This week, corporate singing was banned in churches all across the State of Washington. Not too long ago, that sentence would have been unthinkable to read let alone write.
And yet, here we are.
How We Got Here
At the beginning of 2020, I wrote a blog post titled “The Songs We Sing Together — Part 1.” I intended for that post to kick off a series that would be an extended discussion of both the significance of singing in corporate worship and, specifically, how I think about the process of choosing the songs we sing for our weekly gatherings at Coram Deo Church.
Well, both my plan and our corporate singing were significantly derailed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit U.S. shores at the end of February, shortly thereafter upending life as we knew it.
Our state entered a season of lockdowns and government-enforced restrictions on pretty much everything. We were asked by our governor to “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” and many businesses were deemed “non-essential,” ushering in a season of economic instability that most of us never anticipated happening in our lifetime. Unemployment rose by a staggering 10.3%¹ nationwide during that time and some economists are guessing that we won’t return to anything close to pre-pandemic conditions for years.²
The biggest prediction that was made, though, was that even in the best-case scenarios, at least two million Americans would die.
As a church, we chose to suspend our regular Lord’s Day public worship gatherings for ten excruciatingly long weeks. Globally, Churches acted similarly, going online-only, and we witnessed a phenomenon that is, to my knowledge, unique in world history: For the first time in the 2000+ years that the Christian Church has existed, there was a worldwide movement of churches not physically assembling themselves for Lord’s Day worship.
I am hard-pressed to think of an event that has been more disruptive to the worship of the Church, and that’s saying something for a people who have endured war, famine, persecution, and pestilence through the ages.
Thankfully, the casualties from COVID-19 have been nowhere near as severe as they were predicted to be at the outset. It has certainly been devastating, especially in some geographic regions and among the most at-risk demographics. (As of this week, over 26% of the 246,000 U.S. deaths have been in nursing homes.³) But praise the Lord that, for the most part, the predictions were wrong.
As we began to emerge from lockdown and resumed public Lord’s Day worship, I was reminded of how important it is for God’s people to physically gather for worship.
The very first week of doing “Car Church,” (as my kids refer to the two weeks where we gathered in the parking lot in our cars and broadcast the music and sermon via an FM transmitter), I was overwhelmed with emotion. After the long weeks of “leading” worship in an empty room and trying to imagine our people worshipping in their homes, seeing their faces and hearing their voices again was almost more than I could handle. I ugly cried into at least one car window that week as I walked around greeting parishioners seated in their vehicles. I was more than a little embarrassed but it was a beautiful moment.
In the months that have gone by since that day, we have moved back inside our building and, with a number of safety precautions in place, done our best to ease back into normalcy. Masks have been the most contentious topic and there has been no shortage of opinions on everything else. However, even with less than ideal conditions, we were together and we were able to worship.
Until this week.
The Current Dilemma
On the evening of Saturday, November 14, a document leaked from the office of Governor Jay Inslee about a new round of lockdowns. COVID-19 cases have been on the rise in Washington this fall and many have watched as other states issued new lockdown orders, all the time wondering if we would be next.
On Sunday morning, the leak proved to be accurate and Washington State was informed that we would be entering another four weeks of lockdown. My heart instantly sank for my friends and fellow church members who make their living working in industries that are deemed “non-essential.” It’s one thing to lose your income and means of providing for your family in the springtime. It’s another altogether to lose it right before Christmas.
But my heart sank even further when I read the restriction that was being placed upon the Church: “No congregational singing.”
The position that our elder team has held since the very beginning is that we are the ones who are responsible before God for the worship of our church. We don’t defer decisions like asking our congregation to wear masks to the state and if anyone grumbles about them, we kindly remind them that they are grumbling at us, their elders, not Governor Inslee. It is us, the under-shepherds, not state officials, who will stand before God someday to give an account for the souls of Coram Deo Church. As such, we have done our best to make Sundays as safe for worship as we can, all the while trying to honor the different governing authorities that God has established, both over and within our church family in accordance with His Word.
But at the end of the day, if and when the Word of God comes into conflict with the words of men, we must honor God.
But at the end of the day, if and when the Word of God comes into conflict with the words of men, we must honor God.
God’s Word makes it abundantly clear that we are not to neglect meeting together physically for worship. (Hebrews 10:25, 1 Timothy 4:13, Exodus 12:16, 1 Corinthians 5:4) It is also undeniable that biblically faithful worship requires singing. (Psalm 96, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16)
That puts us in a bit of a tricky spot.
Do we do as we’re being instructed and forgo an essential part of Christian worship? Or do we ignore the directions of the magistrates and worship as God commands us to?
Addressing Some Concerns
Some would argue that we ought to honor our authorities and submit to their requests per the instructions given to us in passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. We agree that we ought to make every effort to honor those authorities and that, in honoring them, we honor Christ. However, both of those passages are clear that the authority of all lesser magistrates is derived from God. And when their commands directly contradict those of Christ, the Chief Magistrate, there can be no question of whose authority wins out.
To quote the great R.C. Sproul, “If any official commands you to do something that God forbids, or forbids you to do something that God commands, not only may you disobey, but you must disobey.”⁴
Some might also say “But what about Jesus’ command to love our neighbors? Isn’t continuing to sing and risk spreading the virus inherently unloving and being disobedient to Christ in a different way?”
We would agree that it can certainly be loving to work hard to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, loving our neighbors can never be less than the Church walking in obedience, proclaiming God’s glory to the nations through the means that he’s ordained, singing being a primary one.
...loving our neighbors can never be less than the Church walking in obedience, proclaiming God’s glory to the nations through the means that he’s ordained, singing being a primary one.
Here is the dilemma. Among us, there are several conflicting positions and convictions of conscience as to what it means to love our neighbors. Some believe it is unloving for the Church to meet—period—during this time. How does one define what love for our neighbor entails?
God's Word defines for us what loving our neighbor entails when he says "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments." (1 John 5:2) Could it be that this current situation provides a loving opportunity to witness to the transcendent reality of God to a world that is enslaved by the fear of death and other idols? We know that decisions and orders are being made out of statistics and science—but how does God fit into these calculations? Psalm 96 sees singing as being in direct conflict with the idolatry of the world—is our world not enslaved to idols? Some will find it irreconcilable with their conscience to believe we can love our neighbor while neglecting the call to sing God’s praises among the peoples. Though it likely won’t make sense to the world, according to John, when we sing in obedience to God’s commandments, our love for our neighbors is proven, not hindered.
Though it likely won’t make sense to the world, according to John, when we sing in obedience to God’s commandments, our love for our neighbors is proven, not hindered.
But that affirmation begs yet another question. If we believe that obeying God’s commandment to sing is how our love is authenticated, why did we stop gathering previously?
That’s an even handed question, to be sure. Simply, we would respond that we’re in a different place now than we were in March. With the limited information available to us at that point, opting to suspend gathering entirely for a short time seemed like the wisest option, though one we were extremely uncomfortable with as an ongoing plan.
To further unpack this idea, it might be helpful to compare this situation to a different scenario where we would also consider canceling worship: a snow storm. In the event that a snow storm made our roads impassable, we would most likely opt to cancel our in-person services. However, if we got out and discovered that we could, in fact, drive on most roads with a reasonable degree of safety, we would probably not cancel our services and would instead allow families to decide for themselves what amount of risk they would be willing to incur to attend.
Back to our current situation, we seem to have “less snow on the roads” than was predicted in March. It may be that it is still too dangerous for some to participate, but we trust the heads of the homes to make those calls for their respective families. For everyone else, we want to continue to do our best to provide the most biblically faithful worship gatherings that we can, reserving canceling or significantly modifying them for only the most dire of circumstances.
So here’s where we have landed. It’s the conviction of the Coram Deo elders that in order to faithfully follow Christ, we must continue to call the church to praise his name together in song during Lord’s Day worship.
It’s the conviction of the Coram Deo elders that in order to faithfully follow Christ, we must continue to call the church to praise his name together in song during Lord’s Day worship.
We anticipate that there will be those in our body who will disagree with this decision. Please hear us saying clearly that we love you and we trust that God gave you a conscience for a reason. We would agree with Martin Luther that to disregard one’s conscience is neither right nor safe and inasmuch as your conscience is bound to the Word of God, to ignore it is to say to God “I am comfortable risking displeasing you.” If your conscience doesn’t allow you to participate with us in worship, we will respect your conviction.
To go against the requests of our authorities is not our preference, in fact, we have tried to bend over backward to honor them during this time of the pandemic. But at this moment, we seem to find ourselves in the company of Peter and John when they were instructed to disobey God by their local authorities. We would seek to emulate their response as well:
"But Peter and John answered them, 'Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.'” Acts 4:19–20
A Word of Encouragement
We may very well see days ahead where our fidelity to God’s Word and our Christian obedience makes us increasingly unpopular in the eyes of the world. As we walk forward together, remember the words of Christ from John’s Gospel:
"I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
So take heart, Church! We have seen and heard the Living God. He has come to bring us peace. And though the world is dark and presently getting darker, Christ has overcome the world. In Him and Him alone we find our hope.
This Sunday, I’d like to encourage you on behalf of myself and the other elders as you are able to join us for Lord’s Day worship at one of our three worship services. As always, if you are sick, high risk, or in any other category that would make attending in-person unwise, we understand and encourage you to participate with us by way of the live stream of the 9:30 am service for this season.
Nevertheless, we will continue our practice of gathering to submit ourselves under the authority of God and His Word and to both declare and sing this great hope to each other and to the watching world.
“Sing, oh sing, through the raging storm,” Church! Christ is still our God, our salvation. He is LORD and we entrust ourselves to him.