The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge challenge for the life of the churches. Along with the world, our people have undergone sickness and the loss of work, and some have had to reschedule and dramatically rearrange milestone events like births, weddings, graduations, and even funerals.
To make it worse, we have largely been unable to bear one another’s burdens in person, and many of our churches have been legally prohibited from gathering for even in-person worship. This has raised a number of difficult questions and created more than a bit of controversy.
The Gospel Coalition Canada has addressed the basic issues involved in several prior installments (e.g., here and here), but here I would like to offer my own thinking as a local pastor in British Columbia. How did I go about answering the question, “Should churches submit to government orders which close public worship due to public health concerns?” and what concerns do I still have going forward?
The Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdoms of this Earth
The first thing that needs to be done is the thing least often done. We need to distinguish which aspects of the pandemic interact with uniquely Christian—or spiritual and “biblical”—matters and which aspects are earthly and temporal. Noting this distinction does not mean that political matters are evil or something that Christians should avoid, but it does help us to answer particular questions accurately. It also helps us take the proper care when deciding if something is a matter of conscience or not.
Particular Christian issues are those which directly affect a biblical moral duty or spiritual doctrine. Questions of orthodoxy, sin, and salvation fall under this topic, as well as some questions of ecclesiology. Certain Reformed traditions will speak of “faith and practice” in this sense. The Church has a unique relationship, indeed jurisdiction over, these sorts of questions, and it must answer them with the Bible serving as the ultimate authority and then the tradition of Christian orthodox theology as guide for interpretation and application.
Questions that are matters of earthly jurisdiction are those which are answered by basic human reason, the physical sciences, or the more subjective arts of politics, economics, and social sciences. Christians can and should have something to say about these matters, but they may not have totally unique things to say, and they will not always find their answers directly in the Scriptures or even a dogmatic tradition. Indeed, Christian pastors and theologians will have no special expertise on matters of civil law, local commerce, or international epidemiology.
But—and this is critical to understand—they will still need to be able to process the information from those realms, balance it with their Christian convictions, and then form a wise conclusion for their particular local needs.
When an important question largely depends upon earthly wisdom and expertise, Christians should care deeply about it, but they ought not to conflate it with religious faith and practice. They ought not to call it a spiritual truth, and they ought not to raise it to the level of conscience.
Further, they should recognize that other sincere Christians may disagree in good faith without sinning, and also that things may differ according to one’s community, Province, or nation.
And so with this initial distinction in mind, we can say that the COVID-19 Pandemic affects both realms in various ways. In the spiritual realm, it raises three Christian duties and brings them into potential conflict with one another. In the earthly realm, it raises very important questions about civil liberties, especially religious liberty and the rights of religious institutions.
Three Christian Duties in Potential Conflict
The three main Christian moral duties involved in this question are the duty to worship God according to His Word, the duty to protect life, and the duty to submit to the various governing authorities. These are matters of conscience on some level, and they are matters on which the Bible directly speaks and the Reformed tradition has discussed in some detail.
First in priority is the command to worship. The regular public gathering of the church is not a mere preference or social activity but rather follows from both the Second and Fourth commandments. Confessional Presbyterians contend that God commands us to worship Him publicly on the Lord’s Day (Ex. 20:8, 3).
He also tells us how to worship Him, at least in terms of the basic elements of worship. Westminster Larger Catechism #108 states, we must “receiv[e], observ[e], and kee[p] pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his word.” For the Christian, this is a religious requirement and thus a matter of conscience. We are also commanded to sanctify the Lord’s Day by “public… exercises of God’s worship” (WLC 117).
The Bible does allow for two legitimate exceptions to this duty: needs of mercy or necessity (Luke 14:5, Matt. 12:7). These exceptions are ordinarily left to the individual conscience, but they are always to be exceptional and never routine. Prolonged absence from public worship can bring about pastoral intervention and church discipline.
This duty to worship is a preeminent one. It is not optional. Neither should this duty be reduced to a way for believers to care for their own mental and emotional health. No, it is a moral duty to God, one implication of the greatest commandment of all, the command to love the Lord our God will all our heart.
But a second commandment is like it. We must love our neighbour as ourselves. This means that we must take all reasonable measures to protect and preserve our own life and we must take all reasonable measures to protect and preserve the lives of our neighbours (Ex. 20:13; Eph. 5:29; Luke 10:36-37; Proverbs 24:11-12). This follows from the Sixth Commandment. We must pursue “all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others” (WLC #135). COVID-19 poses a serious risk to lives of humans created in the image of God, and so taking extreme measures for a time is a fulfillment of our duty to love our neighbour.
It is also important to remember that the greatest risk is not primarily that a person might catch the disease but that they might spread it without being aware. That is what makes the current pandemic so difficult.
So, in terms of Christian moral philosophy, limited periods of societal shutdown can be understood as an attempt to fulfill the Sixth Commandment. This would also then qualify a shutdown as a need of mercy and necessity, and thus justifying abstention from public worship for a time. God allows this because, as our Lord pointed out, He said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13).
This question becomes much more complicated when it moves from the individual level to the societal one, and as it drags on over time. A sort of moral calculus becomes necessary as legitimate competing demands are weighed against one another. No one actually applies the “If it saves even one life!” rule. Rather, they attempt to identify reasonable risk and proportionate risk management.
This is where a third moral principle becomes essential. The Fifth Commandment instructs us to obey our governing authorities, whether in the home, the church, or the civil government (Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:1; Heb. 13:7; Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). This submission extends even to ungodly rulers and to decisions with which we disagree, but it stops when they command us to sin either actively or passively (Acts 5:29).
It is important to remember that different members of society possess different amounts of authority and jurisdiction. Not every individual is given the authority to decide every question at the social level. Further, God actually commands us to give honour to our authorities, giving “willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defence, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love” (WLC 127). Thus, if we do not hold a position of public civil or political authority, then we do not have the same burden to decide public matters. We do, however, have a duty to submit to those who do have such authority.
Putting these moral principles together, we can say that the suspension of public worship on the grounds of public health can be justified as an act of mercy or necessity for the preserving of human life. This decision cannot be left to the individual conscience because it is necessarily public. The crisis is one of a contagious disease.
Decisions to close or take other measures might fall to the local leadership of the church, but if a crisis became extremely threatening or overly complex, and it affected a large social unit, then the civil magistrate would have an appropriate jurisdiction to intervene on public health grounds.
But Who Gets to Decide?
One might object at this point and say that only the officers of the church have jurisdiction over the worship service. This is true insofar as it concerns the content of worship: its elements of worship, various liturgical forms, and preached and taught word.
However, the civil magistrate does have a legitimate authority over the earthly conditions around the worship service. We can see this rather easily when it comes to electrical codes, parking lot requirements, or fire safety laws.
In the event that a church is actually endangering the lives of people in its community or obstructing reasonable civic life, the magistrate can make orders and issue penalties. These should always be justified, fair, and proportional, but there is no necessary controversy of jurisdiction.
The current government orders to restrict public worship are ostensibly of this sort. They do not forbid worship as such but rather forbid aspects of “public gatherings” for the purposes of health and safety. Mask requirements or capacity limitations affect certain aspects of the size and shape of our worship, but they do not affect the substance or form of worship. They are clearly “around” sacred things and appropriate to the civil magistrate. Churches really do not have a theological argument against such measures during a time of pandemic.
Prohibiting all gathering for public worship is a more extreme action. Its lawfulness depends upon the rationale and the method. As Richard Baxter explains, the government is justified in forbidding public worship for certain stated purposes like “pestilence, fire, war, etc.” but it is not justified in simply forbidding worship as such. It is also justified in forbidding public worship for a particular period of time if doing so will allow for a greater period of time of free worship in the future. There is a broad body of literature in the Reformed tradition to support this point of view, and so one is not simply reliant on one historical name.
To summarize, this argument maintains that the civil government does not have the authority to forbid public worship in and of itself. But it can prohibit worship for legitimate civic purposes and public health for a stipulated period of time, so long as it does so honestly and in a manner consistent with its own rule of law. If it is doing so, then Christians have a moral duty to submit. If it is not doing so, then a final set of considerations become relevant.
Justice in the Earthly Kingdom
Most of the debate around churches and COVID-19 regulations has been specifically Christian in nature and concerns matters of conscience.
But there is a second layer. The more practical and legally relevant arguments usually have to do with the particular workings of a nation or state’s constitutional order. This is how specific governments or agencies are held accountable within their own systems, and so the rules will vary depending on the relevant legal orders and guidelines. As such, these are usually matters on which Christians can and do disagree, and they are usually not matters of conscience. They are, rather, issues of civil rights and liberties.
The fact that civil-rights issues are not immediately matters of Christian doctrine does not mean that Christians cannot or should not concern themselves with them. It just means that they must do so in the right way. They should not claim a unique jurisdiction or insight into civil matters, neither should they ask for special exceptions on the basis of their religion. On the other hand, they should take the time to learn the laws of the land and the processes by which laws are executed and adjudicated. In other words, Christians can care about earthly things, but they should learn how to care about them in the right way.
When it comes to the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 restrictions on churches, it does not seem that the various civil governments are targeting Christian services as such, nor are they making doctrinal claims.
But they are interfering with the constitutionally protected free exercise of religion. This might be justified on the grounds of a true emergency scenario, but it should be done so explicitly. Various limiting factors and accountability metrics should also be clearly made known.
By what standard are churches restricted but not schools or shopping malls? There might be a good answer to this, but the burden to provide that good answer rightly falls on the government. This is not simply a technicality. This burden goes to the foundation of the constitutional order of Canada and America, and it’s a point that has been made by secular civil rights groups and at least one professor from the University of British Columbia Law School. In fact, British Columbia’s entire COVID-19 emergency powers law appears to overstep constitutional limitations.
In other words, it is entirely possible to be genuinely concerned about the public health threat posed by COVID-19 and the legal threat posed by the government of British Columbia’s response.
This means that pastors and other church leaders will need to balance two sets of concerns during this time. They should take very seriously their own moral duty before God as to whether they should suspend their public worship services for an extended season of time, and they should also take very seriously the question of whether Canadian charter rights are being violated.
They also should take care not to simply apply “weaker brother” style pastoral arguments to this second question, because charter rights are not Christian graces concerning things indifferent but are instead the minimum requirements for a free and just society. To uncritically part with them, or to approve their being taken away from other citizens, is itself a poor witness. Depending on a person’s standing in society, it might also be an abdication of duty and, thus, a moral failing.
It seems that, at the present moment, churches can submit to government orders to restrict their worship services without violating Biblical principles. They are not setting aside God’s commands but rather seeking to apply all of them in a consistent manner.
At the same time, pastors should not simply dismiss those with objections, nor bury their heads in the sand concerning potential government overreach or exercises in arbitrary power. To grant nearly unchecked power to medical doctors or other officials who are not accountable to the ordinary political checks and balances is an extremely risky move, and it makes for disastrous political precedent.
A robust, even oppositional, watchdog presence is entirely reasonable, even during a crisis. To paraphrase an American statesman of not so long ago, we should “trust but verify” the government’s activity, and we should make the various “lines in the sand” clear in our minds.