I recently listened to an episode of the Q Ideas podcast (dated October 1, 2020) which featured two very well-known US mega-church pastors who have had very different approaches to COVID restrictions: John MacArthur and Andy Stanley. One pastors in California and one in Georgia, which may not be an insignificant factor in their ways of dealing with the situation. I appreciated aspects of each perspective. Whichever pastor you agree with more, I think it’s fair to say that each is acting on personal conviction and is endeavouring to lead and pastor their church with wisdom in order to love their neighbours. You can either listen to it below or go to this link.
Are churches that refuse to abide by COVID guidelines making the right decision or the wrong decision?
I don’t know.
Are government authorities who fence in a church building or issue large fines for such refusals exercising power illegitimately? Are they violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by their actions?
I don’t know.
Is this really an issue of religious freedom or is it confusing such freedom with the traditional means of exercising our religious freedom?
I don’t know.
How do we know for sure when such freedoms are being unfairly restricted or even violated?
I don’t know.
Should the same guidelines exist for all situations and places and organizations?
I don’t know.
However, what I do know is that at a time like this there aren’t easy answers.
What I do know is that many government authorities are doing their best to protect citizens. What I do know is that not all governing authorities are the same–from province to province or state to state. We can’t equate what’s happening, for example, in the US or some parts of the US and look at our situation here in Nova Scotia through that lens with accuracy. What I do know is that there are examples of COVID restrictions that seem inconsistent, confusing, or applied unfairly. What I do know is that there are plenty of people acting in good faith, in churches and in the government, who are not on the same page.
What I do know is that followers of Jesus and churches are called to obey governing authorities unless they are telling us to disobey God. What I do know is that being able to protect and have religious freedom is important in a free society. What I do know is that it’s not always clear in this situation what it means to obey or disobey God’s word. What I do know is that Christians ought to be willing to do whatever it takes to love our neighbors. What I do know is whatever we do as disciples of Christ and as communities of faith will be our witness to our neighbors.
What I do know is that many of us are quick to give our opinions and slow to listen. What I do know is that people on all sides of an issue can get emotional, frustrated, and argumentative. What I do know is that all that’s going on in our culture right now is leading to division, polarization, and disunity. What I do know is that we often end up in echo chambers where all we hear is what we already agree with. What I do know is that social media platforms such as Facebook drive us apart more than bring us together. What I do know is that none of this is good for any of us.
But most importantly, what I do know is that the God in whom I believe is the Creator of each one of us. What I do know is that he calls us to love one another, even when we profoundly disagree. What I do know is that being a follower of Jesus involves laying down our lives, carrying our crosses, and sacrificing our desires for the sake of others. What I do know is that even those of us who are Christians don’t always want to do this or are willing to do this. What I do know is that we–including Christians–need the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of repentance and forgiveness, and the gospel of Jesus more than ever. What I do know is that without it we have no hope, no peace, and no way forward as we live in this difficult and confusing time.
Note: I’m sure there will be Christians who disagree with this post. I would be grateful if this were part of a larger conversation rather than a monologue. If you have a different, and biblical, way of thinking through this issue, I’d be grateful to hear from you. Or if you want clarification on something I’ve said, I’d welcome that too.
Over the last year churches have had to deal with restrictions on gathering because of COVID. Depending on where in the world you live, your church has been unable to meet in person for long stretches of time or only if those attending adhere to certain guidelines. Where I live in Nova Scotia, Canada, we’ve been able to meet in person since last July if we socially distance. Though due to a significant rise in COVID cases in our province, we are currently on a two-week shutdown.
Am I going to insist, despite our provincial government’s policy, that our church gather in person anyway? I am not. And even if I were inclined not to follow our government’s mandate, there’s a very good chance that I’d be alone in church on Sunday. My congregation, perhaps because they are largely older, are particularly cautious.
But we are already aware that there are churches who have refused to follow any of the guidelines. The claim is that doing so would be a violation of not only their specific convictions but actual biblical teaching. Furthermore, restrictions on faith gatherings are sometimes being characterized by those who refuse to abide by them as discrimination or even persecution.
The question is whether or not this a fair assessment of the situation. Or to put it another way: when and on what basis can people of faith legitimately engage in the refusal to abide by such government mandates?
And before I get to what my understanding of this is according to Scripture, let me underscore the fact that I am not an expert of any sort when it comes to the issue of church and state, what the Bible says about governing authorities, and when believers and other citizens can and should responsibly engage in civil disobedience. What I am about to say is based on my current best reading of Scripture. To that end, I am open to being corrected if I am misinterpreting Scripture or misapplying it. However, anyone who seeks to correct me would need to convince me of their interpretation of Scripture and not simply assert that their position is more sound than mine.
One passage we need to consider is written by the apostle Peter:
Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves. Honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor.1 Peter 2:13-17
Perhaps the first point to make concerns the form of governmental authority which was in place at the time Peter wrote these words. That is, we’re not talking about a democratic government system to which we are accustomed. People in Peter’s day didn’t vote for their emperors or governors. Not only that, but the authority in question here is Emperor Nero, a corrupt and violent leader who, according to the ancient historian Tacitus, burned Christians alive.
This makes it all the more curious and perhaps alarming that Peter uses the word submit. The word means to “place ourselves under” or in this case to live according to the governing authorities. As one commentator notes, “there could be few rulers indeed whose claims on loyalty would be sustained by less personal merit” than Nero. Why, then, would Peter exhort his readers to submit not only to the authorities generally, but Nero specifically?
For Peter to tell believers to honor an emperor such as Nero, the standard for civil disobedience must be especially high for those who claim allegiance to Christ. Indeed, the exhortations in 1 Peter are meant to emphasize that Christians are also called to be law-abiding citizens and that their compliance with the governing authorities is one component of their witness to the gospel.
Peter is not the only New Testament writer who writes of the relationship between believers and the governing authorities. Quite possibly the pre-eminent passage on this matter is written by another apostle, a contemporary of Peter’s:
Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the one in authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor.Romans 13:1-7
Much like Peter, Paul emphasizes the duty of Christians to be good citizens. But Paul goes further here than Peter by saying governing authorities are instituted by God. He refers to the state as “God’s servant.” Those who resist governing authorities are “opposing God’s command.”
Whatever else we say about the relationship between Christians and governing authorities, we have to contend with what both Peter and Paul are telling us. If a Christian holds the conviction that they need to disobey a particular law or mandate of the government, they need to have an especially compelling reason to do so.
Perhaps we can put it this way: The most fundamentally compelling reason is if Christians are being forced to choose between obeying God and obeying the governing authorities. In such cases, Christians are obliged to disregard the governing authorities.
In Acts 4:19-20, Peter and John were told under threat not to tell people about Jesus anymore. While these were religious and not governing authorities, how Peter and John responded is instructive and important. This is what they say: “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. The authorities were asking Peter and John to stop telling others about Jesus. Peter, John, and other followers of Jesus were compelled to share this good news with anyone who would listen. Not only that, they were expressly commissioned by Jesus prior to his glorious ascension to do precisely that. So even if the governing authorities of the time had made such an act illegal, the disciples of Jesus would have been compelled and even obligated to proclaim Jesus anyway.
In any case, Christians, I think, can engage in civil disobedience or be non-compliant with a mandate or law that would either (1) contradict what we are clearly taught in Scripture and/or (2) prevent us from sharing the good news of Jesus with others. So, for instance, a governing authority cannot force a believer who is a medical doctor to perform abortions. Abortion, being murder, violates the clear teaching of Scripture. The government also cannot reasonably expect Christians to obey a law that would prevent them from telling others about Jesus. Jesus commands us to tell other people about him.
For our part, those of us who are followers of Jesus have to be willing to accept the consequences of our decisions. What was true of the early disciples, like Peter and John, and is also true, say, of Christians in China today, also has to be so with us. If obeying God and following Jesus means being arrested, so be it. Let’s not forget that the apostle Paul wrote a number of his letters while imprisoned. John had his vision recorded in the Book of Revelation on Patmos, an island to which he had been exiled.
Now, as far as I can reasonably tell, none of the current COVID restrictions prevent me from obeying what Scripture clearly teaches or from telling others about Jesus. In other words, I can very easily live out my life as a follower of Jesus even while abiding by the current guidelines put in place.
Now, whether the guidelines are reasonable in themselves, or absolutely necessary, is beside the point. Rather, if a Christian or a church chooses to ignore them, they need to look outside Scripture for their reasons.
But what might someone say in response to this? For instance, what Scriptural support might one give for violating the restrictions on gathering in person?
Here is an example to which some may point. In Hebrew 10:23–25 we read this: Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.
The author of Hebrews recognizes that believers need spiritual support and encouragement to persevere in their faith. Living as a follower of Jesus requires community. Those who neglect Christian community are at risk of being much more spiritually vulnerable. And so the author exhorts readers to continue meeting in order to encourage one another.
However, let us be clear on this. Nowhere does this passage describe in detail how such meeting together should take place. Prominent pastors who have ignored gathering restrictions on the basis of this passage (but surely not only this passage?) seem to be interpeting it through the lens of how people in their particular cultural setting expect the church to gather.
However, the writer of Hebrews wasn’t speaking about Christians gathering by the hundreds, much less thousands, in a modern church facility. Indeed, the early church met in one another’s homes. Pastors and others who conclude that they can gather their people in such large numbers in violation of government authority in our current situation cannot do so based on what we read in Hebrews. Put simply, we can apply this passage in Hebrews without having to gather together in large numbers in our modern church buildings.
Of course, I’m sure it’s possible someone can make a case as to why churches ought to be able to meet in large numbers despite COVID. My main point here is that it’s very difficult to do so on the basis of Scripture, from a specifically Christian perspective.
At least as far as I can see, taking into account what the New Testament says of our relationship to government as instituted by God, alongside the apostolic example, means that, generally speaking, Christians can in good conscience abide by the COVID guidelines without the fear that they are disobeying God and his word. I think the burden of proof lies with those who posit otherwise.
What I want to say, too, is that I think those of us who are Christians need to be able to distinguish between obeying God even if it means disobeying a given law and fighting for religious freedom so that laws which put us in that position do not exist. We may or may not be able to change an existing law or how the governing authorities act towards people and communities of faith, but we should not conflate obeying God with the exercise of political power for the purpose of protecting religious freedom.
It’s not that we shouldn’t work to ensure that citizens, whether Christian or otherwise, have the freedom to worship and live according to their beliefs and conscience. We certainly ought to do so. However, in an increasingly post-Christian culture we need to be prepared to follow Christ whatever law our government puts in place. While having religious freedom is always ideal, it’s never a guarantee. Plenty of Christians around the world know this all too well.
These are strange, challenging, and often confusing times. Christians in good faith are reaching different conclusions about how to follow Christ and the dictates of their consciences. Each of us is responsible for applying the teaching of Scripture to our everyday lives—including in our relationship to governing authorities. May we all exercise due diligence in this process, because though we are all called by God to live as responsible citizens, we are all also accountable to him for the manner in which we do so.
So, here we go again. We Nova Scotian pastors are facing two weeks of lockdown, unable to gather in our church buildings.
And, of course, we hope and pray it is only two weeks.
Some of us will go online again to provide worship either with recorded messages or livestreamed services. My family and I might try and live stream on YouTube like we did on Facebook live last year with “Homemade Worship.” Especially if this lockdown extends beyond two weeks.
Some of us will easily roll with these changes. Others of us might be frustrated. Some might simply disagree that it’s even warranted. Those in our congregations will be of varying opinions.
And maybe after a year of various COVID restrictions, news coverage, media saturation, and debates with family, friends, and neighbours in person and on Facebook about masks and vaccines you’re feeling a little weary. Maybe exhausted.
Just a few thoughts, especially if this extends beyond two weeks:
One, know your limits. You can’t do everything. You can’t be all things to all people. Pastors are not super-heroes who are supposed to bear the entire weight of the church and its ministry on their shoulders as if they were the Hulk or Super-Man. That attitude and approach will kill you. Ask others in your church to help keep connected with those in your congregation who might be most vulnerable or fearful or lonely. This is even more true the larger your church. Pastors are called to equip the saints for the work of ministry, not to do all the ministry on their own (Ephesians 4:11-13).
Two, you need rest too. Give yourself permission to take a Sabbath from all online activity. Turn off your phone, even for a few hours. Take steps to give yourself a break from being constantly available. That we find this to be such a challenge is a symptom of how poorly we have managed our smartphones and other devices. Have a nap. Go for a walk in the woods or on a local trail. Read the novel you haven’t had time to pick up. Jesus invites us to rest (Matthew 11:28). Maybe listen to him?
Three, learn from last time. We’ve been through this before. What worked and what didn’t last time? What might we do differently?
Blessedly, God remains on his throne. He’s not only got the whole world in his hands, he’s got you. And he has your congregation in his hands also. So, count on that, put your trust in him, and move ahead as best you can. Whatever else happens, Jesus is still our risen Savior. Because of that we’re going to be fine.
I rarely get sick. And thankfully, if I were to catch a common cold, it’s unlikely to become a divisive political matter. No one would contest the reality of the symptoms. Nor would anyone argue vehemently with me over the efficacy of Kleenex, rest, and over the counter cold medications. There would be no one telling me I shouldn’t cover my mouth when I cough. Instead, most people would accept and support my efforts to get better and to keep others from catching the cold from me.
Then there’s COVID. And all of a sudden, taking precautionary measures leads to polarized arguments on social media, debates about government power and overreach, protests against masks, and, worst of all, division in churches. In churches.
Now, let me be clear. When I say division, I do not mean differences of opinion on all things COVID. Nor do I mean people who opt not to attend church because of their particular convictions or concerns. Instead, I mean the breakdown of communication and relationships. I mean one group of people in a church being unhappy, angry with, or resentful of another group of people in a church. I mean the kinds of situations that tie pastors in knots, because there is no helpful solution that smoothes over everyone’s concerns and makes all parties happy. Worse, I mean people who confess Christ as Saviour and Lord but whose handling of COVID restrictions puts them in the position of acting unbiblically towards their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Let me explain.
In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul addresses an issue we will never specifically face in our day: whether or not believers should eat food that has been offered to idols in pagan temples. Many Christians in Corinth were converts from paganism. Some of them couldn’t in good conscience eat such meat because of its association with pagan worship. The passage is worth quoting at length here:
About eating food sacrificed to idols, then, we know that “an idol is nothing in the world,” and that “there is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth—as there are many “gods” and many “lords”—yet for us there is one God, the Father. All things are from him, and we exist for him. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ. All things are through him, and we exist through him.
However, not everyone has this knowledge. Some have been so used to idolatry up until now that when they eat food sacrificed to an idol, their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not bring us close to God. We are not worse off if we don’t eat, and we are not better if we do eat. But be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, the one who has knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, won’t his weak conscience be encouraged to eat food offered to idols? So the weak person, the brother or sister for whom Christ died, is ruined by your knowledge. Now when you sin like this against brothers and sisters and wound their weak conscience, you are sinning against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother or sister to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother or sister to fall.1 Corinthians 8:4-13
Notice how Paul clearly says that Christians are free to eat such meat. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. There’s nothing special about this meat. And, besides, idols are simply idols. They are not divine beings of any sort. At the same time, though believers are free to consume this meat, Paul also tells them to be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. Going further, he says that if food causes my brother or sister to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother or sister to fall.
So Paul’s concern is that our actions as believers do not cause others to stumble in their faith. To this end, he says we ought to be willing to put our freedom aside in order to prevent others from stumbling. In other words, it is not Christlike to assert our rights when the well-being of the body of Christ is at stake. Indeed, following Jesus involves sacrifice, putting others’ needs ahead of our own, and loving our neighbour even when it costs us.
Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, Paul explicitly talks about not making use of his rights as an apostle. Speaking of his rights as an apostle, he says of himself and his co-workers that we have not made use of this right; instead, we endure everything so that we will not hinder the gospel of Christ.
Once again, the emphasis here is on not asserting one’s rights. And this is for the sake of the gospel. Note again: asserting our rights as Christians can, at times, be a hindrance to the gospel and not an expression of it.
And with all due respect to believers who feel strongly about COVID restrictions, remember that it is not a gospel issue. What we believe or don’t believe about COVID isn’t a matter of Christian orthodoxy, theological correctness, or biblical faithfulness. It’s not a salvation issue. Even if someone truly thinks that these government-mandated guidelines are the beginning of a slippery slope to even more government overreach and abuse of power, being asked to socially distance and wear masks doesn’t even come close to being asked to deny your faith in Jesus. It simply doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t qualify as persecution. Asserting otherwise is an insult to the many around the world in other nations who suffer and die daily for confessing faith in Christ.
And when we talk about setting aside our rights for the sake of the gospel, I think we can unpack this in a few ways.
First, of all Christian unity and peace in the body of Christ is a gospel issue. The relationships between people in churches is a gospel issue. It actually matters whether or not we are willing to put others’ needs ahead of ours. It actually matters whether or not we prioritize our relationships with other believers over our convictions on secondary or even tertiary issues. It actually matters whether or not we find spiritually healthy ways to deal with tension and conflict in our churches. Consider more words from the apostle Paul:
Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.Ephesians 4:1-6
Notice how Paul explicitly connects unity and peace in the body of Christ with the work of the Spirit, with our baptismal confession, and with very nature of our trinitarian God. The way in which we handle these sorts of matters relationally in the body of Christ matters because it is part of our witness to our larger communities. Our relationships with one another ought to reflect our deeper, primary convictions about the nature of God. We do this through humility, gentleness, patience, and love.
Frankly, how you get along with fellow believers and how you are growing into a spiritually mature and emotionally healthy follower of Jesus is significantly more important than your view of masks and social distancing.
Not only that, our unity as believers is so important and so intimately connected with the witness of the church in the world that Jesus–to whom we confess our allegiance–prayed for it.
I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.John 17:20-23
Why does Jesus pray for unity among his followers? He prays for this so that, as he says, the world may know you have sent me. Others coming to faith in Jesus, knowing he was sent into the world by God the Father, depends in some measure on the unity of the church. It’s a matter of Christian witness.
So, secondly, our witness is also a gospel issue. Our relationships in the church demonstrate what we believe about God and the good news of Jesus. When there is discord in the body of Christ over secondary issues, it’s a stain on the witness of the church to the wider world.
All of this is to say, if you are a follower of Jesus, are you thinking through the way in which you express and live out your convictions on secondary or tertiary issues? Are you thinking through how you are affecting your brothers and sisters in Christ as well as the witness of the church in your neighbourhood? What does your manner of living out these particular convictions say about God, the good news, and the church?
For example, if you are on Facebook or other social media platforms, do you think (and even pray?) before you type and post? I really think that the kind of disembodied communication that takes place on social media, absent of personal presence and actual relational accountability, gives many permission to say things they wouldn’t dare say in person. Not only that, I think many use technology as a way of actually avoiding real human interaction that they would find uncomfortable or awkward or that would potentially challenge their assumptions. Rather than another, healthy way of engaging others and ideas, instead it’s a way of sidestepping the more difficult, but essential work of relationships. Often there is no conversation per se. Instead, people talk past one another without ever stopping long enough to listen.
It goes without saying that those who confess to believe in and follow the Lord Jesus should model another way. We should be voices of humility, peace, and calm. We need to be aware of the degree to which we can mistakenly allow the medium of social media dictate how we express our beliefs and interact with others. We ought to demonstrate what it means to have unity even when we disagree on secondary or tertiary matters. We should show through our relationships that the gospel of Jesus is our priority.
After all this, I should also make clear that I am not asking anyone to violate their conscience. If a Christian believer has a particular conviction with respect to COVID restrictions, and it’s a matter of conscience, my suggestion is that they follow their conscience. Hopefully, what I’ve said above makes clear that it’s the manner of following one’s convictions on this matter that is crucial. How are you relating to others who view matters differently? Are you seeking to encourage fellow Christians, even if you disagree?
As it happens, how we do this is also a part of our witness and therefore a gospel issue. And whatever else we make of COVID and all the restrictions that our governing authorities are currently requiring us to follow, those of us who know and trust the Lord Jesus need to prioritize the witness of the gospel, of which our relationships with one another in the church are a fundamental part.