I will not recount what has transpired in the United States over the course of the month of March, in the year of our Lord 2020. Contemporaries to this publication know the goings-on of our COVID-19 situation, and those reading this after-the-fact can indulge themselves in news outlets – or in decades to come, oxford histories. My aim here is to exegete, not to bear witness. I mean to explain what has been going on. This is quite audacious – unless I’m correct, in which case this is quite appropriate.
The first vein of this crisis which I would like to highlight is the matter of church and state, particularly what authority the state possesses and what relationship it is to maintain with the church. There are four types of government ordained by God: self-government, familial government, ecclesial government, and civil government. Each of these governments bears responsibility for distinct realms. Familial government has no place deciding what shall be preached from the pulpit. Ecclesial government has no place indicting a man for murder. Civil government has no place forbidding the assembly of a local church.
Ah, and that’s what is happening right now. A Tamp Bay, FL pastor was recently arrested the day after leading Sunday church service(s). His local government had issued an order for all such assemblies (meetings of worship or otherwise) to be canceled. The church refused, and now the pastor has been carried off.
Because most people enjoy a good straw-man, and because living in perpetual panic only heightens that pleasure, let me begin with qualifications.
- Qualification #1: My point is not that this church was right or wrong to continue assembling.
- Qualification #2: My point is not that I consider this pastor like-minded. I don’t know much about him, so honestly he could be one of the televangelist nuts who claimed, “Jesus is sovereign over sickness, so we’re going to shake hands,” which is the logical equivalent of saying, “Jesus is sovereign over cars, so I’m going to let my children play in the highway.” The consequent doesn’t follow from the antecedent.
- Qualification #3: My point is not that civil government has no authority under God.
Now with these speed-bumps in place: the civil authorities involved in this event are wrong, and they should repent, and we should call for their repentance. In fact, the error these civil authorities have committed is so grievous, that it might be worth all local churches in the United States gathering together on Easter, in their respective houses, to protest the madness. Because COVID-19 is a small price to pay for maintaining religious freedom.
On constitutional grounds, civil authorities have no right to ban local churches from meeting. COVID-19 does not change this.
However, my primary concern is that on Biblical grounds (i.e. by God’s standard), civil authorities have no right to do this. God has given civil government a sword with which to protect human rights and punish evil-doers (for further treatment of this matter, click here). This means civil authorities have true authority to do their job, and Christ’s church does well to remember this.
But we would also do well to remember that the stewardship civil government has been given is not absolute or universal. Many people assume that the United States federal government has jurisdiction over anything a bald eagle can fly over, but this is false. They only have authority over the specific matters of which God has made them stewards. Civil magistrates have no place in the marriage bed. They have no place in the pulpit with the elders of local churches. They have no place at your dinner table, reminding you that the coconut pie has x amount of calories. They also have no place telling local churches, “If you gather together this Sunday, you will increase the likelihood of spreading COVID-19 – so you are forbidden to gather.”
It might be a good idea for local churches not meet for a month or so, but that’s not the point: the point is that civil government does not have the authority to mandate such policy.
And to be frank, they also don’t have the authority to tell families and individuals to “social distance.” Social distancing might be a good idea, but civil government has no authority to require it. Their jurisdiction (which comes from God) is not absolute and universal, and it does not extend to the nooks and crannies of our lives (Peter Hitchens has good commentary on this). Many people assume it does – many Christians assume it does, and now look where we are heading.
Let’s be careful what terminology we use. If your local church has temporarily suspended meeting on Sunday, you should not explain it as, “in obedience to our civil government.” That’s unconstitutional and (more importantly) unbiblical. Why are you forsaking the assembly (Hebrews 10) at the command of civil rulers? Is that what underground churches are all about? A better explanation might be, “out of respect for the concerns of our civil government.” In this case, you aren’t granting civil rulers authority that Christ has not willed them to bear.
I can only think of two reasons (real reasons, not the plastic ones) why Christians would be silent and complacent while pastors are arrested for assembling: ignorance or cowardice. In the first case: maybe some churches don’t understand that civil government does not possess absolute authority under God. In the second case: maybe some churches have grown so effeminate that they lack men to fight this battle. These would be Christian men who, instead of calling civil magistrates to repentance, respond to their orders to disassemble with, “Yes, Lord.”
And speaking of China, was it not just a few weeks ago that we were all sharing the news on Facebook about the arrest and indictment of Early Rain Church’s pastor? Local churches in China understand what authority civil government has, and the righteous spirit Peter expressed when asked to “please stop, you’re going to get someone hurt” (Acts 4:19-21). I only hope local churches in the United States are prepared to make such stands of obedience, if our civil government continues in the direction it currently travels.
I have my doubts, because these days “made in China” implies something completely different in reference to courageous faith.