Public gatherings throughout the U.S. continue to be shut down in anticipation of the new coronavirus COVID-19. Churches, too, are widely canceling their weekly services.
Last Wednesday, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear urged churches to cancel weekly services. Some questioned whether his advice targeted churches too specifically (he didn’t mention similar events), especially considering that Kentucky had relatively few confirmed cases.
On Monday, the White House recommended that Americans “Avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people” for the next fifteen days. As state instructions to cancel gatherings become more common, urgent, and mandatory, how should churches respond?
Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
First, regular gatherings are not an optional part of the Christian life. Christians are commanded to “meet together” in Hebrews 10:25. Many New Testament commands on how Christians are to treat one another are difficult, if not impossible, to obey unless Christians are regularly gathering together. The New Testament describes the church as Christ’s body (Colossians 1:24); bodies cannot long exist while separated. Therefore, Christians should not abandon our typical church gatherings on a whim.
The legal question of whether government may restrict religious gatherings is relatively straightforward. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act codified a specific legal test, under which the federal government may only substantially burden sincere religious belief when it has a compelling interest in doing so, and does so in the narrowest way possible. First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty legal defense group, noted “temporary action to reduce the spread of a global pandemic is almost certainly a compelling reason.”
That said, most Christians are not lawyers. How can church leaders and members approach this issue wisely?
Dual Responsibilities, Dual Authorities
Western ideals of religious liberty are premised upon the idea that political and religious institutions have different responsibilities and, therefore, different authorities. The state’s responsibility is of this world (see John 18:36); the church’s responsibility is of the world to come. The state exists to establish order and execute justice so that humans may flourish. The church exists to proclaim the Word of God and build up the body of Christ so that people may be reconciled to God. Both institutions are good and gracious gifts from God.
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Joshua Arnold