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The Government, Church and COVID-19

American churches cannot trust the government anymore. It’s provocative; I know. To be clear, American churches should not rely on the government as whole-heartedly as in our nation’s history. I’m not sounding an alarm or waving a banner, declaring that somehow the government has corrupted religious freedom due to COVID-19. I’m pointing out that some churches in America have become too reliant on the freedoms we’ve come to know, experience and love (whether you think those freedoms are infringed upon or not).

The fact is, churches in the United States have experienced a uniquely friendly relationship with the government unprecedented in Western culture and world history. Historically, the relationship for churches has been abrasive with the government. After all, much of the New Testament was written in the context of persecution. The Roman Empire waxed and waned in severely persecuting Christians for three centuries. During the reign of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity became a legal religion to practice in the Roman Empire which led to the passing of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380AD. Some view this as a reprieve from government oppression, but the prevailing experience for Christians during this time was still far from peaceful. The "christian" leaders made matters of doctrine matters of war and bloodshed. Unregenerate statesmen and religious leaders strong-armed the state church in matters of belief and practice to support their need for regime and control. Even by the 16th century some of the reformers took to revolution and became persecutors themselves in order to establish a government that was led by what they understood to be orthodox.

Contrary to popular opinion, the conclusion of the American Revolution did not establish a Christian nation. It was far more rare than that. The founding of the United States established a peaceful coexistence between Christian churches and the state. Compared to times prior, life for Christians in the United States became comfortable (for the most part). This season of comfort, has lulled churches into God-and-countryism. Unfortunately, the peaceful relationship between churches and the state has become more like an infatuation for some churches, an infatuation with a state who will not, and cannot (constitutionally), admire them back.

That said, the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on assembly have sparked a shift in the relationship of American churches with the government they’ve known and loved. Assuredly the pandemic restrictions on assembly have caused some churches to flip-flop from infatuation to feelings of rejection. Assuredly, some churches have been a little more sensible, realizing their whole-hearted reliance was a crutch, they’ve been lame, and are learning to walk again. They’ve realized they must practice what they preach and apply the Scripture to make some difficult calls whether free, enslaved, or some murky version in between and live out Romans 13:1 by being “subject to governing authorities.” Assuredly, some churches have resigned themselves to surrender, they’ve not thought critically about the relationship between church and the United States government according to Scripture before, and a pandemic hasn’t changed that. Assuredly, there are some churches that thought rightly about their relationship to the government prior to the pandemic, and they are simply putting their thoughts into practice now. Despite all the possible responses to COVID-19, one thing has become certain: the pandemic has exposed that churches in America need God’s grace and guidance over and above comfort and freedom.

Thankfully, most churches have been sensible with whether or not to meet physically. This is a real pandemic. Whether churches assemble or not does legitimately impact lives. The number of deaths in such a short period legitimizes the decision to not gather for a time. But the questions remain for those churches who have wisely closed temporarily at the behest of the government: how do we sensibly reopen, and when does government protection (Rom 13:3-4) become government overreach (Acts 5:27-28)?

I’ll attempt to answer the latter portion here.

By all appearances, due process in the United States seems to be working. Last week a federal judge sided with plaintiffs who sued NC’s governor for restricting church gatherings in the state. While I disagree with the lawsuit, the judge’s decision upholds the legal legitimacy of churches who desire to gather. The decision also upholds that when the freedom of church assembly comes toe-to-toe with a government restriction that it may be more constitutionally responsible in the U.S. to reduce a “restriction” to a state “strong suggestion” or a state “strict advisement.” That would leave it up to individual citizens to determine for themselves whether it is safe to gather in churches. It would leave it up to church leaders, to determine how to keep their members safe (for example: cancelling gatherings). At the end of the day, the state transgressing the law of our land is not the same as government overreach as portrayed in Scripture. When the government overreaches into the legal rights of churches along with other rights of public gathering, doing business, travelling, etc. but is doing so to protect the lives of citizens, churches have a vested interest in listening to its governing authority. Despite their rights. Church leaders have the responsibility to protect its members when they can.

Contrarily, it’s when the government targets the church exclusively, and safety is not a government concern, that the church should consider disobedience. This is the pattern we see repeatedly throughout the Scriptures. It’s ironic, but disobedience under persecution almost certainly means a lack of safety for a church’s members. The model looks like this: 1) The government limits rights for the safety of citizens and the church accepts those limitations for the safety of its members. VS. 2) The government limits rights for the church and the church disobeys and puts its members in danger.

Lord willing, in the near future local churches will be reopening. There is much more to reopening than simple rights and safety, but another article would treat that subject fairly. In the meantime, pray for local churches. Pray for church leaders. We need wisdom and prudence now more than ever. Pray for your fellow Christians. Pray for your government leaders. And, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” - Phil 4:5-7


About the Author:

D. Ross Smith is the Pastor of Worship and Families at Grace Baptist West Asheville. He served as a pastoral intern in worship ministry under the pastoral staff at First Baptist Church of Durham. He and his wife, Sarah, were members at First Baptist Church of Durham for five years, and were sent by FBCD to serve Grace in West Asheville.  Ross and Sarah have two daughters named Autumn and Edith, and the family considers themselves a missionary unit in West Asheville.  Ross’ background in worship ministry comes from the initial aspiration of a lifetime spent in music study that by God’s grace was shifted toward a desire to spend a lifetime teaching God’s Word.  He also serves GBWA by supporting and equipping parents to disciple their families in loving God, loving one another, and loving their neighbors.

You can contact the autor at ross@gracebaptistasheville.org.