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Between Conscience and Defiance

INTRODUCTION

Grace Community Church met for worship this past Sunday. Ordinarily, that would not be news. But we are not living in ordinary times. In order to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the State of California has forbidden churches to meet indoors for worship. This comes after California had opened up and allowed businesses (e.g., barbershops and restaurants) to resume. The summer spike, which the media insists had nothing to do with the 60 days (and counting) of protests and riots but which even the Public Health Officer of Los Angeles County conceded probably did have an effect, prompted the governor to mandate the restriction on indoor dining, cosmetology, worship, etc. This whipsaw effect of the latest decision, combined with fairly obviously partisan, corrupt, incoherent, inconsistent, and, according to a vocal, persuasive minority of United States Supreme Court justices, restriction on constitutionally protected behavior has fostered mistrust of public health officers, doubt, confusion, frustration, and anger.

HERE THEY STAND

Grace Community Church published a statement last week, “Christ, Not Caesar, Is Head of the Church.” Their principal argument is explicit in the title. They refused to argue for their right to gather indoors on the basis of the Constitution or Supreme Court decisions or dissents. They appealed mainly to the Scriptures and their congregational statement of faith. They addressed Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:18, both of which enjoin submission by Christians and even the visible church to the civil magistrate, but they deny that the civil magistrate has any “jurisdiction” over the church: “God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church” (italics original). They do not seem to distinguish between indoor and outdoor gatherings and argue civil authorities have “exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction.” They reject any restrictions on the number of people who are able to gather arguing, “[w]hen officials restrict church attendance to a certain number, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the saints to gather as the church.” Thus, they declare, “we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”

They do make some appeal to church and American history:

As government policy moves further away from biblical principles, and as legal and political pressures against the church intensify, we must recognize that the Lord may be using these pressures as means of purging to reveal the true church. Succumbing to governmental overreach may cause churches to remain closed indefinitely. How can the true church of Jesus Christ distinguish herself in such a hostile climate? There is only one way: bold allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ.

They also appeal to “Calvin’s Geneva” where “church officials at times needed to fend off attempts by the city council to govern aspects of worship, church polity, and church discipline.” This is true. GCC also sides with the Presbyterians and Congregationalists who judged the Church of England “but halfly Reformed” and even to the Great Ejection of 1662, in which “the Puritans” were ejected from their pulpits for non-conformity. Their second argument, mostly contained in an addendum, is that the public health authorities in the State of California and Los Angeles County are wrong about Covid-19 and how to respond to it: “But we are now more than twenty weeks into the unrelieved restrictions. It is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong, and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared.” This leads us to our next point.

WITHOUT MASKS OR DISTANCE

Photos of the service suggest that most people gathered for the service without masks or without social distance. When I asked about this on social media, the response by those defending GCC was almost uniform: masks and social distancing are of no medical value in preventing the transmission of Covid-19. The other argument made by those favoring GCC’s statement and defiance is that the state’s imposition of masks and social distancing is an infringement upon Christian liberty.

This matter may not remain theoretical for long. According to news media reports, the L.A. County Department of Public Health “is investigating and will be reaching out to the church leaders to let them know they need to comply with the Health Officer Order.” Thus, it seems that GCC’s decision to meet indoors and even to ignore the mask and distance requirements may provoke some sort of showdown between the church and the county health department.

According to Tulsa, OK public health officials, there is a link between President Trump’s rally there in late June and a rise in Covid-19 cases. Assuming that there were some among the thousands gathered for the GCC service who were asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19, we shall have to wait to see if there are any consequences for the health of those present and for those with whom they came into contact.

QUESTIONS AND ANALYSIS: IS THIS AN ACTS 5:29 MOMENT?

Regular readers of my work will know that I have been seeking to apply Acts 5:29 to the church’s response to the Covid-19 regulations. I’ve done so aware that Christians will come to different conclusions. I have only asked that, since we are dealing with an inference from Scripture, Christians respect the liberty of Christians who disagree with them. Thus, in that spirit, though I disagree with GCC’s decision to meet indoors, I understand and respect their convictions.

That said, there are some aspects of their statement and behavior that deserve scrutiny.

  1. As a Reformed-confessing Christian (e.g., the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards), I heartily affirm their declaration that Christ is the only head of the church (Belgic art. 31; Heidelberg Catechism 50; WCF 25.6). Neither the Bishop of Rome nor a civil magistrate has a right to require the church to do in worship what God has not himself instituted. God’s Word alone (sola scriptura) is the unique and final authority for the church’s theology, piety, and practice. The Lordship of Christ over his church, however, does not free the church as an institution from obligations common to human society. GCC seems to be unaware of Calvin’s distinction of a “twofold kingdom” (duplex regimen). We submit to Christ’s saving Lordship in the church and his general dominion in the shared, common realm of public life. Those things intersect whenever the church gathers visibly.
  2. GCC does not appear to have distinguished between meeting indoors and outdoors. The GCC statement complains that the state will not permit them to gather for worship but that does not seem to be quite accurate. The “Safer Los Angeles” regulations updated July 16, 2020, seem to permit outdoor gatherings where participants practice social distancing and wear masks. In San Diego County our congregation (Escondido United Reformed Church) has responded to California’s (fairly Draconian) regulations by staying at home (under phase 1) and then by meeting in a drive-in service in the parking lot, and now we are meeting out of doors, wearing masks and practicing social distancing, in a nearby school courtyard under tents and umbrellas. I understand that meeting out of doors is inconvenient and even uncomfortable. In some places (e.g., the Inland Valleys of California), it is probably not possible for most of the day during the summer. If GCC can and may meet out of doors, does that not alleviate the problem?
  3. On the rationale offered by the church, it is not clear that they recognize the state’s authority to regulate any part of church life. For example, the California Retail Food Code requires “all food employees preparing, serving, or handling food or utensils shall wear hair restraints, such as hats, hair coverings, or nets, which are designed and worn to effectively keep their hair from contacting non-prepackaged food, clean equipment, utensils, linens, and unwrapped single-use articles.” I assume that GCC agrees with and submits to these sorts of regulations. I assume that GCC has fire extinguishers and bathrooms that accommodate the disabled. If so, why not masks and distancing during worship? Are such restrictions really a violation of Christian liberty, as some seem to be arguing? Such arguments seem to misunderstand the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty. It holds that no one has a right to bind the conscience in moral matters, on which God has spoken. Whether to eat meat offered to idols is a matter of Christian liberty (see 1 Corinthians 8; 10). There are divinely imposed restrictions on whether a Christian may eat meat offered to idols. If a pagan neighbor invites a Christian to what is a religious (sacred) meal, as opposed to a common or secular meal, the Christian may not partake. A Christian should not partake if in doing so will cause another to stumble. Beyond that, he is free. Wearing a mask is not a religious Is the mask-wearing food handler violating God’s moral law? Is a hairnet contrary to God’s moral law? It is a matter of public health. It is true that the authorities have lied to the public about masks and have been incoherent, first telling us that they do no good and then telling us that they are essential but, according to God’s Word, they get to be incoherent and inconsistent. Nero was not a nice man. He was a ruthless, narcissistic pagan, who set Christians on fire in order to cover up a business scandal. We were still obligated to submit to him and honor what the dissenting English Reformed might have called “God’s silly vassal.” How are multiple outdoor services, with social distancing and masks, contrary to God’s Word?
  4. Neither Romans 13 nor 1 Peter 2:18 condition our obedience even to pagan magistrates upon their being just, fair, or right on these issues. The test is whether they have commanded us to disobey God. Clearly, GCC did not regard the initial restriction, in principle, as contrary to God’s moral will. Thus, GCC’s about-face seems about as coherent as the state’s policies.
  5. The GCC statement cites Acts 5:29 but does not reckon with what the text says in context. Has GCC made the case that the public health restrictions currently in place would require us to disobey God? The statement seems to reflect some tension in this regard. It recognizes that the church did submit to the Phase 1 restrictions but argues that the restrictions have gone on too long. This fact places the congregation in the uncomfortable position of sitting in judgment over the medical judgment of the public health authorities. GCC, however, does not seem uncomfortable making that judgment. This gets us back to the twofold kingdom. If, in GCC’s judgment, the civil magistrate has exceeded its authority in restricting worship, has not GCC exceeded its professed authority by making a medical judgment about public health? Christ is Lord of all, but does that empower GCC to make medical and public health decisions that potentially jeopardize thousands of people? Is GCC defending their sphere sovereignty or Christendom?
  6. Were the building on fire, GCC would have safely evacuated everyone present in the interests of public safety. Were it the case that the leadership of GCC believes that masks and social distancing contributed to the safety of the congregation, they would have required them just as they require attenders to be reasonably clothed and to evacuate in case of fire. Even in the case that the GCC leadership evidently discounts the value of masks and social distancing, have they adequately accounted for their neighbors, Christian and non-Christian. The statement says that non-Christians will not understand why GCC felt compelled to meet. That is likely true. But what if the photos of the assembly showed congregants masked and distanced? Might that have mitigated concerns by non-Christians who, after the service and all week long, will now come into contact with attenders from GCC? Might it have sent a signal to the watching world that GCC does love their neighbors? As it was, the refusal to wear masks or distance looked like a cultural-political statement as much as a religious statement.
  7. The early Christians were martyred not because they had no regard for their neighbors but because they would not conform to the Roman demands that the Christians conform to the state religion by denouncing Christ and making an offering to the Romans gods. Those Christians, of course, were forbidden by God’s Word to practice idolatry and many of them went to the stake and to the lions out of fidelity to the Word of God. Our apologists (e.g., Justin the Martyr c. 150 AD) did not prescribe social or public health policy to the pagan government. They only asked that the Christians be left alone to worship according to the dictates of conscience. They asked, in effect, for a secular Instead of implicitly lamenting the death of Christendom, GCC would have done better to harken to the early church.
Filed under: Apologetics, Pastorate, Spotlight
R. Scott Clark

R. Scott Clark (D.Phil., Oxford University) is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, an ordained minister, and author of several books including, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (P&R, 2008). Follow him on Twitter: @RScottClark.

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