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COVID, Christians, and the Civil Magistrate

If this is true, does the biblical mandate to gather for corporate worship override it or take priority over it? No. We are to do both. But we have to keep the sixth commandment principle always in our mind, especially when abnormal and exceptional circumstances arise.

The Bible itself makes exceptions regarding worship when contagious diseases are in view. The most obvious Old Testament example is the case of leprosy. The general rules for worship called all of a certain age to participate in the tabernacle and temple ceremonies, but those diagnosed with leprosy were not permitted to do so. Why? Because leprosy was a highly contagious disease. Those with leprosy had to be separated from the community. They were quarantined.

Obviously, this example doesn’t correspond in a precise one-to-one way with the coronavirus, but I do think we can take away some basic principles from it. First, the mandate for corporate worship doesn’t ride roughshod over doing what is necessary to mitigate the spread of a potentially fatal contagious disease. It doesn’t override the sixth commandment. Second, in the Old Testament, those with the contagious disease of leprosy were forcibly separated from the corporate worship of Israel. They were readmitted only if they were healed and a priest confirmed it. So, in principle, based on what Scripture teaches, the call to corporate worship has to be balanced with appropriate concern for the lives of the worshipping community (and in our case today, also with the lives of unbelieving neighbors of the worshipping community).

Part of the difficulty, however, is transposing these principles into our current situation. The most difficult part of this is attempting to figure out when lives are actually in danger. What makes it more difficult to answer such questions is that there is a lot of conflicting and ever-changing information about the coronavirus. Leprosy has been around a very long time, and medical professionals have a decent understanding of it. The coronavirus is new, and medical professionals are still seeking to understand it. Different medical professionals have different ideas about it. Some people who have contracted it have died. Others who have contracted it have recovered. Medical professionals are still seeking to determine all of the contributing factors to the mortality rate of different subgroups in the population.

In the midst of all of this, the various civil magistrates at the federal, state, and local levels have to make difficult decisions. Can they wait until there is a worldwide consensus on the seriousness of the virus in every circumstance? No. Because the civil magistrate has a responsibility to the sixth commandment as well. One of the legitimate tasks of the civil magistrate is to protect the lives of citizens. In the midst of a storm of conflicting and ever-changing information, they have to attempt to protect lives when they believe there is a legitimate threat.

I would not want to be in their shoes having to make those decisions. No decision they make is going to satisfy everyone. This is why we have to keep in mind those principles outlined in Romans 13 and elsewhere. God is the one responsible for placing the civil magistrates in their positions of authority over us. By doing so, God gave them the authority to make these decisions. We are to be subject to them as children are subject to parents. The Larger Catechism compares civil magistrates to fathers and mothers in its commentary on the fifth commandment, indicating that the general principle of the fifth commandment includes honoring all whom God has placed in authority over us.

Question 125: Why are superiors styled father and mother?

Answer: Superiors are styled father and mother, both to teach them in all duties toward their inferiors, like natural parents, to express love and tenderness to them, according to their several relations; and to work inferiors to a greater willingness and cheerfulness in performing their duties to their superiors, as to their parents.

The Catechism goes on to explain what honoring superiors looks like and what sins against them look like:

Question 127: What is the honor that inferiors owe to their superiors?

Answer: The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.

Question 128: What are the sins of inferiors against their superiors?

Answer: The sins of inferiors against their superiors are, all neglect of the duties required toward them; envying at, contempt of, and rebellion against, their persons and places, in their lawful counsels, commands, and corrections; cursing, mocking, and all such refractory and scandalous carriage, as proves a shame and dishonor to them and their government.

We should examine our hearts and ask whether our attitude toward the civil magistrate is characterized more by what we read in question 127 or question 128? We do not want our attitude toward these superiors to be comparable to the attitude of petulant children toward parents.

So, what about the specific mandate to wear face masks?

Frankly, I have no idea whether face masks are an effective means of slowing the spread of this virus, but if the biblical principles summarized above are true, it matters little because the mandate to wear them in public indoor places for the time being is not contradicting any command of God. Does it infringe on my ability to do what I want to do when I want to do it? Perhaps, but autonomously doing what I want to do when I want to do it is not an axiom of biblical ethics. Biblical ethics puts God first and puts the good of others before self. Paul, for example, was always ready to give up things he was legitimately free to do if it was for the good of others. Christians have to beware of adopting philosophies that are all about me and mine, philosophies focused on self and doing what the self wants to do when and how the self wants to do it. The Bible, in contrast to such philosophies, is continually talking about dying to self.

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Keith Mathison is an author and professor at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida. He also serves on the editorial team of Tabletalk Magazine. Keith and his wife, Tricia, have two grown children.