This is the story of two large Baptist churches who want COVID restrictions lifted so they can meet.
One is Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington, DC, well known to some groups of Australian Christians – such as Sydney Anglican and many Presbyterians – through its “9 Marks” publications. Its pastor, Mark Dever, has preached at St Andrews Cathedral in Sydney, and the former dean of Sydney, Phillip Jensen, has preached in the Washington Church.
Capitol Hill Baptist, located just six blocks from the US Capitol, has “filed a lawsuit seeking to be able to hold outdoor church services” against the District of Columbia. The 850-member church says since March “the members of CHBC — most of whom live in the District — have been unable to meet in person, as one congregation inside District limits (even outdoors).”
The church also says “meeting in-person as one congregation is a deeply-held religious conviction for which there is no substitute. Our simple desire is to have a community and one that meets together safely.”
As The Gospel Coalition’s Joe Carter points out: “CHBC believes that a central part of following Christ and being a local church is for all members to worship together at the same time and in the same location. CHBC does not offer multiple Sunday morning worship services or a virtual worship service. The congregation believes that ‘without regularly meeting together, it ceases to be a biblically ordered church.’”
That’s a rare stance; most churches will differ in how they operate during the coronavirus pandemic, whether by holding multiple services, having several locations, or live-streaming.
But perhaps the essence of Carter’s article is captured in the headline “Capitol Hill Baptist Shows How to Fight for Religious Freedom in a Pandemic.”
The church wants to socially distance, wear masks and meet outdoors.
The CHBC lawsuit points out that protests have been allowed to gather outdoors. Carter makes clear that “members of the church have said they don’t want the lawsuit to be seen as criticism of the protests.”
As reported in The Washington Post, the church lawsuit says: “The Church takes no issue with Defendants’ decision to permit these gatherings, which are themselves protected by the First Amendment, and the Church supports this exercise of First Amendment rights. The Church does, however, take exception to Defendants’ decision to favour certain expressive gatherings over others. The First Amendment protects both mass protests and religious worship. But Mayor Bowser, by her own admission, has preferred the former over the latter.”
‘Ease Restrictions on churches and Let us Sing!’ – Emmanuel Baptist
The Capitol Hill church protest differs from Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, which is defying a court injunction to meet in their building, with no masks or social distancing. Capitol Hill is obeying the law, and using the court system to seek an exemption.
In Sydney, another large Baptist Church – Emmanuel Baptist in North West Sydney – has launched a change.org petition titled “Ease Restrictions on churches and Let us Sing!”
“Given the announcement by the NSW State Government which allows Sydney’s major stadiums to increase to 50 per cent capacity, we are calling upon the NSW Parliament to ease restrictions currently placed on places of worship,” the church’s petition reads.
“Currently, we are restricted to 100 people in attendance regardless of building size and singing is banned during worship services.
“It is inconsistent and unnecessary to only allow 100 in attendance and ban people from singing in church, while allowing up to 40,000 spectators to scream and yell at a football match at ANZ stadium. Churches are an essential part of life for many Australians and the current restrictions placed on us seriously hinder our ability to carry out our faith and to serve the communities we are in.”
Emmanuel is asking to be able to meet under the 4 square metre rule. The church has a large building which would fit many more than 100. As this story goes to press, the petition has been signed by 1200 people.