Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith– 2nd Corinthians 13:5a NKJV
There is a vast difference of ideology emerging within the ranks of Christianity. The ethical dispute basically boils down to whether or not it is acceptable for churches to defy government authorities to meet corporately for worship and teaching. COVID-19 is the catalyst that spurred this debate forward.
There is a celebrity pastor squarely on either side of the ever-widening divide. On one side is Andy Stanley who believes Christians set a terrible example when Churches meet in spite of health risks and it’s a violation of biblical teaching for Churches to meet without state approval. On the other side is John MacArthur who believes it is violation of the Constitution for the government to tell churches what they can and can’t do when it comes to worship period, but especially in light of COVID-19’s low death rate.
Both John MacArthur and Andy Stanley have put feet to their faith and stood firmly on their personal convictions. Andy Stanly announced in June his church will not meet in-person until sometime in 2021. John MacArthur has defied state restrictions and has been heavily fined by the state of California.
Every Christian has an opinion on this issue.
Those on the MacArthur side of the divide tend to believe the Constitution is on their side, the virus is not deadly to most people and can be managed with smart sanitation procedures. Therefore, churches should be open. Stanley’s side points out it is illegal for churches to meet in some places, Coronavirus does kill some individuals and Christians ought to care about the health and welfare of others.
It is critical Christians think biblically concerning this issue.
A new standard has been set in the age of COVID-19. Governments worldwide have concluded sickness is not to be tolerated, any death from this virus is unacceptable. Furthermore, many bureaucrats refuse to allow adults to decide for themselves if they want to risk infection to attend church. This means there will certainly be more church closures when a new wave of Coronavirus hits or the next time a new (novel) virus comes on the scene. Moreover, as governments become more hostile to Christianity it becomes increasingly likely churches will be closed for reasons that have nothing at all to do with public health.
Those who feel the state should stay out of church affairs use the Constitution as their guiding light. The First Amendment is clear: Christians have a right to practice their religion. There are no qualifiers. It is left up to churches and Christians in America to decide where, when and how they worship God. Period. That being said, human documents should never be our go-to for answers about life, church or church attendance. Human laws change, human documents turn to dust. Consequently, no human document is on the same level as biblical teaching on this or any other subject.
Those who oppose churches meeting indoors at this time inevitably turn to Romans 13:1-7 and 1st Peter 2:13-17. Both texts are clear: Christians are to be subject to human authorities. In both passages Christians are told unequivocally that God Himself establishes all human authority. Those texts cannot be ignored. Christians are clearly not permitted to break the laws of man willy-nilly. Choosing to do so, is a serious sin.
But, do these texts apply to holding church services?
The context of certain biblical passages is key to this debate. Most of the New Testament was written to men and women who were undergoing extreme persecution (Acts 5:17-32, Acts 7:54-60, Acts 11:19, 2nd Corinthians 12:10, 2nd Thessalonians 1:4, Hebrews 10:33, Revelation 2:10). Many, if not most, early Christians were forbidden from attending church meetings at one point or another. However, the Bible assumes Christians will meet and even commands Christians to meet, in spite of laws that forbade them from doing so. The book of Hebrews was written to Christians who were experiencing persecution from the Roman government AND local Jewish authorities. Many of their own people died horrible deaths as a result of their faithfulness to Jesus (Hebrews 11:36-40). In spite of those realities the author of Hebrews gives the clearest command in all of the New Testament concerning church attendance (Hebrews 10:24-25).
1st and 2nd Peter were written near the end of Nero’s reign. Christianity was banned and the penalty for declaring Jesus to be Lord was certain death. Christians were not allowed to hold meetings. Furthermore, very few first century Christians were literate. Books (scrolls) were prohibitively expensive and printing presses and the internet did not exist. There was literally no way to broadly disseminate information without in-person meetings. The Apostle Peter wrote his letters to people he knew would never hear his words UNLESS they broke the law to attend a church meeting.
It is critical we remember Romans 13 and 1st Peter 2:13-17 provide ironclad proof that God is most concerned with the heart attitudes of His people. God does not want Christians to take a casual attitude toward the laws of man or the health of others. Christians who choose to meet in order to make a political point or because the Constitution says they can, are meeting for all the wrong reasons. They would be better off from a spiritual and moral standpoint to just stay home. The Bible is clear: Christians should not break the law concerning church services as a first resort, every other avenue must be explored first.
I tend to fall on the John MacArthur side of the divide. Although with a huge caveat: his heart must be in the right place as he takes this stand (only God and John MacArthur know the state of John MacArthur’s heart). If Mr. MacArthur is defying the government out of fear, to make a point, garner attention or demand his “rights”. His stand is wrong and it will be revealed as a “dead work” on judgment day (1st Corinthians 3:11-13).