Christians have long recognised three legitimate authorities under God: government, church, and family. Each of these has distinct domains of authority and associated powers. These distinctions are not absolute, as if churches are allowed to say nothing about family life and governments can say nothing relevant to churches.
Nonetheless there are boundaries, and intrusion beyond these should be limited to advice, to words not action. A church may, indeed should, include teaching on the training of children within its teaching ministry, but it has no role in the actual discipline of children, which is reserved for parents.
But overreach of these boundaries is a perennial problem. A few years ago, the phrase ‘heavy shepherding’ was widely used in evangelical circles to refer to overreach by churches into family life. Church elders were going beyond their remit by giving and enforcing detailed rules on family life, marital relations, and discipline of children. Church discipline was applied to people over family matters.
But the main concern for British evangelicals currently should be the state overreach into both church and family spheres of authority precipitated by Covid-19. To be clear, as a doctor working in the NHS during the pandemic, I am well aware how serious this illness can be.
But it is important to place this virus in perspective. Others are much more infectious, such as measles (R value of 15 compared with 3 for Covid-19) or have higher infection fatality rates, such as Ebola (60-90% compared with <1% for Covid-19). So the issue is: does this kind of a pandemic illness justify this degree of state intervention?
Historically, the reach of governments was short and their sphere of influence and practical authority quite limited. Before electricity and electronic communications, before even roads and railways, communication from a ruler or government with the people he ruled was very slow because they were scattered far and wide. This meant that practically it took a very long time for any changes to get made and longer still for them to be meaningfully enforced.
Not now. Today a plethora of modes of electronic communication (phones, tablets, computers) reach into every home and church via the internet. This provides the state with immense and virtually instantaneous reach. Again, historically the state hardly existed. The apparatus for governments to enforce its will was minute, a few central officials in the capital and others scattered in far-flung towns and cities. Their activity was largely restricted to raising taxes and maintaining law and order.
Not now. Today we have grown an enormous state apparatus which includes education, healthcare, and welfare services, and much else in addition to these historic functions. The combination of the enormous growth in the size and thus power of the state and the immense increase in the speed and extent of communications places us in a radically different position from other societies in the past. And it is a dangerous position for churches and families.
The surveillance state now has moved from science fiction to fact, witness the Chinese government’s use of ubiquitous cameras and web-based surveillance to monitor their citizens. The Covid-19 pandemic has enabled the UK government, like other liberal democracies, to follow the Chinese route.
One of the key government advisors, Professor Neil Ferguson, has admitted that in early discussions during the pandemic, Sage discussed following the Chinese government’s lockdown policy. They concluded it couldn’t be applied in the UK because a communist one-party state could get away with it, but they couldn’t in freedom-loving Britain. But then they locked us down anyway.
The government should have used its access to specialist expertise and ability to disseminate information nationally to issue strong advice about social distancing and staying at home and so on. It should have kept its activity to advice and thus within its God-ordained boundaries.
Instead, it passed laws, some with draconian penalties, to enforce such measures. The full power of the state was applied into our homes and churches. Restrictions have included government rules about how churches should worship, indeed, whether we can worship at all.
This is overreach, because the government has no legitimate authority under God to do this. It can advise, and churches would be wise to listen carefully because there are very few of us in our churches who are qualified to decide on the dangers posed by the coronavirus. But the final decision rests with each church. A concern is that the recent internet-based communications revolution has made it easier for churches to accept such overreach. Because we can use Zoom worship, we do.
We have also experienced state overreach into family life, haven’t we? This was already happening before Coivd-19. The Scottish government had passed a law banning smacking, prohibiting parents from following biblical teaching on child-rearing.
But Covid-19 has accelerated state overreach into family life. We have been told we are not allowed to meet up with our own families and that weddings and funerals must be restricted to a select few, banning many family members from participating.
People with dementia have been cut off in care homes. The sick have been cut off in hospitals. We have seen such draconian rules enforced, with people physically removed and arrested for the crime of visiting a sick loved one.
We perhaps too readily forget that the biblical freedoms we have enjoyed in the UK to govern our churches ourselves and to manage our own families are rare historically and currently elsewhere in this world. Our forefathers won them at great cost, but they are easily lost.
Since future pandemics or other crises (loss of energy supplies, cyberattacks on key IT systems) could be much worse than Covid-19, the precedent set during this pandemic is a worrying one.