Public gatherings throughout the U.S. continue to be shut down in anticipation of the new coronavirus COVID-19. Churches, too, are widely canceling their weekly services.
Last Wednesday, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear urged churches to cancel weekly services. Some questioned whether his advice targeted churches too specifically (he didn’t mention similar events), especially considering that Kentucky had relatively few confirmed cases.
On Monday, the White House recommended that Americans “Avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people” for the next fifteen days. As state instructions to cancel gatherings become more common, urgent, and mandatory, how should churches respond?
Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
First, regular gatherings are not an optional part of the Christian life. Christians are commanded to “meet together” in Hebrews 10:25. Many New Testament commands on how Christians are to treat one another are difficult, if not impossible, to obey unless Christians are regularly gathering together. The New Testament describes the church as Christ’s body (Colossians 1:24); bodies cannot long exist while separated. Therefore, Christians should not abandon our typical church gatherings on a whim.
The legal question of whether government may restrict religious gatherings is relatively straightforward. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act codified a specific legal test, under which the federal government may only substantially burden sincere religious belief when it has a compelling interest in doing so, and does so in the narrowest way possible. First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty legal defense group, noted “temporary action to reduce the spread of a global pandemic is almost certainly a compelling reason.”
That said, most Christians are not lawyers. How can church leaders and members approach this issue wisely?
Dual Responsibilities, Dual Authorities
Western ideals of religious liberty are premised upon the idea that political and religious institutions have different responsibilities and, therefore, different authorities. The state’s responsibility is of this world (see John 18:36); the church’s responsibility is of the world to come. The state exists to establish order and execute justice so that humans may flourish. The church exists to proclaim the Word of God and build up the body of Christ so that people may be reconciled to God. Both institutions are good and gracious gifts from God.
As a general principle, the state’s authority is of this world; the church’s authority is of the world to come. The state has the exclusive right to use force, taxation, laws, and judicial rulings to provide for national security, public health and safety, moral justice, economic prosperity, and more. The church has the exclusive right to determine dogma and membership and to distinguish false religion from true.
This concept of religious liberty is rooted in Scripture. The Bible teaches that all authority is delegated by God Almighty, the King of Kings. God authorizes both the state (Romans 13:1-7) and the church (Matthew 18:15-20) to wield power in their appropriate areas, and he holds both state (Psalm 2:10-12) and church (Revelation 2:12-23) accountable.
Domain of the Body, Domain of the Soul
It is wrong for the state to usurp the spiritual authority of the church. Singling out churches for closing implies the state’s hostility. Thus, under normal circumstances, it is inappropriate for the state to dictate when a church can meet or how it can operate – or maybe even impose requirements which negatively affect church operations and religious exercise.
But emergencies are different. Certain foreseeable natural disasters (such as pandemics, hurricanes, etc.) can present temporary but substantial risks to public gatherings. The state has no control to prevent such disasters. By prohibiting public gatherings during such hazards, the state is properly fulfilling its duty to protect life in the best way available.
Just as the state may not run the church, so the church may not run the state (though it must speak clearly on issues of right and wrong). Virology is not theology, nor is public health the same as public worship. If the state determines that the danger from a deadly pathogen is such that all public gatherings must be suspended, the church should not automatically second-guess or contradict that decision.
Don’t Be Reckless, Don’t Be Fearful
While Christians should be prudent, we should not be fearful. Our natural, God-given instinct can run amok if we heed the frenzied media coverage. This can lead to sin if we let our fear of the virus overtake our fear of God. Jesus reminded his disciples not to fear those who can only kill our bodies, but to fear God, who has power over both our bodies and our souls (Matthew 10:28).
Christians have a duty to continue living as the body of Christ, even if we may not do so in large gatherings. This is more than a duty; it’s also our joy. God is glorified when his people stand out from the world, and nothing sets Christians apart like trials.
Most importantly, Christians must never forget or abandon their central message: God came to earth as a man, lived a perfect life, and died as a substitute for us, satisfying the just wrath of God against man’s wickedness. Those who trust in God for salvation are counted righteous, reconciled to God, and promised eternal life with him. The church’s good news of eternal hope, which is immune to viruses, economic woes, and any other worldly calamity, is a message sorely needed in these uncertain and scary times.
Joshua Arnold is Media Coordinator for Family Research Council.