In recent weeks, police have arrested several pastors for holding services during the coronavirus pandemic. In response, national advocacy organizations have sued local and state officials complaining that orders to shut down worship services discriminate against churches and violate the First Amendment rights of Christians. In most states, governors have lifted such restrictions on houses of worship, but a few are still in place. Should church leaders obey them?
The answer begins with the “why” — what led to these closure orders? Was it that state and local officials saw prayer, preaching and worship as subversive to their authority? Was it because the relevant mayors, sheriffs, police chiefs and governors hate Christianity and hold believers in contempt? Is this the first step toward wholesale Christian persecution?
I believe the answers to all these questions is a resounding, no.
The motivation behind church closures has been obvious and consistent across the board. Churches are gathering places for large numbers of people. The average congregation in America is around 100 and some reach into the multiple thousands if not tens of thousands. Most churches foster intimate contact—from typically close fellowship in the seating arrangements, to handshakes, hugs, and, in some traditions, the laying on of hands for prayer and even holy kisses on the cheek. In other words, sanctuaries are as much potential places of mass transmission of corona virus as are concert halls. Governors, mayors, and other public officials have been rightfully concerned about such a danger. In temporarily banning church gatherings, they’ve been reducing the risks associated with dozens of people in close contact with each other.
Notwithstanding these facts, isn’t it always ill-advised for religious communities to take orders from secular government authorities? Well, churches do that all the time. As a matter of course, congregations cooperate with a myriad of government regulations. When they construct buildings, the law forces them to follow strict building codes. Inspectors routinely check to see that churches follow regulations around heating, cooling, and fire alarm systems. In many jurisdictions, the same is true with sewer and drainage systems, roofs and other structural elements, and, of course, parking and traffic management. In many cases, if churches do not meet legal requirements in any of these areas, they will be shut down. Pastors and their governing bodies rarely challenge these procedures because they know it’s for the benefit and safety of their own people. Why then, have so many churches baulked at the temporary shutdowns related to COVID-19?
Why are churches more concerned about fire alarms and parking lot traffic patterns than about this deadly contagion?
Perhaps because various forces in society have politicized the virus. In other words, politicians, affinity groups, activists and media companies have seized on the pandemic to score points and gain advantage for themselves. Partisans take sides either for or against stay-at-home restrictions, business closures, even the wearing of masks, then attack the other side for perpetrating threats against personal liberties or public safety. When hundreds of thousands of people are getting terribly sick, and over 80, 000 of them have died, especially the elderly and the physically compromised, homeless or in prison, this becomes even more than a massive public health crisis, it becomes a moral crisis.
Regardless of how you see the legal question, churches should care more about keeping people safe, healthy, and alive than about exercising their constitutional liberties. I’m afraid politics has the potential to turn all of us into very selfish and arrogant people. For too many, their reaction has been, “How dare you tell me I can’t go to church and listen to my favorite preacher and worship team!” For others it’s been, “I don’t care if somebody can get sick, you can’t cramp my freedoms!” Still others feel they need the spiritual and emotional boost that comes with assembling publicly. But all these positions are about “me,” the self, the individual, at the expense of others, including those in the wider community who may be scared by the danger emitting from large gatherings. “Church” isn’t about our personal needs, it’s about the needs of others. Jesus taught and modeled this (see Mark 2:17), the Bible commands it (see Galatians 6:2), and great spiritual leaders throughout history have reinforced it. The brave German pastor and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, called Jesus, “the one for others.”
The second of Christ’s two Great Commandments is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). If you don’t want someone to expose you to serious illness, then don’t do that to someone else. That’s’ the meaning of the Golden Rule contained in the Sermon on Mount, “So whatever you wish others would do to you, do also for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). We also need to be humble. It is arrogant and prideful for anyone to dismiss all concerns about a threat of this magnitude by simply asserting one is not sick, or that God would never allow His people to become sick, or even that worshipping together is more important than any threat presented by “a virus.” Worse, I’ve heard some assert that people shouldn’t fear an illness. After Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, died of a sickness, He joined with others in their sorrow and wept with them. (John 11: 31-35). The great church-planting apostle and pastor to pastors, St. Paul, wrote, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves (Philippians 2:3 ESV). We all need to get off our high horses, identify with the pain of others, as Jesus did, and ask what we can do to help them in their agony.
None of this says we shouldn’t be on guard for government abuses against churches and people of faith and call them out, challenge, or defeat them when necessary. However, the much greater priority now is to do everything we can to show our greatest concern is not for ourselves but for others; for the fearful, the vulnerable and the suffering. The church is always at its best when it’s challenged by difficult circumstances. When I did a preaching tour of the newly freed Russian Republic shortly after the fall of the repressive Soviet Union, a Pentecostal pastor hosted me. During casual conversation he mentioned he had spent 25 years at hard labor in the mines underneath a ghastly federal prison camp. When I asked him how he survived, he said flatly, “I never thought about that. It wasn’t about survival, it was about obedience to God.” When I asked how many other pastors he knew who had been to prison, he said, “All of them. Our denomination won’t ordain anyone who hasn’t suffered. You can’t help suffering people if you haven’t suffered yourself.” I’ll never forget that. Of course, we needn’t seek suffering, but we should make the most of it when we do experience it. Closed church buildings and limitations on how many people can assemble in them is a very mild form of suffering, but it’s just enough for us to get a feel of what others experience. Unlike many around the world who cannot assemble to worship, we will one day return to normal.
As for those churches that have returned to legal assemblies, it is critical that the leadership of the congregation ask of themselves, “Why are we doing this?” If it’s simply to defy a social convention, the ethical question to ask in response is, “Should we risk the health and lives of our members just to make this point?” And, similarly, “Is our re-opening more likely to draw people to Christ or drive them away?” Finally, ask, “What will happen if our people begin to get sick? What impact will that have on our witness of the gospel?”
Let’s try to come out of this time of isolation and quarantine in a better moral state rather than a worse one. Let’s send a signal that we, as God’s people, are more concerned about others than we are concerned about ourselves. That was certainly the example set by Jesus from His birth in Bethlehem to His death on the Cross. “Christian” means “little Christ.” The more we pattern ourselves after the Savior, the more we will reflect His nature, the more we will truly become His disciples. As we emulate Jesus, we will draw others to His saving grace. I suggest we stop carping about closed buildings and limited meeting attendance and, instead, turn our full and prayerful energies towards those who need our help spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
The most important part of an American “re-opening” will not be our reinstated ability to gather among ourselves, but our renewed commitment to go out to others in need.
[May 13, 2020]