Closing Churches During the Corona Crisis

What are we to make of forced church closures during this time?

Plenty of changes are happening with COVID-19. One of them is the forced closure of so many churches in the West. Some pastors are defying government orders and keeping their churches open. Some pastors have been arrested as a result. What are we to make of all this?

It is not my intention here to comment specifically on any of the personalities and pastors involved. Some are well known, and some are either quite loved or quite disliked for various reasons, including their theology and/or practice.

I want to just confine myself to the matter of whether pastors and church leaders are right to keep their churches open when states are calling for them to be shut down. Some of the calls really are quite draconian, such as permanently shutting down any churches or synagogues that defy these orders.

So how should we think about such things? A number of important questions arise here:

-How much can individual and/or organisational liberties be curtailed in the interests of public health and safety?
-Just what is an essential service? Are abortion providers? Gun shops? Churches?
-Are pastors being wise to defy these state orders? Are they putting their people at risk?
-Can reasonable alternate provision of such services take place? Does a virtual church service suffice – at least for a while?
-What happens when a right to freedom of worship clashes with other rights, such as the right to be safe, and protected from infectious diseases?
-How far can states go in shutting down economies and curtailing basic freedoms in the name of keeping the public safe?

Let me begin with a few theological points. I have no time for the name-it-and-claim-it, Word of Faith folks who teach that Christians with faith are exempt from all diseases and illness. This is not faith – it is foolishness. It is just being presumptuous.

Yes, we are to exercise faith, but at the same time we are to be wise and take necessary precautions and safeguards. I have already looked in some detail at one verse appealed to by the Health and Wealth Gospellers. See my commentary here:

Thus if some pastors think they can flaunt or ignore all legitimate measures in health precautions, and put their congregations in the way of danger, they are not loving their neighbour but being foolish. Let me refer to one now famous case of this.

While a number of churches have been in the news of late in this regard, one is a Florida mega-church pastored by Rodney Howard-Browne. He did hand himself in to the authorities after a warrant for his arrest was issued for defying Tampa area guidelines. One article said this in part:

Howard-Browne defended the gathering on Sunday, stating that those in attendance had come of their own free will. “Last time I checked, bottle stores are still open in Tampa. … Medicinal weed places are open last time I checked. I believe there are abortion clinics open in some areas,” he also said. “Who’s been to a store this week? Didn’t you see how many people are in there?” . . . He said that he was following Scripture’s command not to forsake the assembly (Hebrews 10:25).

And one religious liberty group did try to defend his actions. This is what the Liberty Counsel has said about this case:

The Tampa order has 42 paragraphs of exceptions, and another paragraph that further exempts any business that can comply with a six-foot separation. Yet, this church did comply. In fact, this church has done more to balance worship with protecting people, including:
-Enforced the six-foot distance between family groups in the auditorium as well as the overflow rooms;
-All the staff wore gloves;
-Every person who entered the church received hand sanitizer;
-In the farmer’s market and coffee shop in the lobby, the six-foot distance was enforced with the floor specifically marked (farmer’s markets and produce stands are expressly exempted);
-The church spent $100,000 on a hospital grade purification system set up throughout the church that provides continuous infectious microbial reduction (CIMR) that is rated to kill microbes, including those in the Coronavirus family.
The rights enumerated in the United States Constitution and Florida law STILL apply to people of faith. No other secular business has done what this church has done to protect its people. Yet, Hillsborough County and Sheriff Chronister want to openly discriminate against church gatherings.

So we have here some pros and cons being offered on this case. In an internet age one can still fellowship, at least temporarily, in an online fashion. And if only for a limited time, this is not too onerous. So appealing to the Hebrews passage may be a bit disingenuous here.

One can also mention house churches, which were the main way that ‘church’ was done in the early days of Christianity. Consider some of the passages on this: Matthew 18:20; Acts 2:2; Acts 2:42; Acts 2:46; Acts 5:42; Acts 20:20; Romans 12:4-8; Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 14:26; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Titus 1:1-16; and Philemon 1:2.

Of course with many new bans coming into place on only two people allowed to be in public, or only family members allowed to be in a home, then even the concept of a house church becomes quite hard to put into practice. So these cases of church closures and defiance of the law do indeed raise serious questions about the power and reach of the state.

I have already spoken about these matters in previous articles. I have said that there is a place for drastic state intervention in times of grave public health crises, but it is always way too easy for the state to go too far in seizing for itself more power and control. And it is hard for them to relinquish that when the crisis eases.

So real care is needed here: we want to prevent the spread of infectious and deadly diseases. But we also want to prevent the spread of what can become infectious and deadly state control. We have too many examples of such harmful statism in recent history.

How far do we go, not just in closing down churches, but in other draconian measures? Some jurisdictions are now using drones to monitor how people are responding to social distancing rules. Hmm, police states always begin with such stringent measures and such restrictions of the liberty of its people.

And some places are now urging citizens to snitch on their neighbours. That also can be a real concern. Recall the famous case in East Germany of a kid turning in his own parents to the Communist authorities. One English writer very much alarmed at this is Brendan O’Neill. He speaks about the “sickness of snitching”. Let me just offer his closing paragraph:

All of this has whipped up a genuinely ugly finger-pointing climate. The instinct to name and shame is so deeply corrosive of the social bonds and public trust we need to get through this pandemic. It is a mix of two of the most obnoxious social trends of recent years – virtue-signalling and social shaming. By squealing on other members of the public, people think they can demonstrate their own respectability and fealty to the new rules, while also giving a release to their own anger and frustration with what is going on right now. Their instinct is to find someone, anyone, they can rage against, be it their jogging neighbour, the mum buying food in an outdoor market, or construction workers getting on the Tube. These are the new witch-hunts, where we fume against a demonic figure to make ourselves feel temporarily better. It’s nasty. Stop it. Let people have that second run.

Also, a former judge has warned about the dangers of a slide into a police state:

The former Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Sumption, QC, has denounced the police response to the coronavirus, saying the country is suffering ‘collective hysteria’.

BBC interviewer Jonny Dymond: ‘A hysterical slide into a police state. A shameful police force intruding with scant regard to common sense or tradition. An irrational overreaction driven by fear.’ These are not the accusations of wild-eyed campaigners, they come from the lips of one of our most eminent jurists Lord Sumption, former Justice of the Supreme Court. I spoke to him just before we came on air.

Lord Sumption: The real problem is that when human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. And the threat is usually a real threat but usually exaggerated. That’s what I fear we are seeing now. The pressure on politicians has come from the public. They want action. They don’t pause to ask whether the action will work. They don’t ask themselves whether the cost will be worth paying. They want action anyway. And anyone who has studied history will recognise here the classic symptoms of collective hysteria. Hysteria is infectious. We are working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease.

Finally, Matt Walsh has just written specifically about the clampdown on churches. He says this at the close of his piece:

I am trying to imagine a definition of “religious liberty” that includes the government closing churches indefinitely on the basis that they are not essential enough to remain open. I cannot think of one that would be at all cogent or meaningful. Indeed, it has become obvious (if it wasn’t already) that our mainstream notions of “liberty” and “rights” and “freedom” are largely nonsensical, as evidenced by the people who normally assert these concepts as absolutes but now insist that the government has the unquestioned power to lock us in our homes and shut our businesses for as long as it pleases.

Most of us, it turns out, do not have a governing philosophy or set of principles. We are slaves to our emotions. So, if the government scares us enough, we will rip the “Give me liberty or give me death” and “Don’t tread on me” bumper stickers off of our cars and stuff them in the closet while we cower alongside it. Then when the threat has passed — or at least we are told that it has passed — we will proudly affix the bumper stickers back on our bumpers again, and sing bravely about our love of freedom.

In sum, these issues are rather complex, and a number of pro and con arguments can be made here. My spin on this should be clear by now: we should not act foolishly and presumptuously as Christians. While we are not to succumb to paralysing fear, neither are we to be reckless and stupid in ignoring sound health and safety advice and practice.

But as always, there are trade-offs in life. Allowing the State unlimited powers to deal with a health crisis can easily result in even greater harms. The erosion of freedom and the destruction of the economy can have just as much dire and even deadly consequences as the virus itself. Thus we must move very cautiously and wisely here.

At the very least, keep praying for your leaders. They need the wisdom of Solomon here.

[1898 words]

31 Replies to “Closing Churches During the Corona Crisis”

  1. Since some folks on the social media seem to be missing the point of my article, let me address a few issues here right away. A number of Christians have already said, somewhat glibly, that the church is not a building, so it does not matter if the state closes church buildings. Um, of course we believers are the church. I never said we are not. But my main point in the article was not how we define “church”. It is much more about how far the state can go in these areas. What if they start to try to ban small home groups of believers, or even seek to ban online church services, for whatever reason? That is the real issue I am addressing here. How far can the state go as it deals with a public health crisis. How much freedom are we willing to forego? How much power does the state have over the Body of Christ?

  2. Here’s a quote from David d’Lima of Family Voice

    “We are rightly concerned as the corona virus has claimed the lives of 20 Australians, but let’s just put this into perspective, by recognising that in Australia each day about 350 unborn lives are extinguished by surgical abortion, with almost zero outcry from civic authorities or Christian leaders.”

    Wisdom is about perspective. Australia needs to repent – desperately.

  3. Don’t forget the idolatry and the socialisation angle. When this paranoia first started to unfold in our country, though it was preempted in the media well prior, I noticed people were somehow made more addicted and reliant on their mobile phones then they were prior to Corona 19. Churches shut down and went online as quick as they could because of the mixture of issues around sensitivity, liability and concern – completely understandable. Understandably it seems most churches didn’t attempt to stay within legal parameters which was changing every 2-3 days, when it was still technically legal to fellowship in house/community centre/church building. I am not opposed to online church during this time. I endorse it. But I am a bit surprised how we have gone very quickly to reason “we are not a building but a people” to mean “therefore authentic church can be online.” Online is a blessing that enables to keep together through occasion of disaster and separation of geography. But online fellowship should not be considered equal to face to face fellowship, which is the ideal. Paul grieved when he could not be in person with a believer and desired to see them face to face, though he reasoned he was with them in spirit. But he saw human contact as ideal for fellowship. When he couldn’t see the Thessalonians he sent his pupil, Timothy in person. No doubt being in prison with Silas helped his experience then too.

    Big tech has an agenda to make our entire lives dependent on social media, devices, online and eventually this headed for virtual/augmented reality for possibly any and every major activity. If small businesses have been hit hard, even destroyed, big tech has been the big winner. If some psychologists, pastors and other experts were warning us of how the effects of too much time spent on tech devices is harmful to our mental health and social relations a few months back, suddenly we have justification to be addicted and it is even necessary, because the things we can’t do now, at least we can do them online. Yes I am one of those making adjustments and I am thankful for the options, but I am also weary where this is going. The addiction also applies to incessant checking of terrible mainstream news, and to find out what we can/and can’t do which is changing all the time. And what else can people do but go on FB when they are stuck at home? Yes there are fruitful activities other than that, but what do people default to?

    When I first heard the term “social distancing” it scared me to be honest. It has later been adjusted to “physical distancing.” But I can see the effects the combination of tech algorithms and mainstream news is having on society at large. People with previously decent hygiene habits are have turned OCD overnight. They are washing their hands till it is sandpaper. They are striving to be good, healthy and caring but that is not healthy and socially useful. I worry social distancing is less a political-medical measure as much as it is socialisation of humanity, much like social-critical theories, social-marxism and LGBTIQ agendas. I worry how this will affect us long-term. How will we think about people the next flu season when the dust settles after this pandemic? Already we having a public shaming culture emerging that is similar to what exists in China with their social-credit system. I went for a walk in the sun with the family, and a friendly lady walking too, moved to the side for legal safe distancing. We all said ‘hi.’ That’s fine for now, but is the new norm? Myself, I am just uncomfortable that this “invisible enemy” is causing people to fear humanity at large, but even if you don’t fear Corona, you are being steered away from people due to tough laws.

    More and more evidence is emerging from dissenting credible medical/scientific experts that the pandemic does not correspond to measures being implemented. So it concerns me with how society/Christians quickly are defaulting to online as the way forward. There is cause to at least ask if legal, godly and non-violent push back is a question we should be thought through.

  4. I am praying that this crisis will soon be over and I can once again worship the Lord with other believers. I am thankful that I can hear my pastor each Sunday now on our website but I really miss being at church. Since “all things work together for good to them that love God” I pray that we will see, understand it and be grateful. One thing it has taught me is how much I miss being with my brothers and sisters in Christ on Sunday morning and how much I have learned to appreciate them and the fellowship we have in that sacred hour. Praying that God will mercifully bring this pandemic to an end soon.

  5. Dear Bill, Thank you for airing this topic. A few days ago I was saying how fortunate my local Catholic community were in having a Blessed Sacrament chapel. It seems I spoke too soon. As you will know the Mass is central to the Catholic faith. Catholics in early pioneer days were known to have kept a candle burning before a Consecrated Host day an night for weeks on end because priests were so few they could not visit their scattered flocks very often. Now some may believe that a consecrated host is just a a piece of unleavened bread and they are entitled to believe that. However, Catholic belief maintains that a consecrated host contains the True Presence of Jesus that is why it is placed in a Monstrance which has to be made of gold.We have a particularly beautiful Monstrance in our parish. Adorers are rostered hourly day and night but there are of course quite a few vacancies.It has always been well attended though. Every adorer has to be familiar with the code on the door lock. People who are not familiar with it cannot get in. Therefore the chapel is very secure. It usually does not have more than one or two people in at a time because it is quite small.

    The Church has been closed for more than two weeks ago now. There has been no Sunday Masses. The priest has to say Mass on his own which in itself must be very strange for him. I was upset to find when I visited the Church yesterday that even the chapel has been closed which I think is unreasonable because of the conditions described above.I had to say my prayers outside the church with the Tabernacle in view which as you will know always has a red light beside it indicating that the Tabernacle contains consecrated Hosts. The only time it doesn’t and the door is left open is on Good Friday. My faith in the True presence has grown stronger since I had the privilege of visiting Lanciano in Italy a few years ago where a Eucharistic miracle took place centuries ago. There has been other Eucharistic miracles which I won’t mention here but you can imagine how upset many Catholics are to be deprived of this Grace and I don’t use the word deprived lightly because that is exactly what many of us must feel. It will probably make us appreciate Holy Communion more when we have to go without it for some time and we will also be able to understand more how the pioneer Catholics felt.

  6. Aidan Herman:

    When I first heard the term “social distancing” it scared me to be honest. It has later been adjusted to “physical distancing.”

    Isn’t it interesting/curious/sinister that adding the word “social” before a word makes a political mess – first social justice, now social distance.

  7. C.S. Lewis wrote way back in 1948, “On Living in an Atomic Age”. Just think “COVID-19” instead of atomic age/bomb. From the essay:

    “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

    In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anaesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

    This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

    From “Present Concerns”
    New York: Harcourt, 1986

  8. My advice is to not become anxious about the matter. Trust God. Sing songs of praise when you get the chance. You may not be able to get to church but we sing songs of praise in church for a reason. This virus is massively contagious so Christians are going to get it but it is how your immune system reacts to it that really matters

  9. Thanks for the link Nina, as it included the following which is relevant to me at the moment.

    When sermons are devoid of talk about eternal life, of sin and salvation, of peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, then the church SHOULD go out of business. It is no longer the Church of Jesus Christ it is something else…a social service agency with a creed.

  10. Have people noticed when Daniel Andrews speaks, the high level of strictness and threat should dissent arise, compared to other premier’s softer approach? Is there a correlation between that and his level of socialism compared to other premiers?

  11. Um, no need to get too bent out of shape here Sjirk. I of course simply quoted a Christian magazine article which quoted him. If you actually read my article you will see that I said that ‘It is not my intention here to comment specifically on any of the personalities and pastors involved,’ including their theology. His story was all over the news, so it was one obvious example of the issues I was discussing in the article. So my piece was simply looking at some important issues, with him being one of the cases in point. And yes, I do have a sense of history thanks.

  12. Disappointed to read the theological nonsense and the ludicrous idolatry espoused by Patricia Halligan regarding the adoration of the “holy sacrament”. I feel that you should excude such foolish teaching, just as you will probably exclude this letter.

  13. Thanks Spero. Obviously I am an evangelical Protestant, so I certainly don’t agree with everything Catholics believe. For that matter, I don’t always agree with everything all other Protestants believe. I have already made my case for Protestantism, as in this piece:

    Mostly when others stick to common concerns about culture wars and the like, I am willing to be a co-belligerent with them. Thus I am happy to work with Catholics on prolife issues and the like. See more here:

    If I cut off every single person I did not agree with 100 per cent, there would be very few people left here, including her, you and maybe even me! And of course you are NOT privy to the many thousands of comments I have NOT posted here, whether hers or others. So pray for me for wisdom. If you want to set up your own website with over 5000 articles and over 75,000 published comments, you can see how tough it can be at times to do it. Thanks again.

  14. Our church is meeting online on Sundays. A brilliant idea considering a large amount of our church family are older. Last week we worshipped, had communion, and watched the pastor’s message, online! I am rostered to lead communion this week. Yesterday I did the segment in my kitchen, as I was recorded ready for Sunday morning! We are still gathering together, online! Virtual hugs everywhere!

  15. Spero Katos, as someone saved out of Roman Catholicism I too was initially disappointed to read what Patricia Halligan wrote, however I now look at it this way.

    Because of a lack of teaching in the Church it would seem to me that most protestant church attendees would have little or no idea what the Roman church actually teaches. Perhaps Patricia Halligan’s post will be a wake up call for some?

  16. Thanks guys. I do not really want to belabour all this, and it is not ideal to speak about someone behind her back, but a few final points if I may:

    -Yes, most Prots are as clueless about their faith as most Caths are;
    -As I said, I differ of course with Caths on many areas, as a recent article made quite clear:
    -I have often said that I prefer not to have this site become a place of non-stop sectarian battles;
    -As I also said, I will work with all sorts of folks in the culture wars;
    -Some of my greatest prolife, pro-family and pro-marriage allies in these battles are Catholics;
    -This particular gal has posted plenty of comments here, around 98% of them just being on the culture wars;
    -I cut her a bit of slack and showed her a bit of grace with her more recent sectarian remarks;
    -If that were to continue I would likely intervene to some extent.

    So we will leave it there hopefully. Thanks again.

  17. Thanks Bill. I did say people can believe what they choose to. I am a convert by the way when I was eighteen. I am eighty-three now and not about to change at this late stage. If I am wrong so be it. I will be finding out before long.

  18. Thanks Patricia. At the end of the day there is only one thing that matters: do we recognise that we are lost sinners, that we cannot save ourselves, and that we must cast ourselves fully on the finished work of Christ at Calvary? Coming to him in faith and repentance, and seeking to make him Lord of our lives from thereon, in a love relationship with him, is the endgame. That in effect is my faith, and that is what Scripture commands of us. Blessings.

  19. I understand the concern re churches closing, will they reopen and will people return? As it is the first time that novel coronavirus is hitting, the Government want to protect us all. In this case, we are to obey the government as protection for us all.

  20. I am not quite as optimistic as you are Judith. Hopefully most of our government leaders have good intentions, but not all do. Once something is closed down, it is hard to reopen. There would be some who are quite happy to see the churches shut down permanently, so we must not be naive about what might happen here if we do not maintain proper vigilance.

  21. Hi Bill
    I’ve been reading your articles for many years and have been blessed by them.
    A few weeks back I attended the Church and State Summit in Brisbane where you shared the afternoon session with two other speakers.
    At church the next day I mentioned Dr. Michael Brown to someone who suggested that he was sympathetic toward the cause of the NAR. (Never heard of it, ….as such). Researching since has led me to think that that might be so of Dr. Brown, and clearly so for the third speaker.
    You, from what I can see, have written very little of the movement and of the churches and leaders involved.
    Bill, what are your thoughts regarding the New Apostolic Reformation?

    Kind regards, John Dekker

  22. Thanks John. I guess I will need to pen an article or two on this since I get asked about it now and then. But in the meantime, a few points can and should be raised about all this:

    -I actually know little about the NAR as well, so I am no authority on it by any means. I do not really read books by them or watch their videos, etc.
    -Of course a quick web search will reveal plenty of items about them – some where it is highly praised, and others where it is highly criticised.
    -Obvious areas of concern such as teachings and practices of stuff like ‘grave-sucking’ are obviously not something any Christian should run with, and folks like Brown have called that sort of stuff out.
    -Michael Brown has said often that he has no formal or official connection with the NAR. See here eg:
    -He may know some of the folks in it, and may have shared some speaking platforms with some of them over the years. But that is not the same as being part of it.
    -In the same way I have shared platforms with all sorts of folks over the years that I may not agree with in so many areas, be they Mormons or Moonies or Muslims or atheists. Thus we need to be careful about the danger of guilt by association.
    -The heresy hunters are very big on this and other unhelpful things. They can be far too ready to condemn any and all Christian leaders if they dare to share a stage with someone, or know someone, etc. They are far too quick to rather recklessly judge and attack others.
    -As I have said so often, truth does matter and there is such a thing as heresy. But many of the heresy hunters can cause as much damage to the cause of Christ as real heretics can. See more on this here eg:
    -People like Brown who are in the Pentecostal/charismatic camp are aware of various excesses and extremes that need to be called out. Indeed, he penned an entire book on this:
    -And when a hardcore Reformed apologist who is not keen on the Pentecostal/Charismatic world can offer a lengthy defence of Brown against the hyper critics and heresy hunters, you know we should ignore most of what the critics have to say. See here Brown’s interview with James White:

    Much more needs to be said on this, so stay tuned for some fuller articles.

  23. Churches could go to have services throughout the week at night an both Sat and Sun several both days so as to keep the numbers manageable for social distancing and make sure to sanitize daily. Spiritual help and comfort is essential. And if other secular businesses are open and following these guidelines no reason a church can’t. Perhaps a personal visit from the pastor each week for a brief service. 15 min each and then he goes to the next parishioner.

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