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Sue Lani Madsen: Christians must decide for themselves how essential attending church is for their faith

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Should churches reopen as an essential service? Yes, said President Donald Trump on Sunday. Not yet, said Gov. Jay Inslee, until he changed his mind on Wednesday. Meanwhile the shutdown has pushed the body of Christ to rethink what “church” means.

We Christians are good at arguing over the form and place for worship. There’s an old Baptist joke about the man found shipwrecked on a deserted island. His rescuers pointed to three huts on the hill above the beach, and asked why three.

“I live in that one,” said the Baptist, pointing to the middle hut. “The one on the left is where I go to church. The one on the right is where I used to go to church.”

The abundance of different denominations is a puzzle to non-Christians. This reopening debate goes deeper than musical styles, kneeling versus sitting, and whether the congregation raises hands enthusiastically or stands frozen during hymns. And it’s about more than the president’s announcement or the governor’s dictates. Among Christ’s followers, the question is, “What does God expect of His people?”

For too many Christians, church has become a building-centered performance, another event to be added to a busy calendar. It’s not surprising that the secular world has come to define church in the same way. Just another hobby. A weekend entertainment option. No more essential than professional sports, and less essential than reopening shopping malls.

And yet the evidence for what is essential has been front-page news for months. Hospitals are a fourth century Christian invention. Three of Spokane’s are faith-based institutions. Deaconess Hospital was founded by Methodist women, and the MultiCare story starts with an Episcopal bishop. Sacred Heart and Holy Family were founded by Roman Catholic women of the Sisters of Providence and the Dominican Sisters, respectively.

People of Christian faith still provide essential care in the community, with food and shelter for the homeless and addicted through the Union Gospel Mission, Catholic Charities, Adult & Teen Challenge and scores of other organizations and outreach programs.

But church is also more than programs. When congregations, church leaders and committees turned to the Bible for guidance to navigate Gov. Inslee’s Phase 2, the answers raised questions of the kind resulting in two churches on an island with a population of one.

Phase 1 was easy. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” It’s the Romans 13:1 anti-rebellion admonition directed to a church still operating underground in a powerful empire. Stay home, stay safe.

It also applies equally well to respecting President Trump’s authority and to following Gov. Inslee’s rules. Not very helpful.

Then there’s the “weaker brother” argument from I Corinthians 8:9. The letter writer, Paul, advises the cosmopolitan church in Corinth not to let exercising their liberty under God create “a stumbling block to the weak.” It backs up the call for responsible restraint, even though the U.S. Constitution protects the right to the “free exercise of religion.” It’s an argument in favor of opening decently and in order, following state guidance to keep the peace.

But to some Christians, the time for compromise has passed. They’re ready to move confidently forward, living out Paul’s words recorded in II Timothy 1: “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

Watching a livestream or dialing into a Zoom platform are useful technological substitutes for church as event. But they aren’t being there. The unknown writer of a letter to the Hebrews reminded early Christians to “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.” As the shutdown drags on, the need for encouragement is growing. We require human-to-human connection to thrive.

It was hard to justify why restaurants could safely open at 50% capacity and a church could not. Hand sanitizer at the entry, tape on the floor and blocked-off seating for social distancing are equally possible in both locations. And a spirit of self-discipline is essential to staying healthy, virus or no virus.

The word essential is rooted in the word essencia, meaning “substance of the Trinity,” the concept of God manifesting as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are approaching Pentecost this weekend, one of the defining holy days of the Christian calendar, and one of the few to escape being hijacked as a celebration of secular consumerism. At Pentecost, Christians celebrate the completion of the essence with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So what does God expect of His people? The church in all its denominations will continue to wrestle with the question. It’s essential.

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