Those who recognized that government officials were using Covid restrictions to limit gatherings they did not like (see, Christian gatherings) saw things clearly. They were watching the situation with their eyes wide open. At first, I will agree that prohibiting church gatherings or imposing capacity limits did not rise to the level of persecution. As stated before, I was willing to grant our authorities the benefit of the doubt at the outset. But as more data accrued and the restrictions continued, our leaders demonstrated an unwillingness to release the power they had obtained. They exposed their lust for control and their libido for lying.
By God’s grace, it appears we are finally escaping from the grips of the pandemic that has choked the globe for more than a year. In the U.S., we are experiencing some form of a return to normalcy, as government and public health mandates limiting civil life continue to fall by the wayside. As Christians, especially Christian leaders, we have an opportunity and duty to evaluate our performance throughout the crisis. Here is my attempt to make sense of the tangled mess that is Covid and the Church.
In particular, I’d like to address two assertions I’ve heard recently: 1) Christians are conflating Covid restrictions with persecution, and 2) Masks are not a gospel issue. Essentially, the argument is that Christians ought to follow all of our government’s Covid mandates because they do not amount to sin. They did not command us to do what God forbids, nor did they forbid us from doing what God commands, so the argument goes. The proponents of such thinking often appeal to texts such as Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-14, and Titus 3:1 to demonstrate that Christians have a moral duty to obey their God-ordained government authorities at all times. I will address each assertion in turn.
Undoubtedly, the amount of ink spilled on this issue could fill multiple oceans. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 left almost no stone unturned and forced us all to wrestle with our theology. I pray this essay is an encouragement to you.
Assertion #1: Covid Restrictions Are Not Persecution
First, how should we define persecution? If the accusation is that Christians are conflating restrictions with persecution, then definitions ought to clarify the issue. A straightforward definition might be the systematic mistreatment of individuals or groups for their religious affiliations or beliefs. Thus, Christians are persecuted when they suffer economic, social, or physical harm for their specific association with and worship of Jesus Christ as Lord and King. In short, it is suffering dishonor “for the name” (Acts 5:41).
Unsurprisingly, the New Testament is fraught with examples. The apostles were jailed and beaten for preaching in the name of Christ (Acts 4:3, 5:42). Stephen was stoned (Acts 7:58). James, the brother of John, was beheaded (Acts 12:2). Saul, before his Damascus road experience, sought to destroy the Church (Acts 9:1). Our forefathers did not suffer for failing to pay taxes. They suffered for failing to pay obeisance to any authority who would usurp Christ. The blood of the saints has flowed throughout history.
Moreover, there is yet another principle we must establish before we assess the Covid restrictions imposed on corporate worship this past year. We must let the Bible define these things for us. We must see everything through a biblical lens. I hope most Christians reading this would agree. At the outset, we must acknowledge that only two kingdoms are operating in the universe: God’s kingdom and the world’s kingdom. The kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. The kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col 1:13) and the kingdom of Satan.
Consequently, there are only two kinds of people: elect and non-elect. Sheep and goats. Wheat and tares. Children of God and children of Satan (John 8:44). Thus, there is no neutral ground. Neutrality is a myth, not because I say so, but because the God of the universe says so in his revealed word. Furthermore, every human being is a descendant of Adam and inherits the sin nature from him. Without exception, full stop; we are all sinners (Rom 3:10, 23).
Thus, when we think of our civil governments, we must think in these terms. We do not operate in a utopia free from the effects of sin or the Fall. We operate in a sinful and broken world, constantly being made new. Therefore, we do not have permission or the luxury to grant our civil magistrates the gift of neutrality. This means that when they legislate on our behalf, they legislate in accordance with their allegiance. If they are not making public policy decisions or doling out justice under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then they are doing so under the lordship of someone or something else. We cannot wiggle our way out of this.
And so, when our civil magistrates from Washington, D.C. down to our local precincts mandated certain restrictions on public life to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus last year, they did this with specific intentions in mind. Whether they were aware of their bias or not is irrelevant. Every government official in the U.S. has a worldview, and to pretend as if their worldview does not inform their policy decisions is beyond naïve.
I am willing to grant that at the outset of the pandemic, circa March 2020, when we knew very little about the virus’s lethality or how it spread, the logical course of action was to err on the side of caution. This is what brought us the lockdowns and severe restrictions on travel and movements about the country. With these lockdowns came the calls to cancel all public gatherings, including the weekly meetings of the Body of Christ on the Lord’s Day.
Again, I extend some grace in this area. Pastors and elders were facing an uncertain foe and deferred to public health experts and government officials. (As an aside, I admire those pastors who either refused to cancel church or resolved to ensure some form of public gathering despite the lockdown edicts). All of this was done under the banner of public health (i.e., stop the spread, flatten the curve). In the spirit of honoring our governing authorities, a la Romans 13, churches complied. I’ll concede that while not optimal, this was probably a wise decision for a time.
Nevertheless, as we accumulated data on the virus’s lethality, it became clear that the it was not nearly as dangerous as anticipated or consistently reported through the media.[i] Once the lockdowns were lifted, we were permitted to resume certain aspects of civil life, albeit with severe restrictions. Certain businesses and public services were deemed “essential,” leaving the rest shuttered. Coincidentally, many of our government leaders deemed religious services “non-essential” and ordered them to be shut down or seriously limited. Abortion clinics, liquor stores, strip clubs, and Walmarts from sea to shining sea were permitted to continue operations. Churches were closed. Remember the principle we established earlier: no one is neutral.
And how did our government officials arrive at their list of essential versus non-essential services? No one knows definitively. In my estimation, their evaluations were utterly arbitrary because everything in the secular world is arbitrary by definition. If you deny God and his Word, you end up in the absurd by necessity. There is no objective standard against which to measure anything. Atoms bumping into atoms, ad infinitum.
As events unfolded, and Christians became frustrated with the limits on corporate gatherings, they were met with comments from pastors and Big Eva types such as, “Well, stores and sporting events are limited too,” or, “The governor has given churches in our state more latitude than most.” Please note the premise that these pastors were granting in statements such as these. This is very important. Whether intentionally or not, pastors who said those things were comparing weekly church services to grocery stores and sporting events. This is inescapable. By granting that “churches aren’t the only gatherings limited right now,” pastors affirmed that church is no different from the rest of public life. This is both tragic and infuriating. Not to mention, they granted the premise that state governors have the authority to tell us how and when we can worship. They do not, and they cannot.
Whether intended or not, such sentiments demonstrate a low view of ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. Of all people, pastors ought to know that the weekly gathering of the saints on the Lord’s Day is altogether different from every other public gathering. The Church is called out from the world. It is God’s people coming together to worship Him in spirit and in truth. To partake of the means of grace. To sing praises to the Lord (Psalm 150; Col 3:16), to hear His word preached (2 Tim 4:4), to give our offerings (1 Cor 16:1-2), to feast on Christ (1 Cor 11:26), to fellowship with one another, and to encourage one another in the faith. To build up and to be built up (Eph 4:12). To renew our covenant relationship with our God. I could list thousands of other micro-graces active among the gathered assembly.
No, the Church is not Walmart, or a baseball game, or a liquor store. To compare the Bride of Christ to these things confuses the holy with the common, the sacred with the profane.
So, when pastors say that “Covid restrictions are not persecution,” they are correct as far as that goes. The problem is, we were not operating under normal conditions. At some point, our federal and local officials recognized an opportunity to use the Covid restrictions to further their agendas. Again, no agenda is free from sin. They are all tainted, and many of our politicians are not Christians. They either wittingly or unwittingly work for the kingdom of darkness. They do their father’s bidding.
So, those who recognized that government officials were using Covid restrictions to limit gatherings they did not like (see, Christian gatherings) saw things clearly. They were watching the situation with their eyes wide open. At first, I will agree that prohibiting church gatherings or imposing capacity limits did not rise to the level of persecution. As stated before, I was willing to grant our authorities the benefit of the doubt at the outset. But as more data accrued and the restrictions continued, our leaders demonstrated an unwillingness to release the power they had obtained. They exposed their lust for control and their libido for lying.
It became clear that their motivations were not purely for public health. Reality came home to roost. Regardless of how much you respect your mayor or town council members, regardless of how honorable and decent they are, if they are not worshiping Christ as Lord, they are enemies of His Kingdom.
Furthermore, there is another critical aspect to this whole imbroglio. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion. Most state constitutions guarantee the same. Granted, this is not a blank check on the exercise of religion. If your religion includes sacrificing children on the altar of Molech, then your religion is a front for crimes against humanity. There are legitimate limits on religious practices. But, and this is a big one, we cannot say that we have religious freedom in America and allow the government to nuance it to death. Sure, you can attend church as long as you limit capacity to 15%, require everyone to wear masks, and remain a minimum of six feet apart at all times. Sure, you can go to church if your building is located in a “green zone.” Sure, you can go to church, but no singing or communion. Sure, you can go to church if…
In response, a pastor might have said to the concerned congregant, “See, we can worship.” But please note, regulated worship is not worship. It is state-sanctioned worship. Such is a violation of the Triune God’s authority to define worship. The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 23.3 states, “The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and Sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, their authority stops at the front door of the church. Granted, magistrates were not demanding the right to serve communion nor clamoring to fill pulpits. But they were sticking their noses where they didn’t belong. Thus, capacity limits and the like violated Divine Law and the supreme law of the land, the U.S. Constitution.
Again, freedom to worship under certain conditions may appear to be freedom, but it is not freedom. By God’s grace, we live in a constitutional republic that guarantees our right to worship. What’s more, the constitution of the universe requires us to meet together regularly to do just that (Heb 10:25, 1 Cor 11:33, 12:27-31, 14:26; Acts 2:46, Col 3:15-16, Ex 20:8-11). Thus, when the decrees of the world collide with the decrees of Almighty God, He wins every time. We do not get to pick and choose which commands of God we follow. If we love Christ, we will obey him (John 14:15).
But what of Romans 13? Again, this is not a blank check for governments to do as they please. In the passage used so frequently to bludgeon Christians into submission, Paul defines the parameters of civil government. Magistrates are given the power of the sword to punish evildoers (Rom 13:4). Moreover, they are God’s “ministers” (Rom 13:6), literally servants (GK 3011). Christian or not, they have the same obligation to legislate according to God’s law (WCF 23.4). Peter distills their role down to punishing evil and rewarding good (1 Pet 2:14).
Hence, God’s word contains no express mandate for the government to ensure perfect health outcomes for their people. They do not have the latitude nor the ability to preserve the lives of every one of their citizens. They have a particular, very limited job function. When they operate outside of these parameters, they are violating their God-given authority.