If you’ve kept your church doors open and can do so, God be praised. If you felt compelled to close the church doors, God be praised too – though we lament with you that it should be so and pray that they may very soon reopen. “My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the LORD: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God” (Psa. 84:2). But let us all be careful not to judge brethren rashly. To our own Lord we all stand or fall.
During the recent COVID-19 crisis, many Christian churches have closed their doors, cancelling regular public worships services, though often utilizing telecommunications to facilitate God’s worship in private home contexts. What principles do confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian elders consider when making their decision? These are the ones that factored in to my mind.
1. Worship is priority number one. God’s honor comes before man’s honor, His being before ours. “Thy love is better than life.” We should sooner join the three Hebrew children and lay down our lives than surrender an inch of God’s worship. The First Table comes before the Second, and if there is an apparent conflict, the general rule is to surrender our own interests.
In an age where institutionalized religion gets a bad rap, where people vainly imagine they can take a pass on church, but still be “spiritual,” we must insist all the more firmly on the Lord’s rightful claim to all outward observances of public worship. “Ye shall keep my sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:30). It is wickedness to neglect the courts of the Lord; for when the elders call, the King calls. Further, we do a gross disservice to our fellow man if we fail to stress just how vital public worship is in the economy of salvation. We must reject Rome’s sacerdotal church-olatry. But it is by the “foolishness of preaching” that we are are saved. Outside of the Church there is “no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2).
It also bespeaks a poor state of soul to be too ready to leave off the public worship of God. “One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple” (Psa. 27:4). Only with great reluctance before obvious providential hindrances should we withdraw ourselves from Zion’s courts. And elders, who should be calling the saints together, must be all the more careful to cancel services.
2. Human life is sacred and must be preserved. And so the Shorter Catechism puts it, “The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavors to preserve our own life and the life of others.” To be sure, caution can become excessive, even paralyzing. If we are unduly anxious about the remotest of threats, we will barricade ourselves in our homes. “There is a lion in the way!” Such flimsy excuses do not please God. Duty entails risk! But excessive risk is quite another thing. And then there is risk for others who are more vulnerable. Calculating these risks is not always easy, to be sure. But at some point, protecting life has the deciding word. A blizzard on the Lord’s day strikes us as an obvious reason to cancel services in the interests of safety. But a microscopic virus? The threat may seem remote, but history bears out the very lethal reality of epidemics.
We all have a responsibility to protect and safeguard life. But the civil magistrate has a unique responsibility. Private individuals and the Church in its spiritual capacity do not have the power to coerce. The state does (Gen. 9:6, Rom. 13:-4). And not only must it avenge lawless bloodshed, but it is authorized to enact and enforce just laws to prevent real threats to life and health (Exod. 21:33-36). More on this below.
Given the present situation, others have helpfully noted that Moses gave the Theocracy quarantine laws. It seems clear that the power to quarantine was not just for ceremonial holiness, but also for the benefit of public health (Lev. 5:3, Num. 29:16). The whole camp of Israel had to stay put for a whole week while Miriam was quarantined “without the camp” for her leprosy. It would only make sense that the civil power would enforce such laws, lest the contagion break out in the general population. Arguably, a merciful provision regarding the Passover was also made for those ceremonially unclean for having touched a dead body (Num. 9:1-14). This all being said, how such laws should be made, implemented, and enforced in the modern day is certainly up for debate.
3. God resolves ‘conflicts’ and conditions His own priorities. To be sure, this seeming ‘clash’ of commandments can be unnerving. To us, it seems that it is this Commandment or that one, but not both. But this ‘clash’ is only apparent. Never are we allowed to sin; but in some cases, God qualifies His own commandments. Normally, we may not kill. But in a just war, we may. It is unlawful for a woman to be with another man while her husband lives; but if he dies, she is free to marry another. This is not bottom-up relativism. This is top-down duty, adjusted to circumstances in a fallen, sinful world by the Lawgiver Himself. The Mosaic “case laws” demonstrate this principle over and over.