Reopening Churches—It’s Time for Civil Disobedience

by Steve Golden

I recently listened to a sermon at a California church where the teacher made the case for why his church would not be reopening for the present. In the course of making several good points, he noted repeatedly that numerous California clergy had announced their intention to reopen on May 31 whether or not Governor Newsom approved. While I felt that this church leader gave the California government far too much credit as he explained that the government officials’ efforts to reopen the state’s churches at some point was satisfactory enough to keep his church from engaging in civil disobedience, he was careful to state that other churches have the right to civilly disobey.

In my last post, I pointed out that there’s a mental health crisis occurring in part because stay-at-home orders and media-created panic have pushed people over the edge—and the Church has an important opportunity to bring hope and help to these people. But we can’t do that if our doors remain shuttered and the body isolated from one another. It’s time for civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience has played an important role in American history, particularly related to slavery and racial segregation. In fact, it was the practice of slavery that helped inspire Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau became known for his opening lines about government:

I heartily accept the motto,—”That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,—”That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.

Thoreau’s point? There are times when an unjust law should not be obeyed while waiting for the legal system to change it. As a Christian, I believe in submitting to the government as long as I’m not being asked to sin, in keeping with Romans 13. But I tend to agree with Thoreau that government is often more harmful than helpful. I submit, but I don’t have to like it. But because we live under a constitutional Republic, we have legal means to effect change—including civil disobedience. (I refer here to truly peaceful disobedience, in distinction to violent riots, looting, or vandalism.)

Across the country, American business owners—ordinary people like you and me—have had their livelihoods snatched away from them by the long arm of the government, some to financial ruin. The government arbitrarily and unconstitutionally declared primarily small businesses “non-essential,” forcing them to close indefinitely. But many are fighting back and reopening their businesses in spite of state government orders to remain closed.

They need to feed their families, and I say thank God they’re brave enough to engage in civil disobedience. It humanizes people who have become nothing more than numbers in the eyes of the nations so-called “experts” in pandemic healthcare policy. The now-infamous Texas hair salon owner who reopened and was arrested for trying to make a living changed the course of the debate in her state. (Arrests continue in other states, as evidenced here, here, and here.)

If Small Businesses, Why Not the Church?

If small business owners are willing to take the risks to reopen, while honoring all the onerous restrictions the CDC continues to promote, why shouldn’t the Church join the fray? The choice to disobey certainly requires careful thought by church leaders. Hebrews 10:24–25 provides a clear command to gather in its warning not to cease doing so, and practices such as corporate worship and communion cannot be accomplished from the privacy of our homes during a live stream. At some point, we’re no longer obeying the command.

Early in the pandemic, when we had little information about COVID-19, loving our neighbor seemed to mean suspending meetings for a few weeks to “flatten the curve.” But now that it’s evident that this virus will likely be no worse than a bad flu season, loving our neighbor likely requires reopening the church so our neighbor has somewhere to go—especially those suffering from the financial and emotional fallout of many state governments’ mishandling of the pandemic. Again, I say thank God for the church leaders willing to disobey for the sake of the flock.

As I mentioned above, three weeks ago, 1200 California clergy simply declared their intent to restart religious gatherings as an act of civil disobedience, and California relaxed restrictions on religious gatherings. (In a blow to religious liberty, the Supreme Court sided with the state of California related to the treatment of churches under the present restrictions.)

Yet many other churches have no plans to reopen at present.

In general, I argue that church leaders need to reopen and allow attendees to manage their own preferences on social distancing, masks, etc., while encouraging everyone to respect boundaries. The last place people need to encounter government encroachment is in their local church, so Christian liberty should be the aim as church leaders engage with attendees. Large churches struggling with accommodating these restrictions, instead of remaining closed indefinitely, could take creative approaches such as setting up a house church system for those comfortable with meeting or reserving portions of the church building where social distancing is observed and leaving other areas for attendees to engage as they prefer.   

On an individual level, hospitality involves some level of appropriate risk. My family and my small group do not practice social distancing, because we don’t believe the science supports these restrictions,* and the emotional/relational well-being of others is higher on our priority list. But when someone at church expresses that they prefer to distance, we are happy to honor their request, because gathering corporately to encourage one another is what’s important here. (A great resource for encouraging biblical hospitality is Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Gospel Comes with a House Key.)

Joseph Hellerman, an elder and professor in California, argues that today’s church needs to restore the loyalty that was present in the New Testament church, particularly in four ways:

1. We share our stuff with one another.
2. We share our hearts with one another.
3. We stay, embrace the pain, and grow up with one another.
4. Family is about more than me, the wife, and the kids.

Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family (Nashville: B&H, 2009), p. 162.

Part of loving our family might mean encouraging them from afar if they’re high-risk and need to stay away for a while. For the rest of us, it very likely also means taking risks to be in fellowship with each other as a body, in close quarters, in spite of a virus or government orders not to meet. But we can do none of the things Hellerman outlines above if we cease meeting. Functionally, we stop being a family and a body if we no longer meet corporately.

It’s been 3 months. It’s time to get back to the business of discipling, evangelizing, and caring for one another. It’s time for civil disobedience.

*In addition to the issues with the science behind COVID-19 restrictions I pointed out in my recent post, the 6-foot social distancing guideline is another entirely arbitrary rule. While the CDC tells Americans to maintain 6 feet of distance, the WHO tells other countries only 3 feet (1 meter) is necessary, while Australia recommends 1.5 meters (just under 5 feet). Others question all those recommendations because of a March 2020 study showing that respiratory aerosols travel 2327 feet. Other research shows that coronaviruses remain in the air for up to 3 hours.

†Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Reopening Churches—It’s Time for Civil Disobedience

Add yours

  1. In A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Marley laments, “Mankind was my business…” But he no longer could enter the fray. He was an outsider. The church is in the same business—the people business. May we all be open for “our business” soon, and very soon. Today is a good day.

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