I was going to take a brief break, but changed my mind. And I may be wrong, but . . . .
Yesterday I read that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told churches not to meet.1 If they continue meeting during this pandemic their leaders face the possibility of prosecution and the congregants will be told to disperse.
That order was immediately met with an outcry from pastors in New York as well as from around the country. This, they claim, is the first step on the slippery slope toward setting a precedent for government to shut down religion and remove our rights.
I know that the separation of church and state that we enjoy under our constitution has been under attack. I also understand that if government on any level made this kind of decision it would be uncomfortable to people of faith. But in such a time as this, is it best for Christians to be playing the “rights” card?
Going back to the days of the “Moral Majority” (look it up if that term is unfamiliar), evangelicals have been active in protesting the loss of not only religious freedom, but of religious recognition. At times it has been incredibly silly. I wish that I had saved an email from one Christian watchdog group that urged us to boycott a particular pet supply chain because they had changed their Christmas catalog to a Holiday catalog. My sarcastic bent wants to run wild with this, but I’ll behave. And besides, a mayor insinuating that churches must be closed is far more serious.
Perhaps, though, our reaction to this story, assuming it is accurate, should not be about our rights. Perhaps it should be to ask why the Mayor has been put in this position in the first place.
We are in a pandemic. Tens of thousands of people have contracted the coronavirus. Hundreds of thousands of people world-wide will die. People have been urged to stay home, yet some churches (and other religious groups) are going to go ahead and meet, thereby ignoring our leadership during this crisis.
I am reading 1 Peter during my morning Bible reading. Today I happened to read these verses:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. – 1 Peter 2:13-15 (ESV)
Thinking about this passage and how it relates to the issue of churches defying the instructions of government, I want to ask two questions:
First, in such a time as this, do our “rights” trump the well-being of our neighbor? Again, I understand the potentially dangerous precedent of any government interference in the area of religious freedom. We may well see the day when government infringement upon our religious liberties becomes more commonplace. But to me, we’re missing the forest for the trees if we choose this hill to fight on. People are dying, folks. And the virus spreads where gathering is not contained. How is continuing to meet as a church loving our neighbor. How is it even loving ourselves as a church body? People smarter than most of us are telling us to stay home. In a time such as this, shouldn’t we be subject to the human institutions that God has put in place?
Second, in a time such as this, do our “rights” trump our witness? What kind of impression do we think we give if our churches meet? Do you think those meetings are viewed with admiration? That non-Christians are saying, “Wow, they’re incredible?” I doubt that. There’s enough hostility toward Christians in our day without giving our opponents even more ammunition. Let me ask: how would you feel if you drove past a mosque or synagogue and saw they were open for business as usual? Would our response be any different than the way we viewed college students partying in Florida or the crowds that gathered in New Orleans for Mardi Gras? Would we be happy to see them exercising their rights, or would our response be somewhere between being bemused to being outraged? So how do we think unbelievers look at us if we continue to meet, going against the best medical minds in our country? Where churches are creating a situation where government has to step in and say stop? I can tell you that the non-believers I work with weren’t impressed with the churches that decided to stay open. In such a time as this, shouldn’t our witness trump our rights?
It’s possible that time will prove my view to be naive. If government officials are successful in closing churches during this time, maybe it will have paved the way for greater interference in the future. I don’t know. But for the sake of our families, our neighbors, our churches, and our witness I think we need to take that chance, and trust God with the outcome.
- I’ve linked to the Fox News site, but other outlets are reporting this as well. ↩