Church vs. Public Health Orders: Objections & Options

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

When governments place burdensome regulations on churches, what are their options?

I’ve argued that when these regulations are plausibly unconstitutional, or seriously hinder a church’s ability to function as a church—but don’t require disobedience to God—defiance is not the New Testament response. Rather, following the example of Paul’s use of the Roman legal system in his defense, a better option is to obey the authorities God has ordained but to also seek relief through legal means. For convenience, I’ve termed this strategy “comply and resist.”

I’m personally aware of four responses various congregations have chosen:

  1. Quietly comply: adapt church practices to fit the requirements, and refrain from taking legal action. Example: Harvest Christian Fellowship.
  2. Comply and resist: adapt church practices to fit the requirements but also pursue legal means for relaxing or reversing the regulations. Example: Capitol Hill Baptist Church. (See also Washington Post. As far as I can tell at this moment, CHBC is continuing to comply while suing D.C. for better alternatives.)
  3. Quietly disobey: disregard some portions of the health orders without drawing attention to it or seeking legal action. Example: Multiple congregations I’m aware of, but which should remain anonymous.
  4. Defy and resist: openly disregard the order and take legal action to have it relaxed or reversed. Example: Grace Community Church (GCC) in L.A. County, California.

Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 clearly identify option A as the starting point. Option B might be warranted when the government requirements at issue are unconstitutional, illegal in some other way, unjust, or impossible to comply with for an extended period of time—or all of the above. Options C and D come into play when it isn’t possible to obey both God and man (Acts 5:29).

Objections

Those who favor a response of defiance along with legal action have offered a variety of objections to comply-and-resist. I’ll address most of them here, in no particular order.

Objection: This pandemic is overblown. The death rate in (locality) is very low.

The question of the pandemic’s true severity isn’t really related to what the NT requires in reference to “the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1). The instruction of Romans 13, and 1 Peter 2 is not “be subject … unless the government is overreacting to something that’s really no big deal.”

Objection: These orders are targeting worship. We’re being commanded not to worship.

In every case, the orders have applied to far more non-religious entities than religious ones. Still, some church leaders have chosen repeatedly to characterize the orders as if they were specifically aimed at churches. I don’t know their hearts, but those who keep framing the situation in this language give the impression they were already itching for a fight. Is this the spirit of Rom. 12:18 and James 3:17 or more like the spirit of Robert Conrad?

Objection: We’re supposed to have courage and not be pushovers!

Courageous in what form? Pushovers in what sense? Yes, Christians are called to “stand” and “fight,” but what does Scripture reveal to be the location, nature, and strategy of our “fight”? See 2 Corinthians 10:4 and Ephesians 6:12.

Maybe this attitude is fueled partly by culture-war fog of war, but it’s clearly based in part on some bad theology. “The world” Jesus said would hate us (John 15:18-25) is not “the Left,” and the “you” Jesus referred to in that passage is not “the Right.”

Neither the Left nor the Right embody the Christian mind, or Christian social ethics, or Christian political philosophy—certainly not in 2020!

Objection: It’s a matter of conscience and nobody should “tell you and your church what you ought to be doing.”

It’s interesting when people who regularly engage in public debate about all sorts of questions of ministry and practice suddenly want matters of conscience to be off-limits from criticism. But as a concept, it doesn’t cohere.

  • Matters of conscience are not “matters nobody is allowed to evaluate or object to.”
  • Telling someone (or a church) that what they’re doing is wrong is actually an appeal to their conscience. We honor one another’s conscience by giving each other reasons to rethink a question. This is not “passing judgment” or “despising” them (Rom. 14:10).

In short, evaluation, instruction, and persuasion are not violations of conscience.

Perhaps the real objection is that critics of the defiant response are expressing too much certainty on the topic. But that’s what reasoning is for: when we explain our reasons for a belief, we empower people to consider those reasons and see if our level of certainty is inappropriate—or if we’re just plain wrong—and offer their own reasons why.

“You’re too dogmatic” is not a counter-argument. As far as reasoning goes, it contributes nothing more than “I don’t agree”—which is perfectly fine, but it’s only self-description. I don’t agree with these people about beets. So what?

Objection: Orders from governors, county health officials, and mayors aren’t really law.

The answer to this comes from junior high Civics class. Here’s how it works in America:

  • The Constitution recognizes that powers that aren’t assign to the federal government belong to the states or the citizens. The Constitution is law.
  • States have their own constitutions, ratified by citizens. Those constitutions are law.
  • The state constitutions establish elected legislatures with the authority to enact laws.
  • In most states, a combination of constitutional provisions and duly-enacted laws empowers governors, county officials, mayors, and others to make lawfully binding orders. Those orders are in fact law.

A governor’s order is “law” just as much as a police officer’s word is “law” when he says, “I’ll need to see your driver’s license and registration, please.”

Further, for those who want to split hairs about obeying “law” vs. obeying lawfully appointed authorities, it’s worth noting that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 direct us to yield to people, not “laws.”

Objection: The Constitution is the higher law and nullifies the orders of these overreaching governors and mayors.

Imagine your neighbor joins a weird cult. His faith teaches that he must steal property from people of your faith. He steals your car, your dog, your bird bath, your weird shiny sphere thing. When the police arrive, he declares that the Constitution guarantees his right to practice his religion without local government interference.

Fortunately, the police have a better understanding of how the Constitution works than many evangelicals apparently do! They know your neighbor isn’t “standing up for the Constitution.”

Citizens are not authorized to decide—in terms of action—what is constitutional, and that’s for the best.

We have the right to form opinions about what’s constitutional. We don’t get to act on those, though, because the law is the law until the appropriate authorities, through due process, make it non-law. It’s what the judicial branch—established by the Constitution—is for, though legislatures can also reverse laws—again, authorized by the Constitution.

The Constitution does not empower any citizen to declare law to be non-law. We have a word for any system that works that way: anarchy. “Every man a judge of what is really law” is the reasoning of Antifa and looters.

What about unlawful orders, which we’re supposed to disobey? These have some distinguishing features: the illegality is clear; the order is high-consequence morally or ethically; the decision to obey or not obey must be made on the spot. In these situations, a citizen may have no opportunity to seek counsel, report the matter to a higher authority, or sue.

Normally, though, the approach that honors law is to take the matter to court. We don’t honor the rule of law by disobeying law. We follow due process.

Objection: It comes down to what the definition of a church is.

I may not understand this one. Is the argument that a church is no longer a church if it’s forced to meet in smaller groups outdoors rather than all at once under one roof? What definition of a church would lead to that conclusion?

Believers meeting in this way are either one church meeting in separate groups or they’re multiple smaller churches. Either way, they can be obedient to what the Scripture’s teach. Who’s to say that the actions of the authorities aren’t God’s way of providentially turning a megachurch into several smaller ones?

Perhaps the argument is that accepting direction from a government entity about where to meet or in what numbers amounts to replacing Christ as head, which makes the group no longer a church. On this, see below.

Objection: Government has no authority to regulate church life.

I think I mostly addressed this one in Part 2. In short, this concept is stated too broadly, and it’s not clear at all that temporary suspension of indoor meeting properly belongs in a sphere where the governor is “not the boss of us!”

We ought to take Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 seriously enough to work through questions like, “Why do we normally let building codes tell us how many people can occupy our building but we can’t let the state or city tell us that number is zero during a pandemic?”

If a building code doesn’t erase the headship of Christ over a group, how does a public health order?

Objection: Where do you draw the line?

This one is also unclear to me.

The NT has already drawn “the line” between when we must obey the authorities and when we must “obey God rather than men.” When various interlocutors have continued the press me on this, they seem to want some kind of quantitative limit on how far the government can go. But there is only a qualitative limit. The powers that be cannot command us to disobey God.

In the U.S., we have additional legal protections to help us keep the government out of our business, and we should pursue those when applicable, but these are not biblical mandates.

Mark Snoeberger recently delved into this topic. In a piece well worth reading, he offers a hypothetical order from President Trump that all pastors much preach from 1 Peter this Sunday. Technically, pastors could do this without disobeying God. Does the NT require them to? Does it forbid them to?

The “this is outside the government’s sphere of authority” argument can work here, but I don’t think we need it. The principle that Christ is head of the church amounts to a command that churches follow His design for how such decisions are made. Pastors could not obediently let the President (or the King, as the case may be in other locales) tell them what to preach on every Sunday. Could we obediently allow that kind of control even once?

But once again, it’s not clear that the principle of Christ’s headship means the local authorities have no say in where and how we meet when this is believed to impact the health and safety of the community.

Objection: Outdoor meetings risk the health and safety of elderly and disabled members.

This can certainly be the case. At hotter latitudes, heat can be a safety risk. In many other locations, as winter approaches, outdoor meetings would have to be very short indeed. We sometimes see -35 Fahrenheit with high winds here in west Wisconsin. You don’t stand around and sing in that. (You definitely wear a mask—pandemic or not!).

This is where I want to suggest a few—no doubt unsatisfactory—alternatives to meeting indoors in defiance of government health orders. These can, and have been, mixed and matched in various ways by churches across the country as well as in other countries.

  • Multisite: Where smaller numbers are permitted to gather indoors, churches might form smaller groups and take turns using the main facility while others join by video from other locations, or from home.
  • Video meetings: Alternatives to physical presence are often characterized as “watching it on Youtube,” but video meetings need not be so passive. Using Zoom, and similar technologies, many people can participate actively in a meeting: not only hearing the primary speaker, but one another. Only so many people can interact at once in this way, but this is also true of large physical gatherings. There’s never been a Sunday when every one of GCC’s 8,000 attendees talked with every other individual in the building. Even in churches of 40 or so, only the pastor and maybe a deacon or two manage to talk to all 40. Small groups can certainly have genuine fellowship with one other over Zoom and the like. For a while, I participated in such groups every Sunday.
    • Many do not see a video gathering as a biblical gathering at all. There’s no question that it’s not “the same” as being physically together. But in an interactive video meeting, human beings are connected both mentally and physically: they use their physical senses to see one another, hear one other, and speak to one another. What’s missing is physical proximity and the senses of taste, smell, and touch. This makes it a non-gathering? I’m not convinced… partly because I work as a part of several teams that get quite a bit done every single week over Zoom and Microsoft Teams. It seems absurd to say those meetings are not meetings, but I’m open minded: tell me what they are.
  • Tents and rented space: Greg Laurie’s church has used a combination of video meetings and tents to comply with regulations in his area.
  • Travel: For many weeks, Capitol Baptist Church members have traveled outside of Washington D.C. to legally meet outdoors in space belonging to another church.

Nobody is saying it’s easy, but where is easy in Luke 14:25-33 or 1 Corinthians 4:9-13?

Conclusion

The NT calls to “be subject” are strong and clear and were first taught in the context of a government we moderns would consider oppressive. Though obedience may sometimes be extremely difficult, churches are not free to disregard what they see as foolish, intrusive, or even motivated by hostility to the faith. If we’re going to justify open defiance, we have to establish that obedience to God requires that response.

We have biblical precedent for seeking legal relief when government mandates are legally dubious, but while we pursue our legal rights, we “must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Rom. 13:5, ESV).

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash.

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There are 28 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that Paul, in Acts 16 and elsewhere, did not hesitate to appeal to his rights under Roman law, and he really doesn't wait for another court to rule before he acts.  He rather flat out embarrasses the magistrate in front of his peers  subordinates by telling him to come and get him out himself--with the implicit threat that if the magistrate does not comply, he'll then take it to court and let the wrath of Rome rain down on the magistrate.

There is also in the U.S. a fairly long tradition of "nullification", where both juries and law officers (and the like) quietly refuse to implement unlawful orders.  Soldiers are also called upon to resist unlawful orders. (e.g. My Lai) without any wait on "governing authorities."

So faced with an unconstitutional order, I'm not entirely convinced that we must, either Biblically or Constitutionally, always wait for court orders before disobeying it.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Mike Harding's picture

Fortunately in Michigan our State Supreme Court over-ruled our rogue democratic Governor 7 to 0 that her executive orders after April 30 were unconstitutional, illegal, and void based on the 1976 Mich Law which demands legislative approval for extension of the Emergency Orders beyond 28 days.  They also ruled 4/3 that the 1945 Law was unconstitutional in that the Law violated the state constitution by delegating the legislative function of the house and senate to the executive branch.  Our governor is now defying both the legislature and the Supreme court by weaponizing the Health Department to re-instate her illegal executive orders. In America we are a nation of laws not of men, a representative constitutional republic of three equal branches of government, not a dictatorship by petty tyrants and unelected bureaucrats. We are Christians first, but we are also Americans.  In America we submit to being governed, but not to being ruled by despots.  We need limited government, more individual responsibility, and by God's grace a more peaceful existence. If we don't stand up for our Constitutional Republic, we will quickly become a socialist-marxist regime with one party rule.  The Bill of Rights will be abrogated by such people; religious liberty will be gone, and the oceans of blood shed for our God-given freedoms will be in vain.  Already, Gov Cuomo of NY and Mayor DeBlasio are threatening publicly to close down the churches and synagogues.  The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. 

Pastor Mike Harding

TylerR's picture

Editor

Very good article. Thanks!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

On unconstiutional orders... It strikes me that Paul, in Acts 16 and elsewhere, did not hesitate to appeal to his rights under Roman law, and he really doesn't wait for another court to rule before he acts.  

Addressed this mostly already in the article. 

What about unlawful orders, which we’re supposed to disobey? These have some distinguishing features: the illegality is clear; the order is high-consequence morally or ethically; the decision to obey or not obey must be made on the spot. In these situations, a citizen may have no opportunity to seek counsel, report the matter to a higher authority, or sue.

When Paul appeals to Caesar, he is doing the equivalent of taking the matter to court. In the earlier example, he simply points out to someone else that they are violating his rights as a Roman Citizen. So, he is not in either case deciding "this order I've received is OK to disobey because I deem it illegal." What he's doing is pursuing due process in ways that fit the situation.

There is also in the U.S. a fairly long tradition of "nullification", where both juries and law officers (and the like) quietly refuse to implement unlawful orders.  Soldiers are also called upon to resist unlawful orders. (e.g. My Lai) without any wait on "governing authorities."

Already explained about unlawful orders and their distinguishing features.

So faced with an unconstitutional order, I'm not entirely convinced that we must, either Biblically or Constitutionally, always wait for court orders before disobeying it.

Already explained when it would be appropriate to immediately disobey. The word "always" does not appear in my view on that. I use the word "normally" because it's important not to let the odd exception fog our thinking about what is normally the right thing to do.

It's like trying to teach a kid that lying is wrong and getting sucked into a debate about whether it's OK to lie to the Gestapo to save the lives of the Jews you're sheltering in your hidden attic. Well, that's an important debate I suppose but has nothing to do with whether lying is generally wrong.

I'm sure there's a term for the fallacy that reasons that the normal is disproved by the exceptional... but it's a fallacy, whether there's a name for it or not.

If we do not pursue overreaches of authority through legal means, isn't it obvious that we're overreaching our authority ourselves? In rare cases, we might defend morality by disregarding law, but there is no way to defend law by disregarding law.

It's like using a fistful of mud to clean mud off your shoes.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Mark_Smith's picture

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...

 

The question is who gets to decide the exceptions. Is it just the government? Is it only the courts?

Why do some Christians expect others to completely agree with them or they are wrong, perhaps even sinful?

Let's focus on that question. Yes, I know about building codes and such.

 

Mark_Smith's picture

Does the Bible teach absolute obedience to the government unless it directly violates a commandment? That is the question. Some people here at SI say yes. Aaron definitely thinks that. I suspect the answer is no. You see this in your view, for example, of the American Revolution. Was it justified in God's eyes? Or was it sinful?

Or, is there some version of Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges allowed for lack of a better term. Now, I only bring that up as a description because I like the Latin phrase. I don't mean war in the strict sense, but conflict or disagreement in general. Does the Bible really talk about what to do when your government is oppressive?

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Mark_Smith wrote:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...

The question is who gets to decide the exceptions. Is it just the government? Is it only the courts?

Why do some Christians expect others to completely agree with them or they are wrong, perhaps even sinful?

Let's focus on that question. Yes, I know about building codes and such.

See remarks in the article about "you're too certain."

Disliking someone's certainty is not a counterargument.

The question about who gets to decide is also answered in the article. I'll add that in our form of government, citizens vote for those who make the laws and deliver the orders and appoint the judges. That's our say in it. It's what the Constitution establishes.

So we have elections and we have the courts.

See also previous comments on trying to defend the rule of law by breaking the law.

As for the American Revolution, in part one of this series I link to a transcribed sermon by MacArthur and quote from it. Follow that link and see what he says about the American Revolution. It's very interesting in light of this debate.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Larry's picture

Moderator

I’ve argued that when these regulations are plausibly unconstitutional, or seriously hinder a church’s ability to function as a church—but don’t require disobedience to God—defiance is not the New Testament response.

With due respect to Aaron, this continues to be an unaddressed issue. 

  • God commands the church to meet.
  • The government commands a church not to meet.

Which should the church obey?

How can it possibly be argued that, "Don't meet" is not a command for disobedience? All else, at this point, is sophistry and diversion. As I have said, there might be good reasons not to meet (and I think there were in some places). But let's not pretend that "meet" and "don't meet" aren't somehow contradictory.

Aaron addresses objections, several of which I have raised and asked about so I will address them here:

On targeting, what is the biblical basis for equal treatment? Where in the Scripture do we see that it is okay to disobey so long as others are similarly restricted? (Even if similar restrictions were the reality; it is not.) It is a distinctively American argument. I have never seen anyone attempt to make this from the Bible, nor to apply it outside the American context.

On the definition of a church, I will quote and respond.

Is the argument that a church is no longer a church if it’s forced to meet in smaller groups outdoors rather than all at once under one roof? What definition of a church would lead to that conclusion?

The church is a group of believers in Christ who (among other things like leaders, ordinances, regular meeting times, etc.) have covenanted together to worship, serve, love, etc. If a church is forced to meet in smaller groups (forget the outdoors; that is a distraction), then it is no longer a church. It is, by definition, part of a church. So if 500 people have covenanted together to be a church, and only 250 are permitted to gather together, the other 250 are disobedient to the Lord and to their own covenant. When the government demands that only 100 or only 25% or some such number can meet, they are defining the assembly.

Believers meeting in this way are either one church meeting in separate groups or they’re multiple smaller churches. Either way, they can be obedient to what the Scripture’s teach.

How can the group that meets at 8:30 obey the commands the teach and admonish the group that can't meet until 11:00? They can't. They are, by definition, disobedient to that command.

Who’s to say that the actions of the authorities aren’t God’s way of providentially turning a megachurch into several smaller ones?

It may indeed by a good church planting strategy since it does create multiple churches. I would be in favor of that. 

These are extraordinary times and I would not fault those who choose to meet in smaller groups and different services. But let's at least be honest about what we are doing. 

In terms of law and constitution, does the government have the right to determine how big an assembly can be? 

On building codes, this continues to be a distraction. If the building is unsuitable for safety reasons, you can find another buliding. In this case, there is no acceptable meeting location. I am not sure why this keeps getting brought up. It is completely of a different nature.

One last point that is frequently overlooked, people rarely talk about this in terms of what it means to be a citizen of two kingdoms. As citizens of this earthly kingdom, we have rights and responsibilities both to ourselves and to those around us. Many seem to believe that Christians give up those rights as citizens. But I would like to see more interaction on that issue. 

Mark_Smith's picture

I am not trying to "defeat" your argument. What I am ultimately saying is, you do things your way, others can act differently. I don't see why you are so determined to say MacArthur, and others opposing being closed, are "sinful" or "wrong" for doing so.

As for this quote from you:

"The question about who gets to decide is also answered in the article. I'll add that in our form of government, citizens vote for those who make the laws and deliver the orders and appoint the judges. That's our say in it. It's what the Constitution establishes. "

This is normally the case. I agree. HOWEVER, the First Amendment applies a specific rule with regard to how the government acts to the church. It can make no law regarding how it operates. The rule is clear and stated obviously. There is no legal mandate for a governor to tell a church it cannot meet if it does so safely. Many states allow churches to meet and are doing so safely. CA COVID outbreak is no worse than other states. 

For the record, look at the pictures of Harvest Church California's outdoor tents and ask yourself what is the difference between that and being inside. The tent is a huge enclosure that is no longer really "outside" anymore...

A good principal here is "live and let live".

Kevin Miller's picture

Larry wrote:

How can the group that meets at 8:30 obey the commands the teach and admonish the group that can't meet until 11:00? They can't. They are, by definition, disobedient to that command.

I'm just wondering of you think that any church which has multiple services is disobedient to the command to meet.

Larry's picture

Moderator

I'm just wondering of you think that any church which has multiple services is disobedient to the command to meet.

I think they have multiple churches. I think it is unwise at the very least, a weak ecclesiology. Disobedient? Well, they are still assembling. They just have multiple assemblies.

JDen's picture

Larry wrote:
The church is a group of believers in Christ who (among other things like leaders, ordinances, regular meeting times, etc.) have covenanted together to worship, serve, love, etc. If a church is forced to meet in smaller groups (forget the outdoors; that is a distraction), then it is no longer a church. It is, by definition, part of a church. So if 500 people have covenanted together to be a church, and only 250 are permitted to gather together, the other 250 are disobedient to the Lord and to their own covenant. When the government demands that only 100 or only 25% or some such number can meet, they are defining the assembly.

Could you share some Scripture to support your ecclesiology, particularly how a church covenanting together requires it to not divide into smaller groups/churches/assemblies? It appears to me from Scripture that believers are not obligated to join together in certain sizes of groups but merely that they are to join together with other believers for doctrine and exhortation, prayer, joint partnership in ministry, and observation of the ordinances (Acts 2:42, Heb. 10:25). I would rule out home church (that is, gathering only with one's biological family). But, beyond that, believers are free to choose a sound gathering/church/assembly with which to fellowship. If the church chooses to meet in small groups, perhaps we should consider them as essentially separate churches that may or may not join together again in the future. My tentative understanding would be that these small groups, if they never gathered together with the other small groups, should each have their own pastor(s) and deacon(s) and should conduct their own preaching/teaching and observation of the ordinances. Nevertheless, the smaller groups would still be daughter churches of the mother church with the understanding that they may join together again after the pandemic. In fact, if there was enough shuffling of people through the small groups so that everyone got to see everyone else frequently, I think that they could in fact be considered one church. Moreover, contrary to your point, shuffling small groups actually make it MORE likely that believers will exhort and interact with a greater percentage of the church.

But I don't think that meeting outdoors is a "distraction," as you state. If a church can comply with government regulations by meeting outdoors, I think that they should do that rather than defying their government authorities. There are always questions of weather. But most of us Americans are too soft. People are willing to disobey the law to gather together but they're not willing to stand in the rain. Of the following three statements, God only commanded two: "Gather together," "Obey the government authorities," and "Protect yourself from the rain." Now, to be clear, I am not encouraging foolishness. Use coats, umbrellas, tents, and heaters. Or on the hotter side, perhaps try misting your congregation, throwing water balloons when you would ordinarily say Amen, etc. (Okay, that last one was free.) The point is simple: Obey God's clear commands in creative ways that also allow you to obey your government authorities.

JDen's picture

Mark Smith wrote:
the First Amendment applies a specific rule with regard to how the government acts to the church. It can make no law regarding how it operates. The rule is clear and stated obviously. There is no legal mandate for a governor to tell a church it cannot meet if it does so safely.

To my knowledge, Congress has not made a law regarding the free exercise of religion. But the powers not given to Congress are given to the states and the people. Some states have recently made laws regarding the exercise of religion. Yet the Constitution, as written, only applies to the national government (e.g., there were state churches after the Constitution was ratified but no national churches). True, the Courts have applied it to state and local matters, but to appeal to the U.S. Constitution in regard to state matters is actually an appeal to how the Courts have interpreted and applied it. Thus, you are arguing (1) that the Constitution is so clear on this issue that you can apply it yourself, while implying (2) that the Courts' extrapolation of the Constitution to the states is correct. This position is logically contradictory. Is your authority the Constitution or the Courts' interpretation thereof? If the former, you can appeal to the Constitution and disobey lesser laws (assuming the rest of your argument is valid). If the latter, you must appeal to the Courts for their interpretation and follow their application of the Constitution in this instance. You cannot logically say that the Courts were authoritative in their application of the first amendment to the states and then argue that they are not authoritative in their application of the first amendment today. If, however, the Supreme Court ruled that state governments cannot constitutionally restrict a church from gathering indoors during this pandemic, we would be justified in disobeying the lesser authority on that grounds.

You've been primarily making a Constitutional argument. GCC is appealing to the separation of church and state as found in God's Word. Aaron's and my argument is about submission to government authorities, again an argument based on God's Word. There is some truth in each of the positions. With GCC, I agree that many state governments are likely overreaching their biblical bounds of authority. With you, I grant that state governments and the courts may not be rightly applying the Constitution. But with Aaron, I don't think that either of these conclusions warrants my disobedience of government authorities.

Mark_Smith's picture

The way the 14th Amendment is written caused SCOTUS to rule that the provisions of the Bill of Rights apply to all levels of government, not just Congress.

Thus, Smith County, Nowhere, USA may not establish a religion or restrict the free exercise of it either.

Feel free to obey the restriction if you want. but don't cause your view to be the only view that is acceptable.

JDen's picture

Mark Smith wrote:
The way the 14th Amendment is written caused SCOTUS to rule that the provisions of the Bill of Rights apply to all levels of government, not just Congress.

Said another way, the Supreme Court ruled that "the provisions of the Bill of Rights apply to all levels of government," based on its interpretation of the 14th Amendment. Your use of the word "caused" seems to indicate that the Supreme Court had no choice. Constitutional law is not always so black and white.

My point is that I believe that the highest authority in the U.S. is the Supreme Court's (and Congress') interpretation of the Constitution, not your (or my) interpretation of it. Unlike with interpreting Scripture, we are not accountable to our own interpretation but to the interpretation of those who make and enforce laws.

Mark Smith wrote:
Feel free to obey the restriction if you want. but don't cause your view to be the only view that is acceptable.

As long as others base their views on good interpretation of God's Word, I will accept them, though I may disagree strongly.

Bert Perry's picture

Mark_Smith wrote:

The way the 14th Amendment is written caused SCOTUS to rule that the provisions of the Bill of Rights apply to all levels of government, not just Congress.

Thus, Smith County, Nowhere, USA may not establish a religion or restrict the free exercise of it either.

Feel free to obey the restriction if you want. but don't cause your view to be the only view that is acceptable.

Akhil Reed Amar wrote a nice book about how the 14th Amendment made very clear that the Bill of Rights applied vis-a-vis the states and localities.  One interesting thing is that originally, a citizen could actually sue the authorities if they were searched, arrested, or otherwise wrongfully inconvenienced by the government.  At least according to Amar, the citizens have had quite a bit of leeway to say "no" or "no more" to the government.

You want to have a good idea that it will stick, but in today's environment--where the Michigan governor is working through the bureaucracy to enact that which the courts just struck down--there is a certain necessity from time to time to say "no further."  An example closer to home is Governor Walz spending seven million bucks on a refrigerated building/spare mortuary that has seen virtually no use, and locking even the media out so no one can see what he's doing.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Could you share some Scripture to support your ecclesiology, particularly how a church covenanting together requires it to not divide into smaller groups/churches/assemblies?

It's what the woirds means: An assembly. Not multiple assemblies. Those are called "churches."

It appears to me from Scripture that believers are not obligated to join together in certain sizes of groups but merely that they are to join together with other believers for doctrine and exhortation, prayer, joint partnership in ministry, and observation of the ordinances (Acts 2:42, Heb. 10:25).

Yes, exactly. The size is a red herring. They are obligated to join together with the church, not part of the church.

If the church chooses to meet in small groups, perhaps we should consider them as essentially separate churches that may or may not join together again in the future. M

Assuming by "small groups" you mean breaking up during this time to meet size requirements, I am fine with that as a matter of conscience or practicality for the church. My point is that we should not pretend it is a church, per se. I agree that planting churches with pastors and deacons could be a good thing .

But I don't think that meeting outdoors is a "distraction," as you state. If a church can comply with government regulations by meeting outdoors, I think that they should do that rather than defying their government authorities.

Yes, we did this. The "distraction" I refer to is a distraction from the main issue. Indoors vs. outdoors is a side issue or a secondary one.

The point is simple: Obey God's clear commands in creative ways that also allow you to obey your government authorities.

Sure. As an aside, why limit obedience to 'clear commands"? Are we exempt from obeying the less clear ones?

 

Larry's picture

Moderator

The Romans 13 argument for unlimited submission to civil magistrates runs into two chief difficulties. First, American constitutionalism sets limits on the authority of our civil magistrates. Second, the separation of powers and federalism creates situations in which magistrates will disagree, and well-intentioned Christians may rightly choose to obey one rather than the other. The decision of the Michigan Supreme Court illustrates the reality of both difficulties.

https://thefederalist.com/2020/10/05/how-civil-disobedience-curbed-the-m...

The ruling of the Michigan Supreme Court did not make the orders unconstitutional. They already were. So in reality, the argument is that churches and individuals who defied the order after April 30th were no resisting government. Those laws were invalid.

This is what I mean by too little attention has been given to what it means to be a citizen of two kingdoms. We are to live responsibly in both. I am interested in more thinking about what that looks like.

JDen's picture

Larry wrote:
As an aside, why limit obedience to 'clear commands"? Are we exempt from obeying the less clear ones?

By "clear commands," I mean things that are clearly necessary of us as believers (though not necessarily in the imperative mood). Believers may differ somewhat on what these are. (For an excellent study on this topic, see Dr. David Innes' sermons on Categories of Truth and Very Clear Biblical Teaching.) Clear teachings differ from interpretations and applications of Scripture. To return to our example above, I don't think that it is as clear as you suggest that small groups (particularly the shuffling model I proposed) would no longer be gathering as a church. Your view is based entirely on an inference from the definition of a word. I'd hardly call that a clear teaching or command of Scripture. I'm not saying that less clear teachings are unimportant, only that clear teachings are most important. The clear commands are to to gather with other believers and to submit to government authorities.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

With due respect to Aaron, this continues to be an unaddressed issue. 

God commands the church to meet.

The government commands a church not to meet.

Which should the church obey?

When this happens, the church should obey God. But this has not happened. 

Government restricting location and conditions ≠ government commanding the church not to meet. Even if they said you can't meet at all at any physical location, I maintain that a video meeting is still a meeting.

Where the restriction is unconstitutional, otherwise illegal, unjust, oppressive, etc., legal action should be step 2. Step 1 is comply.

The church is a group of believers in Christ who (among other things like leaders, ordinances, regular meeting times, etc.) have covenanted together to worship, serve, love, etc. If a church is forced to meet in smaller groups (forget the outdoors; that is a distraction), then it is no longer a church. It is, by definition, part of a church.

I don't think this pans out logically.... unless you say that the definition of church includes this additional phrase "covenanted together to always meet simultaneously in the same place and never in smaller groups at the same time or at different times."  Consider this: Has the church failed to be a church whenever less than 100% of its members are present? It would fail to be a church nearly all the time.

No, the definition does not exclude the possibility of smaller groups meeting separately.

How can the group that meets at 8:30 obey the commands the teach and admonish the group that can't meet until 11:00? They can't. They are, by definition, disobedient to that command.

This would mean any church that has two services due to limited space or whatever is not a church. I think you'll find that few would define a church in this way.

On building codes, this continues to be a distraction. If the building is unsuitable for safety reasons, you can find another buliding. In this case, there is no acceptable meeting location. I am not sure why this keeps getting brought up. It is completely of a different nature.

It's really not very different. Building codes are government requirements that exist, among other reasons, to protect the health and safety of occupants and neighborhoods and surrounding homes and persons. The rationale is that the rules apply even to churches (but not just churches) because the government has a legitimate interest in how the behavior of churches impacts the health of the community. 

Obviously there have to be limits on this, but, speaking of "where do you draw the line," this is a quantitative limit not a qualitative one. [Edit: no, the limits are qualitative. Got that wrong.]

If the government can say, "this many exits or you're not allowed to use your building for health and safety reasons," why can't it say "you can't use your building--like everyone else--for health and safety reasons because there's a pandemic in the city"?  Maybe there's a good answer to this. I'm all ears.

I am not trying to "defeat" your argument. What I am ultimately saying is, you do things your way, others can act differently. I don't see why you are so determined to say MacArthur, and others opposing being closed, are "sinful" or "wrong" for doing so.

I've provided reasons for what I believe is the biblical way to respond in these situations. Feel free to provide reasons why my reasons are faulty. I'm really not interested at all in "agree or disagree." I'm interested in "where do facts and sound reasoning point, and why"?

If that's somewhere you don't want to go, there's nothing wrong with that, but we don't have anything to discuss. Without entering in to reasons why, all we have is "well I disagree." ... but this is self-description and nothing more. It's not evidence that my conclusions are false or a reason for anyone to think one way or another. It isn't useful information.

 Some states have recently made laws regarding the exercise of religion. 

Examples? A law or order that impacts religion along with many (usually many more) nonreligious entities is not "laws regarding the exercise of religion."

The Romans 13 argument for unlimited submission to civil magistrates...

I don't know who holds to this view, but it isn't mine.

On citizen of two kingdoms: I don't think this makes any of the Scriptures on the subject go away. They seem to still be there demanding that we apply them. What it looks like is what the NT describes, which I've already summarized.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

To quote myself...

Examples? A law or order that impacts religion along with many (usually many more) nonreligious entities is not "laws regarding the exercise of religion."

I can think of some examples, and a few have been shot down by the courts. I can't point to the facts, so this is perception/memory, but some states have specifically released special rules for churches? Some of them have explicitly excepted churches from rules everyone else has to follow. Ironically, this kind of is "laws regarding the exercise of religion." ... but nobody seems to complain about special treatment that is in our favor.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Aaron, I appreciate the interaction. I think these are significant issues and there are some significant differences both in assessment of fact and in application of Scripture. I continue to think that believers can, in good conscience, apply these things differently particularly in these extraordinary times of a pandemic. You seem to have no such room for that, even given the long history of such matters among faithful believers and faithful churches. I question whether that is a charitable approach to brothers and sisters in Christ.

Having said that, let me quickly respond to the arguments responding to me.

When this happens, the church should obey God. But this has not happened. 

This is mindboggling to me. It has absolutely happened. I cannot wrap my mind around this claim. Remember, many people have targeted John MacArthur for his change of meeting in defiance after earlier saying they would not meet because the government said they couldn't. Whether MacArthur was right or wrong, that is a de facto admission that the government prohibited the meeting of the church and the church complied because of that prohibition.

 I don't think this pans out logically.... unless you say that the definition of church includes this additional phrase "covenanted together to always meet simultaneously in the same place and never in smaller groups at the same time or at different times."  Consider this: Has the church failed to be a church whenever less than 100% of its members are present? It would fail to be a church nearly all the time.

It isn't about logic. It's about Scripture. I think the idea of "meeting simultaneously in teh same place" is built into the idea of "meeting" whether in church or in some other arena. The idea that a body could meet at different times seems logically impossible. What kind of definition of "meeting" means "Let's meet by me being there at 3 p.m. for 15 minutes and you be there at 4 for 15 minutes"? No one would call that a meeting, would they? It would seem to be a missed meeting.

Regarding less than 100% attendance, I think that misses the point. In church services, no one is preventing people from showing up. They might, of their own accord, not show up. But "the church" is still meeting and it still a church and there are people who are not there, but not because they have been willfully exluded. When 50% show up at 8 and 50% show up at 11, that is, by definition, two assemblies, is it not? 

Again, in these extraordinary times, there is certainly room for people to do it differently. But we need to establish a biblical definition before talking about exceptions for pandemics.

No, the definition does not exclude the possibility of smaller groups meeting separately.

No it doesn't. But it precludes them from being "the church." No one (to my knowledge) thinks a SS class is the church. It is part of the church. Again, this seems so obvious both from theology and history that it makes me wonder how we are disconnecting on this.

This would mean any church that has two services due to limited space or whatever is not a church. I think you'll find that few would define a church in this way.

They are two churches, right? Two assemblies. There may be few who define it that way, but the question comes down to what Scripture says. I understand that there are extraordinary circumstances that might lead to this for a time, but as a general approach to church, I think multiple services is at least misguided.

Having you read Jonathan Leeman's "One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite and Multiservice Models"? I have not, though I have heard an interview. It is an interesting read, it looks like.

It's really not very different. Building codes are government requirements that exist, among other reasons, to protect the health and safety of occupants and neighborhoods and surrounding homes and persons.

Again, how can you say this is not different? We are operating from such different categories of thought. A building code requires physical requirements to meet in a particular location. They do not prevent a church from meeting. That church can meet elsewhere. That is different than an order that says the church cannot meet at all, or that only a certain percentage of the church can meet at one time. BTW, in Michigan, even outdoor gatherings were limited to a certain size which would have excluded many churches from meeting. Churches were exempt from penalty but even outdoors was not an option for them.

If the government can say, "this many exits or you're not allowed to use your building for health and safety reasons," why can't it say "you can't use your building--like everyone else--for health and safety reasons because there's a pandemic in the city"?  Maybe there's a good answer to this. I'm all ears.

The answer seems clear to me. First, they didn't simply say you can't use your building. They said you can't meet, or can't meet over a certain number, and you can't sing, and you can't meet over a certain time limit (in some cases), etc. (A while back in response to your claims, that the CA restrictions claimed weren't verified as County requirements, I posted a document from the LA County Health Department verifying that for you. )I am not sure how that gets into the same category as the number of exits in a building. Maybe there's a good answer to that. I'm all ears, as has been said. How can "number of exits" be the same category as "Don't sing"?

Second, a church that can't use a particular building can use another one or have a remedy in updating or fixing, or moving to another location. A church that can't meet, can't meet. These seem clearly to be different categories. In some states, some places (such as casinos) were limited to a % of capacity while churches were limited to a % or number whichever was lower. Which meant that 250 people could gather in a casino with a capacity of 500, but a church with a capacity of 500 could only have 100 people. That is not an equal application of the law, even if equality of application is granted as a theological principle. I recently flew on an airplane with about 90% full. That should have violated every health order in the country, yet it is allowed. So there is no equal application of the law.

On citizen of two kingdoms: I don't think this makes any of the Scriptures on the subject go away. They seem to still be there demanding that we apply them. What it looks like is what the NT describes, which I've already summarized.

Of course, it doesn't make the Scriptures go away. Let's apply them. I think you might be applying them wrong. I have found your arguments unconvincing because they have too many holes in my judgment. Does a Christian give us his long established right of civil disobedience to call attention to injustice? The Federalist article I posted above makes the case of differing magistrates. That has to be considered as a piece of the puzzle. It simplyi can't be waived away by the church while waiting for others to do the dirty work. The church should lead the charge in religious freedom for us all. 

Andrew K's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

Even if they said you can't meet at all at any physical location, I maintain that a video meeting is still a meeting....

I disagree with this, Aaron.

In one sense, yes, it still includes live interaction. But for a church to "meet" involves more than that. I do not believe you can administer the ordinances remotely, for one (or at least that it is valid to do so). I tend to prefer the Lord's Supper administered weekly myself.

But that aside, it seems clear to me that for a church, a video meeting is not a meeting, in the sense that a properly ordered New Testament church requires.

Bert Perry's picture

Now I'm not one to downplay the 1st Amendment, and to be sure, a lot of places ARE regulating churches in a way other institutions are not, but it strikes me that the church tends to grow fastest when it needs to be discreet about how it meets.  So maybe this epidemic is a gift, if we'll only open it and use it.

A lot of what I read is simply a defense of the status quo, which is OK as far as it goes, but it's not a static situation, and we need to do a little bit of out of the box thinking.  As Deming noted, "survival is not mandatory."  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

The more I ponder this article, the more I believe it's quite good. Thanks, again!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

On definition of the church: I think what I want to say about that for the time being is that I have never heard of a definition of "local church" that requires that they all be together for every meeting... and I don't see how the Scriptures require that. I do accept that if they never all meet together, their onechurchness is debatable... but only because they might arguably be several churches with close ties to one another. But I don't see anything wrong with that either.

On what has happened in California, no church has been told that it can't worship or can't gather. As I noted in part 1 (with links to orders), there were (are?) bans on indoor gatherings that included religious gatherings. As Greg Laurie's church has demonstrated, even very large congregations can find ways to meet out doors or via video. Or, as Dever's church has demonstrated, they can travel across county lines and meet where it's legal to do so.

I can't accept that a ban on worship in a building is equal to a ban on worship anymore than I can accept that 2+2=5. It's not that that I don't want to. Want doesn't enter into it.

A possible fundamental problem with the comply & resist idea:

Someone who I think is knowledgeable in legal matters PM'd me that you can't take matters like this to court until you have standing, and you don't have standing until you have violated or been accused of violating. 

It's not clear to me how this could be the case, but maybe it is. Gotta research it.

It doesn't look like Dever's church has violated. They're suing because DC violated their civil liberties.... which seems to be a pretty common practice. But maybe I'm missing something.

One more topic: Going back to Mark's objection to my disapproving of other church's choices in the matter. It hit me later that his point is probably actually that the matter just isn't that important. I mean, if we were debating "gender transition surgeries" for little kids with "gender dysphoria," nobody would be saying we should all just let each other be and refrain from criticizing, right?

The idea that it's too small is a debatable idea, where mere self-description ("I don't like your certainty") isn't.

But I have a counterargument for that: JMac, et al. made it a big deal when they very visibly took a defiant stance and encouraged everyone to sign a petition to support their response. The elders' statement says "Stand with us in support of the biblical mandate to gather for corporate worship. SIGN NOW" 

Take a look: https://www.gracechurch.org/news/posts/1988

This is very much an open invitation to have your position analyzed and criticized in a public way. What if they had published a statement that said this instead?

 "We would very much prefer to cooperate with God-ordained authorities; we're also eager to help protect the wellbeing of our community, but don't see how we can do this in the specified ways and still be a church. We humbly and reluctantly decline to comply. We understand that other congregations may believe strongly that they must take a course different from what we have chosen." 

It would be very hard to find fault with that. If I wrote about it at all, I'd probably be like "Well, I think they probably aren't doing the right thing, but I understand their dilemma. It's a tough situation."

All of that's still true, but the tone and posture they chose begs for a more emphatic rebuttal.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that during the various persecutions of the church, starting with the early persecution in Rome, believers had to figure out different ways of meeting from a very early time, and they most likely did NOT always have the luxury of a designated pastor/elders/deacons in place.  This is especially the case since Rome had the nasty habit of killing pastors and such.  So I would dare say that insisting we meet in our buildings without interference is something our forebears would not have recognized.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I don't think the standing requirement invalidates my thesis or my constitutionality counterargument. 

From US Legal (https://definitions.uslegal.com/s/standing/)

There are three constitutional requirements to prove standing:

Injury: The plaintiff must have suffered or imminently will suffer injury. The injury must not be abstract and must be within the zone of interests meant to be regulated or protected under the statutory or constitutional guarantee in question.

Causation: The injury must be reasonably connected to the defendant’s conduct.

Redressability: A favorable court decision must be likely to redress the injury.

Similar definitions/summaries appear in a variety of sources.

I'm not a lawyer, but it seems pretty clear that if a church's civil liberties are violated, they can sue without having first defied government requirements--especially if the requirements have harmed the church financially or in some other way (ability to pursue it's purpose?). 

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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