As COVID restrictions drag on, the civil government needs guidance from the instituted church

03 Jun 2020 As COVID restrictions drag on, the civil government needs guidance from the instituted church

By André Schutten

I’m always moved when I read the introduction to the Belgic Confession in the Book of Praise. It explains that a copy of the Belgic Confession was sent to the persecuting King Philip II, with a letter from a group of petitioners who “declared that they were ready to obey the government in all lawful things, but that they would ‘offer their backs to stripes, their tongues to knives, their mouths to gags, and their whole bodies to fire,’ rather than deny the truth expressed in the Confession.” This was no hyperbole. The persecution these petitioners faced included some of the most unimaginable cruelty and brutality known to man. Guido de Brès, the confession’s author, himself was martyred.

Today, the civil government in Ontario prohibits or severely curtails the church’s ministry of mercy, prohibits churches from celebrating the sacraments and prohibits corporate worshipping. This has been the case for three months, on dubious grounds, with no end in sight. In other provinces, multiple restrictions continue to limit corporate worship while many other spheres in society have reopened, or never been expected to close. I wonder, ought the church to muster more of a response than just a few demurring letters?

If Christian leaders are not motivated to urge the civil government to at least speak to the ongoing restrictions on churches, then perhaps our deafening silence gives credence to the belief that we aren’t so essential after all.

If Christian leaders (and all Christian citizens, as I addressed in my previous blog) are not motivated to urge the civil government to at least speak to the ongoing restrictions on churches, then perhaps our deafening silence gives credence to the belief that we aren’t so essential after all.  Have we lost our sense of what freedom is and what it is for? Have we forgotten that freedom, properly understood, was developed by a Christian worldview and enshrined in law by Christians over the course of the last 2,000 years?

Thankfully, some churches have already written letters, like  this one, to the civil government, urging a lifting of restrictions on corporate worship. Have the other 18,000 protestant churches in Canada?  I believe that it’s time for the instituted church to remember the authority God gave her, and to speak fearlessly and authoritatively to the civil government, urging a return to the full functioning of the church.

Romans 13 does not put the state above the church

Some church leaders have been quick to point out that Romans 13 requires submission to the civil government. That is an important point that we should never forget. However, the church should be careful not to cede its own God-given authority to the state. With church worship and a pandemic, there is an overlap of authority between the two spheres, but Romans 13 does not suggest a handover of church authority to the state in times of a pandemic (or any other time). The church and the state (and the family) stand side-by-side under the Sovereign Christ, each institution given their own authority from God and owing responsibility directly to God.

The church and the state stand side-by-side under the Sovereign Christ, each institution given their own authority from God and owing responsibility directly to God.

Note that I am not saying the civil government has no role here at all. Certainly, public health in times of a pandemic falls within the role of the civil government. But when that jurisdiction bumps up against church worship, there is an overlap. It is similar with fire codes limiting church building capacity and building codes that also apply to church buildings. These are properly within the sphere of the civil government and for the common good. But the church leadership does not cede their authority on calling people to worship in a particular building, nor do they blindly follow the civil government. If the local inspector insisted that a church was only allowed 50 people inside for fire safety reasons but was allowing 400 people into the same-sized bingo hall down the street, the church leadership would be right to challenge the civil government on this.

God has given the church the keys of the kingdom, the ministry of mercy, and the ministry of the sacraments. Too few churches are firmly reminding the civil government that the government is dictating to (rather than consulting with) a partner sphere. Compare the approach of our day with that of the civil government during the far deadlier Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed 50 million people. Note carefully the language used on Friday, October 4th, 1918, to close churches in Washington, D.C.:

Whereas the surgeon general of the United States public health service and the health officer of the District of Columbia have advised the Commissioners of the District of Columbia that indoor public assemblages constitute a public menace at this time; therefore, be it ordered by the Commissioners of the District of Columbia that the clergy be requested to omit all church services until further action by the Commissioners.

The churches responded by calling an emergency meeting of the Protestant ministers the very next day. There, they “voted unanimously to accede to the request of the District Commissioners that churches be closed in the city.” The pastors released the following statement:

Resolved, in view of the prevailing condition of our city (the widespread prevalence of influenza, that has called forth the request from the District of Columbia Commissioners for the temporary closing of all churches) we, the Pastors’ Federation, in special assembly, do place ourselves on record as cheerfully complying with the request of the Commissioners, which, we understand applies to all churches alike.

Reminding the state of its limited role is in no way subversive. Insisting on dialogue between sovereign spheres is not subversive either. It seems to me the more biblical witness.

Test and discern

In an April 23rd Q&A about submitting to government during a pandemic, Reformed theologian John MacArthur stated, “The Apostle Paul tells Timothy that we are to be good citizens. We are to live a quiet and peaceable life. We aren’t rebels; we don’t start protests; we don’t defy the government. We conform. We’re submissive to the government as basically ordained by God.”

And in an April 19th Q&A, when asked about churches that defy government orders and continue to meet, pastor MacArthur said:

In Romans chapter 13, Paul says, “You submit yourself to the government, the powers that be.” But Peter adds to that, “You submit yourself to the governor and the king,” whoever that personal authority is. I’ve heard people say, “Well, this isn’t constitutional.” That’s irrelevant. That is completely irrelevant. When you’re told by an authority to do something and it’s for the greater good of the society physically, that’s what you do because that’s what Christians would do. We are not rebels and we’re not defiant, and we don’t flaunt our freedom at the expense of someone else’s health.

While I agree with MacArthur on the general point of submission, I don’t think the situation with COVID-19 is as simple and straightforward as he makes it out to be. We have to think through situations very carefully. MacArthur’s second quote proves this. He states that “When you’re told by an authority to do something and it’s for the greater good of the society physically, that’s what you do…”. But an analysis is needed there, right? To suggest that it is “completely irrelevant” that a government order is unconstitutional is a surprising thing to say and misunderstands what “constitutional” means. To say that a government is acting unconstitutionally means it is acting illegally. They are acting outside the law. A Christian development in law, going back over 350 years already, is lex rex—“the law is king.” And, the king is not above the law. This idea is born out of Presbyterian and Reformed thought. Most Western governments, particularly in the English tradition, have adopted the principle that the rule of law, rather than the arbitrary diktats of government officials, should govern a nation. So, for a pastor to say that the constitution is “completely irrelevant” would be to turn a blind eye to lawlessness.

We need to know that what the government is demanding is actually for the greater good. For example, when China represses the Church, they don’t say they are doing it to repress the gospel. There are state churches all over that country. They prohibit larger gatherings and independent churches as a “national security measure”. National security is, like public health, properly within the sphere of the civil government. But just because the civil government says that something is a national security or public health concern does not make it so. Romans 13 does not require blind obedience. So in this situation, we actually don’t “conform” as MacArthur suggests. In the chapter immediately before Romans 13, Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” We are called to have transformed minds. We have to test and discern and determine what is good and acceptable.

Pastoral urgency required

Speaking personally, a couple of Sundays ago was supposed to be a Lord’s Supper Sunday in my local church (we typically celebrate the sacrament once every two months). The last Lord’s Supper celebration was the Sunday before the lock-down began in mid-March. My wife and I were in the emergency room that Sunday due to complications from the birth of our son and missed Lord’s Supper. So, assuming the lockdown on churches in Ontario ends sometime in June (and there is no guarantee of that) it will be a full 6 months (possibly more) before my wife and I get the blessing and comfort of that indispensable sacrament again. The elders of the church should be grappling with their flock’s deprivation of the sacraments with a deep sense of urgency. Only the church leadership has this responsibility: I have no authority to celebrate a sacrament on my own in my home. And the civil government has no authority or responsibility to see that the sacraments are celebrated either – the sacraments were given to the church. Only the church leadership can be an advocate here.

Romans 13 does not annul the authority of the church.

To use a pastoral simile, it is like a few shepherds who own a lush meadow with a crystal-clear brook. The civil government tells the shepherds, “You may not pasture your sheep in that field because there are some poisonous weeds in the far corner of the meadow. We know you have concerns that your sheep need to be fed and watered, but what matters to us is that the sheep are not poisoned.” Should those shepherds simply shrug and submit?  Or does that sound like the response of a hired hand (John 10:11-13)? Should we not expect those shepherds to urgently advocate for their hungry and thirsty sheep? To advocate this way is not insubordination; it is asserting the authority God gave to the elders. Romans 13 does not annul the authority of the church.

Is this even about religious freedom?

In one email exchange I had with a pastor, he wrote, “This isn’t about religious freedom, it’s about some Christians disagreeing with the government’s approach to COVID-19.” This argument has less and less credibility the longer time goes on. I would grant this argument in late March 2020. Most public gatherings were treated the same. But as the data continues to roll in, and as restrictions begin to lift on industry and retail and outdoor social gatherings, the ongoing restrictions on churches begin to look more and more like churches being sidelined.

For example, when the Alberta government allows restaurants to open to 50% capacity, with no prohibitions on sharing meals, no limits on proximity of seating around a table, no restrictions on singing, laughter, boisterous talk or “speaking moistly,” no instructions to not shake hands or hug, but only allows churches to open with 30% capacity or 50 people, whichever is less no matter the size of the church building, with an explicit prohibition on sharing meals, on singing, and even on how communion is done, then this most definitely is about religious freedom. Since the freedom to worship and assemble is protected by the constitution, but eating at a restaurant is not, we should have expected those numbers to have been inverted, if not the same. The law requires maximum accommodation for church ministry.

Corporate worship is different in kind than a hockey game, a movie theatre, or a factory floor. ARPA Canada made this point to the House of Commons when defending section 176 of the Criminal Code, which criminalizes the disruption of church worship services. The federal government was proposing to remove this section as “redundant,” but we successfully argued that the section must stay because there is something particularly wrong with disrupting a worship service that is different in kind from disrupting a political rally or a university lecture.

Christians are not being singled out over against Jews, Muslims or Sikhs. But religious gatherings are being singled out over against industry and retail and government and outdoor gatherings and even from violent protests. This is absolutely a religious freedom issue, and requires an appropriate response from the church.

But what about the church’s witness?

In the past, the church witnessed to the world in the face of pandemics and disasters by rushing toward the pain and the mess and the disease to help, even though there were serious risks involved. Today, we are prohibited and shamed for doing so.

But Christ gave us freedom, including freedom from fear. So, when we ask about the church’s witness, are we more worried about going along to get along? What is our witness to our culture that is enslaved to fear? What is the witness of the church to a culture that is consumed with self-preservation? What is the church’s witness to justice and fairness? What about our witness of running toward the sick, rather than away? Where is the church’s voice on the spiking suicide rates, the relapsed addicts, the increasing domestic abuse, reported quadrupling of anxiety and other mental health concerns, the loss of meaningful work for millions, the massive increases in poverty for some and the incredible increases in riches for a select few, and so on? Is the church being a witness here too, or only on a single metric: quietly keeping COVID infections down? These are matters of public justice. And the church must be the voice of conscience in this nation.

So what should the church as institute do?

The firm and steady voice of your church has the potential to ensure that the church can do its task and ministry as church and remain faithful to the Ruler Supreme. 

First, pray. Pray for personal repentance and pray for our civil leaders and country. In so doing, encourage your congregation not to put their trust in men, machines, or medicine, but in God alone. Recognize that he remains sovereign, and that he turns adversity to our good. In particular, watch out for any idolizing of the civil government. The Heidelberg Catechism explains that idolatry is “having or inventing something in which to put our trust instead of, or in addition to, the only true God” (Q&A 95). If we are looking to the civil government to save us, we have an idol problem.

Second, grow in joy! Ask the Spirit to grow this fruit in you and your congregation so that in these times we can find reasons to be thankful. There are plenty of old and new reasons for gratitude!

Third, communicate, officially as a church, with the civil government and communicate the urgency of your requests well. (If you are not in church leadership, ask your elders to consider doing this.) This week is key for Ontario churches! On June 9th, the executive order banning corporate worship services expires. It will most likely be reinstated, possibly with some modification, this week. So communicate this week. While the tone must remain respectful, do not shy away from being insistent and urgent. Insist on answers and timelines and do it often, following the example of the persistent widow (Luke 18). Communicate your concerns about everything from limits on corporate worship to limits on the various ministries of mercy, including the incalculable harm of the lockdown on mental and emotional health. Demanding answers in a constitutional democracy is not insubordination. It is how our country is ruled and run.

Fourth, think local. Since local police and municipalities enforce these orders and have quite a bit of discretion on how to do so, perhaps they are willing to accommodate your church. Are you a rural church with a large property? Perhaps an outdoor service with ample room between folks would be acceptable this summer. This is how many of the great revivals spread: in the fields! Think creatively and ask for special accommodation and, if granted permission, get it in writing.

Fifth, urge your congregation to also be in regular contact with their political representatives, communicating with a sense of urgency that restrictions on worship must be lifted, that reasonable accommodations must be made. Sending a letter this week and make a phone call within a week if you have not heard back. ARPA Canada has this EasyMail to help you do this.

Sixth, consider your legal options. A legal action has been started against the Ontario government. Further legal action may be started against other provincial governments soon. Again, in a constitutional democracy, this in no way violates the principles of Romans 13, since legal action is simply appealing to a different branch of the civil government to confirm whether or not state action is legal (i.e. constitutional). Churches can initiate their own court action, or they can join together with a coalition of churches. ARPA Canada is considering an intervention in a current case on this question. We may want to work together with churches on this. We’d be pleased to know whether your church is interested.

Seventh, remember: relationship first, policy second. Perhaps it would be helpful to think about communicating with an elected official in the same way you would with a member of your ward who is beginning to stray from the Word of God. Know their name. Love them. Encourage them. Pray for them. Visit with them. Exhort them. But remain firm with them.

Together, the firm and steady voice of your church has the potential to ensure that the church can do its task and ministry as church and remain faithful to the Ruler Supreme. For that kind of witness to happen, the church must speak and act.


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