The past two weeks, I’ve written broadly about the Christian response to our pandemic. I’ve cautioned against two opposite errors. The first is presumption: acting as though God has promised us immunity from disease and harm, when he has promised no such thing. The second is panic: acting as though this pandemic is outside God’s loving and sovereign control.
This week, I want to consider a very practical question in our current circumstances. How ought we think about government shutdown orders with reference to the local church?
This question raises a lot of issues. It makes us ask, first, whether gathered meetings of the church are actually necessary. Many churches are making their services available online now—is this an adequate replacement for being physically present? I’ll address this further next week.
But let’s assume for now that the ordinary practice of the New Testament church is that we are obligated by Scripture to meet together, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some,” as the author of Hebrews instructs us.
If we are commanded by Scripture to meet, and the state forbids our meeting, how should we respond?
A large church in California (who received the shutdown notices early in this process) framed the question in relation to two Scriptures. The Bible instructs believers to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). But it also gives us the example of the early church, who proclaimed, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Which text governs our response here? And how should we relate our answer to the freedom of religion we have protected for us in the First Amendment?
It is profoundly important that we note that churches and religious groups are in no way being uniquely targeted by these requirements. That makes a difference. If churches were commanded not to meet while everything else could go on as normal, that would be a good case for obeying God rather than men.
But our current circumstance is not a matter of religious persecution. Churches are not being singled out for special treatment; they are being asked to respect the same health guidelines that all other institutions are.
In addition, we should observe that in Michigan, our governor has specifically said that churches are not subject to prosecution if they meet. I am grateful that she has made this distinction. It means that churches that cancel services are doing so voluntarily, rather than under government compulsion. I believe that closing for now is wise and good, and I’m glad to do so as a choice rather than by government order.
That distinction matters in our country. Just this weekend, the mayor of NYC announced that religious groups that refuse to shut down may be forbidden from ever re-opening. He was likely addressing orthodox Jewish congregations, but that warning should be chilling to any American who cares about religious liberty.
The weeks ahead without gathered church services will be hard for believers. But I contend that there is little case here for churches defying governmental authority.