Much needed clarity on church/state relations in an age of Covid:
All Christians would know about the words of Jesus, “Render unto Caesar” found in Matthew 22:21. It seems however that some may forget about his next words “Render Unto God”. That is, they are fully aware of our obligations to the state. But sometimes they seem to think that this submission to the state trumps everything.
They seem to forget that only God is absolute and only his jurisdiction is universal. Whatever the state mandates must be subordinate to the rule of God. Of course Jesus did not give us many specifics in this pericope (Matt. 22:15-22), aside from paying taxes. So plenty of questions arise as to just what civil authorities can demand of us.
And for two thousand years Christians have debated how we are to understand church/state relations. Many evangelicals today seem to see Romans 13:1-7 is our only guidance here, and they insist that we must always submit except in a few rare cases (when we are forbidden to evangelise for example).
I think many Christians have a much too narrow view of things here. When we consider all of Scripture, it seems there will always be clashes between our loyalty to God and our responsibility to the state. And church history also demonstrates this as well.
Too many German Christians last century for example stressed the need to obey the state. Too many in America felt the same when it came to racial segregation. And now of course we are finding it far too often with things like health coercion and segregation. So many church leaders feel we must submit to all state mandates, no questions asked.
That has meant far too many have been happy to let the state shut down their churches, or demand unjust discrimination between jabbed and unjabbed. All this I have written scores of articles about. Thankfully not all our Christian leaders has been happy with this state of affairs. Many have called out the rather pathetic response of most churches over the past two years.
One such leader is Australian Presbyterian Pastor Rev. Dr Andrew Matthews. Late last year he penned a very important piece called, “The Church weighed, measured, and found wanting”. https://andrewwgmatthews.blogspot.com/2021/10/the-church-weighed-measured-and-found.html
I only became fully aware of it just recently, thanks to keen CultureWatch commentators Kaylene and John. It is too long to share here, but I can provide some parts of it for your perusal, hoping that you will eventually read the entire piece. What follows are quotes from some of the sections of the article:
The world-wide Covid-19 pandemic is the severest test of our generation. The Christian church specifically ought to consider the calamities of the past eighteen months as part of a painful trial that God has inflicted upon his church in order to refine her. Since both individual Christians and the church universal never reach a perfected state in this world we are constantly subject to tests that expose our short-comings. As the church has been forced to respond to the Covid crisis, Christian leaders have had to make ecclesiastical decisions, navigate ethical issues, and counsel their members how they should appropriately act. In spite of their good intentions and best efforts, I believe that the pressures of Covid-19 have exposed a number of weaknesses in our theology and ecclesiology that require reexamination and recommitment. To paraphrase the book of Daniel 5:25-28, we are a church that has been weighed, measured, and found wanting.
Spirit of Fear
One could understand how a secular people without hope and without God in this world would be susceptible to fear, yet the church herself has fallen into a similar panic. Despite the plethora of biblical injunctions to “fear not!” the church on the whole has not exhibited a robust spirit of courage. It is understandable that churches populated by the elderly would be particularly cautious, but elderly saints should be exhibiting more faith than those who have journeyed fewer days….
An essential axiom of the faith is that in Christ one has eternal life, and that the next world—not this one—is our true home. This fear of death rife in the church undermines the core truth of the gospel which is “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). What does it say about our teaching and preaching ministry if our people cling to this life and have a frail assurance of their eternal salvation? The teachers of the church need to reinforce the Christian affirmations of the brevity of temporal life, the reality of judgment, and the hope and certainty of eternal life in Christ.
Very disturbingly, the public health orders of the government have become an omnipotent tool that the government has used to supplant any ordinary right or prerogative in society. Our society is ruled by an army of “-ologists.” Under the warrant of public health the government has been able to close off international travel, lock down society, seperate families, limit public assembly and protest, close worship, and shut businesses and schools. Since society at large fears Covid and privileges public health, the populace has permitted the government to take complete control of their lives. The health orders are like a giant Trojan Horse that we have welcomed into our city. If a communist or progressive government made a direct attack against Christian assembly the church would undoubtably fight back. If the government were to close our churches due to ideology, we would publicly resist—or go underground. Yet, when the government closes our churches due to health orders, we submit without question. Though the motives may be different, the end is the same. The state has found an effective mechanism by which the church will cede its sovereignty.
Submitting to Caesar
The church has yet to determine the bounds, limitations, and duration of the state’s new-found health authority. As much as the church affirms the right of the civil magistrate to adjudicate its affairs within its sphere of responsibility, it also asserts that government authority is not absolute. The state’s edicts have ethical and ecclesiastical limits. Citizens, especially Christian citizens, are under no obligation to comply with government laws that violate God’s moral law. The second half of Christ’s injunction—“[render] unto God the things that are God’s”—is still perpetually binding upon the church. The civil magistrate has no absolute authority over internal ecclesiastical matters, especially the doctrine that is to be taught and how worship is to be conducted. With respect to the latter, that has already occurred in Covid health restrictions: no gathering, no singing, no sacraments. If we accept the premise that the government, even with a health warrant, does not have unbounded authority over the affairs of the church (Acts 4:19), where will the church draw the line? My wife had a discussion with a moderator of a state assembly who told her that there was no consensus among ministers where the proverbial “red line” lay. For some it is the state’s regulations over church worship; for others it is the mandates prohibiting unvaccinated church attendance. Others are keeping their powder dry until the state threatens our inviolable theological commitments—coming soon from the progressive ideological movement.
A refrain preached at us from our government leaders is that we need to “do the right thing.” It is ironic that in an age that rejects moral absolutism and espouses moral subjectivity that our leaders would use such a trite phrase in applying the enforcement of their own rules. What exactly is “the right thing”? The pandemic has opened up a moral Pandora’s box that our society and the church is struggling to close. The path of least resistance is to uphold whatever the government decrees as “the right thing.” The Fifth Commandment, Romans 13, our creeds, and our conscience make this the default course of conduct. But since we know that human laws are never absolute and are subordinate to God’s moral commandments, we still have to discern if a government law has gone too far. A cogent case can be made that harsh, protracted lockdowns violate the sixth commandment to uphold the life and well-being of people. The widespread trauma of spiralling mental health, ruined livelihoods, stunted education, postponed health care, and rising suicides must be factored into our calculus of the ultimate “right thing” for our society.
A Pathway Forward
The weakened state of the church is the direct consequence of the church’s actions during Covid. If we hope that God restores the fortunes of her people it is incumbent upon us to first take stock of our actions during the pandemic, repent, and then consider how we might acquit ourselves henceforth. To the extent that the church has permitted the suspension of the ordinary means of grace experienced in public worship she is responsible for the poor spiritual state of believers. As enumerated previously, the church needs a renewed spirit of boldness to counteract the spirit of fear dominant in society. Our spiritual health should be considered more important than our physical health. We need to determine the limitations of the government’s authority over church operations. Leaders should make it a priority to properly teach biblical ethics. Church ecclesiology needs to be refortified to respond to emergency situations and the overwhelming authority of the state. If we are to expect God’s blessing on the church we must recommit to God-honouring worship and renew our trust in the merciful and mighty God who rules over all things.
There is much more in his article than the various portions that I feature here. Please read the whole article. And I see that Caldron Pool has recently reposted this article: https://caldronpool.com/the-church-weighed-measured-and-found-wanting/
Also on the CP site is a declaration that Matthews and four other Presbyterian leaders wrote about “Christians Who Say No to Segregated Services”. https://caldronpool.com/christians-say-no-to-segregated-services/
It has two other useful features: you can sign the declaration, and you will also find there a list on non-segregating churches in Victoria. Well done Andrew Matthews for your vital biblical leadership in all this.