Coronavirus Government Order: A Church & State Issue


 Author: Michael Dewar

Coronavirus Government Order: A Question of Church and State

This short article addresses the question, can the ministers of the secular State order churches to be closed, and if so, should churches follow those orders? Be sure to read the full article before you comment.

The question is advanced in the unique context of the COVID-19 pandemic “Social Distancing” government order that affect religious gatherings. As a Pastor and former healthcare professional, I feel compelled to briefly address the issue because some pastors have chosen not to close their churches as I have. My compliance response is out of an abundance of caution with respect to my congregation and the safety of the general public. But would I close my church indefinitely? The answer is no.

The lead question touches strongly on “governmental powers,” “religious liberty” and “civil rights” to some degree, all three are protected under the constitution of the United States. The question also has strong bearing on the “mission of the Church” in the world. I will directly address the main three.

Religious Liberty

The Constitution clearly states, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”  The Founders clearly had religious liberty in mind. They did not want the leaders of the secular State to wield power over matters of “faith and practice” as it was in England, where the King or Queen was both headed of the State and the church.

The Church came into being under the Roman Empire and suffered greatly under it until the time of Constantine. Emperor Constantine ended State sponsored persecution of Christians and made Christianity the religion of the State. With the subsequent fall of secular Rome, the Church became the State, but it was no less brutal in the wielding of the sword than Caesars’ Rome. Under medieval Papal Rome, the Church gave us the Inquisitions and the Crusades. The Church then controlled all of life.

When the church in England separated from Papal Rome to establish the Anglican Church, the King or Queen was retained as the head of the church. That gave the head of the secular State control over all of live, so people could not freely practice their religious faith according to the Word of God and the dictates of their own conscience. Therefore, to defy the church was to defy the state, that’s treason.

Ultimately, those wanting religious liberty had to flee England. It is in this context that the new nation (United States of America) was founded, and religious liberty became enshrined in its founding documents. It is against this background that the separation of Church and State concept evolved.

The point of contention now is this—in the light of this constitutional separation of these two institutions (Church and State), can one legally order the other not to exercise its constitutional rights, and if such rights are abridged or prohibited, should the order be obeyed? And if it is disobeyed, can the military or police be legally directed to enforce such order against the church without irreparable damage to our constitutional system of government?

Civil Rights

One Reverend, who is a civil rights activist argues that the order to close churches is not a violation of civil rights because closing is voluntary. Others say, if the closing is forced, the statement is clearly inaccurate. Religious liberty is a fundamental civil right under the constitution as we have already seen. Worship in churches or anywhere else is the exercise of that liberty. Some pastors may choose not to close and receive a public backlash or even push back from law enforcement, but is such push back constitutional? As selfish as not closing church, synagogue of mosque may appear, such enforcement push back is a violation of both religious liberty and civil rights.

The forced closing of any place of worship would also violate the freedom of speech, the freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Others may disagree with this view, and that is expected because this is a hot and touchy issue right now. But less say for the moment that the forced closing of churches violates “religious liberty and civil rights.” What then shall we do short of police dragging off Pastors, Rabbis and Imams to jail?

Religious Cooperation

The common ground that the Founders sought was cooperation between Church and State; that cooperation can be secured today but with much more difficulty. You may say, why is it that difficult?

 During the framer’s time, church leaders were educated, greatly respected, reasonable men who were equal in statue to the framers. That is not the case today. Any Dick, Tom, Harry or Susie can start a church and make himself or herself founder, pastor and bishop with no external accountability. Many independent churches just do their own thing and their parishioners follow the leaders as cult members do.

 Just as every person nowadays is a philosopher, the same is true for theologians. There are so many theologies today, each claiming legitimacy, it is hard to keep track of them or to forge agreement between religious groups. On what basis then should cooperation be secured? I will suggest five:

First, all local churches need to recognize that the Secular State is an institution of God as the Church is an institution of God (Matt.16:16-19; Rom.13:1-7). The concept of nation is an idea that was born in the heart of God (Acts 17:23-28). What is a nation? It is a people group that lives by certain rules within a given geography. God said to Abraham, I will make of you a great nation and through you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed (Gen. 12:1-5). God set the borders of nations (Jos.1:1-4; Acts 17:26). God loves all people groups or nations and provides for their redemption (John 3:16).

Second, the minister of the secular State is the minister of God and is given the sword to enforce the laws (Rom.13:1-7). Every pastor who knows his or her Bible should know that the ministers of the secular State are the ministers of God and do not carry the sword in vain. In other words, God has empowered the state to enforce the laws. The State, however, must exercise great restraint dealing with God’s other ministers (i.e. ministers of the church). This is where ministers of both Church and State are called upon to be reasonable people cooperating for the common good.

Third, genuine worshipers of the God of the Bible make good citizens and Jesus is our best example (I Tim. 2:1-4). Jesus was born in a nation under Roman occupation (Luke 2:1-7). At birth, King Herod massacred the children of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill Jesus (Matt.2:1-18). Jesus witnessed the oppression of His own people by the State, but He did not lead a Barabbas type revolution to overthrow the Roman government. Jesus never violated the civil law; He paid taxes to Caesars’ government and encouraged others to do the same (Luke 20: 21-26).

 Jesus also perfectly kept God’s Law as recorded in the Hebrew Bible. But was framed by His own people and handed over to the Romans to be executed. The apostle Paul wrote most of the New Testament including the Epistle to the Romans and died by execution in a Roman prison. Yet, Paul encouraged Christians to obey the civil authorities and pray for those are in authority (Roman 13:1-8; I Timothy 2:1-4). The point is, all true Christians are law abiding citizens of the secular State.

Fourth, Jesus new commandment is to love God and love neighbor as yourself (John 13: 34-35). Love for God and neighbor was required under the Law of Moses (Exod. 20:3-10; Deut. 6:4-5). But the neighbor part of it was not fully enforced because of the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” clause. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus abolished the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” clause and broaden the meaning of neighbor to include all your fellow humans (Matt.5:38-48).

Jesus summarized the 613 precepts of the Mosaic Law into two: love for God and love neighbor (Mark 12:28-31). Read more on this point in my book, Bless and Curse Not . Jesus told His followers that His new commandment is love (John 13:34-35). Love does no harm to his neighbor; it is the greatest spiritual gift (1Cor.13). For pastors to expose their congregations and the public to harm by not closing their churches, temporarily, could be a selfish act rather than love.

Fifth, when is it right in the sight of God and justified not to obey the law of the State? There is only one exception implied in the New Testament, and it was not directed to civil authorities. But it can be made applicable to them; read it in Acts 4:1-23. Note, the charge given to the apostles was not given by civil authorities but religious authorities. Further note the apostles’ response (vv.18-21). They told the authorities, “we rather obey God than men” (vv.18-21). These words must be read in context.

 We do know—if the civil authorities did say the same thing to the apostles, they would have given them the same response of refusal. How do I know that? They were later forbidden to preach or worship by the secular state and they refused. This refusal precipitated waves after waves State sponsored persecution ending in the martyrdom for thousands of Christians. Many were burnt at stakes and thrown to the lions. They refused to quit preaching the gospel or substitute the worship of the God of the Bible with the worship of Caesar or emperor worship. Jews did the same throughout their history from Egypt to Babylon, Rome and Nazi Germany and suffered the consequences (see Daniel 3-4).     

If a Federal or State official should enact a law or issues permanent executive order that you cannot worship at all in private or in public or be seen with any religious literature such as a scroll or Bible—that would be a violation of the law of God and your constitutional rights. In this case, you obey God rather than man and let the chips fall where they may (Acts 4:18-21). Any legal confrontation between Church and State over religious liberty—the state will not win, if it does, we cease to have a democracy. But temporary closing is not unreasonable; the church should give its cooperation.   

What then Is the Remedy?

The answer is cooperation. Both institutions (Church and State) must reach a compromise for the common good of all. What that compromise may look like? The State may consider the recognizing the Church as an essential business or institution, that can continue to function under certain mutually agreed upon guidelines that will not only keep their members safe but the general public as well.

Since, there will be a few congregations and pastors that will not cooperate, a council of religious and state officials should be established to negotiate compliance with these rough congregations and pastors without extreme interference of law enforcement.

I am quite aware that there are many issues that are not discussed in this short article, but I hope it is enough to provide some useful insights to persuade my clergy colleagues to consider the temporary closing of their places of worship for the common good of the larger society. I also hope that it provides insight how both institutions can commence a platform for cooperation should the Coronavirus or some other virus return with a vengeance. The way of cooperation with avoid a bloody confrontation that will forever destroy or stain our democracy.  

Published by The Dwelling Place

I am, Michael Dewar, author and director of Dwelling Place and the chief writer. Professionally, I am pastor, Bible teacher, mentor in the spiritual life, a specialist and consultant in church and family conflicts.

%d bloggers like this: