Several months ago I wrote an article entitled “Can A Church Cancel Services During A National Emergency?” (available here). I discussed at that time ten points:
- Each of us is under obligation to preserve his own life.
- While a person’s own self-preservation is inherent in nature and obligated in Scripture, it has never been the ultimate obligation.
- God has established the implementation of authority within three realms of responsibility: the home, the state, and the church.
- If government requires what God disallows, or if government prohibits what God demands, all men should obey God rather than man.
- Human government is to be viewed as a minister of God.
- Just as personal and domestic conditions may vary, just so in the state conditions may vary, too.
- God does not view all situations in the same way.
- God treats disruption differently than He treats routine.
- God manages His world including the use of disease that has entered it.
- The nature of emergency may obscure the clarity of one’s obligation.
I supported my conclusion by two arguments that I won’t repeat here. What I want to do here is to respond to two points that some writers have made in their criticism that religious services ought to be closed for a while. Remember that my article was written to establish the point that in an emergency such as we have found ourselves in with the Coronavirus, that government has a right and obligation to protect its citizens, and that Christians have the obligation to submit to civil authority.
It has been suggested that we should just go ahead with our services as usual and let the sick stay at home from services as has been our normal policy. Furthermore, the idea has been presented that we should not cancel services because spiritual welfare is more important than physical welfare. But I suggest that to argue in such fashion is self-contradictory. Why? It is because the spiritual welfare of any sick person who stays home from services with our approval is also equally more important than is his own physical welfare. In other words, the truth that one’s spiritual welfare is more important than is his physical welfare applies with equal application to the sick who already stays at home as normal policy. So, (1) to approve one sick person’s staying at home (as normal policy would dictate) with the approval of the rest of the congregation, and (2) to disapprove the rest of us staying at home (closing the services) for health purposes on the basis that the spiritual is more important than the physical makes no sense. The principle that the spiritual is more important than the physical applies equally to a sick person staying home already with approval or the rest of us staying home with disapproval. If there is legitimate criticism of the right of an eldership to suspend services temporarily for health reasons, it has to be based on some other route of argumentation.
It has been stated that religious services should not be closed because the government does not run the church. Yes, it is true that the government does not run the church, but we Christians do submit to it in other ways anyway! The government does not run marriage. God does. And yet we must go to the government to get a marriage license. We do submit to government requirement regarding marriage because the New Testament obligates us to do so. And yet, as we do this, we still clearly understand that God rules marriage—not the state. So, to argue against service closure on the basis that the state does not rule the church is a misguided effort.
Remember that our former article and this one have to do with a temporary and emergency situation. It is not a discussion of submission to governmental decree to close services either as (1) a permanently required condition or as (2) a punitive measure. If the government requires permanent closure of public religious services and enforces such, then we will all of necessity become worshipers “underground” (or prisoners who will be unable to congregate as usual in governmental custody) or in private. If government forces the shutdown of public religious services as punishment, we will be forced to congregate in private so as to continue our services. I know that we have brethren right now in a Muslim controlled area of the world who have to worship in secret. May God help them, and may God help Christians everywhere to be faithful in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.