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Who has ultimate authority over the church? A debate we need to have

August 2020 | by Paul Yeulett

Covid-19 is more than the outbreak of a virus, more than a public health crisis, more even than a global pandemic. Its effects extend far beyond the realms of medicine; it has come and shaken the whole world radically, perhaps like nothing has since 1945. Covid-19 is a powerful catalyst which has accelerated momentous changes in societies and attitudes; or a brightly coloured dye that has been injected into the cells of a microscopic organism, revealing their true character.

For biblical Christians who take seriously the exhortation in Hebrews 10:25 about ‘not neglecting to meet together’, this present crisis raises some extremely important questions.

On 16 March, in the House of Commons, Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed that the government’s social distancing guidelines applied to ‘faith groups and gatherings of faith’. The vast majority of evangelical churches implemented this advice without delay. From Sunday 22 March, ‘virtual church services’ on Zoom, YouTube, and other platforms became the norm across the UK.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock holds a Covid-19 Digital Press Conference with Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Jenny Harries. Picture by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street.
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My concern in this article is not to question whether churches should have taken this action at the time. Nor do I question whether churches are right to re-open in these summer months, now that the initial peak of the virus appears to have subsided; nor whether, having taken the decision to re-open, they are right to maintain certain social distancing measures within their gatherings.

No — the really important question is this: who has ultimate authority to make such decisions? Should churches simply accept government advice as if it were a binding edict, dictating what churches may or may not do? It is time for Christians to engage seriously and boldly with these questions. It is a debate we need to have.

At a cursory glance, it might seem obvious that churches should simply comply with government regulations. Doesn’t the Scripture say, ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities’ (Romans 13:1), and ‘Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution’ (1 Peter 2:13)? Doesn’t that settle it once and for all? If the government says, ‘churches should close’, then churches should close immediately — end of story!

The problem with this interpretation is that it assumes that civil government — what we might call the ‘state’ — necessarily has higher authority than spiritual government — the church. In any debate between these two realms, the state and the church, the state must always win. Under this view, ‘churches’ are simply one of several social gatherings, alongside pubs, restaurants, cinemas, and gyms, over which the state exercises authority.

This is where careful, biblical thinking is essential. There is not space to attempt a detailed treatment of church-state relations. But it should be beyond question that both realms — the state and the church — are established by God. Christians are citizens of an earthly kingdom and at the same time citizens of a heavenly kingdom. These two realms are distinct without being separated. There is necessary interaction between the two, although scholars will differ as to the precise nature of that interaction.

But on this point we must be entirely clear: Scripture does not allow the state any authority to bind the church in relation to its distinct and specific calling in the world. The passages quoted above, from Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, are not addressed to the church as the church, but to believers as citizens of the earthly kingdoms to which they belong. Every believer is required to submit to ‘the powers that be’ in relation to civil matters, like paying taxes. But those secular powers have no jurisdiction over matters that pertain to the church, as the church. They have no authority to determine where or when the church gathers, who is admitted to membership or appointed to office, what is preached, how the sacraments are administered, or how discipline is exercised.

And this is where the debate becomes more focused. Because ‘not neglecting to meet together’ (Hebrews 10:25) is a biblical command to the church. Indeed, it is in the very act of meeting together that we are the church. A prayer meeting or Bible Study on Zoom is undoubtedly better than nothing, and may indeed be a means of great blessing; but it is a poor substitute for physical, gathered worship and fellowship. ‘Social distancing’ is, by its very nature, an oxymoron. We human beings were created by the triune God for society and fellowship. When we come together as the church of God, we demonstrate visibly that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). Just in case readers conclude that churches should therefore disregard all safety measures in relation to Covid-19, the reverse should be true. Our model, after all, is the Chief Shepherd himself. Churches, specifically the officers of churches, are stewards who have been entrusted a duty of care for the congregation — care for their bodies and care for their souls. In considering the care of people’s bodies, they would be foolish and irresponsible if they ignore sound and reasonable safety advice. But in considering the care of people’s souls, they would be guilty of a greater dereliction of duty if they overlook the command about ‘not neglecting to meet together’.

This is a time to take stock, to think with our eyes open. There is no need for alarmism or conspiracy theories. There may be no reason to suppose that our present government is attempting a cynical ‘power grab’ which would shut down churches, or silence preachers, in a totalitarian fashion. But we are living in tumultuous times and, even if there are not yet specific dangers to the God-given freedom of churches, such dangers may well arise in the years ahead if we are not alert. We should prize the freedom to gather most highly; to barter it away would be to suffer catastrophic loss. May God have mercy.

Paul Yeulett is pastor of Grove Chapel, Camberwell, London.

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