Is the State Closing Churches?

As I was scanning through news articles today I found two blog posts by a pastor in Mississippi.  Both strongly oppose the notion that the State can cancel worship services for any reason.  Both are defiant in insisting that churches not only should and can but must remain open and providing worship services to their people.

The first post is here, dated March 16.  He insists the Church is not subject in any respect to the State.  I would first be interested in whether his church is filed with the State of Mississippi as a non-profit organization in order to receive tax benefits for himself and for his members.  If  his church is, he has acknowledged a special relationship and subjection of his church to the State.  He might want to argue this is voluntary, but it at the very least would be a glaring contradiction of what he states in this blog entry.

I also find it interesting he nowhere mentions Romans 13 in terms of the relationship of Church and State.  He might find this irrelevant, arguing Romans 13 applies to individuals rather than a corporate congregation.  But a congregation is nothing more than the assembling of individual Christians, so the point seems to be a very fine one at best.

Finally, has the State of Mississippi actually ordered churches not to hold worship services?  Here in California the language of our Governor’s Executive Order of a week ago was very vague. The implication is clear – people should not be gathering for any reason.  But he specifically does not mention religious groups.  Nor does the Department of Public Health document he refers to in the Executive Order.  By implication Christians are to stay home and not gather for worship.  But I’m sure legal counsel would say explicitly banning religious gatherings would be a nightmare, opening the governor and the state to all sorts of legal challenges.  While larger congregations that continue to gather are facing public backlash and social shaming, I haven’t seen accounts yet of them being faced with criminal charges.

The second post, dated March 20th, is here.  Again, although he makes exceptions for personal conscience it’s clear he sees suspending worship services as a violation of God’s commands.  The difficulty  is in finding said command.  Hebrews 10:19-25 is perhaps the closest the New Testament gets to a command concerning worship.  Of course the understanding of God’s people is that corporate worship is part of the life of faith, and Christians received this from the Jews and continued it – and rightly so.  But there is a legalistic tone here I find difficult to resonate with.

He asks at one point  if we want to be the first generation in 2000 years to cancel all the worship services?

First, what he’s specifically addressing is American Christian congregations, in which case our timeline is considerably shorter – only the past 250 years or so.  Even if every congregation in America refused to allow members to gather (something I doubt is actually happening), worship would be continuing in other places in the world where the outbreak is not as advanced as yet.  Secondly, there have been other situations where Christians have voluntarily opted not to meet for worship, such as the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918.  For  short periods of time in particular places in our country and around the world, the people of God have opted not to gather for corporate worship.

I understand his concerns and I share them.  Under the guise of civil law or the good of society governments in the past have curtailed religious freedoms and instituted religious persecutions.  This is a very real thing and a very real concern, and the Church must always be on the guard against any such infringements.  And if restrictions on gatherings continue in place for a prolonged period of time the people of God will need to determine, on a congregation by congregation basis, whether or not to allow corporate worship with some appropriate guidelines and safeguards in place.  After all, people are still out and about for shopping.  So long as social distancing is observed and reasonable care given to cleaning and disinfecting, there is no reason why people couldn’t gather at least in smaller groups to worship together.  A mega-church might have difficulties offering enough services for thousands of people to gather in smaller numbers, but it could reasonably be done.  The vast majority of American congregations are a few hundred members or smaller, and therefore scaled-down worshiping cohorts wouldn’t be too difficult to accommodate.

It might also be instructive to remember that God’s Old Testament people were unable to properly worship for 50-some years when they were exiled in Babylon.  They found other ways to gather, but they understood it to be not the same thing as worship in the Promised Land, in Jerusalem, in the Temple.

The focus of God’s people must always be on God and not on intermediate things – no matter how good and helpful those things might be at times or in general.  The Christian faith is communal, but it is also flexible when necessary.  It is, however, a constant dialogue in terms of trying to discern when flexibility is unfaithfulness – a very real possibility whether it is engaged in by command or voluntarily.

Again, I’m empathetic.  I wasn’t going to cancel worship until it became clear this was a necessity.  And I plan to begin corporate worship again as soon as seems reasonable to do so, Executive Order notwithstanding.  But in the meantime I am willing to rest in the freedom we have in Christ to say, for the time being, we can continue to pray and worship privately for a short period of time.

There haven’t been any further posts from this site on this subject, but it would be interesting to know if they’ve had any changes of stance in the last week or so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s