The following material was originally written to help God's people navigate the ever-changing administrative edicts of various governmental agencies and individuals in the 2020-2021 Covid-19 pandemic. It was written in booklet form that is not able to be formatted as such on this site. If you would like a copy of the booklet form (with corresponding page numbers, etc.), please contact .
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction ....................................................................................................... p. 4
How to use this paper.......................................................................................... p. 5
An Overview of Fundamental Questions Addressed ........................................ p. 7
Section 1: A Biblical Definition and Practice of Submission to Government:
According to the Bible, what are to be the general and regular attitudes and
actions of Christians towards government?........................................................ p. 8
Section 2: A Biblical Defense of Necessary Civil Disobedience: What are
the biblical limitations of governmental authority over Christ-followers
and churches? What actions or demands of government may call for civil
disobedience by Christians?.............................................................................. p. 11
- The proper relationship of human laws to God’s revealed law............. 11
- Examples in God’s Word when God’s people disobeyed specific laws
or officials.............................................................................................. p. 12
- New Testament commands that require the church gathered............... 20
- Loving one another.................................................................... 20
- Use of spiritual gifts.................................................................. 21
- Promoting zeal, spiritual fervor, serving and sharing............... 21
- Hospitality................................................................................. 22
- Shared emotions........................................................................ 22
- Unity & harmony....................................................................... 22
- Fellowship................................................................................. 23
- Physical touch............................................................................ 24
- Being God’s temple................................................................... 24
- Church discipline and forgiveness............................................ 25
- The Lord’s Supper..................................................................... 26
- Submission to one another and spiritual leaders....................... 26
- Comforting & encouraging one another.................................... 27
- Praying for and anointing of the sick........................................ 27
- Prayer, confession of sins, and restoration................................ 28
- Spiritual fruit-bearing................................................................ 28
- Biblical theological instruction................................................. 29
- Worship, corporate singing and praise...................................... 30
Section 3: Does the past and/or present situation in Washington State fit
any of these biblical situations for civil disobedience? ................................... p. 31
A brief history of Washington State’s Phased Approach to the
Covid-19 Pandemic............................................................................... p. 31
A Summary of Biblical Civil Disobedience.......................................... p. 32
Section 4: Specific Questions & Answers Related to the Challenges of
Covid-19 ........................................................................................................... p. 34
- Is a health or potential health crisis sufficient reason for governments
to regulate regular religious practices?.................................................. p. 34
- How serious is it when governments require people to cease normal
religious practices, regardless of real or imagined reasons?................. p. 36
- Isn’t the loving thing to do in this situation not to potentially expose
or infect others through continued church gatherings?......................... p. 36
- What and who are we to fear and not to fear in a crisis like this?......... 38
- Shouldn’t the government’s motive for limitations on religious
expression in a situation like this determine, to some degree, a
Christian’s response to government restrictions?.................................. p. 39
- Does the size of groups in prohibitions on the church-gathered make
a difference when it comes to civil disobedience?................................ p. 40
- What about mandating masks and social distancing in church
gatherings to potentially reduce viral transmission? Why wouldn’t
a church willingly embrace these simple and reasonable
accommodations to public health? ....................................................... p. 41
- Since the church is not a building but people who believe in and
follow Jesus, it shouldn’t matter that we can’t meet in the buildings
we are used to. I can have a relationship with God and others totally
apart from a church building, can’t I?................................................... p. 43
- What kind of gathering of God’s people actually constitutes a
functional church?................................................................................. p. 44
- Can’t electronic means of gathering together substitute for some or
all of the church’s previously practiced public gatherings?.................. p. 45
- Isn’t the church getting too political when it speaks out against
governmental controls of the church?................................................... p. 46
- Should the form of government a Christian finds themselves under
in any given country influence the type of response they make to
governmental control of the church?..................................................... p. 47
- Isn’t it misguided, counterproductive and a poor witness to our
secular society for Christians to appeal to our Constitution in
asserting our religious ‘rights’?............................................................. p. 49
- When should believers engage in civil disobedience and what are
the limits, if any, on civil disobedience?............................................... p. 49
- Isn’t this a lot of controversy about nothing? Can you really say that
the church is suffering persecution under the present situation and
limitations?............................................................................................ p. 50
- A challenge to Pastors........................................................................... 53
Section 5: Expanded Scriptures Related to Three Aspects of Religious Practice and Governmental Intrusion
- Singing................................................................................................... 54
- Assembling & gathering of God’s people regularly............................. 56
- Fear........................................................................................................ 59
Conclusion......................................................................................................... p. 61
Recent realities of the world-wide pandemic of Covid-19 have brought about new and sometimes troubling conflicts between the interests and power of national, state & local governments and the interests and rights of regional, city and local Christian churches. This paper seeks to explore the biblical basis for submission to government, the biblical limits to governmental authority, biblical evidence for civil disobedience and the practical application of all these biblical situations and teachings to the ever-changing realities of the current Covid-19 crisis that churches are experiencing presently across our nation.
The issues of civil obedience or disobedience to governmental authority by Christ-followers and their churches are not issues which most of the contemporary American church has needed to seriously examine prior to recent pandemic events. But throughout twenty centuries of the Christian church, this has been an area of biblical study that has been important to the theology, practice and attitudes of God’s people living in most nations of the world. It is, in the sovereign timing of God, apparently time for the American church to flesh out its theology and practice in regard to the relationship of the state to the church and vice versa.
In attempting to do so, I recognize that this particular topic and this particular season in American public life is one that is fraught with great conflict, division, emotion and debate. This issue is something that is dividing churches, marriages, friendships, families and communities. With this in mind, please read this paper with the heart in which I have sought to write it—with the desire to provide God’s people with a clear biblical framework from which to lovingly and respectfully discuss and decide what Christians can and should be doing during this and future situations in which the church may be prohibited by the state from engaging in all or some religious activities.
It is my sincere, humble hope and prayer that the thoughts and ideas contained in this paper will not add to the current conflict but will, in some small measure, help God’s people find common ground in the word of God and rediscover the unity of the Spirit which all Christ-followers have in our Lord Jesus Christ. No human’s viewpoint or wisdom is complete enough on this issue to have the final word. It is with a desire to continue to grow as well as grow together in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that I present these thoughts. It is my prayer that God’s people will hold first and foremost to the “law of love” as we seek to live under the laws of man.
John S. Repsold—December 2020
Soli Deo gloria
[John Repsold may be contacted at or via phone at 509-710-8026.]
HOW TO USE THIS PAPER
This paper was written in sections so anyone reading it could choose to zero in on issues of greatest interest to them while devoting a minimal amount of time to the broader topic. That said, the greatest benefit in terms of understanding the scope of this broad topic and the variety of issues addressed herein will be had by a reading of at least a majority of the material.
The first four sections contain different but sometimes overlapping elements of issues and arguments relevant to this topic. This paper is not a treatment of the issues from a historical, philosophical or political standpoint. My only interest is in grounding a Christ-follower’s understanding of these issues in the word of God, the Bible. Over the past year, it has become painfully evident that the greatest need of the church in this crisis is to understand what God’s Word teaches and has to say about the role of government in a believer’s life, the limits of governmental powers in relationship to the church and how we should be working out the dance between those two in our day with the current situation.
2 Timothy 2:15 calls a follower of Jesus Christ to, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” Correctly handling, or as the King James Version says, “rightly dividing the word of truth,” has never been more critical to the church. For that reason, I welcome any additions, improvements upon and corrections to the interpretations contained in this paper of relevant biblical passages. God’s Word is the primary, ultimate and only authoritative determinant of proper human conduct. While church history and contemporary world-wide church practice may illuminate this subject and serve as confirmative testimony to these truths, they are not to be determinative of truth. Whatever we appeal to for our arguments, the Word of God and an as accurate understanding of it as possible should stand over us and any of our personal opinions. For that reason, I hope and pray that every reader will wrestle more with the texts of Scripture addressed here than the arguments or opinions I express as flowing from them.
Depending upon your immediate interest, you may want to start with any of the following sections. Please keep in mind, however, that in some way the flow of this paper builds upon previous passages, discussions and arguments. If a later section appears to lack adequate support, it is hopefully because that support was presented in a previous section. Conversely, a straight read through may encounter occasional repetition of some arguments in an attempt to give each section some autonomy.
Section 1 seeks to lay a biblical framework for submission to governing authorities in the civil realm. I seek to deal with the most important passages that call Christians to submission to government as well as place those passages in the broader context of the whole Scripture’s teaching on this issue.
Section 2 seeks to define the biblical limits of both governmental authority and Christian submission from other Old and New Testament passages. These passages focus on biblical precedents and scope for civil disobedience as well as possible biblical limits to that disobedience.
Section 3 seeks to address two questions. First, does the past and present situation in Washington State fit into any of the previously cited permissible biblical situations of civil disobedience? I seek to give a brief history of our Washington State Governor’s mandates regarding Covid-19 as concerns the church directly. Second, I seek to address the question, “Why must the church be “a gathered-and-gathering church” in order to be an obedient church?” The bulk of this section seeks to illustrate, though not exhaustively, what practices and actions of the people of God must be carried out in a corporate and often public setting as opposed to practices of our Christian life that may be exercised individually and, in some cases, in isolation and solitude.
Section 4 seeks to answer specific questions that people are raising against the contention that the church needs to be a gathered-and-gathering church in this current crisis. Many people may want to go directly to this section as it may appear to be the most relevant and focused on the current Covid-19 situation. My only caution would be that this section assumes the reader has wrestled with the biblical data presented in earlier sections. Since this section is more particular application of the biblical truth presented earlier, some readers may find themselves disagreeing with my conclusions without fully understanding the biblical rational from which I make those conclusions. If that is the case, I would encourage you to take the time to read the biblical evidence and support for the answers I propose to these questions.
I would also particularly welcome additional questions, thoughts, arguments and counter-arguments of relevance to this section from any of my readers. This paper is very much a work in progress as the pandemic and many responses to it continue to be.
Section 5 serves actually more like an abbreviated appendix of scripture passages. It is intended to simply serve as an incomplete illustration of how extensive the biblical content is for most of the issues people are wrestling with when it comes to our responses to this crisis. I have chosen merely three biblical topics (gathering together, singing, and fear) to show that God’s word is both timely and often very precise as to how we should be responding to the challenges of today.
OVERVIEW OF FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS ADDRESSED
Since the current situation has produced a plethora of questions related to the church, the state, the proper relationship between the two and the best responses to the challenges of this pandemic, I have decided to address these issues in a basic question-and-answer format. It has become evident that many of the following questions have become critical in determining how God’s people should conduct themselves both in this specific situation as well as possible future similarly-restrictive situations which may arise. Some of these questions are:
- According to the Bible, what are to be the general and regular prevailing attitudes and actions of Christians towards government?
- What are, if any, the biblical limitations of governmental authority over Christ-followers and churches? What actions, laws, declarations or demands of government may allow or even call for ‘civil disobedience’ by Christians?
- Do any of the past and/or present actions of Washington State and its Governor fit any of those biblical limitations of governmental authority? If so, what types of actions by Christ-followers may be warranted in the present situation and what types may not?
- Specific Questions & Suggested Answers Related to the Covid-19 Pandemic.
- When should believers engage in civil disobedience and what are the limits, if any, on civil disobedience?
- Is a health or potential health crisis sufficient reason for governments to regulate regular religious practices?
- How serious is it when governments require people to cease normal religious practices, regardless the real or imagined reasons?
- Christians who demand their “rights to assemble and worship” during this pandemic actually appear very unloving, uncaring and selfish rather than sacrificially loving as Jesus called them to be. Isn’t the loving thing to do in this situation not to potentially expose or infect others and thus to avoid group meetings?
- What/who are we to fear and not to fear in crisis like this?
- Does the government’s motive for limitations on religious expression in a situation like this determine to some degree a Christian’s response?
- Does the size of groups in prohibitions on the church gathered make a difference when it comes to the practice of civil disobedience?
- What about mandating masks and social distancing in church gatherings to potentially reduce viral transmission? Why wouldn’t a church willingly embrace these simple and reasonable accommodations to public health?
- Since the church is not a building but people who believe in and follow Jesus teachings, it shouldn’t matter that we can’t meet in the buildings we are used to, should it?
- Can’t electronic means of gathering together substitute for some or all of the church’s previously practiced public gatherings? Can’t we obey all of God’s commands to the church through electronic mediums of communication?
- Isn’t the church getting “too political” when it speaks out against government and its control of the church in situations like this?
- Should our form of government influence the types of responses we choose in the present situation?
- Isn’t it misguided, counterproductive and a poor witness to our secular society for Christians to appeal to our Constitution in asserting their religious ‘rights’?
A BIBLICAL DEFINITION & PRACTICE OF SUBMISSION TO GOVERNMENT
According to the Bible, what are to be the general and regular attitudes and actions of Christians towards government?
According to Scripture, submission to all divinely ordained authority is to be a normal, regular and constant attitude of followers of Jesus Christ. Submission is the willing placing of oneself under the leadership, direction and guidance of God-ordained authority, seeing submission to that authority as a demonstration of submission to God.
God-fearing believers in Jesus Christ are called to submission to a variety of different human authorities:
- We are all called to submit to governing authorities and certain aspects of their rule (Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1-2; I Peter 2:13-17).
- Within the church, believers are all called to submit…
- to Christ (Ephesians 5:23)
- to each other (Ephesians 5:21)
- to church leaders (1 Cor. 16:16; 13:17)
- to other believers in the exercise of certain spiritual gifts, e.g. prophets are to submit to other prophets (1 Cor. 14:32) and the testing of their prophecies by the church (1 Thess. 5:20-21).
- In the family, wives are called to submit to husbands (Ephesians 5:22; Col. 3:18; Titus 2:5) and children to parents (Ephesians 6:1-3).
- Within households, servants are called to submit to masters (Ephesians 6:5-8; Col. 3:22; Titus 2:9). Some have taken this to apply to the present-day situation of employees and their relationship to their employers.
Clearly, we are all called to lives and hearts of submission, at least insofar as such submission to any of these divinely-ordained authorities does not require us to violate our primary and paramount submission to God and his will as clearly revealed in the Holy Scriptures, (see following Question 2).
Key Passages related to Submission to Government:
- In Romans 13, Paul gives us two reasons why we must obey governmental authority. First, God himself ordains the authorities (vss. 1b, 2). Second, they have been given the right to punish those who do evil or do not submit to their authority (vss. 3-4). As Dr. Douglas Moo notes in his commentary on Romans, “After repeating his basic command, Paul briefly touches on both these reasons again, in reverse (chiastic) order. We submit ‘because of possible punishment’ (v. 5b; cf. vv. 3-4) and ‘because of conscience’ (v. 5c; cf. vv. 1b-2) [Douglas J. Moo, Encountering the Book of Romans, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2002, p. 185.]
We can confidently declare that it is God who has ordained governments (different governmental systems as well as various leaders) for the purpose of punishing those who do evil or who refuse to submit to their authority. As we know, every human governmental leader and system is flawed. Nevertheless, God calls His children to submit to that leadership, imperfect though it be, by obeying its laws and edicts (again, as we shall see, insofar as both God’s law and informed conscience permit).
Paul goes on to illustrate how the paying of taxes is one application of submission that we are clearly called to honor (vv. 6-7) just as did Jesus Christ (Matthew 22:16-21; Luke 19:20-25), apparently regardless of how corrupt the government may be.
In addition, every Christian must recognize that, no matter how evil a human authority in government is, God has sovereignly placed that person in that role for that time. That does not mean that everything a particular governmental leader does is sanctioned by God or involves the rewarding of good and punishing of evil. Many governments throughout history have flipped that script to reward evil and punish good. That is not Paul’s focus in this passage. His concern is to assure believers that all governmental authorities are there by God’s sovereign permission and that we must obey them insofar as our biblically-educated conscience permits and place ourselves under their potential penal and capital punishments whenever our behavior violates their laws or edicts.
We are, therefore, to see God’s sovereign hand behind even the most wicked of rulers, whether that may be for purposes we do not presently understand (such as divine working out of history, national punishment or personal discipline) or for more obvious reasons (such as maintaining order, rewarding good, punishing evil or illustrating human fallenness).
This has clear implications for the behavior of Christians under evil leaders and systems. One of those implications is that every believer must be willing to bear the punishments decreed by governments when they choose to disobey those governments and leaders. Paul argues in Romans 13,
3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.
4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
Clearly Paul is not ignoring that many governments use the power of government to punish right and support wrong. His own death eventually came about at the hands of Roman officials who were persecuting good, godly Christians such as himself rather than commending good people as they were empowered to do. Paul’s point is that, in the norm, governmental authority, as God designed it, was created to punish wrong and cause fear in those who do wrong. Government should be feared when we are doing wrong.
But when we are punished by evil governments for doing right (as was Paul), there should be no “fear” of their abuse and misuse of divine authority. At that point our fear of God is to trump our fear of divinely ordained authority, even to the point of suffering death if need be. We have nothing to fear from the most important “authority” we are under when doing right. In this passage, Paul simply does not address the many instances in which government and governmental authorities may pervert and reverse the divine script God has given them by punishing good people for good actions.
Furthermore, a Christian’s submission to government should evidence itself not only in obedience to government wherever it does not violate God’s law (also see Question 2); submission should also involve consistent, frequent, fervent and faithful prayer for governing authorities (1 Timothy 2:1-4). It should include appropriate fear and honor of government (Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:17) as well as other demonstrations of Christ’s love for them (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:35; Romans 13:8) such as prayer, paying taxes and generosity.
- Peter’s admonition in 1 Peter 2 about submission to government echoes these truths. Rulers are people “sent by [God] for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good,” (vs. 14). But Peter adds to governmental authorities the term “every ordinance of man” (vs. 13) thus including all kinds of rules, laws, edicts and constitutions that Christians may encounter in diverse nations of the world. The biblical writers see God’s hand equally over both laws and law-makers when it comes to the Christian’s call to submission. But it should also be noted that it is the institution of government that is to be respected and supported by Christians.
This passage does not say that every policy is to be obeyed or even that every government official at every level of government temporarily holding the power of government should be obeyed and supported. In that day as in ours, Christians and others could strongly support the institution of government even as they rejected certain laws or worked diligently to have the current officeholder replaced by somebody more competent, God-fearing and just.
- Matthew 22:15-22—
"And he [Jesus] asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
This passage simply makes it very clear that when it comes to paying taxes, God’s people are obligated to pay those taxes, even when those monies may be used for very evil, immoral and contra-biblical things.
- Titus 3:1-2—
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, 2 to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.”
Here Paul addresses not only the need for obedience and submission to civil authorities wherever possible but also the attitude in which we are to live and relate towards them, namely seeking to do them good and never evil, eschewing slander of them as well as other fellow human beings, seeking to be peaceable insofar as it is within our power (Romans 12:18), manifest behaviors and attitudes that are considerate and gentle. Clearly a Christian is to have and demonstrate a loving and respectful attitude towards not just all people in general but rulers and authorities in particular.
If this were the totality of the Bible’s teaching on submission to governmental authority, we would be left knowing that, regardless of the nature of the demand by governmental laws or officials, we are absolutely bound to obey their every edict be they good, evil or some mixture of the two. But these passages are not the totality of Scripture’s teaching on the relationship of believers to government. Nor do they somehow trump or silence the many clear biblical examples of specific-situation applications of these and other biblical truths by God-fearing saints of old. Failure to include these passages and stories in a discussion of these critical questions related to civil disobedience will lead to an incomplete and deeply flawed understanding of God’s will for us as we relate to governments in our day.
A BIBLICAL DEFENSE OF NECESSARY CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
What are the biblical limitations of governmental authority over Christ-followers and churches? More specifically, what actions or demands of government may allow for or call for ‘civil disobedience’ by Christians?
To gain answers to this question we must look at three things:
1.) the proper relationship of human laws to God’s revealed law in His word
2.) those examples in God’s word when God’s people disobeyed specific laws or officials. In regards to this second category, we must also ask if God commended and blessed those God-fearing people and their actions of civil disobedience or rebuked and judged them for such actions.
3.) New Testament commands that require the church be gathered in order for obedience to exist.
The proper relationship of human laws to God’s revealed law in His Word
We begin with the first arena: what is the proper relationship of human governmental laws to God’s revealed law and word? According to Romans 13:1, “there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” From this and other passages it is clear that the state’s authority is a delegated authority. As such, the state has a duty to govern in conformity with God’s rule, not in opposition to it. As John Calvin wrote, “Earthly princes lay aside their power when they rise up against God….” [Calvin’s Commentary on Daniel, Lecture XXX, Daniel 6:32.]
Romans 13 clearly declares that the role of human government is to “hold terror…for those who do wrong” and “commend” those who do right (NIV, vs. 3). God-ordained governmental authority assumes that if we “do what is right…you will be commended,” (vs. 3). Paul goes on in verse 4 to explain that God-ordained authority “is God’s servant for your good.” Clearly there must be some objective standard for “good” referenced here or else every tyrannical and evil government on earth could be said to be “doing good” when they flip God’s law on its head declaring good to be evil and thus punishable by the state and evil to be good and thus commended by the state.
Paul, who was himself beheaded by wicked, tyrannical Emperor Nero for the sake of the Gospel, continues when he says in verse four, “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
Either Paul was, in the end, being rightly punished with death through the Roman government for doing some terrible evil worthy of capital punishment according to God’s divine law or Paul suffered martyrdom at the hands of a wicked Roman government official who was abusing and perverting his delegated authority in opposition to the revealed law of God. Both cannot be true at the same time. The latter is clearly the case whereas the former finds no support whatsoever in either history or Scripture.
When governments cease to do what they are appointed by God to do and instead rise up against God’s declared will, they cease to be authority which we must obey in that specific area and become mere tyrants against whom we are biblically bound to dissent. These biblical passages present us with both the rights and limitations of divinely ordained human government. One cannot claim that continued obedience to government is required based upon this passage when the biblically stated purposes and limits of government are not being upheld but rather egregiously violated by said government.
It follows that there must be some objective, immutable and universal standard of good and evil if we are to determine if a law is moral or immoral, just or unjust. Here is precisely where moral relativism and subjective or personal standards of right and wrong will inevitably lead to tyrannical governments who, in the name of their own personally determined “good” or “evil,” institute laws that punish divinely ordained good and sanction divinely ordained evil. Tyrannical states abhor objective standards to which they themselves must be accountable. When a nation or culture abandons an objective standard of law by which to judge the purpose and limits of the state, then the state will eventually invent its own “standards” of right and wrong and end up doing whatever it pleases (whether right or wrong) through any given law or edict.
If we believe that mankind is created in the image of God then we must, of necessity, also accept that when God makes declarations about the goodness or evil of any human behaviors, those declarations are binding upon us as human beings. The creature must, of necessity, be subject to the laws of his or her Creator. Those laws must take precedence over any humanly created laws when human law or edicts come into conflict with divine law.
As Christians, we believe the Word of God contains all the divine instruction necessary to weigh whether or not the laws of any human government conform to or contradict the laws of God. While there may be some difference of opinion on which Old and New Testament laws should apply to the civil sphere and are still binding upon all people, the Scriptures remain our only infallible and authoritative measuring rod by which we can judge the goodness or evil of civil laws. Civil laws that require any people to violate clear universal biblical laws and their biblically-informed conscience are not binding upon Christians and must be disobeyed while civil laws that concur with clear universal biblical laws must be obeyed by all Christians.
Examples in God’s word when God’s people disobeyed specific laws or officials
We now turn to the second issue related to the limitations of governmental authority over the lives of subjects: are there times in God’s word when God’s people legitimately disobeyed specific governmental laws or officials? If so, what were the issues at stake and did God seem to condone or condemn their “civil disobedience”? I present the following Scriptures and comments in support of a resounding “YES!” to this question.
- Let us begin with Exodus 1 and the story of the Hebrew midwives who disobeyed the king of Egypt’s clear command to kill all male babies born to Hebrew women in slavery in Egypt. We are told that “the midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live,” (Exodus 1:17). For this they were reprimanded by Pharaoh (1:18) but rewarded by God with families of their own (1:20, 21). Their fear of God rather than fear of a very powerful government official was a statement of living faith that evidenced in disobedience to the highest authority in the land, Pharaoh. So clearly God’s command against the taking of innocent life (Gen. 4:10-12; 10:5-6) is something that calls for civil disobedience whenever one is commanded by government or any human authority to kill any innocent human being. Furthermore, Hebrews 11:23 points to the faith of Moses’ parents in hiding him for three months rather than fearing the Pharaoh and his infanticidal edict regarding their son. God is clearly holding up their civil disobedience as a model of faith and obedience to God’s higher law.
- The entire exodus story of Moses confronting Pharaoh with demands to let God’s people go (contained in Exodus 5-15) is a series of defiant acts against an abusive, tyrannical and evil government. Moses neither heeds nor obeys numerous demands of the Pharaoh to cease and desist from delivering the Hebrews from their slave labor with his talk of freedom and deliverance. In this case, the unjust and abusive treatment of other people became for Moses (as it was for God) sufficient reason to engage in civil disobedience of a government which had forfeited its delegated authority from God when it engaged in punishing good and rewarding evil.
- In Joshua 2, Rahab is commanded by the king of Jericho to “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land,” (Joshua 2:3). Rather than obey the highest governmental official in her city, the king, Rahab lies to his messengers telling them the Hebrew spies have left the city when, in fact, they were being hidden by her under the stalks of flax on her very own roof.
Rahab is rewarded for such civil disobedience by God through the preservation of her entire family at the fall of Jericho. She is commended by God himself by being included in the Messiah’s human lineage (Joshua 6:25; Matt. 1:5). And she is pointed to favorably by James as a person of righteousness specifically for hiding the spies (James 2:25) while being commended as a woman of faith by the writer of Hebrews for her actions (Hebrews 11:21). At the very least, her actions of civil disobedience to a king’s direct command are commended by God. Some have even argued that even her deception of that governmental was a demonstration of the ethical position of “graded absolutism” and thus not a sin at all. (See Norman Geisler’s Christian Ethics.)
While we have no evidence Rahab actually had any knowledge of God’s written law forbidding the murder of an innocent person, she apparently understood through natural law and her conscience that to betray the two Hebrew spies would be in opposition to God. Her “faith” in the God and people of the Hebrews, infantile and self-preserving though it may have been, is nonetheless commended by God over the option of obeying the king’s command.
- In 1 Samuel 14, King Saul commanded during a military campaign, on pain of death, that no one in his army could eat until he won his battle with the Philistines. However, Saul’s own son Jonathan, who had not heard the order, ate honey to refresh himself from the hard battle the army had waged. Saul consequently ordered his son to be killed. However, the people/fellow soldiers resisted Saul and his command and instead saved Jonathan from being put to death (1 Samuel 14:45), a clear violation of the King’s edict. Evil, immoral commands and edicts are always to be disobeyed by subordinates, even in a military context.
- The fifth passage of interest is in 1 Samuel 22. The priest, Ahimelek, who had helped David and his men with provisions of food and a sword as they were running from King Saul, is betrayed by Doeg the Edomite. When Saul commands his body guards to kill both Ahimelek, his fellow priests and their families, these guards refuse on the grounds that they were the anointed priests of the Lord, (1 Samuel 22:17). Respect for God’s divinely ordained spiritual leaders in the nation trumped the highest civil official’s command to kill those he perceived as betraying him.
Thus, these last two stories echo the contemporary rule in the U.S. military that a soldier may disobey an “unlawful order” of a superior commanding officer. In this case, Saul’s bodyguards knew that carrying out Saul’s order would make them guilty of disobeying God’s higher order and command not to take innocent life. So, they engaged in civil disobedience by refusing to shed innocent blood.
- The sixth passage to examine is 1 Kings 18:3-15. In this story, Obadiah, the God-fearing palace administrator for wicked king Ahab, hid and provided aid and support for one-hundred prophets of God in direct disobedience of Queen Jezebel who was on a bloody rampage to destroy all the prophets of the Living God. Clearly God’s people are to disobey the edicts and laws of government that facilitate the destruction of God’s spiritual leaders and innocent people.
- The seventh and eighth passages/examples of civil disobedience come to us from the book of Daniel, chapter 3. The first instance in Daniel 3 concerns the three Jewish administrators under Daniel and the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, namely Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Under pain of being burned alive in the fiery furnace, these men refused to serve Babylonian gods or worship the image of gold created by Nebuchadnezzar. Besides the miraculous salvation of these three men from the fiery furnace, there are a couple of notable issue here in regards to civil disobedience.
First, these three God-fearing men were prepared to take whatever punishment and consequences their actions would produce. If it was death by fire, they would maintain their faith in God and continue to bear witness to their God over obedience to their government. If it was deliverance by God, then they would use that to publicly testify to the power of Yahweh while engaging in civil disobedience.
Secondly, this is a clear case of the “doctrine of the lesser magistrates” which holds that when a superior or higher civil authority makes unjust/immoral laws or decrees, the lesser or lower ranking civil authority (in this case the three Hebrew men) has both a right and a duty to refuse obedience to that superior authority.
Being faced with an issue of worship that contradicted God’s express law in His word, namely how, who and when they would worship a pagan, idolatrous representation of a pagan king, these three God-fearing men chose civil disobedience and the promise of near-certain death over disobedience to God and His law. While these three men expressed their confidence that God would deliver them from the king’s hand, they also recognized that if that deliverance was through death at the hand of the king (3:18) instead of miraculous intervention, they were willing to assume the governmental consequences for such civil disobedience rather than the divine consequences for disobedience to the law of God.
- Daniel 6 contains one of the most important passages related to civil disobedience. Daniel, one of the three highest ranking administrators over numerous subordinate governmental officials (satraps), so distinguished himself in his integrity and competency that King Darius planned to elevate him to second in command in his kingdom. The other officials, jealous of Daniel, set about laying a trap for him that would, they thought, cause him to lose favor with the king. Knowing that they would not be able to find any failure in Daniel with regard to the existing Medo-Persian laws, they determined to incite the king to pass a new law they knew would entrap Daniel in a situation where he would either have to compromise his faith or disobey the law of the land. Interestingly, these jealous officials were so convinced about the depth of Daniel’s commitment to his religious practices that they staked their entire plan on that commitment knowing he would not compromise his practice in the least.
The law they incite the king to enact concerned, again, worship. In this case it specifically addressed prayer. It didn’t outlaw all prayer nor even mandate that a person had to pray. It was very limited in its scope of time—30 days. And it simply limited prayer to none other than the king.
The king, under the false and deceptive impression given by the other governmental officials that Daniel himself had been party to this newly suggested law, enacted the suggested decree and put it in writing. The result was that for the next 30 days, across the entire kingdom, prayer of any kind made to any other being would be a capital crime. This series of events resulted in one of the most famous biblical stories of all time—Daniel’s miraculous deliverance through a night spent in the king’s den of lions and the ultimate destruction of the men and their families who had framed, entrapped and reported on Daniel’s civil disobedience to this decree. Several issues are important to note in the outworking of this event.
First, the king was apparently not intentionally targeting either the Hebrews in his realm or Daniel. In fact, when the king discovers the unintended consequences (from his perspective) of his actions, he is deeply grieved. But even he as king is a man who recognized the importance of the rule of law. He affirms that, at the almost certain risk of killing his most trusted advisor, he is not free to do away with his own legal decree. The point is, King Darius’ motive had nothing to do with Daniel’s civil disobedience. It was the law itself and the unacceptable consequences to Daniel’s faith that determined Daniel’s actions.
Secondly, Daniel’s habit of praying three times a day towards Jerusalem and in a publicly visible manner was not a specifically mandated law of God. Nowhere in the Law do you find such prayer required at such times and while in captivity. Solomon foresaw the day when such prayer would be advisable (2 Chron. 6:36-39) and apparently Daniel’s prayer to God hundreds of years later addressing that possibility was enough to form a deep and unbending conviction in Daniel’s heart that he could not compromise his custom of thrice-daily, publicly-visible, Jerusalem-oriented prayer…not even for 30 days! It would not have violated any law of God had Daniel decided to go private with his prayers. It would not have violated any law of God had Daniel simply not prayed publicly for thirty days.
But it would have apparently violated Daniel’s conscience to abandon his custom of such prayer even on pain of death and apparently without the support of any other Hebrew captives living in Babylon at the time. Daniel’s civil disobedience, which we so readily hold up to our children as an example of faithfulness to God, was something he engaged in because not to do so would have negatively affected his regular practice and custom of worship and prayer, his resulting relationship with God and his testimony to a pagan world. Daniel was unwilling to surrender to human government a practice he considered outside the divinely ordained jurisdiction of governmental officials to prescribe. A government edict that limited his public practice of prayer and devotion to God, no matter how well or poorly intended, was something that called for civil disobedience.
Daniel knew full well the mandated punishment for failing to comply with this new edict would be probable execution. This illustrates yet again the principle that those who engage in civil disobedience must also be willing to assume the temporal legal, penal, civil and even capital consequences of that disobedience. Given no legal recourse or right of appeal, Daniel willingly and silently complied with the consequences of his actions and entrusted himself to Him who is able to deliver him from death.
Daniel’s words to the king in 6:22 indicate that Daniel understood that civil disobedience was not a sinful or disrespectful action towards God or government. It is not beyond reason to suggest that Daniel viewed the king’s unjust and immoral “law” as no binding law at all. Neither was his action of refusing to obey the king’s law an act of disrespect towards the king. Rather, his act of civil disobedience allowed him to maintain his innocence before both God and his testimony before the king. “They [the lions] have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his [God’s] sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, Your Majesty.”
To uphold the truth about the only true God through civil disobedience is to actually keep the higher law and Lawgiver in proper perspective before those whose delegated authority is also to be subservient to God himself. One might even contend that to fail to engage in respectful civil disobedience in response to unjust and tyrannical laws and edicts is to fail to do the good we are bound to exercise towards those in power over us and a watching pagan world. King Darius would never have realized his wrong, never have seen the power of God at work on behalf of God’s people and probably never have come to the personal belief he confesses at the end of chapter six had it not been for Daniel’s respectful and courageous act of civil disobedience. But in the end, Darius himself testifies,
“…for he is the living God,
his kingdom shall never be destroyed,
and his dominion shall be to the end.
27 He delivers and rescues;
he works signs and wonders
in heaven and on earth,
he who has saved Daniel
from the power of the lions.”
Such was the result of one man’s courageous act of civil disobedience who refused to simply cease practicing what had been his customary spiritual acts of worship.
We now move to the New Testament for some examples of God’s people disobeying the unjust and illegitimate edicts of government officials.
- The first comes to us in Matthew 2 with the story of the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem. King Herod gives them the command in 2:8 to “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” Yet once they find the Christ child, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod (vs. 12). Their response is to engage in civil disobedience by refusing to obey King Herod and rather returning to their country “by another route.”
This incident, occurring as it does at the very beginning of the first book of the New Testament, inaugurates what I believe to be a very consistent and cohesive theology of acceptable civil disobedience that runs through both the teachings and actions of the New Testament, its human authors and illustrative saints.
- The end of all four Gospels recount how Jesus himself maintained silence in the face of questioning that demanded answers, first from Pilate and then Herod. While not engaging in clear civil disobedience to any law, clearly Jesus Christ himself did not consider failure to respond to repeated demands from high government officials as wrong. Pilate (wrongly) took His silence as a form of disrespect or insubordination (Jn. 19:10). In the process, Jesus reminded Pilate that his Roman authority was a delegated subordinate authority given to him by God. Whatever exercise of that authority ran counter to the will of God was not something to which Jesus had any intent of acquiescing.
This truth itself is something every true follower of Jesus Christ must be careful to wrestle with as we face our own challenges with governmental demands upon our faith for information they may desire to have but we may determine will be used to circumvent the will of God.
- The account of John the Baptist’s unjust death at the hand of King Herod is another example of the abuse of delegated governmental authority over God’s people and civil disobedience against such authority. All three synoptic gospels tell both of the preaching, imprisonment and beheading of John the Baptist. Luke 3:19-20 summarizes the reason for John’s conflict with Herod when it records, “But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.”
Speaking out against the evil deeds of secular authorities, in essence the exercise of the freedom of speech, has been met throughout human history with violent repression. Yet such ministry has been the calling of many of God’s people in virtually every generation.
- Very early in the book of Acts and the life of the nascent church, we find the primary leaders of the church engaging, not once but on multiple occasions, in civil disobedience.
- In Acts 4 we have the account of the Jewish religious authorities effectively arresting, detaining, questioning and prosecuting Peter and John for “teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead,” (4:2). This authority to arrest, detain, judge and inflict certain punishments according to their code of law was recognized by the Roman authorities and delegated to the Jewish rulers, elders, teachers, priests and temple guard.
When they are commanded yet again “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (4:18), Peter and John reply, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!” They openly challenge the legitimacy of the established civil (and religious) authority of the day to limit or prohibit either the content, the place, the time or the manner of their teaching and evangelistic ministry. Their response to an unjust and illegitimate legal mandate is that when God’s command and a human command conflict, they are bound to do what is “right in God’s eyes,” namely disobey the human authority in order to obey the divine authority.
- Acts 5 picks up the story after some unknown period of time with a second round of arrests by the religious authorities and an over-night (or partial-night) imprisonment in the public jail. Through a limited angelic jail-break of just Peter & John, these two Apostles are commanded to “Go, stand in the temple courts…and tell the people all about this new life,” (5:20). This is, obviously, in direct contradiction to the edicts and will of the existing civil and religious authorities. Peter and John obey the angel, return to the temple and begin their teaching ministry again to the masses.
Once again they are detained by the temple police and brought before the Sanhedrin for questioning. Their replies are consistent with their first trial: “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (5:29). Such resistance only serves to infuriate yet further these authorities, driving up their hatred and jealousy to the point they wanted to put them to death, (vs. 33). Only after Pharisee Gamaliel talks them down do they settle for having them flogged and order them not to speak in the name of Jesus (vs. 40).
The Apostles’ response is to take their punishment but continue their civil disobedience. Verse 42 informs us that, “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”
Here is the bottom line. At virtually every point of the government’s demands, the Apostles disobey. The go where they have been ordered not to go (the temple) as well as where they choose to go (house to house). They preach what they have been ordered not to preach (the Gospel and its attending discipleship truths). They evangelize, preach and teach when they have been ordered not to (day after day when they were told never to do so again). In short, they violate every single component of the governmental commands given to them despite the fact that we have no recorded command of God to specifically preach in the temple courts or to preach to the masses publicly rather than in private. The Apostles, as with Daniel of old, refused to modify their normal religious practice to accommodate a tyrannical governmental overreach.
- Acts 6 introduces us to the beginning of the long and bloody history of church martyrs—saints who engaged in civil disobedience to the point of laying down their lives. Stephen is seized by a mob who eventually transfer him to the elders and teachers of the law in Jerusalem, the same authorities who had threatened Peter and John. Stephen’s bold and convicting proclamation of the Gospel ends with his stoning at the hands of the crowd and with the approval and incitement of the Jewish governmental leaders. Clearly had Stephen not engaged in the civil disobedience of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ, there would have been no reason for his stoning.
- Acts 12 tells us that James, the brother of John, was put to death by King Herod because of Herod’s desire to please the Jews by persecuting the church. He then proceeds to arrest Peter as well and imprison him. Here Rome’s magistrates clearly become involved in seeking to limit the witness as well as the existence of the church. Their motives may have been different from that of the Jewish leaders, but the effects were the same—intimidation, arrest, imprisonment, isolation, possible torture and death.
In this passage, after Peter is miraculously released from prison in the night by an angel, he reports his divine jail-break to the believers gathered together at Mary’s house praying for his release. Before dawn, he leaves for “another place,” presumably another city, to escape the unjust imprisonment by the Roman government. He does so, in all likelihood, knowing full well that his escape and evasion of the Roman government will cost the lives of the poor, guiltless prison guards who just happened to pull guard duty at the prison that night.
This is clearly an act of civil disobedience that even cost the lives of unbelievers. This is the same Peter who wrote in 1 Peter 2:14 that government officials “are sent by him [God] to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” Had Peter understood this to mean that government officials must always be obeyed, he would never have left prison that night nor sacrificed the lives of unsuspecting and innocent guards that would follow due to his escape.
- The Apostle Paul demonstrated his practice of engaging in civil disobedience first in Acts 9. Here Paul seeks to evade the legal authority of both the Jewish authorities conspiring to kill him in Damascus and the Roman authority of King Aretas working in concert with the Jews. King Aretas was guarding the city with a garrison when Paul, with the help of the believers, was spirited out of the city by way of a basket let down through a window in the wall (2 Corinthians 11:32-33). This was in direct violation of two established governmental authorities operating in Paul’s life at the time.
Had Paul believed that he was bound to obey these authorities by what he would later write in Romans 13, he never would have engaged in this action of defiance and evasion of them in Damascus. But because he had come to understand that even his own previous exercise of Jewish authority in persecuting the church was evil and illegitimate, he understood that both the Jewish and Roman civil authorities had crossed the line from rewarding good and punishing evil and rather had entered into a realm of edicts that warranted civil disobedience.
- Hebrews 11:23 records that, “By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.” This couple is commended by God for disobeying the immoral, tyrannical and destructive edict of the Pharaoh of the day, yet another clear example of civil disobedience.
- Finally, we come to the book of Revelation. In chapter 13:5ff we are told that the beast was given power to exercise its proud and blasphemous authority for forty-two months in such a way that he had power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them (merely physically, apparently). But God’s people are called to “patient endurance and faithfulness” (vs. 10) in the face of this unholy war against them. Such behavior will certainly require civil disobedience.
- Revelation 13:16-17 and 14:9-12 also introduce us to a second beast which exercises authority on behalf of the first beast. That beast requires the inhabitants of the earth to worship the first beast and his animated image (vs. 15). Any who do not obey that command must not only engage in civil disobedience; they must forfeit their earthly lives as a consequence. This is where the 666 “mark of the beast” is imposed upon the people of this world. Those who engage in civil disobedience by refusing to receive that mark on the right hand or forehead will be martyred by men but commended by God.
These passages give us examples of clear instances where the people of God clearly have engaged in civil disobedience or will be required to do so in the future in order to retain their faithfulness to God.
We now turn to the body of New Testament commands that mandate how the church is to function together, i.e. as the church-gathered. Are there specific commands binding on the church that require the church to gather together physically in order to obey and fulfill them? I would contend there are many.
NEW TESTEMANT COMMANDS THAT REQUIRE THE CHURCH-GATHERED
What are the biblically mandated actions and activities that require personal interaction with others in the Body of Christ and/or public interaction with God and other believers?
- LOVE one another: Biblical, godly, agape love is an action, not merely a thought or feeling. Therefore, obedience to this most central command directing how we relate to one another demands action and interaction. Failure to do so over time, regardless of the reasons, is failure to obey the very words of Christ. If we are to love as Jesus did, we must, at times, leave our places of relative security, insert ourselves into a world of need and suffering, and take risks to demonstrate the heart of God for those in need. ‘Love” that chooses to live in isolation from others is not the kind of love Christ has demonstrated towards us.
- John 13:34-35--“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must loveone another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
- Romans 12:9,10—Love must be sincere…Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.
How is it possible to show sincerity of love without in-person interaction between the people of God? How is it possible to actually honor one another without interacting with and engaging with each other? These commands never envisioned a people of God isolated from each other for long periods of time. Biblical love and honor are not feelings; they are actions that demand active, frequent and faithful interaction with other believers.
- Romans 13:8-- Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to loveone another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.
- See also 1 Thess. 3:12; 4:9-10.
- USE of SPIRITUAL GIFTS: The entire thrust of any passages referring to the use of spiritual gifts is that the diversity of different members with different gifts in the body of Christ, the church, must be an active and interactive diversity. Differing gifts are meaningless and totally ineffective without the exercise of those gifts with and towards other believers. Unless the body of Christ, the church, is gathered in some meaningful capacity with significant representation and practice of the diversity of spiritual gifts, talk of “being the church” is meaningless.
- Romans 12:4-8-- 4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function,5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
- 1 Corinthians 12-14—The exercise of spiritual gifts in the church and church worship is addressed in these chapters. The metaphor of the church being a body with many members requires that:
a.) there be genuine and continual interconnectedness of the various members, and
b.) that God’s people be interrelated in such a way that the diversity of giftings complements the whole church.
Here again, isolation of believers cannot fulfill this fundamental calling of the church and does irreparable harm to the body of Christ in the world when such isolation is demanded by any person or institution. Chapter 14 speaks specifically of the gathered worship of the church/congregation and the involvement of multiple people with differing gifts in those services.
The way in which God’s people interact is to be a powerful demonstration of the presence of God (14:25), even for unbelievers who may be present. Paul assumes that the church will be “coming together” or gathering on a regular basis.
Furthermore, “everyone” is to be instructed, built up and encouraged by such gatherings (vss. 26 & 32). The Spirit-led life of every believer is something designed by God to be shared in corporately edifying worship settings that involve music, instruction in the word and exercise of a variety of gifts (vs. 26).
- See also 4:11-13.
- ZEAL & SPIRITUAL FERVOR; SERVING & SHARING:
Romans 12:11-12-- 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction,
faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need.
While it may be possible to “serve the Lord” and maintain some form of “spiritual fervor” apart from the people of God, these commands do not lend themselves well to obedience apart from regular interaction with the people of God. Zeal tends to wain when a believer stops engaging in regular fellowship with other believers. So do the other qualities mentioned here of joy in hope, patience in affliction, faithfulness in prayer and sharing with God’s people in need. God’s people need consistent and regular interaction and fellowship with each other in order to maintain and grow these essential qualities of a child of God. Can anyone looking at the current state of the church in America after nine months of prohibitions on gatherings demonstrate that these commands have been faithfully maintained let alone exercised in any increasing way during this time?
As to “serving the Lord,” this certainly must entail serving God’s people in person as does “shar[ing] with the Lord’s people who are in need.” We cannot even know of others needs unless we are in meaningful, regular and potentially deep fellowship let alone share anything of significance with them. While it is possible to share some things of the Christian faith via electronic media and without being with others, it is impossible to share most of the deeper, intangibles of compassion, encouragement, love, sorrow, patience, grief, kindness, joy or blessings without in-person, person-to-person sharing of life.
- Romans 12:13- Practice hospitality.
While hospitality certainly may involve shared meals together with others outside one’s own family, in biblical times and contexts it also involved opening one’s home and heart to those in the extended body of Christ needing lodging, whether itinerate evangelists and teachers, poverty-stricken brethren or gatherings of a house-church.
The current and ever-changing stipulations by many U.S. governors to limit even home gatherings to single-family units or no more than 2-5 non-related people make even small groups or “house church” gatherings untenable and ineffective, not to mention render this command of God punishable by fines and/or prison time.
- See also Acts 28:7; Romans 16:23; 1 Timothy 5:10; Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9; 3 John 1:8.
- SHARED EMOTIONS:
- Romans 12:15—"Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”
During Covid-19, the government has demanded that loved ones and family members, let alone brothers and sisters in the church, not be permitted to visit the elderly and infirmed. Funerals have, in many states, been prohibited altogether or limited to fewer than a handful. Dying people, whether young or old, have not been allowed to hold the hands or know the company of those they know and love. The same has been true of wedding celebrations and a host of other events.
How is any, let alone every child of God, to obey these commands without doing so in-person and in community? While one could conceivably attempt to do so on the phone or through a card, most people today, after three-quarters of a year of electronic “meetings” are admitting that Zoom and similar electronic meetings are pitiful substitutes for being present “with” those who are suffering or rejoicing in the highs and lows of life.
- Ephesians 4:32--“being kind and compassionate to one another….”
- UNITY & HARMONY:
- Romans 12:16-- Live in harmony with one another.
“Living” in anything, let alone “harmony,” demands shared life. We can live divided without being in relationship with one another, but not “in harmony.” That requires a sharing of differences while maintaining a unity of fellowship in Christ. Life is to be shared, not held in isolation or separation. Ongoing failure to interact with others in the family of God creates social, emotional and relational distance and makes actually living harmoniously together impossible.
- Romans 15:5,6-- May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had,6 so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The heart and mind of Christ was not content to remain in heaven, isolated from humanity. God did not consider it sufficient for Him to send His messengers to share His word without himself coming. God demonstrated His love for us by coming to a dangerous, sick, diseased, sinful, hate-filled world in order to glorify the Father by loving us unconditionally, up-close.
It is simply not possible to share the heart and mind of Christ and remain in isolation from others, believers included, for long periods of time. And it is clearly impossible for us to “with one mind and one voice…glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” as the people of God unless we can, in some meaningful way, unite our voices together around common songs, creeds, prayers and affirmations. Oneness demands shared time and space to some significant degree.
- 2 Corinthians 13:11--Strive for full restoration, encourage one
another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.
Restoration of broken fellowship is only possible if people are in consistent relationship, working hard to regain what was lost. Restoration demands ongoing relationship and implies that something of close fellowship has been lost. Clearly, God expects His people to be living out healthy, meaningful relationships on a continual, not sporadic, basis. Likewise, the command to “encourage one another” is virtually impossible without personal, in-person interaction.
Paul concludes by mentioning that there is some measure of the presence of God that will accompany this kind of meaningful fellowship between God’s people. Every believer who has experienced deep, genuine fellowship and encouragement through in-person relationship in the body of Christ knows that there is no real substitute for that kind of fellowship. One of the slightly positive things about the short periods of isolation caused through Covid has been that many have actually felt the difference of both lacking fellowship and having fellowship. But many have not. Rather they have fallen into apathy, lack of spiritual passion and indifference towards shared life in the body of Christ.
While short periods of absence may make our hearts grow fonder, longer periods of unnecessary absence often cause our hearts to wander. Human beings who were meant to be in close relationships of marriage, family, friendships and church do not do well being forced into disruption of those relationships for long periods of time. That is not how God has designed us or life.
- See also Ephesians 4:3-6.
Romans 12:16—Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
It is clearly impossible to “associate with people of low position,” or any person of any type of social standing, for that matter, unless you are close enough to have real relationship. Associating demands interaction, face-to-face connection, in-person communication and association.
Even in our day and age of technology, most of the poor do not have either the luxury of owning computers or smart phones or lack the know-how to use them effectively. Electronic communication simply does not facilitate “associating with” others of “low position.” This has been one of the most frustrating features of the ordered shut-downs during the Covid crisis in our urban ministry. Those of “low position” simply do not own cars, computers or smart phones. They do not have access to the internet. They are often completely isolated from friends and family.
Obedience to this command is rendered impossible outside of corporate gatherings of God’s people to which people can walk, take a bus or drive.
Sitting in cars or even the same room without personally relating to others cannot be considered ‘associating’ with others in the body of Christ. For many churches who may not have significant ministry to the poor in their city, this may not appear to be a big deal. But to those churches who have significant populations of poor people, social distancing and forced isolation unfairly burdens and destroys them and their ministries.
- PHYSICAL TOUCH/COMPASSION
- Romans 16:16--Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings.
This oft-repeated command in Paul’s letters to the churches, while cultural in its specific application (a kiss), is clearly intended to mean some measure of physical contact appropriate to any given culture. We are people made of spirit and body. As such, friendly, non-sexual human touch is a vital component of genuine Christian fellowship and communion.
This is particularly important given the high percentage of singles in our culture and in the church today. To demand that God’s people not engage in any type of compassionate, loving and appropriate bodily contact is to overstep this command of Scripture and rightfully rob the people of God of contact God designed to be lived out in the gathered body of Christ, the church.
- See also 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26.
- BEING THE TEMPLE of GOD:
- 1 Corinthians 3:16--Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.
Paul is speaking to the entire Corinthian church (made up of numerous house churches) as “the” (singular) temple of God in which the Spirit of God somehow dwells corporately. God’s people “together are that temple.” Not isolated. Not separated. Not even divided up into various factions or house churches. Somehow the people of God in a geographic locality are to experience being God’s temple when they come together.
Temples were physical places where people gathered to worship. The church is, when gathered together, that physical temple of God now. Not to gather as the people of God is to, in some capacity, “destroy” that temple. Verse 17 has a very strong warning to anyone, believer or unbeliever, who would destroy the gathered place/people of God’s sacred temple.
NOTE: It is my belief and clear sense from talking with pastors in our community that real damage is happening to the body of Christ, God’s temple today, through continued prohibitions on assembly. Thousands of previously thriving churches, large and small, still have not regathered across our land. Most of those that are gathering, even in limited settings, have found that, on average, from one-third to one-half or more of their people are unwilling to return. To think that mandates against the church-gathered are not having real and substantial negative effects upon the church is simply naïve and uninformed.
See also Ephesians 2:19, 21, 22.
- Ephesian 1:18-23—Here the church of Jesus Christ is the means by which “the riches of his glorious inheritance” is experienced, namely “in his holy people.” It is also the church that is “his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (vs. 22). Every level of God’s church demonstrates and experiences different types and degrees of the fullness of Christ, whether it is the church gathered in a home, a larger building, a city, region or mysteriously in the church universal. God shares His presence and his riches with us “in the church,” i.e. in the fellowship of the saints, not the building. But such fellowship requires a gathering of God’s people in small and larger convocations where God promises to manifest the presence of Christ in our world today.
See also Ephesians 3:19, 4:16
- Closely related to being the temple of God when we are gathered is the reality of Ephesians 5:18-19—“…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing and making music from your heart to the Lord….” Here the Apostle Paul makes it clear that corporate worship in song is part of what enables or assists us to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Whereas secular music and performances may touch the deep recesses of the human soul, spiritual hymns, songs and music actually affect the life and fullness of the Holy Spirit in the believer. Furthermore, we are to sing/speak these psalms/hymns/songs from the Spirit “to one another.”
NOTE: When government officials prohibit singing like this they intrude upon this clear, direct and specific command of God about worship and, in the process, seek to take away from God’s people (either knowingly or unknowingly) one of the God-given means/tools for fighting the spiritual, unseen battle.
- CHURCH DISCIPLINE & FORGIVENESS:
- I Corinthians 5:4—“So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”
This passage deals with church discipline of an openly and unrepentantly sexually immoral man in the church who was “sleeping with his father’s wife” (5:1). Paul assumes the church in Corinth will “assemble” and that they will be experiencing the power of the Lord Jesus when they do. If such a handing over to Satan were possible on an individual basis, Paul certainly could have done that from where he was writing. Or the elders of Corinth could have done so from their homes. But this type of church discipline apparently requires that the church gather corporately to engage in public rebuke that somehow permits the forces of Satan to attack the body of a member of the church.
- 1 Corinthians 5:9-13—This passage continues the discussion of church discipline and the need to “expel the wicked person from among you” (vs. 12), i.e. the unrepentant and sexually immoral, greedy, idolatrous, drunkard or swindler believer. That expelling is to involve ceasing to eat with or enjoy hospitality and fellowship with the unrepentant person as well as ceasing to associate with them.
Clearly such action would be ineffective and irrelevant were believers not expected to be in consistent, regular, frequent and meaningful fellowship with each other. Failure to fellowship at a level that bonds hearts together is only something envisioned by God as punishment for those who are negatively impacting the people of God through their unrepentant sin. (See also Galatians 2:11-21; 2 Cor. 13:1.)
- Ephesians 4:32—“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” There is usually little offense and thus little need for forgiveness when we are not in relationship with each other (other than the grave offense of not loving each other). Forgiveness that demonstrates kindness and compassion as Christ did, is a spiritual practice that usually must be practiced in proximity. While we can forgive from a distance, we cannot express that forgiveness without proximity. Just as Jesus ‘came near’ to us in the incarnation, so we are called to come near physically to others in order to minister compassion, love and forgiveness.
- 2 Thess. 3:6--In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.
It is evident from this passage that removal from regular fellowship and friendship is seen as a punishment in the body of Christ. For the state to require that the church effectively treat each other as if we are withholding fellowship, particularly for long periods of time, is tantamount to demanding that the church engage in action that is only to be practiced as a step of severe church discipline. Isolating God’s people from each other is not an authority given to the state.
- THE LORD’S SUPPER/COMMUNION:
1 Corinthians 11:17-34—The celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This most ancient and central sharing of food in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is clearly to be done, not as a private act in the privacy of one’s own home, but as a corporate experience and expression of obedience to the Lord’s command to “do this in remembrance of me” (vs. 24).
Paul assumes that the churches will “gather to eat” the Lord’s Supper on a rather frequent basis and that at such a celebration the Christians “should all eat together” (vs. 33).
Gathering of the church for the Lord’s Supper and the spiritual fellowship that should take place at such an event has never been something God’s people have delegated to the state to control, mandate, prohibit or otherwise direct as to how, when, how frequently and under what circumstances it can be practiced. For government to forbid any form of celebrating of the Lord’s Supper is a gross violation of Christ’s command to “do this in remembrance of me.”
- 1 Corinthians 16:15-18--You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the Lord’s people. I urge you, brothers and sisters,to submit to such people and to everyone who joins in the work and labors at it.
- Ephesians 5:21--Submitto one another out of reverence for Christ.
- Hebrews 13:17--Have confidence in your leaders and submitto their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.
Repeatedly the Scriptures call for God’s people to demonstrate in both attitude and action submission to other believers who serve the Lord’s people in both ministry to, service of and leadership of the church. Submission is not an action that can be achieved apart from meaningful relationship. Isolation of the members of the church renders meaningful submission meaningless. Learning the spiritual practice of submission means we must be in voluntary relationship that defers to the leadership of another.
NOTE: submission is never to be unqualified except to God himself. Whether it is church leaders, fellow believers, spouses or government leaders, submission must never be used as a cover for disobedience to God and His commands which supersede all human commands that may be in opposition to those divine commands.
- COMFORTING & ENCOURAGING ONE ANOTHER:
- 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 calls us to comfort each other with the comfort we have received from God in our own trials. While comfort can certainly be communicated to others to some degree through non-in-person mediums such as writing or electronic communications, those who have been through deep suffering know that there is simply no substitute for the actual physical presence of one seeking to bring comfort. Just sitting with a suffering or grieving person while perhaps saying nothing brings a measure of comfort to people no words can. One’s silent presence is certainly a reflection of the comforting and abiding presence of “the God of all comfort.”
- See also Job 2:11; Isaiah 40:1; Lamentations 1:16, 17, 21; 2 Corinthians 1:3-5; Colossians 4:11; 1 Thess. 5:11.
- PRAYING FOR THE SICK & DISCOURAGED:
James 5:14-15 encourages those who are sick/discouraged to call for the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil, engaging in mutual confession of sins one to another in the process. All of these activities call for in-person contact, both physical and spiritual.
NOTE: Complete isolation of seniors and the sick from their family members and church leaders during this current virus crisis is one of the most egregious abuses of governmental power this nation has ever experienced. To deprive seriously ill and dying loved ones of the comfort that only family and spiritual leaders can bring at such a time is a direct contradiction of God’s call to comfort and pray for the infirmed. If thousands of health care workers in our system can come and go on a daily basis without seriously endangering their patients, surely our society, health and elder-care system can find a way to mitigate against unreasonable risks from family and spiritual leaders.
- PRAYER, CONFESSION OF SINS & RESTORATION:
- James 5:16—Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
While confession and prayer can take place via written or electronic means, this passage indicates that it is, at times and the request of those suffering, to be accompanied by the touch of anointing with oil and the humble confession of sin to each other. Confession is a very intimate and personal spiritual practice that is, even in person, very difficult for people to enter into. The trust and confidentiality required in mutual confession is certainly better facilitated with a high level of personal interaction and confidence.
- Galatians 6:-1-2—Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
It is almost impossible to know if someone is caught in a sin without being in close relationship with them. It is even more difficult to restore such a person to Christ gently and effectively without face-to-face conversations, prayer and exhortation. Furthermore, I have yet to see many people actually shoulder and lighten the burdens of others without ongoing and repeated meaningful personal interaction. While there may be a few things we can do from a distance to lighten others burdens, the vast majority of meaningful burden-bearing must happen through in-person acts of care and concern.
Galatians 5:22-26—The fruit of the Spirit is born, not in isolation from others, but for and in relationship with others. Most people practice plenty of self-love, self-patience, self-kindness, etc. It is in the furnace of personal relationships with imperfect and difficult people that we need to grow up in Christ and learn how to bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. One simply cannot grow in that fruit others are so blessed by without having challenging interactions with others.
See also Ephesians 4:2, 15.
- SPIRITUAL BIBLICAL & THEOLOGICAL INSTRUCTION—In the age of electronic communication it is clear that biblical instruction can occur via radio, video, television, cable, live-streaming and other electronic mediums. We do not deny that God’s word can be disseminated and God’s people can be taught without gathering in person for such instruction.
But does the presence of such media mean that the people of God have no more obligation to gather regularly to engage specifically in study of the Word and instruction from spiritual leaders? I would contend it does not. God calls both for the public, gathered teaching and learning of His word. While life circumstances may occasionally make such regular gatherings difficult, for governments to assume they have the authority to forbid or prohibit regular and frequent gathering of God’s people for instruction is a gross over-reach of authority that puts them in direct opposition again to the commands of Scripture.
- 1 Timothy 4:13—“…devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.”
Paul’s charge to Timothy as a leader in the church at Ephesus is to engage in “public” reading, preaching and teaching of the Scriptures. While electronic media are “public” in the sense of being available to the public, they fail to fulfill the required gathering of the people of God to engage together in that experience. Every pastor and most parishioners know that there is a significant difference between preaching to a camera or microphone and preaching to a gathered congregation. Because God’s Spirit may be present in a particular way when we gather as the “temple” of the Holy Spirit, God does unique things in such a gathering that He does not do in the solitude of one’s home or prison cell.
Just prior to this passage (1 Timothy 3:15), Paul told Timothy that the entire letter of 1 Timothy is so “you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Being “the church of the living God” requires that we be a gathered people who need this very instruction in order to know how we are to comport ourselves when we come together. While much of God’s instruction can be applied on an individual level in the privacy of one’s home, most of the instructions in 1st Timothy are clearly designed for shared, corporate and gathered experiences of the church.
For governments to forbid, restrict or otherwise limit the type, nature, content and frequency of the church gathered is a blatant overreach of God-ordained authority and in violation of God’s call in the following verse.
- Hebrews 10:24, 25—“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Gathering and meeting together for the purpose of spiritual encouragement towards love and good deeds is a critical part of the experience of the church gathered. This is to be our experience the MORE we see ‘the Day approaching.’ For governments to appeal to national crisis, be they war, pandemics or natural disasters, as an excuse to prohibit God’s people from gathering is precisely the opposite of what they should be doing. The more critical and difficult events become, the more both spiritual and civil authorities should be calling people to come together for prayer, worship, crying out to God, renewal and a host of other things that the church gathered produces.
It has been tragic, in the course of this pandemic, to see the disastrous effects upon people’s mental, emotional, relational, physical and spiritual health of the state-imposed isolation. Depression, anxiety, suicide, physical illness, addictions and more has skyrocketed in just months of these mandates that prohibit even families from gathering for holidays much less friends and church members.
- Galatians 6:6--Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.
This passage assumes that believers are receiving continual instruction in the word. While fulfillment of this might be met to some degree in the modern world through electronic means of delivery, the reciprocal relationship called for here in those who receive the instruction is extremely difficult apart from personal interaction (unless one limits “all good things” to donations of money…which is a poor definition of the phrase). The reality is that the teaching and preaching of the word of God has and should continue to be one of the main functions of the church gathered.
- I Thessalonians 3:10--Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith. This is an interesting passage in that Paul is using the most advanced form of distant communication (letters) of his day. But he does not see even his written communication as sufficient for supplying “what is lacking in” their faith. That could only be supplied by in person ministry of the Apostle himself, clearly in a teaching ministry.
- See also Acts 2:42, 5:42, 18:11; Col. 1:28; 1 Thess. 5:27; I Timothy 5:17; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2:2; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 2:15.
- CORPORATE SINGING, PRAISE & WORSHIP
- Ephesians 5:18-20—"…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This passage clearly identifies how we are to be filled with the Spirit—by speaking to one another in musical worship, by singing and by making music from our hearts to the Lord and by giving thanks to God. All these verbs are in the second person plural, (“you all”). These are commands that are to be obeyed together as the people of God. Additionally, the pronoun eautois (Gk.) makes it clear that this is to be done “to one another,” not in isolation or simply to the Lord.
- Colossians 3:16—“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”
One of the ways the people of God are to fulfill God’s command to “let the message of Christ dwell among you richly” is by teaching and admonishing one another (Gk. eautous—pl. pronoun) “through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude” in our hearts. Clearly, this is speaking of corporate worship that can only be accomplished through God’s people gathered in worship.
NOTE: In November 2020, Gov. Inslee of Washington State issued a further executive order regarding the use of music in church worship. “No choir, band, or ensemble shall perform during the service and congregation singing is prohibited.” (See “Religious & Faith-based Organizations COVID-19 Requirements” found at https://www.governor.wa.gov/sites/default/files/COVID19%20Phase%201%20to%203%20Religious%20and%20Faith%20Based%20Organization%20Guidance.pdf on 11.24.2020.) Such a step puts our governor in direct opposition to God’s clearly stated written word of instruction to His church and how we are to worship. Regardless of however good the Governor’s intentions may be, to prohibit what God clearly commands unfortunately requires God’s people to choose between obeying God or obeying man (see Acts 4:19).
Does the past and/or present situation in Washington State fit any of these biblical situations?
- A Brief History of Washington State’s Phased Approach to the Covid-19 Pandemic:
Governor Jay Inslee issued Proclamation 20-05 on February 29, 2020, declaring a state-wide State of Emergency thus employing his Emergency Powers as provided in RCW 43.06.210 and 43.06.220. These are very broad powers that may be used and retained by the Governor with minimal Legislative approval for as long as the Governor deems such emergency actions and directives to be necessary.
After virtually a month of statewide lockdown, isolation and quarantining of all “non-essential” workers and residents, Governor Inslee came out with “Washington’s Phased Approach” to reopening business and modifying physical distancing measures.
As concerns churches, Phase 1, which lasted until the last week of May 2020, only permitted “drive-in spiritual services” in parking lots. According to the Governor’s guidelines written for “religious and faith-based organizations, Phase 1: Drive-in Services,” anyone attending a service could only do so a.) in a parking lot, b.) with all windows, sunroofs and convertible tops closed during the entire service (unless cars were parked more than six feet apart), c.) with others only of the same household in a single car, and d.) with no more than 10 people in a single vehicle. Furthermore, the Governor required that “no food, beverages, or other materials (whether for religious or secular purpose) may be distributed or collected before, after or as a part of the service.”
The above restrictions therefore required that congregants a.) not engage in any actual face-to-face fellowship with anyone outside their household, b.) not pick up or include anyone outside their household who may not have a vehicle or may need transportation to church in said “permitted services,” and c.) not celebrate Holy Communion at said spiritual services.
By late May 2020, the Governor allowed 27 counties to move to Phase 2 of the process. Under Phase 2, churches could hold restricted indoor services with 25% worship space capacity or 50 people, whichever was smaller. Eventually that cap of 50 was expanded to a maximum of 200 people depending on the size of the church facility.
With a surge in new cases during the summer and fall, in mid-July the Governor announced a pause on all phased re-openings. Churches were required to have parishioners wear masks, social distance at least six feet apart, not touch each other and continue to limit service size to 200 or 25% of sanctuary capacity, whichever is smaller.
The results of the above requirements in the summer were that many, especially larger churches, either did not resume in-person services or limited services to sizes that could not accommodate all of their former parishioners while adhering to mandated maximums. All churches, regardless of size, were significantly limited in the kinds of gatherings they could hold on and off-site. Gatherings other than worship services were limited to from 5 to 10 people (depending on date), no more than five of whom could be from different households.
As of the third week of November 2020, the Governor imposed these additional restrictions on churches for at least thirty-days:
- “No choir, band or ensemble performances, but soloists permitted.”
- “No congregational singing.”
- “Face coverings required at all times.” This includes all staff and congregants at all times, whether speaking or “performing.”
Disregarding the Governor’s misunderstanding of worship as “performances” for the supposed consumption of the congregants rather than worship of the ‘audience of One’—God, the question that must be answered is, “Do these governmental restrictions exceed the authority given government by God and intrude upon the authority and responsibilities given the church by God to fulfill spiritual practices required by God?”
Given the previous examination of biblical passages about governmental authority and examples of biblical civil disobedience, my response to this question is a resounding “YES!”
Consider the following corporate spiritual practices and activities required of the people of God if we are to walk in obedience to the heart and commands of God regarding our relationship to and interaction with one another in the body of Christ and with God Himself.
A Summary of Biblical Civil Disobedience:
All of these passages from beginning to end of the Bible are instructive with regard to both specific instances when the people of God were justified in engaging in civil disobedience and guiding principles as to broader issues of civil disobedience. I present the following observations for consideration:
- The Bible views appropriate civil disobedience as godly behavior by godly people in a wide variety of cultures, situations, generations, centuries and circumstances.
- The specific types of situations cited in the scriptures in which saints engaged in civil disobedience and were commended by God for it, at the very least, make civil disobedience for those same types of situations today acceptable and perhaps necessary. Those clear types of situations where civil disobedience was clearly warranted and/or required were:
- the saving of innocent life
- the disobeying of governmental decrees to take innocent life
- the deliverance of other human beings held in slavery
- the commanded worship of false gods and idolatry
- the required ceasing of customary worship and prayer to the true God
- the violation of a God-educated conscience
- the assisting of pagan officials with evil plans
- cooperating with demands that will disrupt the will of God
- being required to divulge information in the face of evil and immorality of the public and public officials
- edicts demanding Christians stop preaching or teaching certain content, specifically the truth of God and the Gospel of Christ
- edicts demanding Christians cease preaching and teaching in certain locations.
- situations where godly people would otherwise have been arrested, detained, imprisoned and possibly executed for the cause of being a Christian and/or preaching the Gospel
- demands to identify with and show allegiance to the anti-Christ and his system
- The variety, nature and number of these occasions in which civil disobedience is sanctioned by Scripture indicate that we do not have a complete, exhaustive list of possible situations God may sanction. What we do have is the law of God in both Old and New Testament that informs the minds, consciences and hearts of God’s people to discern which specific situations may call for civil disobedience.
- A brief discussion of two basic historic positions on Christian civil disobedience: When it comes to Christians supporting submission to government while recognizing there are times when civil disobedience is permitted or necessary, there are two basic positions: antipromulgationist and anticompulsionist positions.
- Antipromulgationist: This position “supports disobedience when the government promulgates laws that are incompatible with Bible doctrine. According to this view, in the event of immoral public policy, the government is seen as abdicating its God-given authority and the immoral policy should be viewed as null and void. This means that antipromulgationists view American government as a De Jura institution, directly linking governmental authority to the consistency of policy with Bible doctrine. Under this view, breaking the law is justified in order to change unbiblical laws or to preserve a greater good. For example, trespassing or vandalism would be seen as acceptable when protesting at an abortion clinic. This view is articulated in Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex: Law is King (1644) and adopted in more recent times by Francis Schaeffer in his Christian Manifesto (1980).
- Anticompulsionist: Unlike the former, the anticompulsionist justifies civil disobedience only when the government compels (mandates) its citizens to do what is immoral. In other words, anticompulsionists don’t believe Christians have the right to disobey when government simply permits immoral behavior through its laws (e.g. abortion), but only when citizens are commanded to obey immoral laws (e.g. mandating abortion for people vs. permitting abortions for those who want them).” [Found at https://calvarychapel.com/posts/christians-and-civil-disobedience on 11.9.2020.]
SPECIFIC QUESTIONS & ANSWERS RELATED TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
- Is a health or potential health crisis sufficient reason for governments to regulate regular religious practices?
This question could and has been debated around other extraordinary circumstances such as natural disasters, wars and public health crisis. Curfews, blackouts, states of emergency and other temporary declarations by government are usually instituted in attempts to secure the safety of citizens or to quell civil unrest.
As we have seen, some of the central purposes of government are to punish evil, maintain civil peace and protect citizens from harm or death due to the actions of criminals, other nations or groups of people. Issues of national or regional health simply are not dealt with in the Scriptures. So, we are left trying to apply or extrapolate clear biblical principles about government authority to this unclear area.
The questions regarding this pandemic are many:
- Is any health threat grave enough to warrant the cessation of religious practices?
- Is the data compellingly clear about the nature of this threat?
- How long will authorities seek to suspend religious practices?
- Who has the right to make those decisions about other people’s faith practices?
- Are the health procedures being required and burdens imposed on churches both effective and reasonable?
- Are churches being treated less favorably than other comparable non-religious entities (businesses, non-profits, public entities, clubs, social orders, etc.)?
The current pandemic provides a reasonable case-study for such questions.
In general, I would propose that governments have the authority to secure the general peace and safety of their people. But that authority cannot be unlimited or unchecked. Authority to limit human freedom, at least biblically speaking, must not intrude upon the authority of God’s people to worship God and live out their faith as required in God’s Word. When a government systematically, repeatedly, persistently and forcibly prohibits Christians from exercising their normal or biblically required practices of faith even for short periods of time, government has overstepped its bounds and God’s people are not bound to obey them.
While the Bible is not a medical field manual for this or other health crisis, it does give us some clear and basic commands regarding what the infirmed can and should do and what the church and its leaders can and should do. Briefly they are these:
- James 5:14-16—those who are “sick” (which, according to the Greek term used here, can refer to physically as well as spiritually, emotionally and mentally ill) in the church are to call for the leaders (plural) of the church to come and pray over them, anointing them with oil (perhaps symbolic of the Holy Spirit and probably indicating the use of medicinal remedies) and confessing sins one to another. At the least, this passage calls for prayer by leaders over congregants and the practice of confession one to another.
- Matthew 25:31-46—in this passage Jesus commends those who, among other things, visit and care for the sick. Failure to do so is tantamount to a failure to do the same to Jesus himself. Visiting the sick is, by Christ’s own measurement, an act done towards Him. (So is visiting those who are in prison (vs. 36). Unfortunately, most of the isolation measures in many states over the past year have ended ministries to inmates.)
- Both the Old and New Testaments are filled with stories of the prophets, Jesus, the Apostles and others in the church taking some physical action to call down healing from God for those who were sick, dying or even dead. Healing was almost universally accompanied by the physical presence and/or touch of God’s representative and/or words and prayers of healing as a result of requests of friends, family members or others on behalf of the infirmed. (See 1 Kings 17:17-24—the widow’s son; 2 Kings 4:18-37—Shunamite’s son raised; 13:21—dead man raised; 8:1-4 & Luke 17:11-19—the leaper; Mark 5—the dead girl, the bleeding woman; Mark 7:31-37—the deaf mute; 8:22-26—the blind man at Bethsaida; Luke 13:10-17—the crippled woman; Luke 22:51—the ear of the high priest’s servant; Acts 3—lame beggar at the Temple healed; Acts 9:34—Aeneas the cripple)
- The Old Testament calls the people of God to pray both individually and corporately for individual and national healing from plagues and pestilences, diseases and illness (I Kings 8:37-40; 2 Chronicles 6:28, 29). It commands the shepherds/priests of Israel to strengthen the weak, heal the sick and bind up the wounded. The New Testament church did not deviate from this pattern of ministry as far as we can tell.
Application to the present: in the current pandemic, clergy and laity alike have been prohibited from entering hospitals and nursing homes (culturally where the infirmed and elderly are most frequently found) much less praying over them for God’s healing or, in the case of Catholic priests, administering Last Rites. The church has been prohibited from various (and at times all) gatherings where prayers, petitions, intercession and laying on of hands can take place. Whether the state believes that such practices are efficacious and necessary or not should not determine whether or not God’s people are allowed to engage in them.
Summary Application: While policies differ from state to state, in Washington State, the Governor’s four-phase approach dictates if and when a church can meet, how frequently church groups can meet, what size they can be, who those groups can be comprised of (i.e. number of household vs. non-household participants), where they can and cannot meet, what procedures must be followed when they meet, what religious activities can and can’t be practiced (Communion, baptism, fellowship), what and how infractions of these regulations will be punishable by law and more. While some health experts may see these restrictions as necessary for public health reasons, denying the faithful their God-given rights to assemble, worship and fellowship as they see fit is, biblically speaking, a violation of government’s legitimate authority.
- How serious is it when governments require people to cease normal religious practices, regardless the real or imagined reasons?
Whenever any governments found in the Bible, be they sacred or secular, prohibited God’s people from engaging in their regular practices of worship (including some practices that were not mandated by God, e.g. Daniel praying three times a day in public view), God’s people were justified and often felt compelled to engaging in civil disobedience. The mandates of the highest authorities in the land to both engage in the wrong type of worship of false gods (response to music, bowing down) as well as not engage in the appropriate type of worship (prayer) of the one true God, were both viewed as a most serious usurpation of religious practice and human commands to be violated despite the proclaimed punishment of death.
By extension, it could be argued that, when governments place ‘public health and safety’ above the normal religious practices of God’s people, they are elevating something human and inferior above the Divine and superior. Requiring God’s people to cease, even for some culturally valued or acceptable reason, their normal, established and in some cases divinely mandated religious practice, is tantamount to elevating false gods of the day (health, perceived safety, physical existence, etc.) above the true God of eternity. It is replacing one form of worship of God with another form of worship of very different and inferior gods. Furthermore, the motives of government officials, good though they may be, are neither sufficient reason nor sufficiently discernable to be used as criteria for determining whether a particular edict should be obeyed or disobeyed.
- Christians who demand their “rights to assemble and worship” during this pandemic actually appear very unloving, uncaring and selfish rather than sacrificially loving as Jesus called them to be. Isn’t ‘the loving thing to do’ in this situation not to potentially expose or infect others by avoiding group meetings?
At first glance, this argument sounds very benevolent and caring, which may be the genuine intent of those employing this critique against the church today. After all, part of being a good person is to ‘first, do no harm’ to others, right? If my actions cause clear and deliberate harm to another, whatever good I may claim I am doing by those actions is certainly undermined if not rendered ineffective.
Perhaps a parallel illustration could help here. The phrase, “First, do no harm” is one of the fundamental rules of medicine. This maxim comes from the ancient Latin phrase primum non nocere. Non-maleficence, which is derived from the maxim, is one of the principal precepts of bioethics that all students in healthcare are taught in school and is a fundamental principle throughout the world
Health professionals, in their attempts to bring healing, do not have license to harm patients unnecessarily in the process of practicing medicine. But if “first, do no harm” were the only rule of medicine, we would have no effective medical system whatsoever. Doctors could stay home all day, close their practices completely and never return to treat patients if this were the only rule of medicine. But it isn’t.
While doing harm to a patient subtracts from a positive medical equation, failure to add positive treatment leading to better health in a patient will never get us to meaningful, useful medicine. Medical professionals must do positive good to patients in order to be considered in any way good medical professionals.
The same standard should be applied to spiritual practitioners and patients as well. If all that were required of pastors and churches were to “do no harm,” then keeping people in isolation at home, doing church on-line and avoiding any possibility of spreading a contagious disease through the church by canceling all religious gatherings could arguably be the most loving thing to do. But, as with medicine, not doing something is only part of the required equation. To fail to provide positive good to others is not loving; it is spiritual indifference and malpractice. And it must be factored into a reasoned spiritual practice.
According to the biblical descriptions and definitions of love, love must, to be godly love, have a real (rather than general, non-specific, imagined or amorphas) object or recipient of its love. Additionally, biblical love is always an action, not just a feeling or emotion, and certainly NOT inaction. I would agree that, if Christians are basing their decisions to be the church gathered first and foremost on their “rights,” that is the wrong starting point. But it is also wrong to charge that every Christian and every church which has chosen to gather in groups of any size is unloving. In fact, I would argue that genuine, Christ-like love is the very motivation by which Christians are choosing to reengage and regather with others.
This is clearly provable both from a spiritual and psychological standpoint. With every passing month of restrictions it is becoming more evident that limiting the interaction of people while increasing their isolation is having serious mental and spiritual health consequences for millions of people of all ages. To fixate solely upon the potential yet strongly debated physical benefits of isolation while ignoring the broad spectrum of demonstrable and disastrous mental, spiritual and physical effects bringing real-time damage to millions, is not a ‘loving’ course of action.
Christ-followers are called to follow the example of Jesus, to risk our own safety and health to minister to those in and outside the church. We’re not called to do that stupidly or without taking reasonable precautions. But this need not be an “either/or” decision. Many churches in the last few months have effectively demonstrated this by conscientiously combining good health safety practices with good ecclesiastical experiences.
The reality is, pastors and churches are responsible to build up the body of Christ and reach out to a hurting world through a variety of ministries that necessitate personal and group human interactions. For example, many of the people we minister to at and around our urban church building are recovering from addictions, struggling with mental illnesses, extremely isolated and, in many cases, truly without family other than their fellow believers or neighbors at our church. Isolation is one of THE most unloving, uncaring things anyone could possibly inflict on someone in their situation. Ministering to them is not an issue of my ecclesiastical or religious rights; it’s an issue of their mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health and sometimes their personal survival.
To claim that Christ-followers are doing the loving thing in a pandemic when they stay home, don’t come together in obedience to Christ and the Word and cease doing active, outreaching ‘good works,’ is a strange definition of love. To claim that Christ-followers should, out of love for others, stop visiting the sick, the elderly, the infirmed and lonely who ask for their presence or should cease ‘speaking to one another’ and to God through active musical worship is a strange definition of love. To cease bearing one another’s burdens in hands-on, face-to-face ways, to simply concern themselves with staying personally safe and uninfected so that we can supposedly ‘love’ some unknown, un-namable, un-touchable, un-traceable and amorphous group of anonymous people is, I think, one of the poorest and weakest definitions that can be given to the term “love.”
One more issue related to whether or not the church gathered in the midst of a pandemic is loving or not. Pastors and spiritual leaders are not telling congregants or non-believers that they must attend a given group, service, outreach, ministry, etc. against their will or better judgment. But when the government denies the church even the possibility of offering regular religious gatherings and services to its people, then they, not the church or Christians, are being the unloving tyrants in the scenario.
I end this issue with one final illustration directly related to this issue of loving or not loving others. We have a senior-aged man in our church who is in a wheelchair, has spent over three decades in prison and was never expected to be released from prison. He is now living in one of the most dilapidated, unhealthy and undesirable buildings I know of downtown. He recently had serious heart problems, major heart surgery and he suffers from chronic COPD. He’s a high-risk individual for Covid-19 by any measurement. Recently he commented to me that he would literally rather run the risk of contracting Covid-19 and possibly dying than to “put myself back into a prison of isolation out of fear of anything but God.” “I’ve wasted too many years in prison to do that to myself again,” he remarked.
Is it really loving towards this man and even the people he lives around for me as a pastor to obey the government’s rather arbitrary call not to worship freely for an indeterminate period of time rather than to allow him and those he knows and loves to freely choose to fellowship and worship together? They well know, from years of experience, the elevated risk to their own spiritual, psychological, mental and even physical health of isolation. And they are mature, experienced and wise enough to balance the known risks of Covid-19 with the known effects of an isolated and privatized Christianity.
While Christians are called to ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ we are also called to a much greater form of love than that—to love one another and our neighbors as Jesus has loved us. Jesus did not consider remaining in the safety of heaven a sufficient form of love for us. He knew engaging personally with sick sinners would cost him personally and dearly. But He also knew that God-like love invades this sinful world and engages with sinners in need, even when they would rather kill you for doing so.
To claim that millions of Christ-followers are selfish, disrespectful or unloving when they are seeking to first love the Lord their God more than anything else in life and second are seeking to love both their spiritual family and those they consider spiritually at-risk more than their own health and safety, seems to be seriously flawed reasoning at best and downright disingenuous accusations at worst.
- What/who are we to fear and not to fear in a crisis like this?
Much of the church’s response to Covid-19 in terms of discontinuing gatherings and ministries seems to have been generated out of fear of either the health dangers of Covid or the repercussions for disobeying the government. In the course of this pandemic, our country and the world, it seems, has been driven by fear. So, it is appropriate to ask, “What role is fear to play in the life of an individual believer and the church in general?”
There are well over five-hundred references to fear in the Scriptures. By far the majority of them either call the people of God to fear God alone or they describe the fear pagans have or had of the Living God they do not serve. Never is fear of the living and true God forbidden while fear of people, of events, of plagues and wars on the other hand is almost uniformly warned against. In other words, fear of God is very appropriate while fear of people and events is usually inappropriate and warned against in Scripture. (See Section 5-c with Scriptures on “fear.”)
Someone once suggested to me that there are two kinds of fears: rational, appropriate fears and irrational or inappropriate fears. Fear is an emotion given to us by God that can either be used well for good or can be hijacked wrongly for ill. The challenge for every person is to educate ourselves in the proper use of fear as well as the improper.
For example, a proper understanding of lightening should lead us to stop swimming, golfing or standing on the top of a mountain or under a large tree in the midst of a lightning storm. But improper understanding of lightening would have us be paralyzed by fear even if we are in a protected building or cave in the ground. Proper understanding of lightening should lead to freedom from fear in most situations where lightening is present and healthy responses to lightening when we are in danger.
Believers in the God of the Bible are to have their fear factor educated by the truths of Scripture and the realities of life in this world. A healthy fear of God will cause me to avoid sin, love righteousness, conduct myself in life with others knowing I will one day give account to God for how I have treated others, and a host of other appropriate things. Failure to fear God as the Bible calls for will lead me to not conduct myself in life appropriately, to be driven to the wrong things by fear and to be dominated by things God says I should not fear.
When it comes to specific issues of this pandemic that relate to fear, I would make the following observations:
- While we are not prohibited from taking prudent precautions in the face of natural disasters, pandemics, diseases and other natural dangers, we are not to live lives driven or determined by fear of them or their potential consequences. Instead, we are to live in conscious dependence upon God and awareness that He is sovereign over them all. (See Psalm 23:4; 91:5-6; Matthew 10:28; Romans 8:38-39; 14:8; I Corinthians 15:51-57; Revelation 14:13)
- While the reality that all of us will one day die and some of us may die earlier than others due to illness, accident, disease or natural disaster, we are not to live in fear of death nor the timing of our death. God knows exactly how long we will live before we take our last breath (Psalm 39:4; 139:16; Ecclesiastes 3:2) and He knows the very hour of our death. To live in fear of death is to live without faith in the work, timing and promises of God for us.
- Fear of government and the power they have to punish evil is a healthy, legitimate fear. But fear of government when of if they threaten to punish good and reward evil is an improper fear. Therefore, in situations where the government closes or prohibits the proper, normal functions and practices of the church, Christians are called not to fear the suffering and punishment that may come for obeying God and disobeying government, i.e. suffering for doing the right thing (Matthew 5:10-12; John 16:33; Romans 8:18, 35; 2 Corinthians 4:17; I Peter 2:13-15, 19-23; 3:14-17).
- See Section 5.c. for a more extensive list of passages related to proper and improper fear for the believer.
- Does the government’s motive for limitations on religious expression in a situation like this determine to some degree a Christian’s response? In other words, if the government’s motive is good (the health of its citizens), should this influence the response of Christians (i.e. shouldn’t we submit to their demands)? Or stated another way, aren’t Christians bound to obey the government until the authority’s motives clearly become that of persecution of the church?
I would answer, “NO!” Nowhere in all the previous examples given in Scripture of civil disobedience do we find the motives of governmental officials playing a role in a believer’s response.
Take the case of Daniel. He obviously had a very good relationship with King Darius. The decree of King Darius was not made in animus against Daniel. In fact, when the king discovered what would be the unintended consequence of his edict, he was deeply grieved. But the effect of that decree could not be changed. So, Daniel engaged in public civil disobedience simply to maintain a spiritual practice he valued but one which God had not specifically commanded. He did so knowing it would likely cost him his life. He willingly embraced the consequences of his civil disobedience because he valued more the praise of God and his practice of relationship with Him than life itself. The motive of the prevailing governor had nothing to do with his response.
In the New Testament, neither Jesus, Paul, the Apostles or the early church qualified their statements or actions about the limits of governmental authority based upon the motive of that authority. It was simply the effects of the improper exercise of governmental authority that mattered to them. If the effect of an edict was to limit the spread of the Gospel, they chose civil disobedience and preaching the Gospel over civil obedience. If the effect of a civil power’s decree was to limit the frequency or location or the manner in which the church lived out the faith, early Christians chose civil disobedience over accommodation, be that in the Temple courts or house to house.
God does not call us to judge the heart and hidden motives of governmental officials in the edicts they make. He simply calls us to weigh the effects of their edicts and measure their impact upon the Gospel, our obedience and the health of the church. As was also discussed earlier in the section on Civil Disobedience, laws or edicts against expressly preaching the Gospel are not the only governmental intrusions which warrant civil disobedience. While one might argue that the recent and extended limitations on the church in Washington State have had some positive and purifying effects on the church at large, one could easily counter that those limitations have also had a devastating and detrimental effect upon hundreds of thousands of Christians and thousands of congregations large and small.
- Does the size of groups in prohibitions on the church gathered make a difference when it comes to the practice of civil disobedience?
Some contend that most or even all of the required practices of the church can be accommodated in smaller or electronic gatherings of God’s people. They therefore affirm that governmental limitations on both smaller and larger gatherings of the church are not grounds for civil disobedience. “If we can accomplish as well and perhaps even better the gathered life of the church in smaller groups,” they ask, “Is that not a sufficient accommodation of the government to the needs of the church?”
First, I would refer you to the entire section 3.b., pages 20-30, for specific scriptures that teach there are many spiritual practices, experiences and graces that must be experienced in a corporate setting.
Secondly, the New Testament nowhere seems to wrestle with this issue of minimum or maximum size of the church assembled. Most “church” gatherings for the first three hundred years of the church were probably in house churches of no more than fifty people. Yet those types of gatherings are not the only size referenced in the New Testament.
The most frequent reference to “church” in the New Testament refers to the singular city-church in a town or city. That does not mean the most frequent experience of Christians in the church in, say, Corinth or Antioch, was in the larger gathering of the entire city body of believers. But an open reading of Acts or First and Second Corinthians would lead one to believe that those city churches did, in fact, have some meetings in a larger, all-inclusive environment of some sort.
To have sufficiently diverse and large groups gathering together for a meal, some with excess and some with not enough (see 1 Cor. 11), seems to be a description of something significantly larger than a house church at which everyone regularly fellowshipped and knew each other. Even the first church in Jerusalem, one we know numbered early on in the thousands of baptized believers, was accustomed to meeting in the Temple courts that could accommodate several hundred people easily in the Court of the Gentiles.
But this questions actually leads us to a related question: is it or is it not an abuse of authority for governments to arbitrarily mandate the size of religious gatherings? If it is not wrong, then governments are within their God-given rights to limit and even eliminate all and any type of religious gatherings they so choose for whatever reason they choose. The historic Christian church has never accepted this kind of abuse of government over the church and for good reasons. But if it is wrong for the government to limit the size and nature of church gatherings, then it is up to the church, not the government, to exercise its God-given right to assembly in whatever sized groups they deem most necessary, useful and effective.
It is my belief that God may work differently or uniquely with different sized groups. Why else would the (singular) "city-church" be so important in the New Testament. I think God pours out blessing on any sized gathering of His people sincerely seeking Him. But I also think that different sized gatherings may experience different types of God's blessings. I've benefited consistently and in different ways and measures from gatherings of the church with 5 or 6 and from 50 to 500. I’ve also experienced God occasionally in gatherings of several thousand to tens of thousands. Each was unique and each brought a different perspective and experience with God. God calls us in the New Testament to gather by twos and threes, as house churches, as the city-church and even possibly in regional or contemporary universal church representative gatherings (international conferences or even Zoom calls facilitating thousands?).
- What about mandating masks and social distancing in church gatherings to potentially reduce viral transmission? Why wouldn’t a church willingly embrace these simple and reasonable accommodations to public health?
We gather for worship to experience the spiritual encouragement that results from experiencing various forms of worship with other believers, not simply alone. The question then becomes, “does mask wearing significantly diminish our experience of each other and the ministry of the Spirit through others?” We answer “yes” for empirical and biblical reasons.
Empirically: Our faces are THE primary visual communication of ourselves and our individuality to one another. They contain and transmit much of our unique visual identity. It is because of this truth that burglars wear masks to hide their identity while committing a crime. Similarly, women in some cultures are required to wear veils or face coverings which significantly reduces and diminishes their individuality, identity and interaction.
We think this is dehumanizing to some degree because it hides their God-given individuality from others. It could also be argued that pornography, while objectifying the individual, draws attention away from that individual’s unique facial features and encourages a preoccupation with non-facial features of the human body.
Biblically: When describing the full experience of God, the Bible is filled with references to God’s “face.” When communicating to Moses the physical limitations of sinful man to experience the full presence of God, God tells Moses “you cannot see my face” and that he will only reveal his “back” (Exodus 33:23). Contrastingly, when describing the full experience that the saints will have of God in the new heaven and earth, Revelation 22 says “they will see his face.” The psalmist prays to God “hide not your face from me” and “make your face shine on your servant, save me in your steadfast love!” (Psalms 27:9, 31:16). Paul uses face in 1 Corinthians 13:12 to describe a fuller knowing of God himself: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully…”
These and other examples, while certainly anthropomorphic references to the glory of God, reveal that the human face is designed by God as the primary way we visually know other people/beings. Therefore, when you hide your face, you significantly hinder the ability of others to visually experience you. This, in turn, impedes to a significant degree the spiritual encouragement and connection that may come from fellowship with other believers. (Just ask those who struggle with hearing issues what it has done to their relational connections to have people masked.)
Some may consider this cost to fellowship worthwhile considering the health benefits of masks. We respect that personal decision, but we would maintain that we should not mandate something which so significantly hinders a primary purpose of our gathering together, namely to experience one another as part of the visible, living and active body of Christ in the world today and to be in some physical sense the image of God in this physical world.
Concerning social distancing:
As stated previously, we gather as the church to experience the spiritual encouragement that results from engaging with other believers as we worship, fellowship and experience God together. In this light, “Does eliminating physical contact significantly diminish our experience of one another and potentially of the body of Christ in the world today?” As with the previous question, we think there is both empirical and scriptural evidence that it does.
Empirically: We believe physical touch is an essential human need. Studies show that development and growth of babies is affected by the amount of caring human touch they receive. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2865952/). We believe this is evidence of the human need to physically experience other people, even into adulthood. Recent studies of the negative mental and emotional effects on people of prolonged isolation due to the current health crisis also support this view. (See https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/us-cases-of-depression-have-tripled-during-the-covid-19-pandemic, https://www.livescience.com/depression-anxiety-increase-covid-19.html and https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm .)
Biblically: Five times in the New Testament believers are told to greet one another with either a “holy kiss” or a “kiss of love” (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26 and 1 Peter 5:14.) We agree with John Piper that these verses are communicating that when we gather with other believers, we should “take the physical, familial expression of endearment [of your culture] and use it in a way that is holy to express your love for one another.” (Found at https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/the-holy-kiss-relevant-today-or-not).
Whether it be kisses, hugs, hand-shakes or fist-bumps, these passages communicate that believers should not withhold the culturally appropriate form of physical and familial affection towards one another precisely because we are the family of God and physical endearment is an integral part of family culture. Requiring social-distancing and enforcing social isolation in our gatherings would be requiring that we ignore this spiritual principle and essential form of encouragement and love commanded by God through Paul and Peter.
- Since the church is not a building but people who believe in and follow Jesus, it shouldn’t matter that we can’t meet in the buildings we are used to. I can have a relationship with God and others totally apart from a church building, can’t I?
Yes, every one of us should have a living, vibrant, intimate and active relationship with God that is not determined by the building I may be in at any given moment. Declaring that the church gathered is essential does nothing to diminish this critical personal part of our faith.
But one’s privatized, personal and individual relationship with God is no substitute for a regular, shared and relational community of believers who frequently interact through the church gathered. Just as the private component of one’s faith journey is important, so is the public shared expression.
The New Testament church knew little to nothing of a privatized and isolated faith disconnected from the church community. To be put out of or disciplined out of the early church was the severest form of discipline that could be imposed upon an unrepentant brother or sister (I Corinthians 5). The fact that so many self-proclaimed Christians in our nation today believe they can experience the best God has for them in this life while being virtually or completely disconnected from regular relationship with others in the church is testament to how impoverished church experience has become for many.
The very word translated “church” in English (ekklesia in Greek) most fundamentally means “gathering.” The church in all its forms is a gift from God to us, not an encumbering weight to be jettisoned at the earliest opportunity. It is both the Body of Christ and His Bride. As such, there is much that God wants to bless us with through the church gathered, imperfect though she be.
- What kind of gathering of God’s people actually constitutes a functional church?
First, not every gathering of believers constitutes a church…any more than a building with the name “church” on it does. To be a church there must be, among other things, recognized and competent leadership, common purpose, teaching of the word, prayer, fellowship and the breaking of bread. Because Jesus promised that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt. 18:20), that does not mean that wherever a couple of believers have coffee or fellowship on a park bench, that is the fullness of the experience of church Jesus wants us to have. Those two or three people are certainly a part of the church when they do that, but they are not ‘the church’ or even a church.
Secondly, the church gathered has historically been limited only by the size of the gathering venue, be that a house holding a dozen people or a stadium holding forty-thousand people. Biblically speaking, both of those examples are simply ‘house churches’ as long as the other above requirements for being a ‘church’ are met. The size of the church gatherings are determined by the capacity of the meeting spaces.
For governments to assume that they have the delegated authority from God to determine the proper or permissible size of either buildings or of gatherings of the church indoors or out is an illegitimate and tyrannical use of power. The church has held that position throughout the centuries despite the fact that a variety of tyrannical governments have consistently destroyed both house-churches and cathedral-sized buildings where believers have sought to meet.
When government is ceded the authority to limit God’s gathered church to a certain size or building they deem acceptable, it is always simply a matter of time before even the smallest house-church gatherings are deemed a threat to those governments. We have witnessed this happening even with the recent Covid limitations. Whether those governments are secular or religious governments hostile to the Christian faith matters little. The effect is essentially the same—the repression of the kind of church life with which God desires to bless His people.
Even in the present four-phase approach to “reopening” Washington State, the Governor has arbitrarily determined that, during the past eight months, no church should have home gatherings that have more than five to ten (5-10) people from different households, should meet no more than once a week and that church buildings must be limited to 25% of their normal capacity up to a maximum of 200, whichever is smaller. In effect, it doesn’t matter if you have space for two-thousand people or eight-hundred, your overgrown house church building will only be allowed two-hundred. As we discussed in the above point “6.”, size of gatherings do matter (though larger is not necessarily better, just different). Therefore, buildings do matter to the experience of the church, be they studio apartments or athletic stadiums.
- Can’t electronic means of gathering together substitute for all of the church’s previously practiced public gatherings? Can’t we obey all of God’s commands to the church through electronic mediums of communication?
This question is closely related to much of the preceding material but with a slightly different twist. We are deeply blessed to live in a day when electronic media makes both interactive small groups and remote massive groups possible. Nothing which we are advocating here is an attempt to diminish these mediums or the actual and potential impact they may have. This world-wide pandemic situation is helping, even forcing, the church to be more creative, more entrepreneurial and more externally focused. That is all welcome and to be affirmed. And if the electronic church is all a person has access to or all a government will permit, it is certainly better than no electronic church.
But anyone who has either been on the transmission or receiving end of live-streamed church services knows their limitations. Electronic church may be adequate for transmitting and teaching biblical and other content to a certain degree but it is poor at allowing most of the body of Christ to exercise their spiritual gifts together or for shepherding, bearing one another’s burdens, loving on or fellowshipping warmly with others. It is utterly inadequate for the fulfilling of some of the New Testament “one another” commands mentioned previously.
Additionally, appealing to the electronic church as an adequate substitute for the in-person gathered church ignores the inherent logistical problems encountered by the economically poorest and most elderly elements of the church. To disenfranchise the least among us from the fundamentals of the faith is not loving. The poor and elderly do not, on average, have access to internet, smart phones or computers. They often find the technological challenges of the internet frustrating at best and insurmountable at worst.
In our urban ministry in Spokane, we know these challenges all too well. Prohibiting people, many of whom are living alone in their studio apartments, from actually gathering as a spiritual family in small or larger groups, is neither loving nor an authority God has given to government to exercise.
- Isn’t the church getting “too political” when it speaks out against government and its control of the church?
While we would freely admit that this danger always exists for the church and that many churches have fallen prey to the mistaken notion that they are somehow in authority over the government at all times in every issue, there are several things to consider in response to this objection.
First, in the current political and social environment of 2020, everything has been politicized and become ‘political.’ One cannot make any statement, particularly any that have ramification for public life, without it being misunderstood, misconstrued, mischaracterized and declared to be “political.” So simply being accused of being “political” is not, in itself, sufficient reason for the church not to speak out on issues that impact its people significantly.
Second, it is impossible to read either the Old Testament prophets, the words of Jesus or the words and actions of the New Testament church and not acknowledge that many of their messages directly conflicted with and ran contrary to the prevailing civil and religious leaders. Every statement of Jesus (of which there were many) criticizing the Pharisees, Sadducees and priests were statement against the political powers of His day. Jewish religious leadership was recognized by the civil Roman leadership as having authority over large swaths of public Jewish life. And many of the messages of the Old Testament prophets were directed to specific governmental rulers.
Third, where biblical mandates and principles intersect with public life, the church is called to educate its people and influence the world. As long as government reflects the heart and nature of God, the people of God have no reason other than for praise, prayer and thanksgiving to address the powers of government. It is only when governments and their laws fail to reflect the nature of God that God’s people are duty-bound to advocate for that which reflects God and speak against that which does not. To do anything less is to fail to follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus as well as the prophets and Apostles of old who frequently addressed injustices in the land.
Fourth, the severity of the impact of unjust laws on a citizenry and the church should determine the frequency and nature of how the church addresses any issue. It is all too easy for churches and their leaders to preach their pet issue or mount their favorite soap boxes. Not all laws are of equal importance and not all issues are of equal merit to address.
This is one reason why pro-life issues should be championed and addressed far more frequently and strongly by the church in our culture than, say, issues of the environment, important as they are. If any living person, be they young and in the womb or old and in a nursing home, does not have THE most fundamental protection of the law over their right to be alive and not have their life taken from them by anyone (whether relative or stranger), ALL other rights and causes are meaningless. Those other important rights and causes only have meaning to that child or adult if their life has not been taken from them.
The same can be said to apply to the church and this issue. Before churches across this country were affected as they have been by the resulting governmental edicts and policies, the church had no real need to address civil disobedience or government’s intrusion into the life of the church. But once local, state and federal government entities began to close churches indefinitely, order people (including church participants) to stay home indefinitely, continued to drastically limit religious expression and began fining and prosecuting some churches and pastors for resisting these new intrusions, the importance of teaching on civil disobedience and genuine church life skyrocketed. Some may view that as “political.” Faithful shepherds must view it as instruction in sound doctrine.
- Should our form of government influence the types of responses we choose in the present situation?
Everyone on earth today finds themselves in some particular national political structure. Whether you live in England under a constitutional monarchy, in Venezuela under a socialist dictator or in China under communism, everyone must live to varying degrees in submission to government. I would advocate that the form of government a person finds themselves living under should, to some degree, shape the type of interaction a Christian has with that government.
For example, if you are living under a simple monarchy, the form of protest and redress will be different. Citizens under monarchies don’t get to vote every year. They don’t get to choose a different leader. They don’t get to write the laws through their representatives. But Christians living in a democratic republic such as the U.S. of A. can vote in and out different leaders regularly and directly. They can change laws through those leaders or make laws directly via the referendum and initiative process. They can file suits in court and protest peaceably in the streets. All these rights are set forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the governing document that creates “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” In essence, citizens of the U.S.A. are the government, the ultimate ones who determine laws, leaders and the like.
As such, I would contend that we as Americans have a much greater responsibility (than people in other countries with different forms of government) to be engaged in the political process through prayer, voting, advocating, serving, educating, sponsoring just laws and protesting peaceably against unjust laws and injustices. Failure to do so is a failure to steward the God-given privileges and responsibilities granted to every citizen of this nation. Stewardship of all gifts and resources in life matters to God (c.f. Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 12:35-48; 1 Cor. 4:2). Failure to steward the responsibilities given us by our Constitution and by God is literally an abdication of divinely bestowed privileges akin to the abdication of the throne for a king or queen born into royal bloodline and given such responsibility by nature of their birth.
Some may contend that American’s strong cultural and political value on “individual freedom” and my call here to guard and even fight for constitutionally guaranteed freedoms has been elevated far beyond what God would approve of in His Word. They would contend that we should rather sacrifice those freedoms, hopefully temporarily, when government demands we do so for the common good. I would contend that sacrificing those freedoms to the extent we are currently being asked to do and for the durations we have currently been told to observe go far beyond the biblical boundaries of legitimate governmental exercise of power.
Not all individual liberties and rights mentioned in our Constitution are expressly mentioned in the Scriptures (such as the right to bear arms, the right to a trial by jury, etc.). Additionally, many of our cultural and legal ‘freedoms’ that have sprung from our Constitution over time are clearly prohibited and discouraged in Scripture (such as killing of innocent children in utero, sexual relations outside of marriage, etc.). The nature of law and governmental enforcement of it is such that God has designed law to be used to limit biblically defined evil while encouraging biblically defined righteousness. I would contend that at whatever points laws and governments depart from those purposes for law, a Christ-follower should, to the best of their ability, seek to resist governmental intrusion and reform governmental abuses.
Tyrannical governments always seek to take more power for themselves at the expense of less liberty of their subjects. The framers of our Constitution understood this to a certain, though not perfect, degree. They held a more biblical view of the nature of mankind than most do today, namely that human nature is morally fallen, sinful and predisposed to abuses of power when given such power. As such, they sought to develop a system of government that gave the individual the greatest amount of freedom and opportunity possible while safeguarding the safety and security of the nation and individuals against abuses of both freedom and of power.
This, I believe, was a direct reflection of the way they perceived the Almighty to be working with mankind. Their respect for the rule of law flowed from a general belief in the rule of God over nature and mankind. They understood that while God had given evidence in nature and made declarations in His Word about morality that human beings were nonetheless free to violate and transgress that evidence and those declarations at their own peril. They sought to allow a system free enough for people to even make choices that might damage or destroy themselves but not so ‘free’ that they would damage or destroy others.
One of the grave dangers I see unfolding in the present clash of government and church over how to handle this pandemic is that, in my opinion, too much of the church has an overly-optimistic view of how fallen government officials will use their newly-found and now ever-increasing ‘emergency powers’ to remove liberties just months ago taken for granted. Unchecked and unchallenged human power will take additional fundamental freedoms away from the citizenry. In simply the eight months of this relatively mild pandemic, we have already observed how this kind of power has utterly destroyed the lives and livelihoods of millions of people albeit with the best of intentions.
Christians must return to a biblical view of human nature and of law. Failure to do so will only lead to growing tyranny in government and shrinking religious and personal freedoms in society.
- Isn’t it misguided, counterproductive and a poor witness to our secular society for Christians to appeal to our Constitution in asserting our religious ‘rights’?
In Acts 16, Paul & Silas use their Roman citizenship and law code to rebuke the magistrates for their illegal actions. In Acts 22:25 they do it again, but this time in Jerusalem. In Acts 23:12-35, Paul’s nephew hears of a plot to kill Paul, informs Paul who in turn informs the attendant military commander. The commander then provides a detachment of soldiers to take Paul to Governor Felix in Caesarea. The Apostles and early church leaders had no qualms with appealing to the rule of law of the day when it was to the advantage of the church and themselves personally. Finally, in Acts 25:12, Paul appeals to Caesar rather than going down to Jerusalem to be tried there. By doing so, he is using and appealing to his God-given rights as a citizen of Rome. Every citizen should do the same under the leadership of the Holy Spirit wherever doing so will advance the cause of Christ and extend life and freedom.
- When should believers engage in civil disobedience and what are the limits, if any, on civil disobedience?
While submission is to be the dominant standard and attitude towards human governments and government officials by God’s people, the realities of sinful and fallen officials as well as governments makes it imperative for God’s people to know how far that submission is to go and at what points it is to be rejected in order to continue to adhere to God’s law.
When it comes to laws, edicts, executive orders and the like, there are only two kinds: just and unjust. Just laws and edicts are those that do not require people to violate God’s laws. Unjust laws either require people to do things God forbids or not do things God requires. Christians are always bound to obey just laws imposed by any government. But they are equally bound to not obey unjust laws that would require them to set aside God’s law in favor of mans’. When obeying man's law would put us in disobedience to the clear commands of God and teachings of Scripture, then—and only then—is civil disobedience warranted.
As to the kind of civil disobedience allowed, it is beyond the scope of this paper to deal with all possible types and scenarios. Suffice it to say that the Scriptures seem to clearly advocate for peaceful and non-violent civil disobedience. Whether they prohibit or argue against other forms of civil disobedience is far more problematic and difficult to demonstrate. (See Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805, edited by Ellis Sandoz, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 1991.)
- Isn’t this a lot of controversy about nothing? Can you really say that the church is suffering persecution under the present situation and limitations?
When the initial guidelines and emergency declarations were made both nationally and statewide in March of 2020, most Americans were willing to temporarily park their biblical and constitutional concerns while we all figured out the nature of the threat and the cure. What was declared to be a thirty-day exercise of emergency powers has now become a nearly three-hundred-day unimaginable disruption of normal life in just about every possible arena of life. From business to the church, healthcare to education, many government officials have assumed and amassed to themselves hitherto unforeseen power and control. While I will leave it to business owners, educators, parents, employees and health professionals to either continue to cede their rights and authority to these government officials or work to recapture them in those arenas of life, that approach is not one that has or will serve the church going forward.
I will be the first to acknowledge that hardship and even persecution can and often does bring positive spiritual results. Some very good things have happened to the church in America and Washington State in particular as a result of the current crisis. For one, there has been a sifting of the church that is winnowing out those who may have only been a part of a church when it was convenient or non-threatening. Other believers have discovered a new passion for gathering together with the people of God precisely because they have been deprived of this right for longer than they ever were before. Prolonged isolation is leading some people to turn to God as never before. Many Christians have taken up the ministry of prayer in new and deeper whereas before it may have been neglected in their lives. Yes, God will continue to build His church and the gates of hell (or Olympia) will not prevail against it. The list of positive effects is truly long and encouraging in some ways.
At the same time, it is naïve to maintain that either the short-term or long-term effects of these continued ‘emergency’ policies have not done genuine and real damage to the church. On an individual level, millions more people are suffering deeply from mental, emotional and spiritual effects of isolation, lock-downs, quarantines, closures, job losses, delayed health procedures, lack of fellowship and much more that have been the unintended consequences of ongoing restrictions. To make matters worse, many a Christian has been prohibited from ministry to those most in need in hospitals, prisons, residential buildings, workplaces, schools and homes. Real people are suffering real and sometimes life-threatening results of ongoing restrictions.
At a local church level, however, both professional estimates and anecdotal information lead me to believe that anywhere from 30-70% of members in most congregations are no longer going to church and a significant number of churches have not resumed in-person gatherings. A July 2020 Barna survey found that roughly one-third of former church-goers have stopped attending any form of church. Another roughly one-third have continued attending only their home church at least once-a-month via live-streaming or in person and another one-third have either switched churches or are viewing multiple churches in a week. (See https://www.barna.com/research/new-sunday-morning-part-2/) A Pew Research study mid-2020 found that almost sixty-percent of previous church-goers who went “at least once or twice a month” were now attending less frequently (see https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/307619/religion-covid-virus.aspx). In terms of finances, most church giving is off and some churches have not been able to pay their pastors or have closed their doors already. It is estimated that one-in-five churches will close their doors in the next 16 months (https://religionnews.com/2020/10/13/how-will-the-post-pandemic-church-pay-the-bills/) While a large portion of the absent flocks may be the more senior segments of the church (which tend to have a high long-term commitment level), virtually every age demographic seems to have experienced significant continuation of non-attendance. Interestingly enough, Millennials have tuned out of on-line church services at a level of roughly fifty-percent as of July 2020.
Without hard data one can only surmise why so many formerly regular church participants no longer feel the vital need for such experience. For many it is obviously about the fear-factor. For some it may be revealing that, whatever previous experience they had in church, it was not sufficiently transformational to make them long deeply and frequently for these spiritual family reunions. America’s “spectator Christianity” may leave many feeling that non-participatory church services on-line are not all that different or inferior to low-to-no participatory in-person services.
Many churches, in an attempt to submit to government mandates, have communicated a clear but, I think, deeply flawed message to their people: “Church isn’t about coming together in some location.” “We can do most of what the church does on-line or socially distanced.” “You can enjoy worship electronically, get fellowship on the phone and keep your connection with God strong in private devotions.” “Don’t worry. Just tune in. You’ll get most of what you need with our on-line connections.” Tell people that long enough and they will actually believe it. While they may be wondering if their unmet longings for the church are genuine indicators of a God-given longing, if their beloved pastors are telling them not to worry about not gathering indefinitely…for whatever reasons…where will that message take them?
It is precisely at this point that our American lack of good theology and teaching about suffering and persecution is leading the church into a wilderness of our own making. How can so many well-educated, Bible-studying, formerly church-going Christians be so content to abandon the fellowship of the saints and all that goes along with the true community of Christ-followers in a church for months on end? That fact alone reveals a huge hole in our Gospel that must be plugged with living, working, breathing, sacrificing and passionate biblical faith and practice.
To the issue of persecution, just a few observations on the contemporary landscape:
- Government persecution is not limited to the church today. One of the most disturbing things about the handling of this pandemic is how governments across the country have picked winners and losers. On a business level, it seems pretty evident to me that big-box stores and massive on-line companies have been the chosen winners while small businesses and certain sectors of the economy have been the chosen losers. Disregarding any real or perceived motives behind such decisions, the reality is that certain businesses have experienced a form of “persecution” in that they have not been invited to a level playing field. In some states, churches have not been given a level playing field either (despite the 1st Amendment which businesses don’t have) with the likes of other public gathering places such as casinos, strip clubs, big-box stores and massage parlors.
In other states the rules have been more equal and, it could be argued, churches have been given at least a corner of their normal playing field if not an advantage over certain businesses. Because more entities besides churches suffer damage due to the draconian restrictions of government does not mean some form of “persecution” of churches isn’t happening. Because more infringement on personal rights is happening at more levels doesn’t mean that Christians’ rights are not being abridged and Christians are not being harmed.
Wherever governments intrude and interfere with the God-ordained, God-sanctioned and sometimes God-mandated activity of the church, they have overstepped their authority and are engaging in persecution of the church. Neither the intent of the government officials in making these mandates nor the level or unlevel nature of the playing field is really important. The fact is, any action of government that specifically targets the church and believers in a way that strips them of their historic and biblical religious expression is a form of persecution. The American public has simply become more comfortable with this form of limits/persecution today than ever before in our nation’s history, a reality that bodes very poorly for the future of religious freedom in this land.
- Two Instructive 20th Century Historical Responses to Persecution:
It is interesting to note how other churches in other nations in the last one-hundred years have responded to ever-increasing government intrusion on freedom of religion. Two countries that have experienced draconian restrictions are instructive in this regard—People’s Republic of China and the former USSR.
In the case of the USSR, I am told by local Slavic pastors here in Spokane who lived under communism before immigrating to the United States, that the early Russian Constitution that was enacted by the early Marxists contained many of the same rights as the U.S. Constitution. Citizens had rights of assembly, rights of freedom of religion, rights to free speech and freedom of commerce. But as the state gained more and more power, those freedoms were simply ignored and violated, reinforced by the courts which had been packed with Marxist sympathizers.
What happened to the church was that each local church and sometimes entire denominations went one of two directions. Those who sought to work with the government and were willing to accept certain limitations on their free exercise of religion became the “state-approved” churches. Those who valued and held to greater autonomy became the “underground” church. Both were “persecuted” but in different ways. It was just as illegal for a state-approved church to instruct young people as for an underground church. But the penalties and levers of power were different.
This bifurcation of the church happened across most denominations and in most cities. According to the accounts of some, roughly half chose the route of being state-approved and half chose to go ‘underground.’ From Roman Catholic to Pentecostal, Baptist to Russian Orthodox, some pastors and churches chose one route and others another.
When we come to the imposition of Marxism in China in the 1950s, while the transition was perhaps more rapid, the results were very similar. Today’s Three-Self Church is the state-approved church in China. The underground church that chose not to submit to control of the state has exploded in recent decades. The 3-Self Church, while also experiencing strong growth in numbers in some areas, has nonetheless not experienced the same type or level of growth. And as we are seeing of late with the most recent crack-down on churches in China, both churches are experiencing an increasing level of persecution and attempted control.
This should be instructive to the American church today. If this trend of government control of churches continues, regardless of the reasons, it is highly likely that we will go down a similar road as the USSR and People’s Republic of China. Individual churches and perhaps whole denominations will choose to either work with the state at virtually every level of mandate and thus become a de-facto “state-approved church” or they will choose to engage in civil disobedience to retain the privilege of worshipping, witnessing, fellowshipping and more as their consciences and the word of God dictates and thus they will become the new “underground church.”
- A challenge to pastors: At the risk of further discouraging my fellow pastors whom I deeply respect and admire at a time when ministry is particularly challenging, I believe it is at this point that we pastors must face several failures on our part if the church is to recover and flourish going forward after this pandemic or into the next.
- We have failed to adequately prepare our flocks for the fight God calls us to wage against fear. Every government in the world has now discovered and is using the weapon of fear. It matters not that it is fear for a good thing—health. We have failed to disciple God’s people in the reality that God only calls us to fear Him, not pestilence, war, fines, criticism, hatred, poverty or any host of other possible fears.
- We have failed to clearly define and model the biblical boundaries of legitimate governmental authority and what Christians must do biblically and what they have done historically when those boundaries have been violated by tyrannical authority. Now is the time to do so.
- The American church’s general reticence to engage in conflict with our culture (of course, lovingly) on any divisive issue over the recent decades has left us completely unprepared to engage in this very overt and damaging conflict with the state now. We’ve confused avoidance with peace and our people have taken our silence for approval.
- We have failed to be united as the body of Christ in our cities. Most churches have seen only the survival or success of their congregation as their concern. Consequently, when the time comes, as it now has, when churches need to come together to stand up for each other and ‘have each other’s backs’, we are almost completely lacking in genuine relational unity that would rally even a meanigful segment of the church in a city to the defense of an attack on any one local church in that city. It is past time for like-minded churches to band together in the mutual defense of each other…or we will, as our forefathers said, “surely hang separately.”
Expanded Scriptures Related to Three Aspects of
Religious Practice and Governmental Intrusion
- “Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers! I, even I, will sing to the Lord; I will praise the Lord, the God of Israel, in song. Judges 5:3
- “Therefore I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will sing the praises of your name.” 2 Samuel 22:50
- “Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
9 Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
10 Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord” I Chronicles 16:8-10
- “Sing to the Lord, all the earth; proclaim his salvation day after day.” I Chronicles 16:23
- “After consulting the people, Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lordand to praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying: “Give thanks to the Lord, for his love endures forever.”” 2 Chronicles 20:21
- “Then Jehoiada placed the oversight of the temple of the Lordin the hands of the Levitical priests, to whom David had made assignments in the temple, to present the burnt offerings of the Lord as written in the Law of Moses, with rejoicing and singing, as David had ordered.” 2 Chronicles 23:18
- “Hezekiah gave the order to sacrifice the burnt offering on the altar. As the offering began, singing to the Lordbegan also, accompanied by trumpets and the instruments of David king of Israel.” 2 Chronicles 29:27
- “Hezekiah assigned the priests and Levites to divisions—each of them according to their duties as priests or Levites—to offer burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, to minister, to give thanks and to sing praises at the gates of the Lord’s dwelling.” 2 Chronicles 31:2
- “But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may rejoice in you.” Psalm 5:11
- “I will give thanks to the Lordbecause of his righteousness; I will sing the praises of the name of the Lord Most High.” Psalm 7:17
- “Sing the praises of the Lord, enthroned in Zion; proclaim among the nations what he has done.” Psalm 9:11
- “I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” Psalm 13:6
- “Therefore I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will sing the praises of your name.” Psalm 18:49
- “Be exalted in your strength, Lord; we will sing and praise your might.” Psalm 21:13
- “Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people; praise his holy name.” (Psalm 30:4)
- “Rejoice in the Lordand be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!” Psalm 32:11
- “Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.” Psalm 33:1
- “Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise.” (Psalm 47:6-7)
- “I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples.” Psalm 57:9
- “Then I will ever sing in praise of your name and fulfill my vows day after day.” Psalm 61:8
- “I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.” Psalm 63:5
- “Sing the glory of his name; make his praise glorious.” Psalm 66:2
- “May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the peoples with equity and guide the nations of the earth.” Psalm 67:4
- “Sing to God, you kingdoms of the earth, sing praise to the Lord,” Psalm 68:32
- “Sing for joy to God our strength; shout aloud to the God of Jacob!” Psalm 81:1
- “I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.” (Psalm 89:1)
- “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” Psalm 90:14
- “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.” Psalm 95:1
- “Sing to the Lorda new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.” Psalm 96:1-2
- “Make music to the Lordwith the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing,” Psalm 98:5
- “I will sing of your love and justice; to you, Lord, I will sing praise.” Psalm 101:1
- “I will sing to the Lordall my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.” Psalm 104:33
- “Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts.” Psalm 105:2
- “My heart, O God, is steadfast; I will sing and make music with all my soul. I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples.” Psalm 108:1, 3
- “May your priests be clothed with your righteousness; may your faithful people sing for joy. I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her faithful people will ever sing for joy.” Psalm 132:9, 16
- “Praise the Lord, for the Lordis good; sing praise to his name, for that is pleasant.” Psalm 135:3
- “I will praise the Lordall my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.” Psalm 146:2
- “Praise the Lord. How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him! Sing to the Lord with grateful praise; make music to our God on the harp.” Psalm 147:1
- “Praise the Lord. Sing to the Lorda new song, his praise in the assembly of his faithful people. Let his faithful people rejoice in this honor and sing for joy on their beds.” Psalm 149:1, 5
- “Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world.” Isaiah 12:5
- “The Lordwill save me, and we will sing with stringed instruments all the days of our lives in the temple of the Lord.” Isaiah 38:20
- “Sing to the Lorda new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them.” Isaiah 42:10
- “Sing to the Lord! Give praise to the Lord! He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked.” Jeremiah 20:13
- “This is what the Lordsays: “Sing with joy for Jacob; shout for the foremost of the nations. Make your praises heard, and say, ‘Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’” Jeremiah 31:7
- “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” Acts 16:25
- “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed 9 and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written:
- “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;
I will sing the praises of your name.” Romans 15:8-9
- “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:18-19)
- “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:16)
- “He says, “I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.” Hebrews 2:12
- “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” (James 5:13)
- Assembling and Gathering: The very term “assembly” and “assemble” is used over one-hundred and eighty times in the Old Testament to refer generally to the chosen people of God, Israel. It is also used to speak specifically of the gathered people of God for spiritual worship and activities. While the church is distinct from Israel and not bound by every Old Testament command, the clear volume of commands calling God’s people to periodically gather in worship reveals God’s heart that His people not cease gathering on a regular basis. God expects His children to gather in response to His commands. There are few if any exceptions to these broad and blanket commands for the people of God to regularly Here are but a few examples of God’s call to His people to gather.
- Exodus 12:16--On the first day hold a sacred assembly, and another one on the seventh day. Do no work at all on these days, except to prepare food for everyone to eat; that is all you may do.
- Leviticus 8:3-4—“…and gather the entire assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting. Moses did as the Lord commanded him, and the assembly gathered at the entrance to the tent of meeting.
- Leviticus 9:5--They took the things Moses commanded to the front of the tent of meeting, and the entire assembly came near and stood before the Lord.
- Leviticus 23:3--“‘There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the Lord.
- Leviticus 23:21--On that same day you are to proclaim a sacred assembly and do no regular work. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live.
- Deuteronomy 16:8--For six days eat unleavened bread and on the seventh day hold an assembly to the Lordyour God and do no work.
- Joshua 8:35--There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the foreigners who lived among them.
- I Kings 8:65--So Solomon observed the festival at that time, and all Israel with him—a vast assembly, people from Lebo Hamath to the Wadi of Egypt. They celebrated it before the Lordour God for seven days and seven days more, fourteen days in all.
- I Chronicles 16:35--Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
35 Cry out, “Save us, God our Savior;
gather us and deliver us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name,
and glory in your praise.”
- I Chronicles 29:10--David praised the Lordin the presence of the whole assembly, saying, “Praise be to you, Lord, the God of our father Israel, from everlasting to everlasting.
- 2 Chronicles 29:28--The whole assembly bowed in worship, while the musicians played and the trumpets sounded. All this continued until the sacrifice of the burnt offering was completed.
- Nehemiah 8:18--Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the festival for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.
- Psalm 22:22--I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.
- Psalm 50:4-6--He summons the heavens above,
and the earth, that he may judge his people:
5 “Gather to me this consecrated people,
who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”
6 And the heavens proclaim his righteousness,
for he is a God of justice.
- Psalm 68:26--Praise God in the great congregation; praise the Lordin the assembly of Israel.
- Psalm 149:1--Praise the Lord. Sing to the Lorda new song, his praise in the assembly of his faithful people.
- Joel 1:14--Declare a holy fast; call a sacred assembly. Summon the elders and all who live in the land to the house of the Lordyour God, and cry out to the Lord.
NOTE: the people of God were to respond to national calamity of an invasion of locust with a national assembly of prayer. Gathered prayer should be the regular response of God’s people to national crisis of any kind.
- Joel 2:15-17--Blow the trumpet in Zion,
declare a holy fast,
call a sacred assembly.
16 Gather the people,
consecrate the assembly;
bring together the elders,
gather the children,
those nursing at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room
and the bride her chamber.
17 Let the priests, who minister before the Lord,
weep between the portico and the altar.
Let them say, “Spare your people, Lord.
Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn,
a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’”
- Matthew 18:20--For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
- Acts 20:7--On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.
- I Corinthians 11:33--So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together.
- I Corinthians 14:26--What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
- Hebrews 2:12--He says, “I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.”
- Hebrews 10:24-25--And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. (NKJV)
- “FEAR”—In both the Old and New Testaments, fear of God is enjoined and fear of almost all else is warned against or prohibited.
- Revelation 14:7--He said in a loud voice, “FearGod and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
- Revelation 2:10-- Do not be afraidof what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
- Hebrews 13:6-- So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”
- I Peter 3:14--But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not feartheir threats; do not be frightened.”
- I Peter 2:17--Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fearGod, honor the emperor.
- Philippians 2:12--continue to work out your salvation with fearand trembling,
- Philippians 1:14--And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.
- 2 Corinthians 5:11--Since, then, we know what it is to fearthe Lord, we try to persuade others.
- Romans 13:13--Do you want to be free from fearof the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.
- Acts 9:31--Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fearof the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.
- John 6:20-- But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.”
- Luke 12:5, 7--But I will show you whom you should fear: Fearhim who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear
Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
- Mark 4:40-- He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
- Haggai 2:5--‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’
- Micah 6:9--Listen! The Lordis calling to the city— and to fear your name is wisdom— “Heed the rod and the One who appointed it.
- Daniel 6:26--“I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fearand reverence the God of Daniel. “For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end.
- Lamentations 3:57--You came near when I called you, and you said, “Do not fear.”
- Jeremiah 42:11--Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, whom you now fear. Do not be afraid of him, declares the Lord, for I am with you and will save you and deliver you from his hands.
- Jeremiah 32:39, 40--I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fearme and that all will then go well for them and for their children after them.
I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me.
- Jeremiah 5:22, 24-- Should you not fearme?” declares the Lord. “Should you not tremble in my presence? I made the sand a boundary for the sea, an everlasting barrier it cannot cross. The waves may roll, but they cannot prevail; they may roar, but they cannot cross it.
They do not say to themselves, ‘Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives autumn and spring rains in season, who assures us of the regular weeks of harvest.’
- Isaiah 54:4-- “Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame. Do not feardisgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.
- Isaiah 51:12-- “I, even I, am he who comforts you. Who are you that you fearmere mortals, human beings who are but grass,
- Isaiah 41:14-- Do not be afraid, you worm Jacob, little Israel, do not fear, for I myself will help you,” declares the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.
- Isaiah 41:10-- So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
- Isaiah 33:6-- He will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fearof the Lord is the key to this treasure.
- Isaiah 8:13-- The LordAlmighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread.
- Proverbs 29:25-- Fearof man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lordis kept safe.
- Proverbs 3:25-- Have no fearof sudden disaster or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked,
- Psalm 115:11-- You who fearhim, trust in the Lord— he is their help and shield.
- Psalm 103:17-- But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fearhim, and his righteousness with their children’s children—
- Psalm 91:4-6-- He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
5 You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
6 nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.
- Psalm 49:5-- Why should I fear when evil days come,
when wicked deceivers surround me—
- Psalm 46:1-2-- God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
- Psalm 34:9-- Fearthe Lord, you his holy people, for those who fearhim lack nothing.
- Psalm 31:19-- How abundant are the good things that you have stored up for those who fearyou, that you bestow in the sight of all, on those who take refuge in you.
- Psalm 27:1-- The Lordis my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?
- Psalm 23:4-- Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fearno evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
- Psalm 3:5, 6-- I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.
6 I will not fear though tens of thousands
assail me on every side.
- 10:12, 20-- And now, Israel, what does the Lordyour God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul,
- Fearthe Lordyour God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name.
In this paper I have attempted to present a coherent biblical position regarding the relationship of the church and government in areas of possible conflict specifically related to the current health crisis of Covid-19. I began by seeking to give the biblical basis, arguments for and definitions of respectful submission to government, regardless of the type of government being considered. I sought to demonstrate that biblical submission should be the predominant and prevailing attitude of Christ-followers towards their respective governments.
I have also sought to demonstrate that there are many possible limitations to governmental authority particularly when it comes to issues relating to a biblically-informed conscience and God’s instructions to the church of Jesus Christ. Whenever governmental leaders enact laws or policies that call for God’s people to disobey the express mandates of the Scriptures or their biblically-informed conscience, it is not only the right but the responsibility of Christ-followers to disregard those human edicts so that they can continue to submit to God by obeying His divine edicts.
Finally, I have sought to apply the Scripture’s teachings about these issues to the current health crisis of Covid-19 still playing out at the end of 2020. I have sought to tailor this discussion to the specific situation residents of Washington State have faced over the past year with regard to the Governor’s proclamations and mandates. I have attempted to show where those proclamations and mandates run counter to the mandates placed upon the church by the Scriptures. But I have not attempted to dictate how individuals and churches should respond to or engage in these issues of civil disobedience where permissible or required.
It is my sincere hope and prayer that God’s people in America will both deepen their theological convictions about the relationship of the church and state as well as broaden their conviction about what the church must hold onto unswervingly when it comes to practices of the church gathered in our day.