Because extraordinary demands require
extraordinary justification, it’s time for a gut-check on
government’s “emergency” restrictions on religious freedom, and
our obligations to God.
church leaders deferred to government and health authorities when
faced with the potential of mass deaths and healthcare chaos when
COVID-19 hit the United States. Because of the unknowns, extreme
caution for the health of everyone seemed appropriate (see
Matthew 22:39) and virtual ministry replaced the promised
short-term suspension of in-person ministry, fellowship, and
after 5 months of inconsistent governmental mandates with dubious
results, much of the nation is still suffering from heavy-handed
government overreach. Even in states with reduced restrictions,
ratcheting back to full lockdown remains an option at any time.
With medical experts disagreeing with each other (and
themselves), and political opportunists teaming with an unscrupulous
news industry to manipulate anything COVID to disparage the Trump
administration, churches need to return to basics to make an
informed decision on what to do.
to the US Constitution says “Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
exercise thereof.” The term “free exercise” covers all matters of
faith (doctrine), ecclesiology (organization), and practice
(worship, ministry, etc.). With such a clear and profound
protection of religious freedom, any infringement on free
exercise must be: exceedingly rare, very limited in scope,
temporary, and overwhelmingly justifiable.
that both government and church are subject to the God that
created them (see Colossians 1:15-17). Each is designed to
benefit the other (see Romans 13:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16; 22:15-21),
and neither has dictatorial powers over the other. However, the
Constitution requires government to be deferential on spiritual
matters and not control churches like they do secular businesses
or governmental agencies. So, when government defines abortion
clinics, large retail and food outlets, liquor stores, marijuana
dispensaries and even mass protests as “essential,” while
churches are not, this relegates spiritual health to the status
of a hobby that can wait for a more convenient time. Arbitrarily
limiting indoor church groups to 10 or 100 independent of a
facilities’ size, even allowing or forbidding singing, is
exercising unconstitutional control over what is explicitly
protected from governmental caprice.
responsible government would be an advisor to the faith community
as much as possible, providing guidelines based on solid evidence
for pastors to consider as they make ministry decisions. When
government unilaterally dictates what is or is not allowable for
churches, then threatens noncompliance with contact tracing,
fines, turning off power and water, forced closure, and possible
prison time they’re sending a clear message: “I will tell you
what you can do, when you can do it, and for how long. Period.”
This hostility towards the fundamental rights of people of faith
displays a profound ignorance of spiritual matters (see 1
Corinthians 2:14), and a worldview that believes government
leaders are the final arbiters of virtually everything.
overstated, I don’t think so. Is it really that far-fetched to
think secularists may be jerking churches around to see how far a
compliant Christian community will bend to the will of
government? Or, is it conceivable these actions are just meant to
cause as much discouragement as possible within the faith
community during this Presidential election year?
the reasons may be, religious liberty is being subjugated to the
whim of secular rulers. If we value the religious freedoms our
nation was literally created to protect, unnecessary government
overreach must be resisted with all moral, ethical and legal
means available. However, at the same time it’s critical for
every pastor to implement reasonable safeguards based on the best
information available in order to protect the health of everyone
involved in ministry (see 1 Peter 5:2).
more significance than Constitutional issues is the biblical
command to obey God. The Lord instituted government for our good
(see Romans 13:1-4; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-14), but if its
actions cause us to disobey God, then it has exceeded its
authority and must be resisted (see Acts 4:19-20; 5:29). The
question is: have government restrictions been forcing churches
to disobey God?
clearest command we have is to routinely gather together in
worship (see Hebrews 10:24-25). Emergencies may override this
obligation for a very short time, but God clearly calls the
entire assembly to meet together, not just some arbitrarily small
number over an indeterminate time period. Creative use of drive
through worship or church parking lots only serves to vindicate
government’s usurpation of authority over the church assembling
together. Instead of looking for loopholes in government
mandates, church leadership should be deciding how to best care
for the spiritual and physical heath of the entire flock, not
just a small portion of the church at any given time. Its one
thing for church leaders to decide how to protect its vulnerable
members during worship; it’s quite another for government to
arbitrarily forbid people from worshipping together!
there’s more. What about the Lord’s Supper? The biblical pattern
implies weekly participation in this visual reminder of the
gospel and Christ’s redemptive work on the cross (see 1
Corinthians 11:26). Though weekly observance may not be the norm
for many churches, the disruption of the entire Body of Christ
routinely participating together is a direct prohibition of one
of God’s clearest means of grace to His people. This is a very
serious matter (see Acts 2:42-44; 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:17-34),
and one that government is incapable of understanding, much less
properly respecting (see 1 Corinthians 2:14).
about singing? Ephesians 5:19 (see also Colossians 3:16-17)
clearly shows that believers are to gather together to sing to
the Lord to praise Him and edify each other. How is this possible
if we are masked, social distanced, limited to an arbitrarily
small number, and prohibited from being inside? For that matter,
what about the need for believers to fellowship together (see
Acts 2:42), pray together (see Matthew 18:20), edify and
encourage each other (see 1 Thessalonians 5:11), and comfort each
other through physical touch (2 Corinthians 13:12)? Using electronic
means can be useful, but it is far removed from the blessings God
intended through the physical gathering of His people.
about weddings, funerals, baptisms? Each is an intimate,
profoundly spiritual event with the body of Christ assembled
together. Any government imposed limitation on the number present
(even with social distancing) only serves to limit the blessings
that God intends for us all.
government does not have the authority to deny the means of grace
that God intentionally created to build up the body of Christ,
pastors are the ones that must decide how to best honor the Lord,
respect the government where it is due (see Romans 13:7), and
also exercise prudence in protecting the health of the flock.
about civil disobedience?
church disobeying government if it doesn’t conform to all
off, government is the one disobeying the law of the land when it
prohibits the faith community from freely exercising their
constitutionally protected right to worship and pursue
ministry. After rejecting our nation’s highest law,
government then requires the people of God to forsake biblical
imperatives to worship together, participate in the Lord’s Supper
together, and to freely fulfill all the other spiritual disciplines
meant to build up the body of Christ while living out the gospel
– together! So who is really the disobedient one?
are churches hypocritical if they obey building and fire codes,
yet reject government restrictions imposed on worship because of
health reasons? Not at all! Building and fire standards
apply to everyone equally and are a public matter of common sense
(and common grace), with objectively verifiable
effectiveness. These codes help ensure ministry continues
unabated, and are not intended to be a means to destroy worship,
fellowship, ministry or any other church activity. However, if
building and fire codes were actually used to cripple a church’s
obedience to God, they would have to be rejected.
it’s tiring to hear the argument that Christians are not to
disobey government (see Romans 13:1-5; 1 Peter 2:13) unless
specifically ordered to disobey God, i.e. stop proclaiming the
gospel (see Acts 4:19-20; 5:29). Scripture also says that
government is intended for our good (see Romans 13:3-4),
therefore, when it’s actions run counter to that purpose the
legitimacy of those actions can and must be challenged.
Concerning the gospel in particular, it is proclaimed in more
ways than preaching. It is proclaimed in the Lord’s Supper, it is
proclaimed in our singing, in baptisms, in weddings, in funerals,
in small groups and in corporate prayers, and in honoring Christ
by ministering to each other. It’s clear that governmental health
mandates have significantly restrained the extent of these means
to proclaim the gospel. Government didn’t have to be overt in
restraining the gospel, it was able to do it indirectly (see 2
non-trivial impact on the gospel must be rejected (see 1 Peter
5:8-9), whether someone labels this as civil disobedience or not.
In our fallen world, if government is blindly obeyed it will only
be emboldened to do more damage to our spiritual health and
gospel proclamation when the next emergencies occur.
to us the future is uncertain, we know we’re in God’s capable
hands (see Psalm 31:15). Therefore, let us be diligent to
prayerfully ask Him to grant wisdom and unity throughout the Body
of Christ as we face the future together (see James 1:5).
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