When church leaders have been conflicted and faced with the prospect of defying the law of duly constituted authorities of the state, it is doubtful that they would have had to consider doing so over the right to congregate as a church, in the midst of a pandemic like the Coronavirus.
Indeed, the church – its people, are commanded by scripture to obey or submit to governments at every level (Ro.13:1-7; Ti. 3:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:13-16), though God has seen fit to allow her to practice civil disobedience to the state under some rare and exceptional circumstances.
Would one of those exceptions include defying orders to hold public worship services during state ordered quarantines for assembled groups? Is that a case of governmental regulation, or as some would say, intrusion into congregational life?
Case in point: New Jersey’s governor said he was “not thinking of the Bill of Rights” when he implemented strict social distancing measures to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus in his state, and he is not alone. State and local officials across the country, facing a spiraling public health crisis since mid-March, have issued highly restrictive public gathering bans and stay-at-home orders—sometimes without considering the constitutional ramifications of them.
Although most churches have adapted well to the guidelines without incident, looking to safeguard their members, as well as their greater communities with prudence, wisdom and a God-glorifying witness, some have struggled against overzealous enforcement of such restrictions even when they tried to comply.
According to a news report, it took two lawsuits and U.S. Department of Justice intervention before a Mississippi Mayor, reinterpreted his April 7 order in a way that allowed drive-in church services.
The report read that, “Temple Baptist Church said in a complaint that the city fined members $500 and sent police to break up services even though people stayed in their cars, six feet apart with the windows up, listening to the worship service over an FM radio signal.”
Apparently driving through a fast-food restaurant is okay- driving through a liquor store to pick-up a six-pack may be ok. Drive-thru to park and pray, hear the word of God with a church? Not so fast.
Echoing a statement made by the U.S. Attorney General, the Justice Department acknowledged that the government can take necessary, temporary measures to meet a genuine emergency, “ … but there is no pandemic exception … to the fundamental liberties the Constitution safeguards.”
While that sounds all well and good, a church vs. state conflict has arisen and may worsen in the weeks and months to come, over a church’s desire and right to worship God corporately, while the state seeks to protect public health at virtually all costs- even costs to economic life and liberty, including the religious kind.
Representatives of both, “The City of God” and “The City of Man” have seemingly overstepped their boundaries in ways that have hurt, rather than helped church and state relations during this pandemic season.
On the government side, the governors of the states of Kentucky and Virginia played hard ball during April’s holy weekend, clamping down on worship services to the extent that in one instance, police photographed license plates and registered the addresses of cars in the church parking lot to be submitted to the state’s health department.
In another instance, executive orders banned religious gatherings with more than 10 people – including a summons placed upon a Palm Sunday service of 16 attendees, carrying a penalty of up to a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine for violators if prosecuted, though such an action may be in violation of the state’s constitution, according to a federal lawsuit.
Yes, the conflicts have begun to move to the courtroom. On the church side, a controversial Louisiana pastor, who had been placed on house arrest for allegedly backing up a church bus toward a person protesting his defiance of state stay-at-home orders, held an in-person church service on a Sunday while wearing an ankle monitor.
Rather than beginning with an appeal to government officials to find an acceptable compromise between the public worship of God and public safety, this pastor decided to defiantly take a stand with little consideration of the gospel witness to obey “all” of the Great Commission commands of Jesus Christ, including the command to ‘submit to the governing authorities’ whenever possible.
Again, much of the problem stems from those that focus on taking the either/or stance, rather than a both/and approach. The church can cooperate with reasonable and temporary government restrictions to quarantine its citizens, as Israel took similar precautions with lepers in the book of Leviticus.
And at the same time, the church can be vigilant that government authorities not overreach and target the church – or any place of worship in our pluralistic society, to observe laws and orders which are not expected of other institutions.
Under such persecution, the apostle Paul appealed to Caesar among other Roman officials in the book of Acts, to preserve the opportunity to preach the gospel, and Esther made appeals to the state (Persia’s King) to prevent the loss of life.
When to Disobey
At what point then can and should a Biblically bound church, defy the commands of Caesar in order to remain faithful to God?
First, we should remember why the Bible contains Paul’s admonition to Christians to obey the human authorities God has ordained in society over them (Ro. 13:3-4). It is a command built on a foundation of the Lord’s intent for creating government with a two-fold purpose.
Fundamentally, the institution exists to restrain evil and secondly, to promote good, or literally honorable conduct, which one could argue, would include the good of its physical health.
But what do we do when the state commands you to do something God forbids or forbids what God commands, whether it be picketing, making petitions, paying taxes to an unjust government or holding a church service in a time of quarantine?
This an ethical dilemma for Christians to think about that has existed for centuries, from the time Rahab the harlot, was justified hiding the Israeli spies in Jericho (Jos. 2), or whether or not Corrie Ten Boom or Anne Frank’s families should have hidden Jews and lied about it in Nazi Germany.
John Stott in his commentary from the book of Romans said: “Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty.” So, there is precedent for biblically justified civil disobedience.
My study of scripture yielded essentially four categories of civil disobedience from scripture, which may help us develop the church’s COVID conscience:
- Preaching (Acts 4, 5:29), “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
- Prayer (Dan. 6:4-5, 10, 19-22) which concerned a governor’s edict to prohibit prayers to the God of Israel.
- Idolatry (Dan. 1:3-19, 3:16-18)
When Daniel and his three friends refused to obey the king’s dietary regulations, they disobeyed the law; but the way that they did it proved that they honored the king. Daniel gave a respectful alternative on the diet issue. He made an appeal first to the authority mandated by God in Babylon, which serves as a compelling example to churches today.
Then, Daniel’s three friends refused to break God’s commandments forbidding idol worship. There was no compromise on that.
4. Life (Est. 3)
The Hebrew midwives proved to exemplify perhaps the first pro-life movement recorded in Biblical history, when obfuscating the facts over births of the new-born babies ordered to be terminated by Pharaoh.
Therefore, in the Coronavirus context, is the church being prohibited from preaching the gospel or praying to God? At this point, the answer is no, as churches are still resembling their Heb. 10:25 mandate to assemble- no matter how incompletely, with online worship services and Bible study meetings.
Is the church being asked to commit the sins of idolatry and murder in meeting the demands of government to quarantine for health reasons during the pandemic? The answer would have to be no. I believe it is in the church’s best domestic interests and witness to a watching world to be patient – for now, by temporarily closing its doors for a little while longer, for the purposes of public health and love of neighbor, as we keep a watchful eye on government to keep our gospel doors open, as we strive to respect and submit to the authorities whenever we can without compromising God’s law – rendering to Caesar what is his, and to God what is his, which ultimately is everything.