism or capitalistism or are we following the way of Jesus?

  6. It looks like Rev. Epps is the latest to claim victimization by the mean old government. Unfortunately, he presents the weakest of cases to promote his point. All constitutional rights, including those valued ones in the First Amendment, are balanced by their effects on society.

    Freedom of the press is limited by slander and libel. Freedom of speech is bounded by making false statements to police or under oath and inciting mayhem (e.g., shouting “fire” in the theater). Freedom from the establishment of religion doesn’t keep the deity’s name off our currency and hardly interferes with a state law preventing me from buying beer from Publix before the faithful complete their Sunday morning worship.

    And if anything in the whole world needs an external balance of civil rights, it is religious expression. Historically, religious based Crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, Jonestowns, etc. emphasize the abundant need for religious freedom to be balanced with the public welfare. For example, churches are not allowed to express themselves freely by offering human sacrifices, passing around LSD with the collection plate to expand the flock’s spiritual sensitivity, or amusing prurient interests of their priests with parishioners’ children.

    So if saving lives interferes with Rev. Epps’ exercise of religious freedom, he’ll just have to grin and bear it. He might choose to stick to theological homilies about which he is well versed rather than constitutional law about which he seems quite limited.

  7. I will argue the purpose of government is protection. If a church (or The Church) acts to restrict the government from its duty, I should think the government has an ethical right to remedy. I will also argue that Christ will stand whether the government (and its social makeup) likes it or not.

  8. Pastor Epps,

    I would argue that there have been no restrictions placed on you or your church’s worship, other than gathering together in person. And that is necessary for the safety of your parishioners in particular as well as the community at large.

    Surely you would not want your church’s worship activities to be the cause of death for anyone!

    I’ve always been taught that God does not live only in the church building, but is everywhere, especially in our hearts. Staying physically apart from each other in this time of pandemic is difficult, but we do at least have the luxury of being able to be in contact with each other in a way that has never before in the history of the world been possible. Yes, this is a challenging test for us all, but with God’s help we will get to the other side.

    No one and no government is restricting the content of your ministry. You are as free as you ever were to preach the Word according to your theology. It is a bit disingenuous of you to imply that your religion is being repressed. It is not. It is the gathering together in close quarters where this insidious disease can silently spread that is restricted. No one and no government has declared that churches are “unessential”, merely that it is not essential for them to hold gatherings together in close quarters.

    There are some pastors that have defiantly continued to call their worshipers to meet together in a large group, telling them that it is “essential”. And in more than one of those churches, the coronavirus has spread like wildfire.

    I urge you to consider how essential it is for people to remain isolated in order to allow this virus to pass over us. Pun intended.