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.  

The Tower Building Generation

November 18th 2019
Author: Michael Dewar,Sr.

As I watch these impeachment hearings three questions come mind. First, whatever happen to the truth? I mean the naked truth that people swore with upheld hands to tell. About the spring of AD 30, Pilate, the Roman Governor had a popular Rabbi on trial before a hostile crowd. Pilate had already determined the Rabbi’s innocence and wanted to let him go. But the crowd, led by a powerful High Priest with political connections was determined to have the Rabbi executed.

 In the dialogue between Pilate and the Rabbi, Pilate asked, are you a king? The Rabbi responded that his kingdom was not of this world. That he came into this world to testify to the truth, and everyone on the side of truth listens to him. Pilate asked, what is truth? Without waiting for the answer, he walked out and handed the innocent Rabbi to be executed (John 18:33-40).

The irony is, the Rabbi had previously said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to God except through me” (John 14:6). What’s the point? Like Pilate, some public servants will subvert the truth, trash the constitution and sell out the country for financial gain and political expediency.

Second, the impeachment hearings have moved me to ask, is this another Babel generation we are facing? In Genesis (11:1-9), we see a post-flood generation building the first skyscraper, a tower and a city. It was man’s attempt to build his world in defiance of God. God came down and confounded their language, so they abandoned the project.

Have you noticed how we no longer speak the same language as a people? Republicans speak one language, Democrats another; the rich one language, everybody else another. Baby Boomers speak one language, Millennials another. With changing language comes changing values. I am not saying that is all bad; it is good to have different perspectives, if we can treat our opponents as neighbors, not enemies. I am getting at democratic ideals. The same thing that fractures none-democratic nations and have them in turmoil has come home to roost in the U.S. Reason? Perhaps greed, the lust for power and money, plus the abandonment of fundamental values that made us the envy of the world.

It is also ironic that on 9/11 we watched the Towers fall. They fell from above because the first attempt to bring them down from below failed; the foundation was strong. Now, we have a builder of towers at the pinnacle of executive power with an AG arguing for absolute power which only God Himself has. The handwriting is on the wall that there are cracks in the foundation of this democracy and if we are not careful, the whole structure will come tumbling down on all us as the implosion of the Twin Towers.

Third, the impeachment hearings have moved me to ask, have we gone back to bed. We said, 9/11 was a wake-up call. And every major shooting incident since, we say it’s a wake-up call. But I hear no one say the stunning breach of security the impeachment hearings reveal is another wake-up call. Perhaps, we are sleeping so soundly that we haven’t heard a thing. Or, we are safe with a false sense of security, so we went back to bed as we do after every crisis. We were caught with our pants down on 9/11 that we could not even scramble a couple of F-16s flying several times faster than the speed of sound to ward off the hijackers from the Twin Towers or the Pentagon. If a few hijackers can strike at the heart of our economic and military might and have the American President on the run, doesn’t frighten you, what will? If politicians are asleep at the wheel, perhaps we don’t need them after all.

Some of us can take comfort in the fact that we are not just U.S. citizens but citizens of the commonwealth of nations and have a choice of somewhere to run, but where will you run? On the other hand, it might be pure fiction that if the bricks of this democracy come loose there is somewhere to run. Perhaps, we have all come to the water’s edge. Yet, I am hopeful that there are some dedicated public servants that have not succumb the deadly disease of patrician politics. In case you didn’t get it, the Tower that is at risk this time is the entire democracy.

Self-Government

Self-Government

I watched a few minutes of the impeachment hearing yesterday (9/17/19), and what a circus that was. If we can’t hold our leaders accountable, then perhaps, we have lost the ability to govern ourselves; the grand experiment has failed.


In my early years in school, they told me democracy is a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” It is not a theocracy, monarchy, dictatorship, oligarchy which have all been tried and failed. Democracy is perhaps the youngest kid on the block, but this kid might not reach adulthood, because she is fighting with all her siblings and can’t get anything done.

Democracy is perhaps the most difficult form of government, because humans have free will and everyone wants to go his or her own way. May be, that’s why the kingdom of God is not a democracy, because there are those who would think Satan would make a good choice to be God; he gives more freedom.

Speaking of the devil, do you know he is the head of his own kingdom? And it is not a democracy. Nobody elected or appointed Satan to be devil. He is self-appointed. Nobody would choose him to be devil. But if you had the chance to vote for a different devil, who would you choose. We, at least, know the devil we have. There is no telling the one we would get should the universe call for an election.


Theocracy Could Work

The reason theocracy could work–the God who sits on the throne has to own everything, like heaven and earth and everything in between. He is all powerful, all knowing, present everywhere at the same time, and nobody elected or appointed Him. It sounds like the God we already have; as for me there is no need to change.

Why do I think theocracy will work? Read the last three chapters of the last book of the Bible (Revelation 20, 21, 22). Satan is permanently put in prison, God relocates to earth, no more suffering, disease and death, no more wars, no more greed. No more Wall Street or government cheese.

Trust me utopia is near, but it won’t come about with government as we know it today. Until then I challenge you to become an Agent of Peace. Check out my three-volume training course on conflict resolution for churches, seminaries, divinity schools, Bible Colleges and for small group study at: michaeldewar.com