“The fight against this deadly disease is far from over. But because of incredible courage you have shown and the extraordinary sacrifices you have made, Maryland, and our nation, can now at least begin to slowly recover,” said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. Hogan’s first phase has permitted 50% capacity for businesses and houses of worship. Yet, Hogan’s guidelines have permitted local counties to implement the orders or not. In other words, a person who could not do business and/or attend a church gathering in their own county could simply travel to the next county to do either. Does that make sense during what is labeled a pandemic?
In A.A. County, the Executive originally established local guidelines for churches not to meet in public gatherings but later amended to no larger than 10 people. However, those same guidelines are not enforced equally to other public gatherings as certain stores and businesses are permitted to open at a greater capacity with CDC guidelines for social distancing and mask-wearing. Are certain businesses and faith communities being unconstitutionally discriminated and singled out?
The question lingers for some about the rights of American citizens and for religious liberty. While the reality of a novel virus is present, its impact has begun to be understood. Additionally, in many places there has been a “flattening of the curve.” However, in some places the opening of small business and churches seems to be a moving target from “flattening the curve,” to “finding more protective supplies,” “increase testing,” to even “finding a vaccine,” which may not be safely available for years, if ever. Are free citizens subjected to whatever newly created metrics by politicians? In fact, how has addressing a virus become manipulated by political parties and media agendas? While the politicians and media have their food fight, it is the American people left hungry and without a seat at the table.
I, for one, am not anti-government nor seeking to start a movement dishonoring civil authorities. I have appreciation for the work and gravity of decision-making all our leaders and essential workers have been doing, with prayers for their safety and guidance. Further, I believe in the significance of the corona-virus, specifically for certain high-risk population segments. Every citizen, business, and church should take sincere precautions to protect the public and love our neighbors. Measures of social distancing, proper wearing of masks and gloves, and limiting interactions of an airborne virus should all be effectively practiced. The goal for everyone should be to open safely more than just swiftly, but both can be achieved. I am not certain our governing authorities believe or trust the people to open safely and swiftly, and that seems to be the problem.
As Christians, we are people of compassion. Regardless of one’s geographic location, churches should consider the following: wisdom for their own context, patience and honor with civil authorities, and maintaining a good reputation with outsiders.
Wisdom for their own context. A church is not right or wrong, spiritually mature or immature, or any more loving or unloving of America if they choose to open or not. Some churches may choose not to open based on their environment and demographics. Other churches may choose to open following all the recommended CDC guidelines. Each church and its leadership must prayerfully pursue God’s wisdom for its own context.
Patience and honor with civil authorities. Jesus told His followers, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). The apostles exhorted the church to “submit to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), and to “fear God and honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). Christians should be willing to go an extra mile with patience and respect for governing authorities. However, there may come a time when Christians are called to “obey God rather than man” (Acts 4:19).
When should a church consider civil disobedience? God has ordained governments to act for the benefit of its own nation. They possess authority to preserve human life and its welfare. Simultaneously, God’s people are called to gather and practice their faith. So, a simple answer to our question of when to practice civil disobedience is when governments command allegiance or obedience to a command that contrasts God’s law. Biblical examples include those who refused to bow and worship false idols in Babylon (Daniel 3), apostles ignoring an order to stop telling others about the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 4). In each example, God’s people promote God’s law without provoking dishonor to civil leaders, which is also part of God’s law.
A more complex answer to civil disobedience must evaluate the standards established for other public gatherings: business, sports, government, etc. If churches are being unfairly singled out, then there may be biblical justification for civil disobedience. This is our pandemic paradox, with God’s law higher than man’s.
Maintain a good reputation with outsiders. Jesus was a friend of sinners and commanded His followers to love our neighbors, especially those different from us. The early church was not confined to a building but ministered in the streets and in homes. Unfortunately, one of the reasons today’s church is not viewed as “essential” is because too often it has become insider focused. The church’s witness to the world with humility for differing views, compassion for the weak, and hope for dissenters must stand out. Reputation is not how we view ourselves but how others perceive us. How should the church be perceived by society? Are we different for the right reasons or are we creating wrong stumbling blocks?
The church’s courage, boldness, and radical lifestyle isn’t just about an audience, but an army of God’s people engaged with the world. How is each Christian and each church seeking to minister to tangible needs, love its neighbor, and personally sharing the truth of Jesus Christ? Again, too often I have heard and seen more promotion from Christians about personal preferences and national rights, not to mention conspiracy theories and falsehoods than the declaration of practical and meaningful hope through the gospel of Jesus Christ. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
In all, church leadership bears the responsibility to make decisions in complex circumstances. The ramifications of opening or remaining closed are mutually significant. Physical health, emotional support, financial well-being, and spiritual care are all at stake in our society. The landscape of our world has changed and those waiting for a return to “normal” seem to be facing a mirage never to reappear. No one (I hope) wants to see a church, or any institution, open and then have an outbreak of the virus. Yet, we cannot live indefinitely in fear of hypotheticals. God is sovereign. He is in control. We can only control our own attitudes and actions. Christians, we are called to live for the glory of God and not another’s fame. On that, we should agree.