by Steve Golden —
In early July, The New York Times smeared churches across the country as veritable petri dishes of COVID-19, calling them a “major source” of infections (the paper has since revised the headline to remove that language). The article claimed that churches’ propensity for “speaking loudly” and “singing” has led to numerous cases. This might sound like ample justification for closing churches down, until you look at the actual numbers. Church meetings have been responsible for 650 cases across the entire country since the pandemic began. As one author at The Federalist pointed out,
650 out of 3,000,000 cases across our nation means 0.0216 percent of them trace back to churches. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent…
Churches by and large have taken precautions, such as social distancing, new filtration systems, and hand sanitizing stations. Many are now (unwisely, I would argue) enforcing mask mandates more strictly than even local authorities and turning away members who choose not to comply. Yet churches continue to be targeted in shutdown orders, the latest coming from Gov. Newsom in California.
Throughout the pandemic, churches have complied and complied and complied, and church leaders have told their flocks to just keep obeying, no matter how ludicrous the mandates. But we’re reaching a point where it’s not wise to continue blindly obeying government officials without at least considering the implications, though I suspect many church leaders haven’t taken the time to do so, since we’re living in what was an unthinkable scenario 6 months ago.
As it stands, the Church broadly has made the government its functional head.* If churches don’t start pushing back soon, state-run churches won’t be far off.
What’s God’s and What’s Caesar’s?
I argued recently that Christ lays out separate spheres of authority in Matthew 22:20–21 (ESV)—the Church and the government:
And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
But how can we know when the government has wrongly attempted to extend its authority over the church? How can we know when to resist a government mandate? I acknowledge that everyone’s lines vary here, but I want to put my cards on the table.
I believe the Church needs to resist mandates that dictate who can enter a church service, what the service has to look like, or whether services can happen at all. I also believe the Church needs to exercise great caution in following mandates that blur the lines between government authority and church authority. In short, the life of the Church belongs to the Church, and Christian leaders should fight to protect that domain.
Scripture provides insight into what happens during corporate worship, including meeting in person to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24–25), worshiping with hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19), partaking in Communion (1 Corinthians 11:23–27), and teaching the word of God (1 Corinthians 1:27–29). Christ died for the sins of the world (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 5:15), so the Church welcomes all who will listen to hear the gospel, believe, and become part of the life of the body.
When a group of believers constructs a church building, they follow laws regarding zoning and building codes and occupancy, and they should. Christians pay taxes and obey speed limits, and they should. We exist alongside an unbelieving world and elected officials who make laws that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 say we should obey. Those things are Caesar’s.
So what about mask mandates? This is where I get nervous. If a church chooses to become an arm of the government by strictly enforcing a (largely unenforceable) mask mandate, two primary issues emerge:
- It by necessity dictates who may attend your services—the unmasked are cast out of fellowship. Businesses have unwisely adopted mask mandates even in areas where they aren’t required by local officials, and those with qualified health exemptions are now struggling to get service. The Church, which should be the voice of reason and a buttress of the Truth, only adds to the chaos by refusing entrance to those in need.
- It blurs the lines between what’s Caesar’s and what’s God’s. Whether or not a church chooses to openly oppose the government, neither churches nor businesses are to be the enforcers of these government orders. But once the Church gives in, it will be difficult to back track and say no when the next mandate comes.
Consider the following scenario in light of church and government separation. Andy Stanley announced last week that his Georgia-based, multi-campus North Point Community Church is canceling all services . . . until 2021.
The reasons? First, Stanley worries that the church cannot provide “quality adult or children’s worship experience with social distancing protocols in place.” Second, Stanley feels that the church “would be responsible for contact tracing” and that the church is too large to handle the task. Other churches are following North Point’s lead and making similar announcements. Stanley’s beliefs about “quality” worship hold no theological water, but his concerns about performing contact tracing are a prime example of confusing what’s Caesar’s and what’s God’s.
Taxpayers fund health departments across the nation whose primary role is to perform the on-the-ground work of contact tracing for the purposes of epidemiology. It is not the Church’s responsibility to take on contact tracing; that’s akin to asking the Church to collect back taxes and unpaid child support from congregants. If a person goes to a testing site, they provide all their information to have a test done, and the positive result should be followed up on by the local health department. Any church that is willingly taking this on or complying with an order delegating it to them is blurring lines of authority in unhelpful ways.
North Point and any other church told to perform contact tracing should simply say no, especially when our tax dollars fund professionals to do this for the government. Otherwise, what are church leaders to do when a member refuses to consent to contact tracing? Exercise church discipline and disfellowship him? The Church simply lacks the authority to carry out contact tracing, but shutting down over it isn’t the right answer.
What Else Is Coming?
After mask mandates and contact tracing, there will undoubtedly be mandates requiring anyone who wants to interact in public places to have a COVID-19 vaccine. The National Institutes for Health (NIH) announced that Phase 3 trials of a COVID-19 vaccine should begin soon, and we could see a vaccine available by the end of the year.
What happens when the government tells churches they must check the vaccine paperwork of every person who walks through the door and turn away those who have chosen not to receive the vaccine? Or worse, what if the government mandates that churches turn in the personal information of anyone who has chosen not to receive a vaccine, so they can be “re-educated”? Churches that have been mask and social distance enforcers, and that have done the government’s job of contact tracing, will have trouble suddenly refusing mandates like these as a bridge too far. After all, it’s for “public health,” right?
Other regulations, before another round of church shutdowns inevitably occurs, might include banning Communion or potlucks because both require removing masks. Officials may decide it’s too dangerous to have a pastor/elder teaching from the pulpit, as talking can spread the virus. Shared hymnals and pew Bibles, Sunday school programs, and small group Bible studies may be nixed as well. This may sound far-fetched, but California has already banned singing and chanting in churches—and this will likely take hold in other states. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that other practices in the Church will be next.
John MacArthur states it well in his church’s recent declaration that they will obey God, not the government, regarding gatherings and other mandates:
When officials restrict church attendance to a certain number, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the saints to gather as the church. When officials prohibit singing in worship services, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the people of God to obey the commands of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. When officials mandate distancing, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible to experience the close communion between believers that is commanded in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. In all those spheres, we must submit to our Lord.
When More Shutdowns Come, Should the Church Abandon Meeting?
I want to note that I disagree with Andy Stanley’s choice to cease meeting as a body. Not every church leader will see another round of shutdowns as a clear case for civil disobedience, whether or not an end date is attached. But a church that ends meetings until 2021, with no alternative for in-person fellowship such as a house church system, has ceased to be a body. In such a case, those congregants—after first reaching out to leadership with their concerns and failing to come to a resolution—need to withdraw their financial support and find a fellowship that is committed to keeping the clear command of Hebrews 10:23–25.
Churches that choose in the long term to cease meeting at their building must have a plan in place to provide more than a Sunday live stream. Caesar may say mass gatherings must stop in the name of “public health,” but God says we are not to stop meeting and encouraging one another. Many of the “one another” passages in Scripture cannot be fulfilled apart from in-person fellowship.
We’ve read the end of the story. No matter how we slice it, the Church will always be a target for mistreatment because of its faithfulness to God’s commands. Dr. Deborah Birx has already intimated that social gatherings at private residences are a problem, which I believe indicates that government intrusion on private property is coming. Whether we lead a small group or a house church, we have to be prepared to disobey and accept the consequences if and when a mandate to stop gathering in homes comes down the pipeline.
Daniel had a habit of praying to God three times a day, and in the face of a new law saying he could not pray any longer, “he went to his house . . . got down on his knees . . . and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously” (Daniel 6:10, ESV). Let’s act with the same conviction, joyfully obeying the Lord by giving Caesar what is Caesar’s and pushing back when Caesar tries to take what is God’s.
*That’s not to discount the churches that have resisted these mandates and even gone to the point of litigation to stave off loss of religious freedom. They are few, but they are fighting a good fight and should be commended for it.