Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on RealClearReligion.
COVID-19 and subsequent public health actions have changed religious life in the United States, and not for the better. Until recently, many religious authorities accepted government mandates without recognizing their right to object. Still others have taken an overly deferential view of the biblical command to submit to government agencies. For their part, the laity have largely remained silent where to express their concern to their church leadership, and have expressed the time-honored American tendency to view pastors and elders as something like hired specialists devoted to the rest of the time in the affairs of the The Church Will Take Care The believers go about their lives. Christians owe respect to both their civil and ecclesiastical governments, but our respect for authority has gone too far.
Recent protests and civil disobedience give hope that at least some Christians understand the threat. These are very different: Many churches have been working against them for months despite all orders. More recently, Sing It Louder USA has helped organize events where groups could come together to celebrate Christmas in song despite all the restrictions. With increasing success, a number of churches and synagogues have filed lawsuits against the restrictions (two major examples are Capitol Hill Baptist and Agudath Israel of America), and the lawsuit by the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn resulted in the Supreme Court granting an injunction against the restrictions issued by Governor Cuomo on religious services. The majority of churches, however, continue to dutifully adhere to all government restrictions.
One of the most prominent and outspoken opponents of state worship restrictions is John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church, which has remained open despite fines and impending arrest. In July, the Church incidentally published “Christ, Not Caesar, Is Head of the Church,” which offered a written defense of its uncompromising refusal to “comply with a government-imposed moratorium on … weekly church services or other regular corporate meetings” an equally rigorous one Defense of respect for government agencies in all other matters – in fact, they claim that apart from matters vital to the defense of the freedom of the Church, citizens have no right to civil disobedience.
In expressing their objections in these terms, MacArthur and many other critics are still surrendering too much ground to the government by failing to recognize the difference in context between imperial Rome and modernity. The New Testament was about subjects, not citizens, and this is a critical distinction that is easy to miss. If John Calvin, writing in the context of early modern Europe, could hold governments accountable for the “general purpose” of the law, how much more can modern Americans have a legitimate expectation that the laws enacted by our representatives will be “good and just” In truth, they are not disguised with simple public health claims.
First of all, Christians should recognize that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 do not require obedience to government in all cases. Rather than counseling obedience to all “powers”, many Reformers argued that Romans 13 is better understood as delivering individual believers in order to resist what Calvin called powers that are “not ordained,” that is, powers that the Art usurping authority over the individual conscience, which belongs to God alone. This clearly applies to the most extreme cases of executive ordinances restricting religious activity in 2020, such as B. Prohibitions on corporate songs, strict restrictions on the size of meetings, or total prohibitions on personal worship.
Calvin’s account of the correct relationship to the civil authority goes even further: “All obligations to obey the law,” he wrote in Institutes 4.10.5, “relates to the general purpose, but does not consist in the prescribed things.” In other words, while we have a general obligation to obey the government because it was ordained by God, because the purpose of the ordinances is our good, our specific duty depends on whether the government is “good and just” over us . The line here is very good – respect for the rule of law is necessary if rights are to be protected, but respect for rights is necessary if the law is to serve its purpose in a meaningful way.
Second, and perhaps more importantly because it is more common, there is nothing in Romans 13 to prevent Christians in America from protecting their constitutional rights. In their original context, the Romans describe the believers’ relationship to an absolute imperial power, not to a constitutionally limited one. Reformed Christians have long believed that neglect of the defense of civil liberties amounts to political suicide and is forbidden for believers as well.
Consider the example of Loyalty Vindicated, a 1698 pamphlet condemning “the damned doctrines of passive obedience and non-resistance,” and those false preachers who told the people “to patiently hold our Protestant throats to avoid Order to be cut off from a papal king. “The author writes to justify Jacob Leisler’s overthrow of the royal governor of the New York colony almost a decade ago, arguing that the colonial government’s failure to protect the freedoms of its citizens was tantamount to a failure to protect their lives. The right to representation and assembly – one voice in one’s own government – was understood not just as a civil right in the 17th century but as part of a series of safeguards against arbitrary power, and this author saw it – like most other Reformed thinkers of the time – Arbitrary power as naturally unfair, ungodly and above all disorderly.Resistance to such governments was not only justified, but a necessary level of self-defense.
Leisler’s group in New York, as well as others similarly motivated during that time in Long Island, Boston, and Virginia, responded proactively to threats to freedom. They did not wait for the governments under which they lived to shut down their services to recognize the threat of tyranny.
The governments they spoke out against claimed, of course, that their actions were necessary and appropriate and, in fact, not at all dangerous to the people. Likewise, the United States today signed the Declaration on COVID-19 and the Religious Minority Pandemic, and CDC official guidelines recognize “a fundamental right to gather for worship” – in practice, states have in response to Pandemic measures adopted, however, did not do so.They only failed to protect religious and other freedoms, they often deliberately threatened them.
After months of “emergency powers” rhetoric, we have the right to expect that all new public health measures are laws passed by duly elected officials rather than simply imposed by experts and executives as if we were subjects of imperial authority.
Governments around the world have placed stricter restrictions on religious services than other types of public gatherings, and in some cases have attempted to directly disrupt religious observances. For example, California guidelines state that places of worship “must stop chanting and chanting indoors,” although such activities are often central to the actual practice of a particular religion.
Many of the experts who consult religious and political authorities, such as the Italian professor Massimo Marchiori, argue not from a fundamental rights perspective, but solely from a security perspective: “It is our humanity that actually brings us to the virus … you have to take away a little bit of humanity, a little bit antisocial, protecting humanity. “When such considerations influence decision-makers, life itself becomes an idol and the basis of freedom collapses.
It is perhaps excusable that secular leaders are influenced by such arguments – they have no official part in the concept of transcendence, so to speak, or the idea that life is given to people not only for existence but for the purpose of reflecting and glorifying the Creator . Yet few religious leaders or lay people have offered much against this line of thought. Despite the few examples of dissent mentioned above, the vast majority of American worshipers of all origins have tried to conform their religious practices to the state’s order. A report by an ecumenical group convened by the Chandler School of Theology shows how many have gone beyond government guidelines to call for the creative use of silence in worship, abbreviated preaching, and the abandonment of traditional liturgies. Likewise, the declaration by the American Rabbis Central Conference on the acceptance of the virtual minyan in times of “emergency” (as opposed to their earlier rejection of such a technological presence) is a sign of risk aversion, pointing to temporal rather than spiritual priorities.
There is another way. American Christians who rely on the legacy of Reformed Resistance Theory can and should keep a close eye on executive-imposed public policies. After months of “emergency powers” rhetoric, we have the right to expect that all new public health measures are laws passed by duly elected officials rather than simply imposed by experts and executives as if we were subjects of imperial authority. This would be an important first step towards reclaiming our rights – but even then, any politics based on the rejection of transcendence should be publicly resisted. Both religious leaders and laypeople should work harder for freedom of religion, but also for human prosperity, and reassess the real risks of COVID for our faith and freedom, as well as for the threat to health posed by the virus.