Over 190 pastors in Virginia have signed onto a petition letter calling on the governor to modify two executive orders so churches can gather for in-person worship at least once a week as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
“As pastors of churches in Virginia, we thank you for your labors these last several months to care for the people of the Commonwealth,” the letter sent to Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday reads.
“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.”
Most Virginia churches have been unable to gather for in-person worship for the past several weeks since Executive Order 53 was enacted on March 23 banning in-person gatherings of 10 people or more.
Additionally, Executive Order 55 enacted on March 30 explicitly bans outdoor and indoor “religious” gatherings of 10 people or more. The orders will remain in effect until June 10 “unless amended or rescinded by further executive order.”
Monday’s joint letter was spearheaded by Michael Law Jr., senior pastor of Arlington Baptist Church just outside of Washington, D.C. Pastors were invited to join the petition by signing online. An updated list of signatories was released Thursday.
“The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is a hospital for the spiritually sick,” the pastors’ letter reads. “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.”
The letter contends that 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.”
The letter goes on to state that 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,” the letter explains. “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.”
According to the pastors, 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,” the letter adds. “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 pastors added that in-person gatherings are one of the ways God “heals and restores” souls.
“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,” the pastors stress.
“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.”
The letter also quotes former President James Madison, a founding father of the United States from Virginia, who stated: “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.”
“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,” the pastors explain, adding that the Virginia Constitution calls for citizens to be equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.
“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.”
The pastors say that enacting safety protocols such as those recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “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.”
Such measures include disinfecting hard surfaces, keeping congregants 6 feet apart, avoiding physical contact, closing Sunday school classes and nurseries as well as encouraging the sick and vulnerable to stay home.
“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,” the letter states bluntly. “There is no escaping death, for death is the wages of sin (Romans 6:23), and we have all sinned (Romans 3:23).”
One pastor who signed the letter is David Schrock, the preaching pastor at Occoquan Bible Church.
“The Church is a witness for the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Schrock told The Daily Signal in an interview. “That is why we gather on Sunday. Because that was the day that He was raised from the dead. And it gives a public testimony to the fact that He is alive and present to help all who trust in Him.”
In April, Lighthouse Fellowship Church on Chincoteague Island led by Pastor Kevin Wilson filed a lawsuit against Northam’s executive order after Wilson was served with a summons and threatened with imprisonment or fine for holding a Palm Sunday service attended by 16 congregants who observed social distancing protocols.
Vice President Mike Pence spoke out in defense of the church during an episode of the “The Brian Kilmeade Show” on Wednesday.
The former Indiana governor and senator explained that “even in the midst of a national emergency, every American enjoys our cherished liberties, including the freedom of religion.”
“The very idea that the Commonwealth of Virginia would sanction a church for having 16 people come to a Psalm Sunday service when I think the church actually seats about 250 was just beyond the pale,” Pence opined. “We are going to stand by men and women of faith of every religion in this country and protect, even in this challenging time, protect their freedom of religion.”