The coronavirus lockdown, when it was imposed in March, came so swiftly upon churches that we barely had to think through the implications. Nightingale hospitals were being set up with the help of the military, and the government was desperately calling for ventilators to be manufactured as a matter of urgency. At that stage, no one knew how bad it would get. Churches were getting to grips with the technology needed to go online. It was a steep learning curve for everyone.
Ordinarily, if the government was even thinking of shutting down churches or curtailing our freedom to worship, evangelicals would (I hope) have resisted. At the very least, there would have been articles written and conferences held, and expert groups formed. The whole matter would be debated and argued over. But the Covid-19 lockdown came upon us so swiftly, there was no time for that.
And yet, as weeks turned into months, there was a general lack of any genuine debate among evangelicals about the legitimacy of the lockdown. It just seemed to be accepted, without question, that the government has the right to shut the doors of churches for the ‘national good’. The mainstream of evangelicalism seemed to be content to do whatever the government said.
Which is why I was so glad to be invited to join a group of pastors to discuss the implications of the lockdown on churches. The meeting was convened by the steering committee of the God’s Glory Our Joy conference, which is usually held every year (see ggoj.org.uk). But not this year, for obvious reasons. Instead of the conference, a group of church leaders met (observing appropriate social distancing) to discuss the extraordinary events of the last few months.
This group of men were not gathered to gripe and groan. Rather, they seriously wanted to grapple with the complex issues that have been thrown up in recent times. What I’m attempting to do here in this article is report the views and opinions that emerged from the meeting, and nothing here should be taken as necessarily reflecting the editorial position of ET.
There were differences of opinion among the men, to be sure. But one thing was common. They had all experienced tension, friction, and division among their flocks. One man said he had lost 20 out of 60 people from his church, because they thought the elders were being too accommodating to the government. And he wonders, if he changed his policy, whether 20 others at the opposite end of the spectrum would walk out.
That in itself tells you something about the modern evangelical mindset. To what extent do people in our churches take the words of Hebrews 13:17 seriously, ‘Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.’ That’s not to say a church member can’t ask questions or raise concerns with their elders, but are they doing so with a submissive attitude?
Turning to the lockdown itself, the Bible tells us that the governing authorities are instituted by God for our good, and we are commanded by Christ to honour them. We cannot simply ignore that command. But what should we do when the governing authorities step outside their God-given authority? The biblical principle is, if the state orders us to do something that God has forbidden, or forbids us from doing something that God has commanded, we should obey God and not man.
Has the Lord commanded us to sing his praises as part of gathered worship? Yes. Has the Lord commanded us to speak to one another and encourage each other when we meet together? Yes. But the government says these are things that we should not be doing. Faced with a conflict between what the Lord commands and what the government asks, many evangelical churches have followed the government.
We discussed what Abraham Kuyper would call the spheres of sovereignty. Does the state, the family, and the church each have its own set of rights and responsibilities? Is there any overlap, or are they completely separate? Is it ever justified for one to intrude upon the other? Have we absorbed too much of the world’s thinking, that we should look to the state to solve every problem? The Bible tells us that governments exist to punish the guilty and vindicate the innocent, but does the Bible say the government is responsible for promoting public health?
Different people may draw the line in different places. But surely, most biblically-minded people would say the government does not have absolute authority. It does not have the right to take away any rights that God himself has given us. At creation, God gave us the right of marriage, of procreation, of work, and of dominion. No government ever has the right to take those things away. If the government puts a blanket ban on marriage, it has over-reached its authority. If a government tells people they cannot work, it has over-reached its authority. And yet, that’s what happened during the lockdown. For a time, people were told they could not marry, and they could not work.
We must persuade our church members that the government does not have unlimited authority, and the believer cannot accept the government’s claims to absolute authority. It is worrying how many believers are just repeating, parrot fashion, whatever the government says. Somehow, we have to break the stranglehold of that assumption on believers’ minds.
Ah yes, some may say, but the government restrictions were, or are, only temporary. And it’s not as though the laws are only written for churches alone: everyone in society has had to endure these lockdown requirements in one form or another. But is that really a justification for Christians going along with it? In the days of Darius, the prophet Daniel was faced with a temporary restriction on prayer which applied to everyone in the kingdom. But nevertheless, Daniel knew his first duty was to God. He carried on praying and faced the consequences.
The move to ‘online’ church has raised some challenging questions. It has helped those who are shielding and isolated, no doubt. And it has reached people who would perhaps never set foot in a church. But it has also revealed a long-standing problem within modern-day evangelicalism. There are many believers who regard their spiritual growth as a matter of mere resources. If they can find the right online materials – a bit of Alistair Begg here, a bit of John MacArthur there – then they think they are spiritually healthy, regardless of how committed they are to their local church.
Fear has been another concerning factor of the lockdown. Fear has gripped many people in our churches. What are they afraid of? Death, or serious illness. That tells us that people aren’t prepared for death or suffering. It has always been true that we could die or fall seriously ill at any moment. But in the modern Western world, people (especially aged under 40) are so distant from the reality of death and illness. The fear that people have in our churches also tells us that people’s perspective is being strongly shaped by the media. We need to teach our people to be sceptical of the media. Our people need to learn the benefits of limiting their consumption of news and social media.
Perhaps the most frightening long-term implication of the lockdown is that we have given the government the assurance that they can shut down churches and we will simply accept it. They now know if they say something, we will do it. Maybe not this government, but some future government could make a lot of mischief with that. History teaches us that once we have given power to governments, the same governments do not readily give them up again.
As I said at the beginning of this article, when the lockdown was first imposed back in March we barely had time to think. But now, several months down the line, we must think through these matters. We cannot afford not to.
Mike Judge is editor and a director of ET, and pastor of Chorlton Evangelical Church, Manchester.