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.
-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: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/03/10/difficult-bible-passages-psalm-9110/
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). https://christiannews.net/2020/03/30/megachurch-holy-ghost-bartender-arrested-for-holding-services-with-up-to-500-against-county-coronavirus-order/
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. https://www.lc.org/newsroom/details/20200330-sheriff-arrests-tampa-fl-pastor-for-holding-church-tyranny-is-here
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. https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/03/30/the-sickness-of-snitching/
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. https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/former-supreme-court-justice-this-is-what-a-police-state-is-like
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. https://www.dailywire.com/news/walsh-pastors-are-being-arrested-for-holding-worship-services-this-is-not-health-and-safety-this-is-tyranny
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.