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Were churches too quick to surrender their liberty during the Covid crisis?

August 2020

Whether or not one agrees with the merits of the legal action brought by a group of church leaders against the government for the forced closure of churches, the case raises some important questions. Does a state government have the right to force, by law, churches to stop gathering for worship? Does an agency of the state have the right to penalise a church that sings praises to God? Even in a time of national emergency?

It’s one thing for the state to request, or strenuously urge, places of worship not to hold gatherings during an epidemic. Churches would certainly be willing to take measures to help control the spread of a deadly virus. But to use the power of the state to force the suspension of gathered worship is quite another thing. And even though the lockdown has since been partially lifted, are we still kowtowing to the government by following its advice that we ‘should not’ sing praises rather than obeying Christ’s command that we ‘must’ do so?

The freedom of churches to gather for worship without interference from the state is a precious liberty, hard won by our spiritual forbears. Did we as 21st century evangelicals give up that liberty too freely? Did we really think through the implications when the lockdown of churches was first announced? Were we too eager to please, too fearful to refuse? Did it all happen so fast that we didn’t have time to properly consider it?

No fair-minded believer would suggest any of these are easy questions. There are many factors to weigh up and reflect upon. And yes, different churches are in different circumstances. But, as Paul Yeulett says on p.34 of this edition of ET, this is a debate we must have. We can’t ignore the fact that we have accepted the premise, with hardly a moment’s hesitation, that the government has the rightful authority to shut down or restrict the worship of God for the national good. It’s a troubling precedent. Debating these matters may be awkward and uncomfortable, but it is necessary.