From The Sword & Trowel 2020, issue 2
After these many weeks it may seem rather late to comment on this, but it is now that doubts begin to rise, and various voices in the Christian world begin to question the almost universal compliance with government rules on the part of churches.
Current restrictions deeply affect our worship, our fellowship, our Sunday Schools and our outreach. No one likes them or wants them. Recently, a British evangelical periodical asked the question – Should we have a debate about this? Are we doing the right thing? Should the churches, ruled by Christ, surrender so easily to the state – the kingdom of this world? The article did not actually answer the question, but could easily have done so, if only the writer had referred to the Westminster or Baptist Confessions for guidance on the scriptural position. The answer is there, in disarmingly simple but carefully crafted words.
The writer’s mistake was to oversimplify the matter of two opposing kingdoms – that of God, and that of the world. Surely, he seemed to think, the church should not change its activities at the bidding of the world. Surely the world cannot be placed over the lordship of Christ in his church.
Readers may be aware there is a very well-known church in California that has reasoned along the same lines and reopened worship services without face masks or social distancing during lockdown. Their pastor has articulated the same argument: Are there not two governments – the world and the church; and should we not be asserting obedience to the rule of Christ, refusing to allow our worship customs to be interrupted?
Let me first read a sentence or two from the Confession of Faith.
‘God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, has ordained civil magistrates [which includes governments, kings, and so on] to be under him, over the people, for his own glory and the public good…Obedience to the civil magistrates ought to be yielded by us in the Lord not only for wrath but for conscience sake; and we ought to make supplication and prayer for kings and for all that are in authority.’
The two key proof texts for these words in the Confession are Romans 13.1-7 and 1 Peter 2.13-18, and there are others also. God has implemented government and civil order for all to obey, including his people. He has put it into the hearts of the human race, even in its fallen state, to desire government and order, and gives power to civil authorities. In matters relating to the body, law and order, defence and public good, including public health, God rules his redeemed people along with the rest of the world through civil government. It is an agent of God’s rule. So it is a serious over-simplification to say – There is only the church and the world. It ignores the two great texts.
Many years ago, I knew a wealthy businessman who, although he was a Christian believer, was rather proud of the fact that he underpaid his taxes. He told me that he improperly misstated his stocks so that his accountants would get his taxes down, and he acknowledged it was illegal. Naturally, I challenged him, but he was ready with a defence. ‘I feel free to do it,’ he said, ‘because taxation is Caesar’s law.’ He had convinced himself that Christians are not under the state, but under Christ. This was an extreme case, but the point is clear: for matters of public order, public good and public health, ‘every soul’, says Paul in Romans 13, is under Caesar.
Yes, of course, in the Bible there is the picture of two kingdoms and we believe and uphold this. Christ rules his church directly in matters of doctrinal belief, the content of worship, moral conduct, discipline and ideology. But that isn’t the whole picture, because we are also taught in Scripture that God rules civil affairs through civil authorities, and Christians are under them.
Puritan Richard Baxter’s well-known ‘Question 109’ (in Christian Ecclesiastics, 1665) has been reprinted by various magazines recently, representing the traditional Christian position. ‘May we omit church-assemblies on the Lord’s Day if the magistrates forbid them?’ Broadly, the answers are – ‘If the magistrate for a greater good forbid church assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him.’ On the other hand, ‘If princes profanely forbid holy assemblies and public worship…as a renunciation of Christ and of our religion, it is not lawful formally to obey them.’
The ruler’s suspension of public gatherings must be even-handed, apply equally to all society, not singling out churches, and it must be for a period of time only, or we will sense restricting of faith and persecution of the church. Then we have to take a stand. This has always been the position of most Protestants.
In England we are currently back to worship (since 5th July), but we are limited because we cannot sing, we wear face masks, and we must maintain social distancing, but those rules apply across society. In fact, we were back at worship long before assembly was permitted to some others. I believe the last weekend of August was the first time a crowd, and it was a mere 2,500 people, was allowed to attend a football match. Yet the government reap a considerable income from this, and you would think they would be striving to support the national game more than the churches.
Other interests have also had a rougher ride than the churches. The government recently let it be known that if the resumption of education leads to a ‘spike’ in Covid-19, the pubs and bars would have to close again to rebalance the fight against the virus. There was no mention (at this stage) of the churches being closed also. There does not appear to be unfair action toward churches and the proclamation of the Gospel.
It may be the brethren referred to in California have suffered some kind of profound inequality or unfairness in the manner of lockdown, and are therefore entitled to protest (first by legal action). But it would not be a valid argument to say, as they appear to say, these restrictions are Caesar’s law and have no authority over the church. The church’s statement says bluntly, ‘Christ not Caesar is the head of the church.’ It sets aside the historic view of the matter, sounding more like an Anabaptist sentiment.
As Christians we are subject to speed limits, building restrictions, and even emergency lockdowns just like the rest of society. We thank God there are alternative ways of proclaiming the Word and ministering to individual people in the short term.
If coronavirus restrictions become unreasonable, or too long, or unequal, that would be the time to protest. As things stand, churches do not want to behave as a spoilt community. We are not suffering a state of war, as in World War II, when all the men under 41 would be away from home for up to five years. We are not having to all file secretly down into catacombs, like believers of old, to worship. What we are called upon to do, in common with everyone else, is sustainable by us, and something that we may work with, and we praise and thank God.
Romans 13.1 reads – ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.’ It has been suggested that this is a duty of individuals, and not necessarily of churches, but this is an impossible distinction. ‘Everysoul’, applies to all, saved and unsaved. Paul says of the state – ‘For there is no power but of God.’ We remember that at the time that Paul wrote, the rulers were idolators, despots and tyrants such as Nero. Yet he says, ‘Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.’ This is very serious, and we think twice, even many times, before we go against the state. Paul goes further, saying, ‘And they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.’ The Greek says judgement, discipline, or chastisement (from the Lord).
A little further on we read (in verse 5), ‘Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath [out of fear of civil punishment], but also for conscience sake.’ Our consciences should be so tuned that we realise we are disobeying God if we disobey the state.
There are exceptions given in the Scriptures. If public authorities try to completely stop the proclamation of the Word, then we obey God rather than men. If they try to change our doctrines and tell us we must teach same-sex marriage, or evolution to the children, we obey God rather than men. If they interfere with moral standards or the doctrines of the Word or the proclamation of the Gospel, we obey God rather than men. In Acts chapters 4 and 5, we find the apostles taking a very clear stand on such matters.
1 Peter 2.13 reads: ‘Submit yourselves to every ordinance of manfor the Lord’s sake.’ And then Peter says (v 15), ‘For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.’ People outside the church are ready to pounce if a church will not keep the restrictions. ‘Look at those selfish people,’ they will say, ‘they don’t care how many people are infected, or how many may die.’ Says the Lord, we must not give that loophole to unbelievers. We comply. ‘Honour all men…Fear God. Honour the king.’
How succinctly Calvin puts things in his comment on 1 Timothy 2.1-2:–
‘He [Paul] expressly mentions [prayer for] kings and other magistrates, because, more than all others, they might be hated by Christians. All the magistrates who existed at that time were so many sworn enemies of Christ; and therefore this thought might occur to them, that they ought not to pray for those who devoted all their power and all their wealth to fight against the kingdom of Christ, the extension of which is above all things desirable. The apostle meets this difficulty, and expressly enjoins Christians to pray for them also. And, indeed, the depravity of men is not a reason why God’s ordinance should not be loved. Accordingly, seeing that God appointed magistrates and princes for the preservation of mankind, however much they fall short of the divine appointment, still we must not on that account cease to love what belongs to God, and to desire that it may remain in force. That is the reason why believers, in whatever country they live, must not only obey the laws and the government of magistrates, but likewise in their prayers supplicate God for their salvation.’
Taken from a short Metropolitan Tabernacle Prayer Meeting Address.