Last week, Governor Asa Hutchinson of the state of Arkansas released a new set of guidelines concerning COVID-19 and the holiday season. Included in these guidelines are several firm encouragements for altering ministries and services in local churches. In this article, I want to provide a brief response to what I believe to be the most controversial guideline among conservative Christians: the matter of masks.
Local churches in Arkansas should not heed the Governor’s proposals, and should not bind the consciences of Christians either way concerning the wearing of masks. Whether or not to wear a mask is a decision that should be left on the family and individual level. Here are two reasons for my conclusion.
For the Sake of Unity
It is self-evident that Christians in the state of Arkansas are divided on whether it is more or less faithful to wear a mask. Pointing fingers and assuming the worst of one another is an inappropriate response at this time. We must exercise incredible patience, tolerance, and long-suffering with one another on this matter, in part because of the novel nature of the situation, but also because there are bigger fish to fry right now. For the church to fight itself over the issue of masks would be disastrous, because her attention is needed elsewhere at this time.
This requires us to acknowledge that there are well-meaning Christians on both sides of the debate who have chosen their course of action out of a love for God and neighbor. One may wear a mask to protect others from the virus; one may not wear a mask to protect others from tyrannical civil magistrates. Both are real threats, and both may be motivated by a love of neighbor.
Now, I am not saying that there isn’t a right answer. One of these positions is more faithful than the other, and I have my own opinions about which position that is. However, I recognize that, at this time, this is a peripheral issue that should probably be shelved until we deal with more pressing matters. For the sake of unity, let us not bind one another’s consciences regarding masks.
For the Sake of Law
Paul, in Romans 13:1-7, demands that we obey civil law. In the state of Arkansas, the Constitution of the United States is the highest law. A governor, senator, policeman, or mayor who gives an unlawful order must be opposed. To comply with an unlawful order is to become culpable in lawlessness and to disobey Romans 13.
This matter is compounded by the relationship between church and state. No civil magistrate, under any kind government, has the authority to tell a local church how to worship the living God. Consider the example of Uzziah in 2 Chronicles 26:
And Uzziah prepared for all the army shields, spears, helmets, coats of mail, bows, and stones for slinging. In Jerusalem he made machines, invented by skillful men, to be on the towers and the corners, to shoot arrows and great stones. And his fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped, till he was strong. But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the Lord his God and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. But Azariah the priest went in after him, with eighty priests of the Lord who were men of valor, and they withstood King Uzziah and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary, for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God.” Then Uzziah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead in the presence of the priests in the house of the Lord, by the altar of incense. And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead! And they rushed him out quickly, and he himself hurried to go out, because the Lord had struck him. And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord. And Jotham his son was over the king’s household, governing the people of the land.vv..14-21 (ESV)
The king entered the temple and sought to perform the duties of a priest. He was rightly rebuked, because his jurisdiction did not extend into the sanctuary. It was not his job. This principle translates to church and state relationships in the time of the New Covenant. The Governor’s authority is political, not spiritual. He wields the sword of justice, not the keys of the kingdom.
I am thankful that the Governor of Arkansas has not acted explicitly as Uzziah did. For the most part this year, matters pertaining to local churches have been left to local churches. I recognize that the Governor’s November 10th guidelines are not laws or mandates, but suggestions.
That said, our Honorable Governor has walked a fine line. He has not entered the sanctuary as Uzziah did, but he has peaked his head inside and called out, “I’ve got some suggestions for the assembly that you guys may want to check out.” The Governor has strongly recommended changing how local churches worship for the time being. It is the duty of local churches in Arkansas to strongly remind the Governor what his job is – which is not to tell the church of the living God how to worship Him. The governor’s pen is not for writing sermons and his cabinet is not for pastoring sheep.
Moving beyond masks, this touches on one reason I think every guideline the Governor has issued for churches should be refused. You can’t read the November 10 guidelines in a vacuum, as if there isn’t a context to the restrictions. These guidelines are part of the larger narrative being pushed in this nation by hundreds of elected officials and dozens of big-media outlets. The narrative is that COVID-19 is so dangerous that everything has to stop in order to address it. C19 is the highest moral point, the highest ethical variable, in our country. We could sympathize with such language in reference to something like the Black Plague… but that’s the point, isn’t it?
Fear has the United States by the throat. Feminism has neutered our men, and Marxism has taken advantage of that weakness. Anxiety rings in our ears like a gnat you clutch at but can’t squish. This is the historical context; this is our situation. Churches are responsible to preach to, sing to, pray to, and minister through this situation. We have no word from Christ that His kingdom has stopped advancing in 2020, and so for us it must be “full steam ahead.”
If we are told to cancel the Christmas play, then I say we should immediately arrange for the biggest, brightest, loudest Christmas play, with special scenes that depict a frustrated Herod trying to thwart the reign of Christ. If we are told to administer New Covenant graces in Old Covenant garbs – before God with veiled face – then I say we should respond with a laughing GIF. If we are told that Thanksgiving is canceled, then I say we should post videos on Facebook of our families huddled close together singing hymns (and we should tag the CDC in those posts).
Basically, I am arguing that Christians should be patient with one another and stubborn with tyrants. Our churches should be field hospitals of love and truth for all in Christ, and command centers for waging war against lawlessness. Local churches should bend as needed to the immediate needs and concerns of individual families regarding masks. In the same breath, local churches should prove unrelenting to the sudden, fearful power-grab of civil magistrates across the state. Make room for John Mark, but rebuke Herod.