Secular modernity has taught us to think of ourselves as “individuals.” This is not the language of Scripture.
God himself thinks of us in far more organic terms, with one foundational example being the pattern of bodies. This is a pattern built into creation, and it runs implicitly through the background of many places in Scripture. In other places, it is explicitly foregrounded.
A body is a single functional unit, with many differentiated members that contribute to the harmonious working of the whole. The human body, of course, is a body—paradigmatically—but a local church is also a body.
That the church is made up of people helps alert us to the fractal nature of the pattern: it repeats at larger and larger scales. A local church is a body, but it is also in turn a member—in the best cases, a member of a larger body, the presbytery, which in turn is an organ of larger body still, the general assembly, which in turn is one part of the universal body of Christ’s Church. Each of these bodies has heads; and yet like every body, that head represents Christ, who is the Head of all (Col. 2:10).
Thus far, a brief recap of the basic creational symbolic structure.
Scripture applies this structure and pattern to worship explicitly. When we worship, according to God, we are doing so as a body. Each member participates in the whole, just as the members of a body participate in the whole (Eph. 1:22; 5:23; cf. 1 Cor. 11:3). Put slightly differently, each person in the church, though differentiated, is not independent. What the whole does, the individual does, and what the individual does, the whole does. They participate in and partake of the same corporate identity and reality.
This is the point of Paul’s extended discussion of worship in 1 Corinthians 11:17–14:40—at the heart of which is his famous exaltation of love as the greatest virtue. Why he puts a discussion of love there becomes clear when we consider what he says in another place: that love is the bond of perfect unity (Col. 3:14). It is, as I have argued extensively, “onetogetherness.” We are one together as a body, just as the members of our own bodies are one together—differentiated but united parts of a unified whole.
Worship, then, is not less than an embodied reaffirmation, realization, and reification of the relationship between ourselves and our head, in whom we are constituted and knit together as one body.
Since worship is fundamentally about onetogetherness between members of the church body, and with their Head, Christ, what is done in worship implicates every member. No one worships alone; all are united. What the body does, the members do as one together.
So what if the local body you are worshiping with is ostensibly directing that worship toward one Head, Christ—but has functionally subordinated that worship to another head, the state?
Can worship truly be conducted in the Spirit, in truth, when it is not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body is supplied and knit together (Col. 2:19)?
And can a body hold fast to one Head while submitting to the unlawful, rebellious authority of another head?
Certainly not. Either it will hate the one and love the other, or it will be devoted to the one and despise the other (Mt. 6:24). This is why I cannot worship with you if your church is complying with COVID-19 lockdown mandates.
I can worship with your church if we disagree on eschatology—because we are still holding fast to the same Head. I can worship with your church if we disagree on Calvinism—because we are still holding fast to the same Head. I can worship with your church if we disagree on baptism—because we are still holding fast to the same head. I can worship with your church if we disagree on weird stuff like exclusive psalmody, or the KJV—because we are still holding fast to the same head.
But I cannot worship with your church if we disagree on who our head is. I cannot worship with your church if it is functionally submitted to another head entirely.
And if your church stops worshiping in person any time the state commands it, we have different heads—because submitting to lawlessness is rebellion against the true Head, the true Law, whom that state is supposed to represent. The Head who commands us to worship freely, fearlessly, and faithfully.
This is the case even if you don’t think you are rebelling against our Lord. It is true even if you have the sincerest motives and cleanest conscience ever to grace the heart of man, and your pastors are angels from heaven. No matter how I like you, how I love you, how I enjoy your worship, how fervently it seems to be expressed—how can I forget that functionally your church does not hold to Christ as head, because it will close down the next time the government fraudulently decides that worship isn’t safe or essential?
How can I make myself a member of a body that has taken a different head? What partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? Shall I cut myself out of Christ’s body and graft myself into a new god—the state? For what? What communion can be had through that god? What salvation does it offer?
Why don’t you rather repent, and return to our true Head?
If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanseth us from all sin. 1 John 1:6