Dr. Richard Land Answers: Should Churches Obey Government Orders to Close During Coronavirus?

(Photo: The Christian Post/Katherine T. Phan)

Question: Should churches comply with government mandates to not hold worship services during the coronavirus pandemic?

In the last few weeks, social media and the internet in general have been replete with debates about whether or not churches should comply with government mandates to suspend worship services and related church group activities as the country seeks to stem the spread of the incredibly contagious coronavirus.

Many have said, “Yes, we have an obligation to obey the civil magistrate for conscience sake” (Rom 13:7). Others have responded, “No, we have special freedoms and protections under the First Amendment, and our ultimate loyalty must be to Jesus, not the state!”

Are Christians being good citizens by complying with the government’s attempts to protect the public welfare of the citizenry, or do we exercise our freedom of conscience and trust that God will protect us from the potential health consequences? Which option is a more winsome and appealing Gospel witness to a watching world?

Such discussions and debates concerning the interplay and interaction between Christians and civil government have been ongoing since the early days of the Christian church. After all, the Apostle Paul addressed this very issue in his letter to the church in Rome as early as approximately AD 58. Almost certainly addressing a question perplexing the Christ-followers in the capital of the Roman Empire, Paul informed them that the civil magistrate was “ordained of God” and that their divinely mandated purpose (Paul even calls them “God’s ministers”) was to punish those who “doeth evil” and to reward those who “do that which is good” (Rom. 13:1-7). The Apostle exhorts his Roman Christian brothers and sisters to obey the civil authorities “for conscience sake,” concluding, “Render therefore to all their due: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour” (Rom13:7).

At the same time, Jesus teaches that our ultimate loyalty must be to God, not Caesar (Mark 12:17). In the book of Acts, the Apostles Peter and John illustrate the limits of divinely mandated civil authority when they were commanded to be silent and cease witnessing to Jesus crucified and resurrected for the sins of the world. When threatened in order to “cease and desist for preaching the gospel, the apostle replied, “For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20) and said, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Herein lies the biblical roots of Christian civil disobedience from Anabaptists, Roger Williams, Dietrich Bonheoffer, and Martin Luther King Jr. In living with the tension between fealty to the government and fealty to Christ, Christians are living out the inevitable reality of St.  Augustine’s “City of God “and the “City of Man,” and the “now, but not yet” reality of the fact that God has established his Church, “the colony of heaven” (Phil. 3:20) with His “peculiar people,” the church (1 Peter 2:9). While the church is the vanguard of His Kingdom here on earth, that Kingdom is “not yet” and will not be fully realized until the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus.

So, how is the now Holy Spirit inspired Christian church supposed to interact with the government concerning public policies and ultimate loyalties? A helpful summary of this issue for discussion purposes is provided by my own Baptist faith tradition, which historically has wrestled mightily with this question ever since emerging in the 16th century Reformation, first in Switzerland (the Anabaptists) and then in England (John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Thomas Collier), and early New England (Roger Williams, Obadiah Holmes, John Leland).

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Richard Land