I have come across statements encouraging churches and church leaders to ignore government restrictions on meeting together during the lockdown caused by the Covid19 pandemic.
These messages tend to emanate from the United States and take various forms. One I saw on YouTube was a video posted by an angry macho young pastor shooting off his mouth while driving his car. He appeared to think that everyone who didn’t agree with him is a coward. Others have been more measured and theological in tone, but I think equally unhelpful. Some say the dangers of catching the disease are not as bad as initially advertised and therefore we should just go ahead and meet up. Others frame the situation in terms of the state over-reaching its authority in trying to interfere with Christ’s church.
I have serious worries over these encouragements to defy the government in the present situation.
1. The government does have not only the right, but the responsibility before God to protect its citizens. We must recognize that this is a legitimate responsibility before God (Romans 13:4). It is rulers and Old Testament kings who have no concern for their citizens who come under God’s condemnation. As Christians, we should do whatever we can to cooperate with the government as they try, sincerely, to do their duty. We should seek the good of the city (Jeremiah 29:7).
2. At present none of the government restrictions prevent the church from taking other measures to meet. We can meet, socially distanced, in the open air. We can meet with up to 30 people, socially distanced, in church. We can meet (imperfectly) via Zoom. In times of trial God does not view such things as violations of the command to continue to meet together. He takes the sincere intention for obedience. So, for example, when Christians in prison in Soviet Russia celebrated communion with cabbage and water it was not looked upon as disobedience because they were not using bread and wine. They were doing what they could. Even in the OT allowances were made for those who were unclean and unable to take part in the Passover celebration (Numbers 9:11).
3. At present none of the restrictions are aimed specifically at churches. All kinds of other venues are closed or restricted. If everything else could open except the churches then we might be in a position where we felt we were being discriminated against and had to break the government’s restrictions (Acts 5:29). But that is not the case.
4. The OT makes it clear that God is concerned about the spread of infectious diseases. This is why we have all those laws concerning skin problems in Leviticus and the lepers not being allowed to join with the rest of the community (Leviticus 13:5; 14:8, &c). The statements I have seen seem to take no notice of these common sense and biblical regulations.
5. The Lord Jesus Christ makes it quite plain that a certain concern for self-preservation is not incompatible with true discipleship (Mark 13:14; Matthew 10:23). Some who encourage ignoring restrictions appear to imply that anyone who is worried about becoming infected by gathering at church is in some way being disobedient. I don’t think that matches with the sentiment of Jesus’ words. Neither do I think this is compatible with Paul’s concerns that the ‘strong’ look after the ‘weak’ (Romans 14). I would not want any frail older saint who does not want to come to church because of the pandemic, to be made to feel guilty.
6. We need to remind ourselves again that the true worship of God is not tied to any building or place. Ideally it is right for us to meet together to worship but where that is not possible the worship of God does not cease. There is a significant development concerning worship from the Old Testament to the New Testament – and whereas Jerusalem was the place to worship, now the place of worship is first and foremost the Lord Jesus (the true temple). Through him, wherever we are, we worship from the heart in Spirit and truth (John 4:23).
7. These are trying times for the church. We are being tested by the Lord. But we are to stay faithful to him and to be patient. The test includes whether or not people love the Lord above all things. Even when we cannot meet as churches, and see our friends, will we still love and serve him personally? If I am right about this then to become too impatient to get back to church would actually be pushing against what the Lord is asking us as individual Christians. Is our devotion to Christ first or to the people of the church? The churches may experience some sifting. The Lord will keep those who are his (2 Timothy 2:19).
Personally – for some pastors – I think they miss their pulpits too much and the large congregation hanging on their every word. Is this what is driving their instructions to reassemble? Is it love of the thrill of ministry rather than biblical principle which motivates them? I dread to think what it might do to the reputation of Christ if the meeting of a church in contradiction of the government’s guidelines becomes the cause of a new spike of cases. How will that be seen as loving our neighbours?
I hope all that at least sets you thinking. Don’t be bamboozled by people in your congregation who take their cue from America. Think it through for yourself from Scripture.