Over the past several weeks, I have seen things take place here in the United States that I never thought possible. Our nation, which was built to a large degree by immigrants fleeing from religious persecution, was founded on the principles of freedom and individual liberty. While we’ve always struggled to meet these noble and lofty standards - and at times have failed miserably, still this country has historically remained the freest and most prosperous on earth. Sadly, many of these freedoms are now under assault...
In recent weeks - in response to the COVID-19 crisis, civil authorities at all levels have placed severe restrictions on the free exercise of religion and the right to peacefully assemble - both of which are recognized by the First Amendment as inalienable, God-given rights. Orders have been issued by politicians that limit physical gatherings to no more than 10 people. While some states, counties, and cities have chosen to exempt churches from these sweeping dictates, others have not. Some locations are now restricting “nonessential” physical gatherings of any size. As a result, the overwhelming majority of churches nationwide have been forced to close their doors. Many have resorted to virtual worship services that are broadcast or streamed online. Some have tried innovative new ways to gather, such as drive-in church services.
A few churches have continued to physically meet, despite executive orders aimed at shutting them down. Of these, most have taken extraordinary measures to comply with the CDC guidelines for physical gatherings to ensure the safety of those in attendance. Admittedly, some have not. Nevertheless, a growing number of pastors and lay persons have been heavily fined or even arrested for conducting or attending such services. Last week, police officers even raided an outdoor drive-in service and ticketed every vehicle that was present - despite the fact that all of the congregants were safely in their vehicles and posed no risk to one another. Are these actions justifiable?
The purpose of the message this morning is not to advocate that churches should immediately reopen or that Christians should ignore common sense guidelines and well-intentioned medical advice. Rather it is to carefully consider whether or not civil authorities have the legitimate, Biblical authority to prevent the church from physically and peacefully meeting - or to penalize it for doing so. It is one thing for a free church in a free state to voluntarily decide for itself, based upon given circumstances and recommendations, not to physically meet. It is something far different for them to be prevented from meeting by threat of governmental force...
I. SEPARATING AND PRIORITIZING THE CHURCH AND STATE
Jesus taught that there is and should always be a clear distinction (or separation) between the church and the state - the institutions are not one and the same. In Mark 12:17 the Lord said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We as Christians owe particular allegiance to our civil government, which includes practicing good citizenship and paying taxes. However, we also owe devoted allegiance to God which is shown by faithfully keeping His commandments and doing His will. In most cases, assuming that our governing authorities are leading in a manner consistent with Biblical moral law, these 2 obligations overlap. This allows believers to humbly submit to both God and man simultaneously. But what should we as Christians do in those rare instances when the clearly stated commandments of God are in direct contrast with the misguided dictates of Caesar?
Jesus came declaring the Kingdom of God. He stated that His kingdom is not of this world, but is instead a spiritual and eternal kingdom (John 18:36). This imagery again highlights the clear difference between earthly governments and the transcendent church. The Bible vividly describes regenerate believers (ie, whose who make up the church) as strangers or foreigners who presently live in a natural, temporal kingdom, but whose true citizenship is in the supernatural, heavenly kingdom. Therefore, as the citizens of God’s kingdom, our first and foremost allegiance must be to Him and His stated Word.
Scripture explains this dichotomy in 1 Peter 2:17 which reads in part, “Fear God, honor the king.” This is not an either-or statement, but rather a both-and statement. We are instructed to do both things. However, as previously discussed, our fear of God should come before and be greater than our honor to the king. The Greek word used for “fear” in this verse derives from the root “phobeo” which means “to treat with deference or reverential obedience”. The word “honor” is taken from the Greek “timao” and means “to assign value”. While we should definitely value and esteem our civil governing authorities and their laws, our primary concern must always be the commandments of God. Jesus addresses this in Matthew 10:28 when He says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
II. PROPERLY SUBMITTING OURSELVES TO GOVERNING AUTHORITIES
One of the most misinterpreted and abused passages in Scripture is found in Romans 13:1-2, which states, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.” Tyrannical leaders and dictators have used these verses for centuries to demand total submission from the church by claiming to possess a divinely licensed authority. Sadly, many Christians have been led to believe that any disobedience toward the civil government is a sin - an act of opposition against God himself. Could this be true?
It is imperative to remember that these words were written by the Apostle Paul, who was arrested and punished multiple times for refusing to abide by the ungodly dictates of human authorities. Paul was mocked, beaten, imprisoned, and ultimately beheaded because he would not comply with the unrighteous demands of the state. This is not to say that Paul was a bad citizen, that he purposely incited violence, or that he waged open rebellion against the Roman government or the Jewish leadership. Still, why would a man who died as a martyr for his faith instruct other believers to sheepishly abide by governmental mandates contrary to the stated will of God? Simply put, he wouldn’t… and he didn’t.
The word “subjection” in this passage comes from the Greek term “hupotasso”. It means “to place under”. It carries the idea of submissiveness and cooperation. Christians should aspire to live peaceably under the righteous authority of a just government. However, as Paul’s own life clearly demonstrates, this isn’t always possible. Interestingly, Paul uses this same word when instructing wives to be submissive to their husbands. “Hupotasso” does not require blind and unquestioned obedience, especially to unjust and/or ungodly commands, either in a marriage or in relation to civil authorities.
A similar passage is found in 1 Peter 2:13-14 which reads, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.” Again we find the verb “hupotasso” being used to describe our obligation to the government. Again we see that these instructions were written by a man - in this case Peter - who courageously defied the ungodly dictates of earthly rulers when necessary and was eventually crucified upside down as a martyr by the state. Again, this passage assumes that the governance we as Christians should submit to is being administered uprightly and virtuously.
Neither of these instructions, given by Peter and Paul, dogmatically insist that believers must give unequivocal obedience to human authorities. Though we should be submissive to them as much as possible, there may be occasions that require resistance. To quote Peter himself in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.” However, even when defying a particular dictate, we should continue to show honor and respect for the government in every other way. Furthermore, we must realize that righteous civil disobedience could bring about negative consequences, especially from a godless or corrupt authority, and should be prepared to face them in Jesus’ name.
III. FORSAKE NOT THE ASSEMBLING OF YOURSELVES TOGETHER
Now that we have discussed, differentiated, and explained the Christian’s duty to both God and man’s authority, let us turn our attention to the specific issue at hand. The LORD plainly instructs His church in Hebrews 10:25 to “Forsake not the assembling of ourselves together”. Following this divine directive, believers have been congregating together on Sunday mornings for the past 2,000 years. Obviously, when these words were written at a time when no one envisioned “virtual meetings” online. The clear intention of this command is the physical gathering of the saints in close proximity with one another for the purpose of worshipping God.
The commandments of the LORD take precedent over the orders of men. If the dictates of our governing officials violate the clearly stated Word of God, they are then illegitimate and non-authoritative. This being the case, the government does not have the rightful authority or power to restrict or regulate the peaceful assembly of the church. Not only is it unconstitutional, but - even more troubling - it is unbiblical. Though these officials might have noble intentions, and in most cases I believe that they do, to protect the health and well-being of people, their motivations do not justify their actions. The church not only has a divine license to meet, but also bears the solemn responsibility to do so.
Southern Baptists, and our like-minded predecessors, have historically stood for the principle of religious liberty. Our denominational statement of faith declares, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it.” It goes on to say, “The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends.” These Biblical concepts are echoed and enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution.
In closing, each individual has the absolute right to decide for themselves whether or not they will attend church services either physically, online, or at all. This was the case before the COVID-19 crisis began and it continues to be true even now. It is a personal decision for you to make, based upon your own unique circumstances and the leading of the Holy Spirit in your life. I urge you to listen for the LORD’s voice and to follow His direction, whatever it might be…
Should God lead you to physically attend church, as He has for me and my family (and many others) over the course of this ordeal, it is my responsibility as your pastor to ensure that the church remains open and accessible. For this reason, both Red Springs and Calvary have been and will continue to remain open. Those of us who choose to physically gather do not do so foolishly or recklessly, but rather pay careful attention to the CDC guidelines. Nevertheless, it is our choice to make - not the government’s to make for us.
Finally, we as Christians need to be wary of human authorities who seek to blur the line between the church and state. We need to respectfully speak out against governmental abuses and infringements. We must faithfully and courageously follow the teachings of Scripture which tell us to “fear God and honor the king."