N-33-20

The Governor of California tonight issued Executive Order N-33-20.  It makes mandatory the closure of non-essential businesses, defining 16 key industries that MUST be maintained and are not subject to what amounts to a general business shutdown.  Those 16 industries are identified in this document.

The Executive Order lays out the rationale first off,  then explains that the Governor does, in fact, have the authority to make such Executive Orders and bring to bear governmental resources to enforce them.  It then references a Health Order  from the California Department of Public Health on the same issue.

Both the Governor’s order and the CDPH order it is based on deal primarily with the issue of who should be going to work and who should not.  If you aren’t in one of the 16 defined critical infrastructure industries, your job is non-essential and you should close your business.  Neither order specifies any cutoffs for gatherings, but simply indicates people should stay home except to work in one of the pre-defined industries, or to otherwise facilitate authorized necessary activities.  I cannot find a definition of authorized necessary activities that wouldn’t simply be repetitive with the key industry guidelines.

It seems people are allowed to go out for necessary things – to obtain medication or medical care, to buy food and other necessities of life from those places like grocery stores and convenience stores that aren’t simply allowed to continue operating but are commanded to.

None of which addresses the issue of what religious groups should do during this time.

I know quite a few churches in town and in nearby towns that made the decision to suspend worship even before this Executive Order.  The question in my mind is whether that is now mandatory by law, or whether it falls into the nebulous zone of authorized necessary activities.  I have little doubt the Governor and other state officials would say it does not.  But since they haven’t clarified the issue, it is undefined.

The Center for Disease Control has recommended no more than 50 people gather in any one place unless absolutely necessary, and the White House recommends no gatherings with more than 10 people, and churches that violate this are getting press attention.

But these are recommendations, not laws.  And in general, I think they are wise.

The question becomes is worship a necessary activity?  And by what definition?  Again, I have no doubt the government does not view worship (in any religion) as a necessary activity.  But how should Christians define worship?

I don’t fault congregations and pastors that have opted to suspend worship and other gatherings.  But I don’t personally feel called to follow that route.

At least not yet.

Should more clear language be forthcoming, or should someone explain to me how (since I’m not a lawyer) I am misunderstanding what the Executive Order says, then it seems to remain at my discretion as a religious leader as to whether I should suspend worship services.  As I read it, the language of the order seems to be as unclear as possible.  This prevents specific outrage (from, say, religious groups) but rather relies on a great deal of social pressure.

Worship is not a command for Christians, but it is a strong encouragement and a privilege we should not abandon lightly.  Hebrews 10:19-25 is very helpful in this regard.  It isn’t simply the legal technicality of must we worship, but the reminder that worship is a massive blessing.  It emphasizes the communal nature of our faith (note the we and us throughout).  It references confession and absolution (v.22).  It centers us in who and what our hope and faith is – hope and faith in Jesus Christ who has made forgiveness possible to us.  It is God the Father who holds us in his hands, and ultimately him who holds the power of all health and healing in his hands.  This is NOT to toss our worldly wisdom and knowledge out the door, but it is to hold in the proper tension.  Medicine and treatments and other things are blessings from God intended ultimately not simply to elongate our lives but to direct our hearts and minds back to the source of all life and health not simply temporally but eternally.  Worship is also an opportunity to focus us on what we are called to do each and every day – love God and love our neighbors (v.24).  This does not justify needless recklessness, but does remind us that many of the heroes of the faith were willing to set aside their own well-being in order to tend to the needs of others.

Because of all these things, we should not lightly abandon meeting together particularly during difficult and frightening times!  We can still be wise about close contact and social distancing as we gather for worship!

And of course the second text to consider here is Romans 13.  This passage insists that Christians are not exempt of civil authority, but should be subject to it.  Of course, this obedience is mandated up to the point at which civil authority contradicts the Word of God.  At that point, we must like Peter and the apostles insist that we must obey God rather than human beings! (Acts 5:29).

If this Executive Order does mean gathering for worship is illegal for the time being, then I in good conscience as a servant of Christ can (and should) cancel public worship.  For a period of time.  At some point though – whether a point defined by civil authority or not – I will also be equally compelled to begin calling the saints to gather for worship.  It is very possible for a civil law to begin as good and necessary but eventually be misused.  God-willing, that time will not come.

In the meantime, all of God’s people should be praying for the deliverance of the world from this new virus, and a speedy return to a healthier environment both spiritually as well as physically.

 

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