CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Phase One of the governor's reopening plan includes allowing places of worship to open at 50% capacity.
Prior to that announcement, dozens of churches in Virginia signed a letter to Governor Northam asking he make exceptions to executive orders banning gatherings of groups over 10 and mandating people to stay at home.
The letter argues live-streamed and drive-thru worship services are not adequate enough to meet the needs of congregations. They asked Northam, at minimum, to allow once-weekly gatherings of religious organizations if they take reasonable public health precautions.
Pastors from Jefferson Park, Laurel Hill, and First Baptist churches in Charlottesville signed the letter.
Public Worship in the Commonwealth Letter:
Dear Governor Northam:
As pastors of churches in Virginia, we thank you for your labors these last several months to care for the people of the Commonwealth. We have been praying for you. We write now to urge you to modify Executive Orders 53 and 55 to allow – at minimum – once-weekly gatherings of religious organizations, provided that reasonable public-health precautions are taken.
COVID-19 has taken a grave toll on the health of the Commonwealth. Many of our fellow Virginians have suffered the physical effects of the coronavirus, and many more have experienced fear, hopelessness, loneliness, and despair during this dark time. This spiritual suffering is among the very real harms from the pandemic.
The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is a hospital for the spiritually sick. Yet corporate worship services of more than 10 people have been banned in Virginia since March 23, regardless of the public-health protocols in place and notwithstanding that groups are permitted to gather in settings such as non-retail offices and “essential” retail businesses. Prohibiting corporate worship services has exacerbated the sense of sorrow, isolation, and fear felt by so many citizens across the Commonwealth.
Corporate worship is commanded by Scripture and has been a foundational element of Christian life for nearly 2,000 years. Alternatives such as live-streamed services and “drive-through” worship are not adequate substitutes to the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) united together in corporate worship. God, through Holy Scripture, commands believers in the Lord Jesus to assemble. In Hebrews 10:24-25, the writer to the Hebrews exhorts Christians not to neglect meeting together, but instead to stir up one another to love and good deeds and to encourage one another. In 1 Timothy 4:13, the Apostle Paul exhorts Timothy, a pastor in the city of Ephesus, to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture. People must be present for the reading to be public. Ephesians 5:19 tells Christians to address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Indeed, physical presence is vital for all aspects of corporate worship – prayer (1 Timothy 2:1), teaching (Colossians 3:16), preaching (2 Timothy 4:2 and Galatians 1:23), baptism (Matthew 28:18-20), and the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:27-34). The early church assembled weekly each Sunday, the day of the resurrection of Christ, to worship (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). Scripture is clear: God’s Word calls for the regular, physical assembly of God’s people.
These gatherings are one of the means God uses to heal and restore our souls – they are part of God’s treatment plan for the spiritually sick. The longer the government bars Christians from meeting, the more damage is done to the spiritual well-being of Virginians in need of spiritual care during this difficult time.
Because corporate worship is central to Christian life, it is extraordinary for churches to forego meeting for even a single Sunday. Thus, with each passing week that corporate worship is banned, as churches stand ready to implement reasonable public-health precautions, the government pushes Christians closer to the point where they must choose to sin against God and conscience or violate the law. Ultimately, as Christians, we are compelled to obey God’s law (Acts 5:29); as the great Virginian James Madison explained, “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.” The Commonwealth has long recognized that it should not force citizens to choose between their conscience and obeying the law unless there is truly no possible alternative. This is the principle embodied in the Commonwealth’s Constitution, which provides that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience” (Article 1, Section 16), as well as Virginia’s Act for Religious Freedom (Va. Code Sec. 57-2.02). The ban on corporate worship prevents Christians who believe that Holy Scripture commands them to assemble for worship (Hebrews 10:24-25) from acting as their consciences – and God Himself – dictates.
We fully recognize that you have limited gatherings with the goal of reducing the spread of COVID-19. As pastors, we share that desire and are committed to protecting the physical well-being of all who attend church services. During the COVID-19 pandemic, protocols such as those recommended by the CDC – including disinfecting hard surfaces, abstaining from physical contact, providing sanitizer, keeping six feet of distance, encouraging the sick and vulnerable to stay home, and closing our nurseries and Sunday School classes – would fulfill the Executive Orders’ goal of protecting public health while also permitting us to satisfy our religious obligations and serve the spiritual needs of our communities.
The Executive Orders are rightly intended to prevent avoidable deaths. Yet the sobering truth is that, unless the Lord Jesus returns, each of us that survives the pandemic will still die. There is no escaping death, for death is the wages of sin (Romans 6:23), and we have all sinned (Romans 3:23). But there is good news: The Lord Jesus came to save all who repent and believe through his life, death, and resurrection, and he will come again to make all things new. This gospel message means hope for sinners and the downcast. It is the good news that the spiritually sick in Virginia need to hear in these dark days, and which churches long to celebrate corporately.
For these reasons, we respectfully implore you to modify Executive Orders 53 and 55 to permit – at minimum – once-weekly gatherings by religious organizations, provided reasonable public-health precautions are taken. We stand ready to serve the people of Virginia as ministers of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.