This is my second interpretation of the U.S. COVID-19 situation. The first installment concerned the relation between civil and ecclesial government (search blog feed for “Made in China”). That article was quite dogmatic, drawing a thick, straight line between Biblical doctrine and the notion that civil magistrates have authority to cancel ecclesial services.
Concerning my position, there has been more push-back than I anticipated. Apparently, it is not a universal given among Evangelical Christians that the United States government has over-stepped its boundaries by harshly prohibiting local church assemblies in Florida, New York, etc. The substantive arguments I have seen concern church history – primarily drawing from a Baxter catechism and examples from the 1918 influenza epidemic. In both cases, some Christians in the past seem to have believed that civil government does have the right to cancel local assemblies of the church. I don’t find these examples particularly weighty, because they are brief and non-exegetical. I am much more interested in what the Bible says. Further, let’s keep in mind that for nearly a thousand years, distinctions between ecclesial and civil governments were muddied. This historical context bears significant weight for examples like Baxter.
To this matter, some have referenced Romans 13 as giving civil government the authority to protect its citizens against natural disasters. I don’t see this in the text. Others have drawn correlations with Joseph in Egypt, but I also don’t see how Joseph’s position was God condoning the Egyptian form of civil government. So I’m going to maintain the before-mentioned position.
In this second article, I would like to address the matter of weekly assembly and over-sight in local churches. The harshest words in this whole mess, perhaps, are being thrown at local churches which have decided to continue meeting in person. Apologia Church in Phoenix, Arizona is one such congregation. I have read a plethora of comments on social media, concerning how “insensitive,” “hateful,” and “dangerous” it is that some churches continue to meet, when COVID-19 is on the prowl.
What this tells me is that many Christians don’t take the weekly assembly of Christ’s church nearly seriously enough. It is a command, we should remind ourselves, to not forsake our assembly (Hebrews 10) – and that should be enough to silence the opposition. There are reasons to not meet during the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are no home-run reasons not to meet. I am part of the leadership of a local church that has canceled physical gatherings at this time, but doing so was a hard decision to make, and one which we will reverse as soon as possible. But many Christians seem to not have trouble at all making the decision. I don’t sympathize with this posture.
This is a good time to reflect on ecclesial authority, as last time we reflected on civil authority. A church, by God’s design, is to be ruled by a plurality of elders. Some churches may be too small to have more than one, and that’s fine. These elders are responsible for the well-being of those sheep which Christ entrusts to them (i.e. the membership roll). It falls under their jurisdiction to cancel or continue services during this time.
So let’s stop flinging mud at each other. One church decides not to meet for a month(ish), another church decides to continue meeting (but with safety precautions) – it’s a hard decision, it’s an elder-level decision, and it’s a “with all patience” decision. When all of this blows-over, when the dust settles and the vaccinations are jammed into our arms, we’re going to have plenty of time to think about how better/worse we could have handled this crisis. Because whether or not COVID-19 is that dangerous, it certainly is a crisis. Our panic has made that much certain.
If certain civil authorities really are licking their lips to crack-down on pesky religious liberties, then their best-case scenario in this mess would be to find an evangelical church mutilating itself. And what a coincidence that many of the Christians who today harshly tell pastors, “go home,” are the exact Christians who yesterday lamented Beth Moore. There are some matters which must be handled dogmatically (egalitarianism) and some which must be handled subjectively (do we cancel Sunday service?). I’m calling for graciousness, for our keyboards to stick with honey because of how sweet our words are with one another. I confess to need more honey.
If we don’t do this, then (as I was saying) we will be prime targets when all this is over.
Sweetness and graciousness, meekness and mercy – let these things define Christian interaction for the next few months. We can wrestle about it later.