The fact of the matter is that the fundamental premise of our government’s pandemic response strategy, summarized by the phrase “Stop the Spread,” runs contrary to basic epidemiological theory, which “indicates that lockdowns do not reduce the total number of cases in the long run and have never in history led to the eradication of a disease. At best, lockdowns delay the increase of cases for a finite period and at great cost.” The attempt to control a pandemic by smothering all aspects of social life is yet another tragic outgrowth of a mindset that looks to the state, managed by experts, as savior.
The recently published book The Price of Panic, which I reviewed here, raises significant concerns about the public policy response to the coronavirus pandemic. The book’s basic argument is similar to that of journalist Alex Berenson, which he sums up as follows:
“Faced with a risk of hundreds of thousands or millions of deaths, the public health experts who for decades had counseled patience and caution flinched. They found they could not live with acknowledging how little control they or any of us had over the spread of an easily transmissible respiratory virus. They had to do something — even if they had been warning for decades that what they were about to do would not work and might have terrible secondary consequences.”
Some object to such criticisms, contending that members of the general population are not qualified to assess the science behind all of this and should just go along with whatever is recommended by the experts. One problem with this argument is that there are many notable scientists and medical professionals who have criticized the unprecedented path that we have taken in responding to the pandemic and who have argued for a different approach. For example, the Great Barrington Declaration, authored by epidemiologists from Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford universities and signed by over 50,000 medical and public health scientists and medical practitioners, offers this alternative:
“The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.”
Another problem with the contention that ordinary people are not qualified to question the medical experts is that this is not merely a matter of science but of public policy. In the making of public policy, medical considerations are not the only factors that need to be taken into account. Other things also need to be weighed, such as the short-term and long-term impacts of policies on physical health in a broad sense, on mental health, on family and social life, on religious and civil liberty, on education, and on people’s livelihoods. The central argument of The Price of Panic, the Great Barrington Declaration, and figures like former White House Coronavirus Task Force advisor Dr. Scott Atlas is that the policy response to the pandemic has not given due consideration to these other factors, and this has resulted in massive collateral damage. If elected officials have the task of weighing all of these considerations and setting policies, then surely the citizens who elect those officials have the right and responsibility to assess their policy decisions. This even applies to aspects of the pandemic response like contact tracing and mandated mask-wearing. The fact of the matter is that the fundamental premise of our government’s pandemic response strategy, summarized by the phrase “Stop the Spread,” runs contrary to basic epidemiological theory, which “indicates that lockdowns do not reduce the total number of cases in the long run and have never in history led to the eradication of a disease. At best, lockdowns delay the increase of cases for a finite period and at great cost.” The attempt to control a pandemic by smothering all aspects of social life is yet another tragic outgrowth of a mindset that looks to the state, managed by experts, as savior.
The public policy response to the coronavirus needs to be assessed by church leaders because of the impact that this has had upon public worship and upon Christian ministry and fellowship in a broader sense. When the shutdown orders were first issued in March of 2020, most churches concluded that the only responsible thing to do was to comply and take the drastic step of suspending in-person worship services and activities. This is understandable in light of the exaggerated things that were being said about the virus’s lethality and about the possibility of overwhelming the health care system. We now know that these predictions were overblown. We also know that computer models, which are both unreliable and easily manipulated when dealing with something as complex as a pandemic, played a vital role in setting the policies that are now in place. We also know that those under age 70 who get infected by this virus are over 99.5% likely to survive, that those over age 70 who get infected are nearly 95% likely to survive, and that 94% of those who die from COVID-19 have an average of three comorbidities. We also know that the policies that have been implemented are causing a great deal of misery and harm, much of which will last long after the pandemic is over. Lastly, we know that this pandemic has been exploited for political purposes.
Now that we have these insights, how should we view state prohibitions against gatherings for public worship that are based on public health policy that operates on the assumption that a pandemic can be brought under control through the radical suppression of all aspects of social life? As we consider this, it is important to be clear that, when the state shuts down gatherings for worship, it is forbidding God’s people from doing something that God requires us to do. While live-streaming and other technologies can be helpful to those who are providentially hindered from attending public worship, making use of these things does not amount to participating in public worship. This is evident in the fact that it is impossible for the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be properly administered to those who are not physically present in a public worship service. Furthermore, as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Directory for the Public Worship of God explains, “Public worship occurs when God, by his Word and Spirit, through the lawful government of the church, calls his people to assemble to worship him together.” [DPW I.A, italics added] Viewing or listening to a broadcasted service is not assembling for worship. When an entire congregation (or most of it) is forced to “worship remotely” rather than assemble physically, public worship is not taking place. Furthermore, while it is true that technology has been a help to churches amid this crisis, we should also be aware that technology is one of the factors that is making it easy for civil leaders to justify banning public worship for such extended periods of time. They can say that they aren’t prohibiting public worship but are only telling us that it needs to be conducted online. It important for the church to reject such reasoning.
Perhaps there can be extraordinary circumstances that make it necessary for the state to invoke emergency powers that allow it to prohibit gatherings for the sake of the public welfare. But even if that notion is granted, this does not mean that every invocation of such powers is legitimate. As the Westminster Confession of Faith explains, people are required to obey the civil magistrate’s “lawful commands.” (23.4, emphasis added) This indicates that there is a standard by which the commands of magistrates can be evaluated. In the words of David VanDrunen, there is a law that is “more fundamental than the command of the magistrate.” That law is God’s moral law, which is summarized in the Ten Commandments and is accessible to all people in natural law. When the new public policy on pandemic response is evaluated by the moral law, the most basic question to ask is whether this new approach can be shown to do a better job at preserving life than the approach that was conventional prior to this outbreak. Under that approach, public health policy was mainly focused on treating the sick and trying to develop a vaccine. As the authors of The Price of Panic demonstrate, there is no evidence that the new approach has made any positive difference when it comes to the preservation of life. The assertion that things would have been far worse without the imposition of the extreme mitigation measures is not evidence. It is begging the question. The actual data indicates that the shutdowns made no difference in suppressing the virus. Moreover, there is clear evidence that the new approach has itself brought an extraordinary amount of harm to people’s lives and livelihoods, much of which will extend well beyond the end of the pandemic. The damage that is being done by the magistrates’ orders needs to be taken into account when assessing their lawfulness. When such an assessment is made, it becomes clear that the costs of the effort to control the virus through the suppression of all aspects of social life are so immense that the measures should be rejected as cruel and unjust.
Another factor that should be considered with regard to the obligation to preserve life is that this part of God’s moral law entails more than simply striving to preserve physical life. As Edward Fisher explains in his 17th century classic The Marrow of Modern Divinity, the sixth commandment forbids doing harm to ourselves and others in both body and soul, and it requires that we use all good means to seek to preserve both body and soul. Seeking to preserve souls especially entails “a careful use of all of God’s appointed means of grace.” That being the case, we should certainly see the suspension of public worship as injurious to souls. The primary impulse of Christians in the midst of a pandemic should not be to think that we can do things to “stop the spread.” Instead, our focus should be upon humbly acknowledging our sinfulness and God’s sovereignty, seeking his mercy, and calling others to repent and turn to Christ in faith.
It is true that God commands us to submit to the civil magistrate (see Rom. 13:1-5; 1 Pet. 2:13-17) and to use all lawful endeavors to preserve our own and our neighbor’s life. (see Lk. 10:25-37) However, our submission to the magistrate is not an absolute submission. When the magistrate’s commands are in conflict with God’s commands, we must obey God rather than men. (see Acts 5:29) If widespread shutdowns and mandates that suppress social life are doing little if any good while also bringing great harm, submitting to them can hardly be seen as a matter of preserving life.
In light of this, there are valid grounds for regarding the COVID-induced state prohibitions of public worship, and other orders that are discouraging fellowship and impeding ministry, to be unlawful commands and instances of the magistrate interfering in matters of faith. It is true that a failure to comply with such state orders puts churches and their leaders in legal jeopardy, but we should not make avoiding the threat of litigation a matter of first priority. As Christians, we have to remember that “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.” (Prov. 29:25) To the extent that following emergency orders hinders the promulgation of the gospel and the nurture of Christian faith and fellowship, the magistrate’s commands are in opposition to God’s commands. While we should try as best we can to submit to the magistrate’s orders, we are not obligated to do so when it prevents us from doing the things that God calls us to do. More broadly, we need to stop and think about whether the church should be acting as an enforcement arm of the state and making compliance to its questionable emergency orders a requirement for participation in public worship.
Andy Wilson is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Laconia, New Hampshire. He is the author of several books.
 Alex Berenson, Unreported Truths About Covid-19 and Lockdowns, Part 2: Update and Examination of Lockdowns as a Strategy, (Independently published, 2020), 26.
 The authors of the Great Barrington Declaration state that practices like widespread testing, isolation, and contact tracing “do not work for widely spread diseases such as annual influenza, pre-vaccine measles, COVID-19, or, by definition, against any pandemic.”
 The studies on masks are discussed in Alex Berenson, Unreported Truths About Covid-19 and Lockdowns, Part 3: Masks, (Independently published, 2020). See also: “Many Studies Find That Cloth Masks Do Not Stop Viruses Like COVID,” Lisa Mair, The Federalist, Nov. 23, 2020, https://thefederalist.com/2020/11/23/many-studies-find-that-cloth-masks-do-not-stop-viruses-like-covid/; “These 12 Graphs Show Mask Mandates Do Nothing To Stop COVID,” Yinon Weiss, The Federalist, Oct. 29, 2020, https://thefederalist.com/2020/10/29/these-12-graphs-show-mask-mandates-do-nothing-to-stop-covid/; and “Masks Are Another Way To Control Society Through Isolation,” Stella Morabito, The Federalist, Dec. 3, 2020, https://thefederalist.com/2020/12/03/masks-are-another-way-to-control-society-through-isolation/.
 The entitlement programs that arose in the midst of the 1960s Civil Rights movement provide another example of the devastation that can be wrought when government takes on this kind of role. For an analysis of how those programs have greatly diminished personal agency among blacks, see the documentary written by Shelby Steele and directed by his son Eli, “What Killed Michael Brown?”
 David VanDrunen, Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020), 349.
 The Marrow of The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Expanded Edition): A Simplification of Edward Fisher’s Seventeenth-Century Classic, edited and revised by Andy Wilson, (Independently published, 2019), 171.