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The limits of authority

September 2020

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The author wishes to emphasise that the views expressed in this article are his own and should not necessarily be attributed to anyone connected with him.

During lockdown I have preached from Romans 13 on submission to governing authorities. In the course of regular emails to church members, I have encouraged them to observe the government’s mass quarantining measures. The church of which I am one of the pastors is carefully complying with government guidance.

I am thankful that the government has shown a concern during the coronavirus epidemic to protect the lives of the elderly and vulnerable. Many ministers and civil servants have been working tirelessly to tackle the epidemic and they deserve our gratitude. I am sympathetic to the fact that the government has never had to deal with something like this before and that mistakes have inevitably been made.

I also recognise that biblical submission, almost by definition, means submitting to something you don’t like doing. I bow to the sovereignty of God and take heart from Paul’s confidence that ‘what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel’ (Philippians 1:12).

Nevertheless, I am increasingly uneasy. Some of my concerns I share with many non-Christians. I am concerned about the economy, unemployment, the public finances, and a potential future financial meltdown. I am concerned about people’s mental health and the knock-on effects of dealing with the crisis on other medical services. I am also concerned that freedom of assembly was effectively suspended – and, with a few concessions, remains suspended.

I am concerned about free speech: four days after the government implemented lockdown, the regulator Ofcom strongly cautioned broadcasters against publicising opinions which might undermine the government’s message and strategy. It didn’t matter how learned and respected those who held alternative points of view might be.

I am also concerned that certain measures the government has brought in are ‘for the foreseeable future.’ At the beginning of lockdown a liberal Israeli commentator wrote with remarkable prescience, ‘Temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies especially as there is always a new emergency on the horizon.’

As a Christian, however, I have some special concerns. I am concerned that for a time baptisms and weddings were actually illegal in our country. I am concerned that government guidance continues to prevent churches from worshipping in anything like a normal way. I am concerned that no time scale has been set for reviewing the guidance or removing restrictions.

In fact, we are warned of another spike and that there is the potential for a total lockdown to be re-imposed in some parts of the country. Or suppose these viruses became a feature of life – and death – in the West? What would governments do? I think we need to at least begin to ask the question, ‘At what point would we have to say, “We must obey God rather than men”?’ What are the factors we should consider?

How serious?

In the gospels we see an interest in assessing which commands are the most important. Jesus himself judged this legitimate (Mark 12:28-31). Some commands override or regulate other commands. The government ordered us to stop meeting together (and now meeting together ‘normally’) in the interests of public health. That carries weight because we know the command to love our neighbour is one of the great commands.

But the commands we have been asked to set aside are also very important. Indeed, they are connected to the greatest command – to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Whether we think about the Sabbath and the festivals, the tabernacle, the temple, synagogues, or churches, meeting together to worship God is critically important throughout the Bible.

For a time Christians were totally forbidden from physically assembling together. Even now, meeting together for most churches either means multiple services or continuing online because of the rules about social distancing. Paul says, ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss,’ but we are forbidden any form of physical greeting. He writes of ‘speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:19), but we are strongly advised against singing the praises of God.

When we consider the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, baptism was for a time illegal and as I write baptism by immersion in a church is still forbidden; some churches have celebrated the Lord’s Supper remotely, believing this to be suboptimal but better than not celebrating it. Other churches have not felt they could conscientiously celebrate the Lord’s Supper at all. In this case something that most would agree should be celebrated frequently has not been celebrated for four months. But this is something Jesus solemnly commanded his disciples to do in remembrance of him at the Last Supper.

For a time we were also forbidden from visiting anyone in their own home. Someone could have been suddenly bereaved. They could have been diagnosed with cancer and given a month to live. Their husband could have just left them. They could have been depressed or even suicidal. We could not meet them physically, let alone embrace them. Some Christians may have felt they had to disregard those rules in the interests of, well, loving their neighbour. If so, they were already acting illegally. What would you do?

It is not legitimate to break some of God’s commands in any circumstances. They cannot be overridden by the commands to respect the governing authorities. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego could not bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue for a minute. And Daniel could not stop praying when Darius gave the order. One would have been a sin of commission and the other a sin of omission. What else would count then as a sin of omission? Can we be guilty of not doing something together that we ought to do?

How justified?

It is inevitable that as Christians think about this, they will ask themselves how justified the government’s actions have been. After all, the government was not issuing the kind of vain edict Darius was. The government was seeking to protect the population from a dangerous virus.

We take the view that the government was acting with the best intentions. We accept that churches have not been singled out any more than mosques, temples, choirs, or swimming pools. However, the exercise of unprecedented power can be intoxicating. Lifting lockdown has been slow, and more and more inconsistencies are in evidence.

The fundamental question is not whether the government has been acting sincerely or consistently but whether the suspension of what in January would have been regarded as fundamental rights is justified on an ongoing basis. Is it right not only to quarantine the sick and vulnerable but the healthy too? Is it right to forbid people who understand the risks from assembling together?

99% of Covid cases are reckoned to be mild and the 1% are likely to be elderly or have a serious existing medical condition. The number of deaths from Covid-19 per week has fallen dramatically and, to give some perspective, many more people are dying from influenza and pneumonia – as I write, four times as many. Is it right in these circumstances for the vast majority of Christians who are well not to be allowed to meet together and sing together?

We have Romans 13, 1 Peter 2, and other scriptures that command obedience to the governing authorities. We recognise it would be a serious step to break the law. We cannot, however, indefinitely postpone baptisms, the Lord’s Supper, or singing together.

How long?

Along with many other churches we have very occasionally cancelled a service because of snow. If the police told us one Sunday morning that they had to close the road the church was on because of a nasty car accident we’d accept that. But for how long can we disobey God’s clear commands to gather together?

We know we have Hebrews 10:24-25, ‘And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’ The very word church means ‘an assembly’ and meeting physically together is a means of grace.

For a while Zoom was exciting and we may have been flattered by YouTube hits. Recent research and personal experience suggest that the initial surge in accessing online services has dropped off. Some who regularly attended church services before are disconnecting. Some have never engaged. The weakest Christians in our congregations are likely to be affected the most. If it’s easy to log on, it’s also easy not to.

Some Christians have testified to times of precious communion with God during lockdown. Others have also honestly acknowledged they’ve backslidden. A few people who once attended regularly don’t have any plans to return to church at all. God is surely refining us, but not coming together when we are able to is damaging.

In my own church we baptised a young woman on the last Sunday before lockdown. A neighbouring church postponed the baptism of a lad eager to be baptised that was scheduled for the following Sunday. For how long is it right to say, ‘No,’ or ‘Wait’? How long before we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together? Paul tells us ‘it is better to marry than burn with passion’. Restrictions have eased here now – but for how long do you put off a wedding? What temptations would that put a couple under? Marriage was ordained by God at creation. Has any government the right to ban marriage, even for a few months?

Law and advice

In the government guidance a distinction was drawn between ‘must’ and ‘should’. Some things were law. If you disregarded them, you were therefore breaking the law. Other things were advice. Sometimes that advice was strong advice, sometimes that advice was weaker. Working out what’s what is frankly confusing.

While we should respect the government, ET readers will be well aware of the wicked legislation that has been passed during the coronavirus crisis on abortion, divorce, and so on.

The government is not infallible. It is influenced by the views of one set of scientists over against others. It is also subject to pressure from the media, interest groups, lobbying organisations, and voters. In other words, government guidance is not automatically unbiased and wise.

Advice is advice. It is right for us to carefully evaluate the government’s advice, but we should not feel bound in every case to follow it. Government guidance is also increasingly complex and inconsistent.

When we read the gospels, we see that one of the great causes of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law was their interpretation of the Mosaic law. They had drawn up hundreds of rules to ensure everybody carefully complied with the Mosaic law.

Jesus was withering in his criticism of this. These were ‘merely human rules’ (Matthew 15:9), ‘heavy, cumbersome loads’ they put on other people’s shoulders (Matthew 23:4). When it came to the prohibition of healing on the Sabbath, tithing, the ritual washing of hands before meals (!) – Jesus went against what the Pharisees and teachers of the law were commanding.

Jesus believed you had to set aside these rules in order to really care for your mother and father or the sick. The Pharisees and teachers of the law may have had a religious rather than political authority, but the debates should alert us to the shortcomings, hypocrisies, and injustices of endless rules.

Risk

Leaders of churches are rightly concerned that those who attend are kept safe. There is also the fear that there could be an outbreak of coronavirus within a congregation which marred the witness of the church to the local community or even the nation. There are risks associated with meeting together and how we do that.

Risk is, however, part of life. There is a risk that when the church minibus goes out with a busload of children there could be a nasty accident. We take sensible precautions but cannot ensure a tired lorry driver does not pull across and slam straight into us.

Leaders need to consider what the risks are that those who attend church become seriously ill or die because of coronavirus. It’s right that we take sensible precautions. The frail and sick might be wise to shield. But the risks now are not what they were in April or May. In most parts of the country they are very, very small.

And there are risks associated with not meeting together. There are mental health and spiritual risks, especially for the lonely, depressed, and struggling. God made us to sing and when we don’t, we have lost something. He made us physical creatures and if we never touch one another or share a meal together we have lost something precious and important.

In my view it was probably right for a time not to meet, shake hands, or sing. It may have been right temporarily not to baptise someone or to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. But it’s not right indefinitely. Emergency measures have already been in place for longer than most of us ever imagined.

The restrictions placed on churches are serious. In the dynamics of church life there are practical and pastoral issues to consider that are beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, at some point, perhaps sooner than we ever expected, we may have to say, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’

Mark Richards is Pastor of Newtown Baptist Church, Chesham, Buckinghamshire.