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Should churches comply with California's ban on singing?

Upsplash/Haley Rivera

California has issued a ban on corporate singing. How should churches proceed? Thankfully, there are biblical and historical precedents that help inform Christian leaders. 

The Apostle Paul commands every person to be subject to governing authorities (Romans 13:1). What are Christians to do when governing authorities at local, state, and national levels issue conflicting directives and send mixed messages? Such is the predicament of evangelicals in many locations in America today.

In his Letters from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that Christians not only have a moral obligation to obey just laws, but an equally compelling obligation to disobey unjust laws.[1] This line of reasoning has deep roots in the Christian tradition. It reflects both Catholic instruction in the Catechism (Article 2, Participation in Social Life), goes back to Augustine (“An unjust law is no law at all”)[2] and Thomas Aquinas. Protestants agree on the matter of unjust laws. Martin Luther may evidence this best in Temporal Authority when he says that “it is no one’s duty to do wrong; we must obey God rather than men.”[3]

Christian history makes a compelling case for the invalidity and dismissiveness of unjust laws. It was reasonable for Christian churches to stop meeting while medical professionals assessed the threat and learned about the virus. However, as the goals of quarantine evolve from the immediate (flattening the curve) to the indefinite (finding a vaccine) it is no longer reasonable for churches to comply with directives against corporate worship. Such open ended prohibitions against worship are unjust.

The Bible helps Christians to appreciate the invalidity of unjust laws. For example, the Israelites who refused to worship false gods in the book of Daniel are commended for their courageous faith (Hebrews 11:33-34).

Biblical theology as a whole attests that God’s law is above human law. Anglican bishop and philosopher George Berkeley (1685-1753) wrote in his essay A Discourse addressed to Magistrates and Men in Authority that,                    “And it is wise, although at the risk of liberty or life, to obey God rather than man.”

Scripture makes it clear that there is a time for Christians to assert their legal rights in obedience to God.

In Acts 16, the Apostle Paul demonstrates a willingness to assert his earthly citizenship in service to the mission of God’s kingdom:

35 But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36 And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. 39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.[4]

Paul models reasonable obedience to earthly authorities (verse 40), a willingness to decry injustice (verse 37), and an ultimate concern for the ongoing work of ministry (verse 40).

Christians today are confronted with a dilemma which Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and King have all addressed in a consistently biblical manner: A government does not have the right to forbid that which Christ has commanded. When human laws conflict divine laws, Christians must be loyal to Christ.

Thankfully, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is the first freedom, upon which the logic and proper functions of a well ordered society may be established and thrive.

The Christian religion prohibits Christians from neglecting to meet together (i.e. ἐπισυναγωγ, meaning to physically gather, as in 2 Thessalonians 2:1) in obedience to Christ (Hebrews 10:25) and God commands us to sing (Colossians 3:16). Gathered worship on Sunday for both preaching and singing is essential to the faithful practice and public witness of the Christian faith.

It is a hill on which to die.

Overwhelmingly, Christians have (wisely) demonstrated deference to governing authorities during the COVID-19 crisis as well as care for congregants and neighborly love for their communities at large. We have no doubt that churches will employ wisdom in following general guidelines on social distancing and other reasonable accommodations as they re-gather for worship. That said, the constitution affords citizens freedom of religion, and the President has now encouraged churches to meet.

Obedience to Christ is always the church’s best witness and surest indication of genuine neighborly love. Sacrificing obedience for the sake of witness is compromise masquerading as piety.

Based upon the clear teaching of Scripture, the theological foundation of the primacy of divine law over unjust (and conflicting) human laws, and the witness of Christians down through the ages, we can say with both humility and confidence that now is the time for churches to gather and worship as God has commanded.

[1] James Gilman, Fidelity of Heart: An Ethic of Christian Virtue (Oxford University Press), 75.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, On Free Choice of the Will, Book 1, section 5.

[3] Martin Luther, “Temporal Authority” in Luther’s Works, 45:125

[4]Acts 16:35-40 (ESV) 

Adam Groza (PhD) is the author of the forthcoming book Faith Wins: Overcoming a Crisis of Belief (New Hope Publishers, August 2020) and a contributing author to Idealism and Christian Philosophy (Bloomsbury Press, 2016).

Craig Vincent Mitchell (PhD) is a Christian ethicist, economist and engineer. A board member for the Institute of Religion and Democracy, Dr. Mitchell speaks and writes on issues involving Christian ethics and public policy.  Dr. Mitchell served as associate professor of Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (2002-2014) and associate professor of philosophy, politics and economics at Criswell College (2014-2017).

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