In Ontario (where I live), the government has mandated stay-at-home orders except for essential services. Churches may still meet under these guidelines but with only ten people.
In response, at least one church has decided to host many services of ten people; others have decided to go online; still others have decided to remain open despite the mandate. And I suppose some churches will continue to do host multiple services in the week as they had done even before the pandemic.
In this sense, Christians have shown in various ways that they believe the church is vital. Some use the language essential to (I think) indicate that churches should remain open like other essential services (e.g., a grocery store). In Ontario, we still can meet with ten people. But these recent restrictions do limit our freedom to worship.
Here, I want to use the language of essential to argue for a particular way to describe the church’s relationship to the world: namely, how the church is to the world as the soul is to the body.
An Old Metaphor
To borrow an early Christian metaphor, the church is the soul of the world—it gives it life (see the Letter to Diognetus). It is the often invisible substance that gives life to the outward body of countries, continents, and the whole globe.
In this metaphor then, the church stands in essential relation to the world and its accidents (in the old sense). As the soul remains stable, the body grows and changes. The soul directs the body, works alongside it. It gives it life. It animates it.
Our government may not deem the church “essential” as a civil contribution to the necessities of bodily life: food, drink, and safety. They do so because generally speaking the government of the world focuses on these things (see Rom 13). But that invisible principle remains vital—in the old sense again!
In other times, the necessity of soulish health (the kind of help the church can provide alongside course bodily in feeding the poor, etc.) seemed much more obvious. That it does seem so today, I think, tells us about where we are in this “secular age.”
Invisible But Real
The church’s contribution to society is not only invisible in the positive sense but invisible in the negative sense. Few notice it. Politicians have frequently forgotten to mention or think through how their mandates impact religious services.
That forgetfulness tells a whole story. Yet we know: as the soul is to the body, so the church is to the world. We stand metaphorically in essential relation to the accidents of the world. We are the stuff; they are the-changing-things.
If leaders do not fulfill their priest-like duty (λειτουργοὶ) to govern well (Rom 13:6), then they forget that the kingdom of God works out in and through the church-universal as we obey the law of love.
The church is essential, but not in the way the government would like us to understand the world. We, the body of Christ, spread across the world yet united in one body by the Holy Spirit, energize the world. We preserve the good and proclaim hope.
As the soul stands in essential unity to the body, so the church—metaphorically—stands in essential relationship to the world. If we forget that, we forget our real impact on the world around us. The church is vital, life-giving to the world. After all, we proclaim the one who calls himself Life (John 14:6).