A servant of the gospel has a simple task. Shepherd the flock that is among you (1 Peter 5:2). Simple, but often overwhelming in practice. If the current chaos that God has sent upon the world is stress-testing the saints, then how much more those called to guide, guard and shepherd those saints.
Ministers of the gospel are facing some very serious challenges right now and for which they need much prayer. Here are three battle fronts that come to mind.
The Worship of the Saints
In addition to the worship that should characterise our daily lives, shepherds and ministers of the gospel are called to guide the flock into faithful worship. We are to approach God on His terms, in worship regulated by His word. This is why we don’t barbecue a goat at the altar but why we do enter His gates with thanksgiving in our hearts.
God requires it.
Serve the Lord with gladness: come before His presence with singing. Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of his pasture. (Psalm 100:2-3)
Motives aside, our worship is now being called into question. The state is now regulating our approach to the throne of grace.
The ministry of health belongs properly to the family, yet there is some overlap. The state has the power to interrupt the ordinary worship of those with visible sickness, and isolate them (Leviticus 13:43-46).
In other words, the sick stay home. But what about entire communities and entire congregations where there is no health crisis? Does scripture empower the state to quarantine or regulate the worship of the healthy?
Ministers of the gospel, who must ultimately answer to God and not the state, are now faced with the challenge of finding the line in the sand.
The Duties of the Shepherd
While the state bears the sword (Romans 13:4), the minister of the gospel comes bearing word and sacrament. He shepherds through prayer and preaching. His authority, like the authority of the state, is not innate. It is invested by God with boundaries set by God.
Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:2-3)
Is it possible that having adopted the state’s regulations, ministers of the gospel are now obliged to enforce them on the flock, thus becoming handmaids of the state?
I am not suggesting that civilians should not submit to the various orders issued by the state. There are many instances where Christians can cheerfully submit or cheerfully forget certain regulations without sin.
I am suggesting that all such orders require a regulator and carry with them the potential for coercion, the promise of blessing and the threat of punishment.
Is it within the purview and calling of ministers of the gospel to act as those regulators?
If the state is able to regulate the worship of the church, will ministers of the gospel, acting on behalf of the state, soon be excluding healthy sheep from the congregation for non-compliance? Will we censure or rebuke those who, by mutual agreement, sing out loud, manage their own hand hygiene, greet each other with a hug or share bread and wine?
If the state wants to know who is turning up to the church; if the authorities are curious about our personal hygiene habits, why can’t they send their own servants?
The possibility that ministers will find themselves trying to please two masters in these circumstances is great. Pray that God will give them wisdom and strength to navigate the precipice.
Feeding the Soul
Perhaps the toughest challenge facing our shepherds right now is the pressure to minimise the perceived physical risks of the flock over and against the needs of their soul.
Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law. (Romans 13:10)
Suicide in Australia from March to July 2020 is five times greater than the current national COVID-19 death toll1. Deaths of despair in Australia already outnumber those of the virus and the emotional and social consequences are weighing heavy on many hearts2.
We are taught in scripture that in this life we will face many risks to our physical body. God affirms such risks where they are done for the sake of love and truth. But the Bible never tells us to take a risk with our soul (Matthew 10:28) or with the souls of those in our care (Matthew 18:6).
The souls of many saints has grown weary. While some are busy trying to be a good witness to the community by satisfying the demands of the state, the sheep are scattering in search of food for the soul.
We are human. We need good lungs, but we also need big hugs. God calls us to love one another deeply (1 Peter 4:8), and that love is typically pictured in our coming together (1 Peter 4:9).
And so Christ came in the flesh.
By contrast, the world’s view of love is that we stay apart. But is it loving to isolate an otherwise healthy 80yr old widow who then dies in despair?
Some, from fear, have isolated themselves and are suffering. Others, in order to maintain worship and fellowship, have gone under-ground to find refreshment for their souls with other believers.
Ministers of the Gospel are shepherds who watch over our souls (Hebrews 13:17). Nothing more – and certainly nothing less. For this, our ministers require great courage and a clear head. Pray that they may have both and be present and strengthened to provide both.
1 A National survey from Monash University published on the 27th of July, 2020, revealed that half the population had been affected psychologically. 14% expressing that they would be better off dead. 33% had reported moderate to severe depression – up from 4-10% pre-Covid-19.
2 From March to July 2020 1,000 Australians have taken their own lives. 5 times greater than the national covid-19 death toll in the same period.