Should Our Governor Order the Suspension of Worship Services?

Mar 20, 2020 by David Fowler

church with superimposed image of the coronavirus
My counterpart in Massachusetts emailed earlier this week that his state’s governor had issued an order “prohibiting gatherings of over 25 people” that included “faith-based events” and “any similar event or activity that brings together 25 or more persons in a single room or single space at the same time.” Could Governor Lee issue such an order, or perhaps more importantly, should he?

For some, the only relevant question is whether the civil government has the authority under positive law—state and federal constitutions and statutory laws—to order the suspension of church services. The short answer to that is that I suspect they could if COVID-19 is as contagious and lethal as some claim.

But the more important and fundamental question is an ethical one—should civil government forbid churches from holding worship services, even if it has the physical power to enforce such a prohibition?

Should Civil Government Shut Down Worship Services?

A Question of Jurisdiction

The “should” question is an ethical one that goes to the question of jurisdiction or, put another way, the scope of jurisdiction possessed by the church vis-à-vis that of civil government. That we might have assumed that civil government had the authority to order churches to shut down worship services is an indication of the degree to which we attribute omnicompetence and omnipotence to civil government.

But a good place to get at this jurisdictional question is to consider what law itself is. William Blackstone, a much-cited expositor of the common law, said law was “a rule of action, prescribed by some superior” and “which the inferior is bound to obey.” That description not only makes sense, but it accords with our experience, even in something as simple as our passing from infancy to adulthood relative to the change in our relationship with our parents.

If this understanding of law is applied to the question of whether civil government has the authority to forbid a church from conducting worship services and churches acquiesce for that reason, what has been said by each of them about the authority and the corresponding issue of submission and subordination?

I think the answer is clear: In at least this particular instance, all will have assumed that civil government’s authority supersedes God’s authority over His church. That is the logic that flows from the fundamental nature of law that I assumed.

But there is also a theological, biblical way to get at the question of “should,” which I’ll now address.

A Question About the Nature of Worship

Another way to look at this is by asking the following question: Who calls Christians to worship?

The answer is God. It is God who calls His people to worship, a call to which those who know Him willingly and joyfully respond. One overarching point throughout the Bible is that it is God who initiates, from first creation to the consummation of His new creation.

We may think we call ourselves to worship because we set the time and place and arrange the service, but that’s only because of our native sinful tendency to think too highly of ourselves and too lowly of sin and of God.

Based on the foregoing, we can now state the question more precisely: If God is the one who calls His people to worship, should civil rulers interpose themselves against God?

I submit that how the civil ruler answers the question will depend on whether the civil ruler believes, in the final analysis, his or her authority is from God, though mediated through the people. The civil ruler should think about whether it is wise to countermand God’s call to have His people worship Him. Pharaoh, you recall, did not.

What Does This Denial of Civil Government Authority Mean?

What I’ve just said will disturb some Christians who believe that God has established civil authorities—and He has—and that we should obey them lest we be guilty of refusing or rejecting the ordinance of God. I’ve heard that a lot.

However, in my view, such a comment proceeds from a very subtle form of a man-centered theology. Many within evangelical circles today essentially believe that we take the initiative toward God in our salvation and, as a practical matter, save ourselves or, perhaps more accurately, allow ourselves to be saved.

From that position, however, it would be only natural and logical to think we also take the initiative in calling ourselves to worship. And if that call is by human authority, that we call ourselves to worship God, then human authority not only can choose not to make that call, it can forbid it.
The jurisdictional limitation I’ve proposed is rooted in what theologians like Abraham Kuyper would have called a God-centered theology whereby everything must be understood in relation to God and what He has revealed about Himself. That theology framework holds that all authority in this world is subject to God’s overarching jurisdictional authority over all things, and thus, it is God who metes out the fundamental scope of all jurisdictional authority exercised among humankind.

In this view, mankind can go wrong and arrogate to its civil rulers authority that God did not intend them to have. But that, then, puts the people of God in the position of having to resist that wrongful exercise of authority and work to remove from the civil law the provision on which civil government’s pretense to authority rests.

So, Should Churches Keep Meeting?

This, too, is an ethical question and, in my view, the decision should be made according to the lines of authority under which a particular church operates. If, for example, the United Methodist Church wants to discontinue all worship services, then UMC churches should submit to its hierarchal structures of authority. If an independent church does not choose to meet, then it should not meet.

But should any independent church or denominational authority make such a decision? That’s the tough question, and I would only offer one overarching thought, an understanding of Divine Providence, which is the point of intersection between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility.

God Is Sovereign

When we have a God-centered theology, we have reason not to live in fear of the virus and death; God is in control and nothing comes to pass that is not according to His purposes.

The Puritans, I think, might have put it this way. God is free, too, and His creatures cannot, by definition, limit God’s freedom. The one who can limit God is God. Usurping God’s prerogatives and authority is at the root of all that is unjust, unwise, and, ultimately, destructive of ourselves and the social orders we create.

Man Is Responsible

A man-centered theology may choke on that a bit, because it seems to deny free will to man. But I think the Puritans got that right, too. We have freedom to make choices—to exercise our wills freely—but God superintends those choices to direct their outcomes to His appointed ends and purposes.

In other words, the Puritans did not see themselves as automatons and robots. Rather, they believed that the Scriptures demonstrate that God works by means (acts both human and in nature that arrive at their natural end), above means (beyond what we’d intended or expected), and against means (frustrating our intentions and expectations).1 We see this all through Scripture from Joseph being sold into slavery (Genesis 50:20) to Jesus’ death on the cross (Acts 4:27–28). God is free to use our actions to His glorious ends.

As to the matter at hand, then, we would conclude that some of those means by which God provides for and protects us are natural, meaning things that are in accord with sound reason, experience, and prudence. So, not shaking hands and hugging, using sanitizer regularly, having doors held open rather than being grabbed by every hand that goes by, and avoiding offerings and communion by means of passed-along receptacles are means that God often uses.

The Bottom Line

Providence simply means that God is able to use these natural things we would do to limit the virus, accomplish things beyond limiting the spread of the virus, or overcome our best efforts to avoid the virus.

That God may choose do any of those things—is able to do them—does not relieve us from our duty to use the natural means of protecting our health that are available to us; we dare not impudently tempt the Lord our God by foregoing the natural means He has provided, particularly if, at the root of such conduct, is a desire to burnish our merit before God and others.

But the authority of the people of God to gather for worship and their duty to do so comes from God, and human authority needs to respect that. From time to time Christians need to remember that principle and, when necessary, help their civil rulers remember it, too.

1. It is God’s providence that actually assures the Christian that his or her “labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58, NKJV) “for it is God who works in [us] both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13, NKJV).
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. 

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