The DC Mayor Doesn’t Get to Define Church

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Why Capitol Hill Baptist is standing by the physical gathering as a biblical requirement.

Since the spring, Christian commentary on COVID-19 restrictions and church closures has focused on the authority of government. Do we as Christians believe the Bible gives Caesar the authority to ask churches to cease gathering in times of emergency?

That’s a conversation worth having. Yet an equally important theological question has quietly lurked in the shadows, which many Christians have missed: What is a church? More specifically, must the members of a church gather on a weekly basis to be a church?

A recent lawsuit has brought this theological claim into the light. Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) in Washington, DC, served DC Mayor Muriel Bowser with a complaint and restraining order in federal court. It argues Bowser’s limits on public gatherings violate the church’s first and fifth amendment rights to gather as a church.

Since June CHBC has been meeting across the Potomac River in Virginia in another church’s field. The church first requested a waiver from the mayor’s office in June to be able to gather outdoors with social distancing. In September it was denied. Now it is taking legal action by pointing to the mayor’s own participation in recent mass protests and by asking for the same opportunity as protesters to gather.

CHBC does not contest the government’s right to require churches to refrain from gathering temporarily for reasons of public health. It is, however, asking the government to recognize that the gathering is essential to a church being a church.

Quoting pastor Mark Dever, the motion observes, “A ‘biblically ordered church regularly gathers the whole congregation’ because ‘without regularly meeting together, it ceases to be a biblically …

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