This past week has been a difficult week for churches. Churches are, by definition, an assembly of people who gather. Jesus suffered and died in order to make that gathering possible. The necessity of gathering on the Lord’s Day, if at all possible, is simply not a question for debate. We gather because we are brothers and sisters, adopted through the blood of Christ into the family of God our Father.
When we gather on Sunday, we are providing a visual demonstration of the glory of the gospel and giving testimony to the wisdom, power, and love of God. Nothing else in all creation has the ability to unite such a diverse group of people. Our gathering is a demonstration of the “manifold wisdom of God” (Eph. 3:10) and we are called to not neglect it (Heb. 10:25).
The recent recommendations for churches to temporarily postpone gathering in order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 have posed a difficult challenge for church leaders. On the one hand, we have clear instructions from God’s Word on the necessity of gathering. On the other hand, we have a clear opportunity to love our neighbor by momentarily postponing.
I watched and listened to pastors agonizing over this decision last week, and I watched pastors face criticism on all fronts as a result. Every pastor I know commented on the difficulty of the decision. Many pastors made one decision early in the week only to reverse that decision later. Many churches who decided to meet on Sunday were bombarded with public outrage on social media. While I was also getting private messages from friends who were facing criticism from the other side over canceling or putting restrictions in place.
In the midst of it all, I noticed a tone change from some. Some of the same leaders who admittedly agonized over the difficult decision earlier in the week were now heaping self-righteous aspersion on those who dared make the opposite decision. The choice to gather or not had become the litmus test of neighbor-loving faith.
As I prepared to face my congregation all week, I expected to say something like, “Don’t think you are more spiritually mature because you came to church today while others stayed home.” By Saturday, I realized that the cultural mood had shifted so much that I now needed to say to those tuning in on livestream, “Don’t think that you are more spiritually mature because you decided to stay home today.”
What is it about difficult times that so often leads to self-righteousness and condemnation of others? Why do we often come out of very difficult decisions with animosity toward those who made a decision we almost made?
Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, argues that moral reasoning is not merely a tool we use to figure out the truth. Instead, it is a skill we develop in order to justify our own actions and defend the teams we belong to. In other words, most of our moral reasoning comes on the back end of the decision. The decision is made and then the process of justification begins. One of the tools we use to make ourselves feel better about our own decision is vilifying those who make opposite decisions. If you’re wrong, I’m right and that makes me feel better.
The road to self-righteousness comes in stages. First, we have a difficult decision to make. Second, we choose a side. Third, we experience doubt and uncertainty about our choice. Fourth, we look for vindication to assuage our doubt (this is the stage where we begin posting any article we can find that backs our point on social media and frantically checking back every minute to see if people approve). Fifth, now that we feel socially affirmed in our choice, we lead the charge toward socially/politically/spiritually scorning all who disagree. And hence, self-righteousness is born and grows.
Somewhere along this path to self-righteousness, we forget all about the complexity of the issue and our own difficulty in reaching a conclusion. Somewhere along the way to supposedly loving our neighbor, we made it about us and forgot about loving the neighbor landed on the other side of the difficult decision.
At the very foundation of all that we believe as Christians is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Martin Luther said that this was the doctrine by which the church rises or falls.
Justification, in a nutshell, means that God requires righteousness. But we don’t have righteousness. God supplies the righteousness we so desperately need through Jesus. By faith, God graces us with Jesus’ righteousness and declares us not guilty.
To be justified by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone means we are all in the same boat. We all got here the same way. God’s justification, therefore, alleviates the pressure to always have to prove our own rightness and demands a tone of humility. It means that when difficult times arise, we cling to Christ more than ever and give grace to those who are struggling through the same issues but may come out on the other side.
Pandemics don’t have to lead to self-righteousness. When they do we add a spiritual virus to the insidious physical one. Throughout history, moments of crisis have occasioned the gospel to shine brightest. Let’s make sure that happens this time, too.