Can a Church Cancel Services During a National Emergency?

By Mac Deaver

We live in a unique moment in history. We have not seen anything like this in our country or world before. The world has experienced and/ or witnessed many calamities before our time, and we see some of these recorded in Scripture. But personally, none of us has ever been alive during a Pandemic, and it behooves us all to look at the universal event through the lens of Scripture to find our way.

Let me make several fundamental points that we learn in Scripture that help us to clarify how we are to look at our current responsibilities. How are we Christians supposed to act with regard to government decree in this crisis moment? Let me identify a few very fundamental truths relevant to our understanding of our duty during this crisis.

First, each of us is under obligation to preserve his own life. No one else could possibly be under obligation to help save my life if I am not first of all under obligation to save it myself. Personal survival is revealed as an obligation both in nature and in Scripture. We do not breathe as a choice. We breathe naturally, and we do what is necessary to get oxygen into our lungs. We may have to struggle, but struggle we will for life-sustaining air. From the moment of the first intake of air after coming forth from the womb, we strive for that air until the moment of death. We do so as a matter of inherent self-preservation. Hence, the Bible will base our attitude toward our neighbor on our attitude toward our self (Matt. 22:37-40; Eph. 5:29). No one can carry out his other duties on earth without first seeking his own survival.

Second, while a person’s own self-preservation is inherent in nature and obligated in Scripture, it has never been the ultimate obligation. The Bible teaches that all men have always been under obligation to be faithful to God regardless of consequences (Eccl. 12:13-14; Rom. 2:14-16; Rev. 2:10). This is each person’s ultimate priority.

Third, God has established the implementation of authority within three realms of responsibility: the home, the state, and the church. The home is the oldest, historically (Gen. 2:18-25). Next came the state (Gen. 10:8-10). And while the church was eternally in the mind of God (Eph. 3:8-11), it was the last of the three divinely appointed institutions to be established on earth (Mark 9:1; Luke 24:44-49; Acts 1:1-8; Acts 2:1-4). Parents are over the home (Eph. 6:1-4), government is over the state (Rom. 7:1-13; 1 Pet. 2:13-17), and elders are over the local church (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17).

Fourth, if government requires what God disallows, or if government prohibits what God demands, all men should obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). All Christians should defy any demand (from government or any other source) if the demand requires disobedience to God. This demands conviction and courage, and we appreciate and admire the willingness of anyone to die for right conviction. The Bible records the death of some of these heroes. We should strive to have and pray for faith and courage necessary to ultimate sacrifice if the situation requires (Rev. 2:10; 2 Tim. 4:6-8, 18).

Fifth, human government is to be viewed as a minister of God. Paul informs us that all authorized power comes from God (Rom. 13:1). Too, to resist government is to withstand the ordinance of God Himself (v. 2). Further, such resistance will eventuate in condemnation (v. 2). Rulers are designed by God to be a terror to the evil only (v. 3). The principle of submission tends toward government approval (v. 3) like the principle of obedience to parents tends toward a long life (Eph. 6:1-4). A principle as such is not the equivalent of a law. While childhood obedience tends toward longevity, developing cancer or being seriously injured does not. The principle may not always find application due to other matters that are involved in any given situation. Some governments have persecuted good, and some good children have died young. Yet, the principle in its application in human life tends toward a desired result (cf. 1 Pet. 3:13-14). Preachers are not the only ministers. Rulers of the state are God’s ministers, too.

Sixth, just as personal and domestic conditions may vary, just so in the state conditions may vary, too. For example, personally a person may move from immaturity to maturity, from ignorance to knowledge, from poverty to wealth or from wealth to poverty, from health to sickness or from sickness to health, from not being employed to finding employment, etc. Domestically, he may change by leaving home, having lived with parents, from being unmarried to being married, from not having children to having children, etc. So, clearly, personal adjustments are necessarily required as one’s circumstances are altered. State conditions may move from many people to few or from few to many, from wealth to poverty or from poverty to wealth, from peace to war or from war to peace, from expansion of territory to loss of territory or from loss to expansion, from general well-being to non-well-being, etc.

Seventh, God does not view all circumstances in the same way. For example, there are many purposes served in this life by the way that God has arranged reality. Solomon long ago affirmed that there is a season, and there is a time to every purpose under heaven (Eccl. 3:1-8). There are various purposes in the mind of God (cf. why God provides various kinds of weather [Job 37]). Job also told us that because of this circumstance, human misery is great (Job 14:1 cf. Eccl. 8:6). God sanctions some things in war that he does not sanction in time of peace (Eccl. 3:8; cf. 2 Sam. 22:35; 1 Kings 2:5).

Eighth, God treats disruption of routine differently than he treats routine. That is, at times people simply cannot do what they in normal times can and must do. We all know this, but at times we may forget the principle. Who among us rightly criticizes someone for staying home from church services because of his illness? Who among us rightly criticizes his fellow Christian for missing the morning service on Sunday because he stopped to help someone injured in a car accident? Imagine a Christian hurrying past the injured with the thought in mind that “I’ve got to get to the service! I hope a non-Christian comes by shortly who will help the victim!” Whoever thinks this is Christianity is devoid of reason and Scripture (Luke 10:25-37; Matt. 22:37-40).

Furthermore, even in regard to matters of routine, who among us rightly criticizes someone who misses the assembly on Sunday because he had to work? Imagine doctors and nurses refusing to work on Sunday because of criticism from one of our preachers. In such an event, we should see that the Lord’s lesson against such reasoning has been lost on the critic (cf. Matt. 15:1-9). The sick must have care even on Sunday! And since all men now live under the authority of the Lord’s new law, if non-Christians can serve the sick on Sunday, then Christians can, too! The Lord taught the necessity of some activity even on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15; Matt. 12:1-8). We must not become critics of good by reclassifying the good as “evil.” There are some things that must be done on Sunday. No one has a right to force a Christian to give up his work because he can’t be at all the services. All of us should work (2 Thess. 3:10), and the time for it is not in all cases an option available to us. Each of us will give account for our own decisions regarding how often we had to miss services. And we should not be unwisely critical of any brother (cf. Rom. 14:1-12). Remember, we will be judged as we have judged others (Matt. 7:1-5).

After God moved Israel into Canaan and placed his name in Jerusalem, He required that the men go to Jerusalem three times a year to worship (Deut. 16:16). During their deportations, Israel and Judah could not comply for they had lost access to freedom and thus to Jerusalem. Such men as Daniel and his friends were still faithful during the time when this requirement could not be met (Heb. 11:33). During the wilderness wandering, the divine requirement for circumcision was neglected. But before God allowed the next generation of Jews to enter Canaan, he “rolled away the reproach” of the nation by requiring all the uncircumcized to receive it (Josh. 5:2-9). God could have reemphasized the requirement to Moses during the wandering period. But He did not. He waited until the new generation was ready to cross the Jordan. But notice that God’s law that governed the routine did not cease to exist simply by disruption. The two deportations of the Jews show us that even though their law remained in place, since they were not and could not be in the place where it could be obeyed, their faithfulness (cf. Daniel) was not measured by their failure to show up in Jerusalem. We can learn God’s attitude toward His people during this time when they could not get to Jerusalem (cf. Rom. 15:4).

Ninth, God manages His world including the use of disease that has entered it. God early on promised Israel that if she would be faithful, she would not have disease (Exod. 15:15; Deut. 7:15). But, as we know, she was not faithful, and the diseases moved into her national body. By the time the Lord came to the earth, he found much sickness and disease (Matt. 9:35-36). Just how much sickness and disease is attributable to natural law only and how much is attributable to God’s providential use of it, no one can comprehend (cf. Elihu’s remark in Job 37:5 regarding the weather). But God still determines whether or not sickness is unto death (2 Kings 20:1-7; Eccl. 8:8; Heb.9:27).

Tenth, the nature of an emergency may obscure the clarity of one’s obligation. If we all clearly perceived that a thief was going to break into our house, we would watch for it (Matt. 24:42-44). The emergency would be clear. And perhaps our own desperation would become clear. However, in some circumstances, the emergency or the desperation is not perceived. A man may not perceive his own desperation in spiritual matters while at the same time he is well aware of his current physical well being (Luke 12:20).

We are now in a national emergency situation. While God is in control, our government is the one in authority, and our government has the right and obligation to seek the good of this country. We are to submit to that authority for the Lord’s sake (1 Pet. 2:13). Here in Texas, when our governor decreed that citizens of our state should no longer gather in groups of more than ten, in order to help prevent the spread of a deadly and fast moving virus (in order to save lives!), we had no choice but to submit.

As I get closer to the end of this article, let me ask a few questions for your humble consideration:

  1. If someone is a carrier of a deadly disease (and he knows it), does he have the obligation to avoid contact with other people?
  2. If a person suspects that he is a carrier of a deadly disease, does he have the obligation to avoid contact with other people?
  3. Do Christians have any obligation to help prevent the spread of a deadly disease?
  4. Since all men now live under the law of Christ, isn’t it true that if Christians do not have an obligation to prevent the spread of a deadly disease, then no one has the obligation to prevent the spread of a deadly disease?
  5. Is a civil decree required before the church is obligated to help prevent the spread of a deadly disease?
  6. Shouldn’t the church desire to help prevent the spread of a deadly disease even in the absence of any civil decree?
  7. If a medical doctor were to tell me to stay home from church services until the threat of a deadly disease is past, should I heed his counsel?
  8. If a medical doctor advises a young mother to stay at home with her newborn infant for two months before going out into society, should she heed his words?
  9. If the government advises any and/or all of us to stay at home to help prevent the spread of a deadly disease, should we all comply?
  10. If a Christian stays at home to help prevent the spread of a deadly disease and he does so under either medical counsel or legal decree, does he thereby forsake the assembly?

Finally, let me put my conclusion into a series of syllogisms that will provide the thought process whereby we know that we are doing right to comply with governmental decree to stay at home or to refuse to gather in large groups or to comply with “social distancing.”

Argument #1

  1. If the government has divine authority to take life, then the government has divine authority to save life (which is the opposite of taking life).
  2. The government has the authority to take life (John 19:10-11; Rom. 13:1-7).
  3. Then, the government has divine authority to save life.

Argument #2

  1. If the government has divine authority to save life, and if its current temporary prohibition against public gatherings is in order to save life, then its current temporary prohibition against public gatherings is within the purview of that divine authority.
  2. Government has divine authority to save life, and its current temporary prohibition against public gatherings is in order to save life (see Argument #1 and the above discussion concerning the routine and the disruption of the routine; also, note that the spread of the disease causes sickness and death).
  3. Then, its current temporary prohibition against public gatherings is within the purview of that divine authority.

The question has been asked, “Who has the right to cancel the services?” Well, while it is clear to me (though this is not discussed in this article) that elders have the right in given situations to cancel services, in the situation addressed in this article, the government does!