There’s a movement by the Government of the United States to limit, restrict, and dictate how places of worship conduct themselves. And there’s an equal and opposite force within Christianity to resist the Government’s push to social-distance, limit congregation size, and wear masks. And in many cases, there is also a population of Christians who are thinking that it’s better safe than sorry, which creates a division even within the Church as to what to do. We’ll take a look at every angle, see what the Bible tells us, and lay the groundwork for what a Church should do in these kinds of situations.
First, what is the Government telling us to do? We’re told that the restrictions on the size and conditions of gatherings is for our own protection and the safety of others due to the pandemic. The imposition that these restrictions make is a small price to pay to ensure that we minimize the spread of COVID-19 and prevent the overwhelm of our healthcare system. We’re told that this must be done until we have effective therapies and possibly a vaccine that will mitigate the pandemic. So wear masks because “it’s science.” “Social-Distance” because it’s prudent. Respect the health of others who might be weaker than you and more prone to the effects of the virus, because “it’s the right thing to do.”
The movement to resist this within the Church has a different story. The maskless warriors rebut the Government restrictions and assert that masks are silly and they do nothing - except make it hard to sing. The Government has no right to limit worship - it’s in the Bill of Rights. No one can tells us how to worship. "We ought to obey God rather than men” (Act 5:29). And anyone in the Church who doesn’t take a stand and decides to believe the Government are “sheeple,” and they don’t stand for Christ and so they’ll fall for anything.
Then there are those people in the middle - those Church-going parishioners who want to worship but also want to be safe. Those people are concerned for themselves and for loved ones, fearing for those who might be especially susceptible to the virus, They see the painful but minor inconveniences as a compromise worth having. There are some restrictions, and we have to wear masks, but at least we get to meet if we want to. And if we don’t, most Churches stream services, so at least we can still grow and learn in the safety of our own homes.
So who’s right? What is a Church leader suppose to do? Are there any examples or advice that we can glean from the Bible or Church history to help guide us? What’s the right path?
We’ll take a look at all of those things, analyze them in the light of the Bible and our Christian heritage, and lay the groundwork for the path we should be taking as a Church.
As of this writing (July 29, 2020), there have been a total of 4,294,770 confirmed cases of COVID-19 which have resulted in 148,056 deaths (counted from the first reported case in the U.S. on January 20, 2020). Comparing that to the flu, the CDC reports that the flu season from October 1, 2019 through April 4, 2020 resulted in up to 62,000 deaths.
The fact is, even at this point we know very little about the virus that causes COVID-19. There are therapies being developed, and vaccines are entering clinical trials. Who know how log it might be before anything becomes readily available. But there’s no doubt that the virus is real, and it’s taking lives. The elderly and those with certain conditions appear to be most vulnerable, but no group is completely safe.
Another fact is that the Government restrictions have hurt many businesses and Churches. It’s hard to grow a Church or even keep it stable when you have to limit the capacity to a fraction of what the Fire Marshall will allow. And even those brave souls who do attend have new rules that they must obey just to show up on Sunday. And then there’s the Bill of Rights. And there’s also the group of Christians who would rather see us play it safe.
So far, it’s as clear as mud. But what does the Bible have to say about all this?
The Biblical Response
The common saying within the Church, that "We ought to obey God rather than men” The idea is that this Scripture is telling us to give the Government the Bronx Cheer, defy their orders, and continue meeting as a Church - as God intended. There’s only one problem with using that Scripture as the authority to resist the Government - that Scripture doesn’t mean that.
The Scripture being referenced is:
Act 5:29 But Peter and the [other] apostles answered and said: "We ought to obey God rather than men.
But when you read that verse in context, it has nothing to do with resisting the Government. It has to do with resisting the religious leaders of their time, who were instructing the Apostles not to teach in the name of Jesus. Here’s the verse immediately prior to the one that’s quoted, and those Apostles were brought before the Council to give account of themselves (the Council being made up of the high priest, the captain of the temple, and the chief priests, according to verse 24 in that same chapter):
Act 5:28 saying, "Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man's blood on us!”
This has nothing to do with resisting the Government, and everything to do with preaching Jesus. To my knowledge, no one has made any such restriction on the Church. And the President as of today seems to hold the Church in high regard, and it’s doubtful that this is even close to a “slippery slope.”
But the Bible has a lot to say about living under Government rule.
When Jesus was being trapped into a political argument, He tells us to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (Mark 12:17).
Jesus made Himself subject to the Government. He acknowledged to Pilate that Pilate had authority over Him in John 19:11, and confirmed by the Apostles in Acts 4:27-28.
Paul tells us in Romans 13 that we should be subject to the governing authorities. Jesus was also obedient to the governing authorities, being obedient to their death, even the death of the cross (Phil 2:8). In 1Peter 2:13-17 we’re told that we should be subject to the governing institutions for the Lord’s sake, because it’s the will of God.
The Bible tells us to pray and give thanks for kings and all who are in high positions (1Tim 2:1-2).
I’m sure that the immediate reaction will be, “so we obey even of the government wants to shut down Churches?” That’s a hypothetical that is not actually happening, so we just shouldn’t be making decisions based on that.
What Should the Church Do?
As of this writing, no one is telling the Church not to meet or preach the Gospel. I think that the verse used to justify resistance is not applicable in this situation.
Having said that, resistance seems to be the worst possible choice. It leaves the people who want to be more careful as outcasts within the Church, it takes away the Church’s moral authority by becoming anti-Government, and - God forbid - if anyone gets sick or dies as a result of lack of caution, it leaves the Church open to profound criticism.
But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that we miss the opportunity to lead.
Christianity has a rich heritage of optimism, hope, and innovation. When Joesph was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, he submitted to those in authority and did not lose faith. In fact, he acted on his faith and the result is that he saved most of the known world from famine, and became one of the most powerful and influential people on the planet.
When Paul was in chains he didn’t lament on how bad and unrighteous the Government was. He kept preaching the Word from prison. Many of his letters have their start with Paul being imprisoned, yet he led from that position, and came up with ways and methods of reaching out in spite of his circumstances.
Jesus didn’t revile Pilot or Herod, or curse their Government. He used the circumstances to His advantage, and used death to defeat death.
Criticism is easy. Innovation in troubling circumstances is hard. There are few statues built for negative people.
The bottom line here is this: we as Christians and the Church have an opportunity to lead and not complain. We have an opportunity to lift up and not tear down. We can innovate and come up with new ways and means of worship, evangelism, and community service. We can take what we are given and believe that all things work together for good. We can believe that God is for us. Or we can choose to be like the world, who have no hope and see the world as a cold, cruel place.
The choice is ours. How will we represent the God who freely gives us all things? And will the world see our good works and glorify the Father who is in Heaven? Or will they see us as hopeless and powerless as they are.