My dearly loved friends,
I want to thank you for your prayers for the session this week. We definitely felt them and certainly needed them. We met last night for 4 hours as we prayed and worked together on a new protocol for dealing with the COVID situation. The new county ordinance that became effective Wednesday was discussed in depth as well as what our response should be. Your elders love you and are committed to you and your best. I want you to know that even though there is a wide variance of opinions about issues surrounding the COVID pandemic amongst the elders, we all unanimously affirmed our commitment to the foundational principles that resulted in our decision. We all continue to mutually submit to one another and to the will of the session.
First, please realize that none of the session likes to wear masks and we know there are disputes about them. That was not why we met. We know there are differences of opinions on a lot of the issues surrounding COVID, and those viewpoints were all represented during discussions and deliberations, but again, that is not why we met. So why did we meet?
One thought that was shared that resonated with the elders was: What do we believe to be most honoring to God at this time? In other words, what is our aim? Perhaps the following:
To honor God most, by
Protecting our corporate worship;
Protecting our people; and
Honoring our God-ordained authorities.
The worship of God is the highest privilege and responsibility we have as followers of Christ. We are so grateful for a beautiful facility, talented musicians, and faithful preachers of the Word that guide us into corporate worship. I personally look forward to Sunday. This past week of not being able to come was hard and I will miss one more Sunday. That’s not how it is supposed to be. We desire most of all to be able to have the body of Heartland—all of the body of Heartland—gathered together on a Sunday morning to worship our God together. Our protocol puts a high emphasis on protecting our ability to gather for worship. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
We want to be together. And our job as elders is to protect the flock—spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. We know that several of our people have recently tested positive and thankfully, they have had mild symptoms. We have had exposures at church. We want to be together. But we also want to provide a safe environment so that all of our people will be able to come including our brothers and sisters who may be more vulnerable. That is something we should all do. Our protocol puts a high emphasis on protecting our people. (1 Peter 5:1-4)
We really want to be together. We still are able to come to worship, to hear the Word preached, to participate in the sacraments and to enjoy fellowship. It’s different for this season, but we are still able to do these things. But we also believe it is important and Biblical (and therefore not optional) to submit to the governing authorities unless they command us to sin by doing something God forbids or forbidding us from doing something God commands. The Session strongly agrees that the current county ordinance does not compel us to sin. We therefore believe that we must submit. Our protocol reflects our commitment to Biblical submission to our governing authorities (Romans 13).
In light of all this, we are making some changes to our practice. Some are more flexible and will give us more freedom in our worship, but each one of us needs to help. This new county ordinance expires on December 31 and we will reexamine the situation at that time or sooner if required by changes to applicable ordinances, laws, or public health orders. So, for now, we are asking you to adhere to the following protocol:
Heartland Community Church will endeavor to follow all lawful commands of the civil government unless they violate God’s Word as contained in the 66 books of the Bible. (See especially Romans 13, but also WCF XXIII, WCF XX)
Based upon applicable ordinances, laws, and public health orders subject to the limitations noted below:
1. Masks or face shields must be worn while on Heartland Community Church property. People may remove their masks once they are seated provided they are able to maintain six feet of social distancing at all times. The distancing requirement while seated does not apply among people who reside together. Exceptions are listed below.
a. Persons age five years or under;
b. Persons with a medical condition, mental health condition, or disability that prevents wearing a face covering—this includes persons with a medical condition for whom wearing a face covering could obstruct breathing or who are unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove a face covering without assistance;
c. Persons who are hearing impaired, or communicating with a person who is hearing impaired, where the ability to see the mouth is essential for communication;
d. Persons while they are eating or drinking, provided they maintain a 6-foot distance between individuals with only infrequent or incidental moments of closer proximity.
e. When actively preaching/speaking to the congregation or leading vocal music, provided 6-foot distance from all other individuals is maintained.
2. Individuals on Heartland Community Church property shall maintain 6 feet of social distancing from other individuals, unless such individuals reside together.
We are grateful for your commitment to the well-being of Heartland Church and ask your prayers for us all in the days ahead.
So, if we would all wear a mask into the building, then once seated, we have the option of removing our masks for worship if we maintain the required six foot distance. That is the distance between two pews and that is why we have every other pew marked off as closed. If we can all respect that, those who desire to remove their masks during worship will have the freedom to do so and we can all enjoy worshipping together. Then, we ask you that you put your mask back on while you are in the building as you gather, talk and leave. We are simply asking you to endeavor, to make every effort, to try ... to follow an ordinance that is admittedly imperfect and at times confusing.
I want to ask your forgiveness for one thing I said a while back that has caused great confusion. That is the comment about not binding your conscience. What I should have said is, If your conscience is bound by Scripture, no one can force you to go against that Biblical conviction. That is a major distinction. It’s not just if you want to do something or feel a certain way. It is that you have a firm and reasonable conviction, based on the Bible. If that is the case, your conscience will not otherwise be bound by the session.
Here is how it is described in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 20—
2. God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.
I know that there may be legitimate Biblical reasons to reject the ordinances of man, but I want to challenge you to put together your Biblical convictions and share those with the elders. Again, Biblical civil disobedience is not justified by mere disagreement with a law, how you feel about something or the fact that it may be inconvenient or you don’t like it. It has to be grounded in the Bible. Again, I am sorry I didn’t state that clearly.
Finally, this is not exactly how I thought my last year would go. It has been one of the hardest years in my life and ministry. One thing that has been hardest is to see the division and disunity that has come about from this whole COVID and mask situation. It breaks my heart. And yet, I am more firmly convinced than ever that our God is sovereign and is ruling and reigning even now. This did not take Him by surprise. This did not thwart His perfect plan. I know that as we look back we will see how God used this for His glory and our good. For me, if not for the COVID pandemic, I would not be teaching with Equipping Leaders International. Their ministry model was to go in person and minister in different countries. Because of my cancer side effects, I can’t travel internationally. Now, because of COVID, they have adopted an online ministry model that allows me to minister to pastors around the world while teaching Bible and theology from my office. What a joy and blessing!
I pray that each of us will be able to look back on this year and see God’s sovereign hand guiding our lives. I pray that this time will deepen our desire to be together to worship, to fellowship, to serve and to enjoy community like never before. Please, I beg you, don’t let COVID take away your joy. Don’t let a mask or social distancing take you away from worship or being together. Don’t let a pandemic keep you from welcoming and loving our new pastor, Jonathan and his family. Most of all, don’t let this hard time drive you into bitterness or anger. Let’s try to help each other keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and run the race that is set before us. I pray that as we do, the world around us will see how much we love our God and each other. And they will know that we are His disciples.
I love you so much and will miss you terribly!
Pastor George for the Session