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COVID, Christians, and the Civil Magistrate

What about directives against singing in close quarters?

This question is more serious because it potentially affects an element of corporate Christian worship. Such directives have been put in place in some parts of the United States, such as California. Christians are wondering whether this is a case of a magistrate legitimately attempting to preserve life or a case of a magistrate overstepping his bounds. Given the biblical principles summarized above, we have to be very careful about jumping to conclusions.

These mandates may simply be a result of civil magistrates working with the incomplete information they have and trying to err on the side of caution. Some of them may be persuaded that singing in close quarters increases the probability of spreading a potentially fatal virus. Might they be wrong because they have made a decision based on wrong information? Yes. But it may also be the case that their information is right. If that information is right, then we may be dealing with a situation analogous to the leprosy cases in the Old Testament where the lives of the worshipping community and its neighbors (i.e. the sixth commandment) take precedence.

Some Christians believe these mandates against singing are attempts by the magistrate to persecute the church or discriminate against the church. That too is possible, but in order to discern whether such mandates are a case of discriminatory persecution aimed at the church, we would want to ask some questions such as: Are Christian churches the only ones being required to refrain from singing in close quarters for a while? Or does this mandate apply across the board? Does it include synagogues and mosques as well? Does it include high school and college choruses? Does it include theater companies and concerts? If it is directed only at Christian churches, it might be a case of discrimination, or it might be case of over-zealous ignorance. If the mandate applies across the board, it might simply be the case that the civil magistrate is doing the best he can with the information he has at hand.

If Christians disagree, should they simply ignore these mandates? Given what Romans 13 and other texts clearly say, a Christian needs to ask whether he is 100% certain that what the civil magistrate is requiring is the principled equivalent to bowing to a statue of Nebuchadnezzar before disobeying the magistrate. According to Romans 13:2, God takes very seriously resistance to the authorities He has placed over us: “those who resist will incur judgment.” We cannot take that lightly.

Furthermore, we also need to ask ourselves whether we are 100% certain ourselves that singing in close quarters will not increase the risk of spreading a potentially fatal virus to a neighbor. Recall what the Larger Catechism said regarding the sixth commandment. I don’t know that any of us, especially those like myself who are not medical professionals, have absolute certainty about this virus. Without absolute certainty, what does the principle of loving our neighbor and upholding the sixth commandment require? Would it not require erring on the side of caution? Isn’t that what we say Christians should do in other cases where the lives of human beings are potentially endangered?

Is it possible that some of us are pitting love of God against love of neighbor again? Love of God requires love of our neighbor. If a train made you run late for church, God’s call to gather for corporate worship does not give you the liberty to run red lights and stop signs at 80 mph to get to church on time. For years before the coronavirus outbreak I have witnessed Christians disregarding the health of others over and over again. I cannot tell you how many times I have attended a crowded church and ended up being seated near someone who obviously had a cold or the flu. I don’t want to assume motives and say that such people reflected on what they were doing before they did it, but I think they might have an imbalanced understanding on how to relate God’s call to corporate worship and the call to love our neighbors. Even the flu can be deadly, especially to elderly people and those with compromised immune systems. If you are sick, stay home without being asked to do so, and return when you are no longer sick.

We also need to consider long term questions. We should ask, for example, how our decision regarding singing is potentially going to affect the task of proclaiming the Gospel in certain circumstances. What if the magistrate, for example, ends up being right about the relation between singing in close quarters and increasing the spread of the virus? What if we reject the civil magistrate’s directive and do this and an elderly or immune-compromised person in our congregation gets sick as a result? What if someone outside our congregation catches the virus because of our actions? Aside from the potential legal and financial ramifications, how could this impact the way the local community views our church and its message? Again, this all goes back to the fact that there is a lot of conflicting information on this virus. Unless we have absolute certainty that we are not needlessly putting someone’s life in danger (violating the sixth commandment), should we not err on the side of caution until we have a clearer grasp of it?

I don’t think anyone is being asked to deny Christ yet or not preach the Gospel. If that happens, then Acts 5 does come into play, and you absolutely have to obey God. What we are being asked to do right now is more akin to what churches have been asked to do for a time in past pandemics (e.g. the Black Plague, the Spanish Flu, etc.) and what churches have been asked to do for a time during war in some places. In other words, we are being asked to put up with temporary inconveniences. That requires patience.

Christians should be known for putting others before themselves. As best I can tell, we do not have enough information to know for sure that we are not endangering our neighbors’ lives by flaunting directives we disagree with. As long as we are not being told to deny Christ or to stop preaching the Gospel we need to do whatever we can “to preserve the life of ourselves and others.”

Putting ourselves and our neighbors at unnecessary risk of a potentially fatal virus is not a case of heroic martyrdom. According to my church’s confessional standards, it’s a case of violating the sixth commandment.

My sister in law works at a nursing home as a registered nurse. She was assigned to the Covid unit there for six weeks. During that time, she was not able to be with her family face to face. She has told us that ten of her elderly patients died of this virus during her time caring for them. Before I left Facebook, I was chatting with a pastor in Italy who had a Reformed Baptist pastor friend in Italy die from it. As I understand it, the large majority of people recover from it, but some do die from it. Even if I’m not concerned for myself, I have to show an appropriate level of concern and consideration for those I encounter every day, my neighbors. The person next to me in the choir could have the virus and be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. They could pass it on to me, and then the next day, I could inadvertently pass it on to an elderly neighbor or a person undergoing cancer treatment while shopping for groceries. Even if the person in the choir recovers and I recover, what if the elderly person doesn’t recover – all because I thought I knew better than everyone else? Maybe I do, but unless I’m absolutely certain, doing what I want to do when I want to do it is potentially risking the lives of our neighbors and thus violating the sixth commandment.

I have spent the bulk of this post talking about things Christians can consider as they think and pray about how to respond to the civil magistrate. I have spent the bulk of this space on that because I believe we should always start by examining ourselves. We have not reached a state of sinless perfection yet, so we have to examine our own hearts before looking at anyone else. But lest I be misunderstood and receive more emails than necessary, do not hear me saying that the civil magistrate is infallible. Civil magistrates are sinners too. They can be and many times are wrong. Their decisions can be wrong. Their words and actions can be wicked. They can overstep their bounds. They can be persecutors of the church. Many have been, and many are. Sometimes God puts such wicked magistrates in authority over His people as a judgment.

Christians cannot control much of this. We can control how we respond. This is where remembering that civil magistrates are authorities under God in the way that husbands and parents are authorities under God is important. All human authorities are sinners. All human authorities are fallible. But all are legitimate God-ordained authorities and thus owed honor and respect. In the U.S. and many other nations, if a magistrate sins or oversteps his bounds, the church can remind him of it. Individual citizens, including Christians, can pray for him or her and elect someone else if necessary. In any part of the world, if the church determines that a magistrate is commanding Christians to sin, then the Church is to obey God and willingly accept the consequences. Whatever we as Christians do, however, it has to be in line with the basic principles outlined in Scripture.

Finally, I think all of us need to be reminded right now that our civil magistrates and church leaders are also our neighbors, and they are having to make a lot of extremely difficult decisions based on limited and sometimes conflicting information. They are in an unenviable position and they are getting criticized daily. The last thing we should be doing is making their jobs more difficult. Rather than grumbling and complaining, let us instead pray for them. Before we look at what they might be doing wrong, let us examine our own hearts. And let us pray for one another, bearing one another’s burdens throughout the pandemic and beyond. Rather than dishonoring those God has placed in authority over us, rather than mocking brothers and sisters who are submitting to those authorities and wearing masks, let our response to this difficult situation glorify Christ and point people to Him. May the difficulties we are dealing with be used by God to make us more like Christ.

This article originally appeared here.

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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.