Coronavirus, Church & State

March 20, 2020 | by James M. Harrison

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.”  Romans 13:1

“…let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together…”  Hebrews 10:25

One of the blessings that I have experienced over my long tenure serving as the pastor of RMBC, has been the graciousness of its people.  Rarely have I been confronted with second-guessing, or ungodly criticism concerning difficult decisions.  The decision to suspend our public gatherings has been among the most difficult, and once more, my brothers and sisters have demonstrated a grace which is worthy of the name “Christian”.

Nevertheless, I feel it only right and proper, in the exercise of my duties as a shepherd of this flock, to seek to explain the Elders’ thinking in regard to this decision.  Perhaps what follows will in some small way, advance the edification and unity of our fellowship.

The way of obedience is not always clearly delineated.  Sometimes decisions are forced upon us, and sometimes those decisions concern issues and events we have never before had cause to consider.  Even a month ago, the idea of suspending public worship for an indefinite period of time was something that had never crossed our minds.  If there were a class offered by my seminary entitled, “Leading Your Church through a Pandemic 101”, I must have missed it.  Neither do I recall the subject ever being addressed at a Pastor’s conference, and by the time books on the subject are written, God willing, we will be through it.

So, there are no experts to whom local church pastors may turn. The best we can do in that regard is to turn to the past, and to search out the writings of those who lived centuries ago, and labored in the midst of their own pandemics, though they would have called their experience, the “plague”. I hope, in the near future, to do just that.

But for now, the Elders of RMBC, like the leadership of every other local church, are trying to grope our way through the situation.  And the decisions we face are not always clear.

There is a doctrine called the “Perspicuity of Scripture”.  That means that Scripture reveals its central truths clearly, and in such a way, and at such a level, that any minimally literate person may understand them.  And no, the irony of using a term no one understands to describe the ease with which people may understand is not lost on me.  Nevertheless, though Scripture is the lamp unto our feet, that light does not always shine as brightly as we might like.  Sometimes, though the light shines, our eyes may be too dim to see the way clearly.  We are currently walking a path which is new to us.  It has veered off in an unexpected direction, and, it seems, the way of faithfulness is not as clearly marked as we would like.

This brings us back to where we began.  We find ourselves seeking to navigate our way between two Christian duties which seem, at present, to be in conflict.  We are exhorted both to submit to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1) which are telling us not to meet in groups of a certain size.  We are also commanded by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, not to forsake “our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25).  What to do?  What to do?

It has been said that theology is the art of making distinctions, and I find that helpful in this case.  As Scripture makes clear, and we have often taught, our obligation to submit to authority is not absolute.  There is a line.  When submission to the governing authorities forces us to choose between obedience to the State and obedience to God, we serve God rather than man.  The choice is clear.  The choice is clear, at least, in the abstract.

So, distinctions need to be made. One helpful distinction comes in the form of motivation. Why is the State instructing us not to meet in groups above a certain number, and to whom are these instructions directed?  If this restriction were directed toward the Church alone, for the purposes of silencing the gospel and harming God’s people, we would not have made the decision to suspend our corporate gatherings. We trust that God will give us the grace not to bow in the face of persecution.  But that is not, in this case, the State’s motivation.  The Church is not being targeted.  These restrictions are being placed upon everyone. Neither do these restrictions have anything to do with persecution, but rather, for reasons of public health, the future course of this outbreak is yet uncertain.

Other considerations came into our thinking, as well.  We are called to love one another, and to love our neighbor.  If those responsible for controlling this outbreak tell us that specific, temporary courses of action may mitigate the harm befalling those around us, then it seems to us that we have an obligation to accede to those wishes, insofar as we are able.

Our constitution, and many, if not all, Reformed confessions, speak directly to this issue when they speak of our obligation to meet together on the Lord’s Day, “unless providentially hindered”.  Someone of a cynical persuasion may look at that and see a loophole.  Indeed, some may sinfully use it as such.  But the reality is that that phrase is a recognition of a clear Scriptural principle derived from the ministry of Christ.

In Luke 6, Jesus is once again confronted by the Pharisees, who are hoping to catch Him violating the Sabbath, in this case, by healing a man with a withered hand. Jesus, knowing what they were thinking, asks the following question, which is quite relevant to our current situation.

“I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?”

In Deuteronomy 22:4, we read this,

“You shall not see your countryman’s donkey or his ox fallen down on the way, and pay not attention to them; you shall certainly help him to raise them up.”

On another occasion (Luke 14:5), when the Pharisees were once again seeking to trap Him concerning the Sabbath, Jesus made reference to this command from Deuteronomy, asking them,

“Which one of you will have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?”

Whether or not one believes in a New Covenant Sabbath, the principle remains.  At this point, to save life and not destroy it, we believe that we are providentially hindered in regard to our corporate assemblies.

Of course, we are blessed to be living in an age when the consequences of these decisions may be mitigated.  We are able to communicate in any number of ways without placing our neighbors health in jeopardy, and this is a great blessing.

To that end, we will continue to communicate through any means at our disposal.  Emails and blog posts will continue.  As will our services. Things will obviously be a bit different, but your Elders will be gathering on Sunday morning, to lead us through the normal course of worship, which will be live streamed over the internet. (Instructions for accessing the live stream will be forthcoming).  As always, our services will be then be uploaded to our YouTube channel and SermonAudio, as well.  Upon request, DVD’s and CD’s are also available.

So, continue on.  Be faithful.  Pray. Remain in the Word. Serve one another. Love your neighbor in the name of Christ.  And live day by day in anticipation of the fulfilment of God’s promise to work “all things together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

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