In California, the decision by the elders of Grace Community Church to defy their governor’s coronavirus lockdown orders for churches has caused quite a stir. A nationwide stir in fact! GCC is the congregation in Sun Valley (metro L.A.) where Pastor John MacArthur leads at the helm, and the church has served for decades as a training ground for sound doctrine and expositional preaching. Grace Church models Christian hospitality by hosting a widely influential annual conference for pastors from around the world, which I’ve attended about a dozen times over the years. (As I’m writing this blog posting, Pastor John is being threatened with significant fines and possible jail time, and the church is facing the loss of its utilities.)
How are we to interpret this development? What I’d like to do today is walk you through my personal take on the key issues which are at stake for all of us. I recognize that, even here at First Baptist Paducah, we’re not all in complete agreement about masks and mandates. That being acknowledged, perhaps all of us can benefit from an attempted objective analysis of our calling to serve Christ faithfully within this present pandemic context. (This is not by any stretch an exhaustive treatment of this subject, but at least it’s a start.)
Our general posture should be obedience toward government.
Probably the most concise Biblical instruction on this point is found in Romans 13:1-7. In general, the institution of human government is designed by God to promote order, peace, and safety. These are never achieved perfectly this side of heaven, but we are to view the authorities over us as gifts from the Lord, and instruments of His gracious righteousness here on earth. Jesus taught us plainly (Matthew 22:21) that we should give to “Caesar” what we rightfully owe him. Just as anarchy is a form of godless chaos, so is proper government a blessing for all of humankind.
We are called to worship God alongside other believers.
Hebrews 10:25 makes this abundantly clear, as does the entire narrative of Scripture. We gather together regularly to sing praise, participate in the ordinances of the church, and come under the preaching of God’s Word, among other things. These corporate functions of the local church are central to the Christian life, and not to be neglected by any one of us. That being said, we must recognize that restrictions on building use are not the same as outright restrictions against the gospel, so each situation where freedom feels curtailed requires nuanced consideration in the light of Biblical wisdom.
We should be promoters of peace as we demonstrate selfless love for our neighbor.
We weren’t put here to pick an unnecessary fight, or to enflame people with needlessly divisive rhetoric. Again, I’ll take you to Matthew 22, but this time to Verses 33-40. I hope that I’m advising you correctly when I say that you and I should accommodate public health advisories and restrictions whenever and wherever that is possible. The reason is simple: it is a practical demonstration of love for our neighbors. Adherence to such rules may mean some temporary discomfort for us, but the positive Christian witness is worth the cost.
There are exceptional circumstances when fidelity to Christ demands disobedience to government.
As I unpacked recently as part of our current sermon series, Acts 5:29 is an example of appropriate and righteous civil disobedience. As major contributors to the canon of Scripture, both Paul and Peter would teach respect for secular authority, but both men would be executed by the Roman Empire for refusing to cease preaching the gospel. Similarly, we remember glowing examples from the Old Testament, such as some of my favorite Bible heroes: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3:1-30). Jesus is always our highest authority, but it’s my contention that civil disobedience is justified only when we face a true and unresolvable conflict between divine law and human law.
We should contend for religious freedom for all people.
It should be a concern for us that, in Nevada for example, casinos and churches are treated differently in terms of autonomy and restrictiveness. It should matter to us that California’s Governor Newsom is encouraging shouting when it happens at protests but forbidding singing when it happens in pews. These discrepancies sow seeds of distrust among the general public, and thus weaken the fabric of our democracy. The Free Exercise Clause of our First Amendment should matter to all of us, and we should seek to preserve and protect it. In America, the Bill of Rights exists to defend all minorities, including religious minorities. Religious freedom, specifically, is a taste of spiritual freedom, generally. And the very best way to preserve religious liberty is to exercise it regularly.
We should be humble and gracious in attitude and behavior.
This principle applies to our interactions with fellow believers, and with the watching world. Just like nobody else has all the answers right now, we must acknowledge that neither do we. We’re all learning about a virus that wasn’t even on our radar screen in early 2020, and we owe each other the benefit of the doubt. Kindness, compassion, and civility always matter for followers of Christ, whether we’re talking about our response to a mask-wearing regulation, or our compliance with mandated mechanisms for contact tracing. We can disagree with policies, but we should seek to do so graciously. We always represent the King of Kings!
As we recognize the impermanence, instability, and limitations of this world and its power structures, we should long zealously for our real home.
Let’s get real for a minute. There are two extremes to be avoided right now. One is a posture so fearful that every act of government is viewed as a sinister conspiracy against us. The other is a perspective so naive that we give up our precious and hard-earned liberties without so much as a squabble. Let’s seek to avoid both extremes, friends! But here’s the deal: in human history, rarely are “emergency powers” easily relinquished once the emergency has passed. That’s simply not the nature of power. Our world has been changed by COVID-19, and we shouldn’t expect to recover the fullness of the “normal” we used to know. When you and I are tempted to grow despondent over that, we need to remember that we’re only pilgrims here. We mustn’t, ultimately, count on any human court to save the day. Our supreme trust is in the Savior par excellence, and He has told us that this world is not our home.
We’ve a better home awaitin’!