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Church, State, and the Pandemic

I will state at the outset that during the current surge of the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically in our geographic area where worship services have been suspended by health authorities, I am convinced that churches should not be meeting. That is, I don’t believe the minority idea, more common in US churches than Canadian churches, that churches should continue to meet because “God’s laws take precedence over human laws” and “Christians should obey God rather than the government.”

I absolutely believe that Christians are commanded by God to obey governmental authorities (Matthew 22:21, Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13-17) but that if there is ever a conflict between God’s commands and a government’s laws, Christians should obey God rather than the government (Acts 5:29). However, the idea that Christians should continue to meet during the pandemic is too simplistic an application of the general rule. I have great respect and admiration for Christians who are willing to risk their lives for their faith. But that is not all that is involved in this situation. Because Christians who get infected can endanger others by passing on COVID-19, they should refrain from unnecessarily attending events where they could contract the disease. In this case, not attending church is obeying God’s command to love our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). It is not a question of whether to obey God’s law or human law but a question of how best to obey God’s law.

So, Christians should do their part and avoid large gatherings just like everyone else. Just like everyone else. And there is the problem. Governments are also partly to blame for some churches disobeying the rules by holding church services. If governments had forbidden all gatherings, then of course churches should not meet. But inconsistencies in the rules create confusion and frustration. After all, the ways that Canadian Christian churches in our area have been meeting in recent months—with precautions such as keeping meeting sizes small, wearing masks, practising social distancing, and even having drive-in services—have been very effective. Governments have not offered evidence of widespread outbreaks of the disease due to church services, at least in our area. Churches can rightly question why they are forbidden from meeting when, in some cases, bars, movie theatres, ski resorts, shopping malls, and schools (whose safety protocols are much lower than churches’ protocols) continue to operate. More to the point, churches can rightly question why they are forbidden to have services when legislatures continue to meet, politicians violate their own restrictions for photo ops, and some governments have even conducted election campaigns in the middle of the pandemic. Governments seem to be saying that governments and some other activities are essential and churches are not. In other words, the attitude of at least some governments is that human laws take precedence over God’s laws, that the state is more important than the church. These governments are implying that the church and religion are not important and can be dispensed with whenever the government decides to ban them.

While obeying the law, churches should be demanding that governments give them clear reasons for ordering churches to close, that governments apply the same rules to everyone, that governments and politicians obey their own rules, and that churches be allowed to re-open as soon as practicable.

I am still convinced that God’s command to love our neighbour means that churches in our area should not be meeting at the present time. Christians should obey all reasonable government laws, including health regulations. Christians should set a good example.

But—and this is a very important “but”—churches should also be wary. The precedent of governments ordering churches to close is a very dangerous one. Churches and Christians should not let the current health crisis blind them to the principle that God’s laws should always take precedence over human laws, that Christians should obey God rather than other human beings. They should understand that their primary purpose for not meeting during the current crisis is obeying God’s command to love their neighbour and God’s command to submit to government authorities when appropriate.

It is useful to consider that in communist China, in Muslim countries, and in other countries with totalitarian regimes, Christianity and churches are not usually forbidden or outlawed in an absolute sense. These countries claim to retain a semblance of freedom. But churches are constricted by zoning regulations, fire regulations, health and safety requirements, and municipal bylaws. Christians are accused of human rights violations, anti-government agitation, disloyalty, treason, blasphemy, and numerous other crimes, often on trumped-up charges with no evidence of wrongdoing. Totalitarian governments do not mind if churches exist as long as they accept that the government is the ultimate authority and that churches operate only by permission of the state. But that is what true Christians cannot accept, and that is why totalitarian governments (dating back to the Roman Empire) persecute them. In these countries, churches are slowly strangled by a myriad of regulations until they finally cease to function, suffering death by a thousand cuts. Christians and churches here should be on guard against something similar happening to us.

If I were a church leader in the current situation, I would not be holding church services. But I would remain vigilant, I would be voicing my concerns to governments, and I would insist that, if there is a conflict, I will obey God rather than humans and their governments.

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