Article 3: Should a Pastor Allow the Government to Close the Church?
16 Issues that Need to be Considered
by Jim Garlow and Frank Kacer
INTRO: What should a church do when government implements what many consider draconian restrictions on public (and private) meetings of almost any size? What happens when believers are told to “socially distance” themselves, thus preventing: the embracing of each other to affirm mutual love and respect, or providing comfort through physical contact? For many Christians, and especially pastors, this conundrum appears to require obeying government over obeying God. But is that choice really that clear?
1. RIGHT TO ASSEMBLE: Some of the most precious blessings believers have are gathering in holy worship, participating together in Bible studies and fellowship groups, and ministering together in one-another-care and outreach to the world. These blessings are so foundational that our Constitution prohibits government explicitly from interfering with their free exercise (1st Amendment).
2. PROPER ROLE OF GOVERNMENT: The purpose of civil government is to protect its citizenry. The government is a gift from God and intended for our good and our protection. Even expert medical advice driving current government mandates is a gift to us, a gift far more knowledgeable than the average non-medically trained pastor might be able to provide concerning the life-threatening risks posed by COVID-19.
3. LIMITATIONS OF GOVERNMENT: The government should not make declarations regarding the meeting of people of faith, except in the most severe circumstances. Once this immediate crisis is over, much of the powers currently being exercised by the government must be rolled back.
4. RELATIONSHIP OF GOVERNMENT AND CHURCH: In God’s pattern, the government and the people of God are not to be at odds. There is no need to purposely seek – as pastors, like churches – to be unnecessarily oppositional to civil government. While we strongly object to the civil government closing weekly worship services, we currently live in an exigent moment, which calls for unusual practices. In a perfect world, civil government would “request” that pastors not meet in large groups in their sanctuaries, and pastors would willingly comply. This is, however, not a perfect world.
5. NATURE OF CLOSURE: If the government had insisted that churches close because of the message of the Gospel, then all pastors should resist, refusing to close. However, that was not the case. Furthermore, the government has not objected to Bible teaching and the presentation of the Gospel through other means such as live streaming, Skype, Zoom, and other electronic formats, thus this is not a case of the government trying to silence the message of the church. This is an unprecedented public health issue.
6. THE SCRIPTURAL FOUNDATION: In almost every discussion of this topic, one verse is cited: “… not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another….” (Hebrews 10:24-25). This is not a mandate that one has to meet in a 200, 2,000 or 20,000 seat auditorium. It is well to remember that Christ said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20) Apparently a gathering of two is adequate for the Lord to be uniquely present.
7. DISCRIMINATORY SELECTIVITY: In our current situation, the government has not singled out churches. If there were other entities that were allowed to remain open – such as restaurants or sports arenas – that would have been evidence of discrimination against churches. This was not the case.
8. EXCEPTION: There is evidence of discrimination in a few isolated cases. For example, in Riverside, CA, a church was forced to cancel plans for a “drive-in theatre” church, yet at the same time, the drive-in theatre was allowed to function showing movies in the same community. In another case, the pastor was preaching to only ten people in his auditorium in a county that said only “ten or less persons could gather.” This pastor was within the limits of the government, yet he was harassed. These are causes for concern. Intentional pushback and possible legal action might need to be explored. However, these are not the norm. These are the exceptions.
9. LIABILITY: Given the current pandemic threat, a church that consciously ignores government mandates and continues to worship or meet in large groups is tantamount to claiming “special knowledge” or a gift of unusual protective powers, a decision that could prove fatal to participants or loved ones. A church or a pastor could be held legally liable for negative consequences in this litigious culture.
10. FAITH vs. PRESUMPTION: Is God capable of protecting His flock from the Covid-19 virus? Absolutely! However, one must always distinguish between faith and presumption. Should we be presumptuous and expect God’s independent protection when He has provided a means of prudent protection for our good and the good of our congregation? The answer is no.
When Matthew 16:18 speaks of snakes not causing harm, only the most extreme would contend that we – as believers – should seek to handle snakes. When the same passage refers to the fact that one would not be harmed by drinking poison, mature believers would never intentionally partake of something designed to kill oneself as some kind of a test of God. Most would view these passages as saying that in those times when we would come in contact with snakes or inadvertently drink something that is potentially lethal, we would cry out to God for healing.
The Covid-19 disease is not a reason to “test” God. Would a pastor defy authorities if they were warned of an oncoming flood, tsunami, hurricane, tornado, fire or mudslide? Of course not. To defy authorities in such a moment would be presumptuous, foolish and lethal.
Thus it is with Covid-19. This is not a time for unscriptural bravado. There is no need to purposely expose oneself or one’s parishioners to the disease. That would be presumptuous. What would be wiser would be to take wise steps to avoid coming into contact with the disease, and then trust God that in those times when we might have unknowingly or unintentionally come into contact with the disease, God will be with us and heal us. That is called faith.
11. LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR: Remarkably, as the government temporarily suspends our right to physically gather together during this pandemic, it’s actually forcing the implementation of the “love your neighbor as yourself” principle. The question is: are we willing to freely give up that right for the benefit of others and to be a blessing to the world?
12. BIBLICALLY BASED SUBMISSION TO GOVERNMENTAL AUTHORITIES: Clearly, we’re to submit to authority, and we’re to obey God when man’s edicts conflict with God’s clear commands. Given this hierarchy, we must continually determine whether the temporary suspension of our need to worship in church buildings and minister together remains justified, or if these mandates have become destructive to our freedoms and Christ-honoring and commanded activities. Governmental authority does not supersede God’s authority, and any attempt to permanently curtail or prevent our obedience to God must be resisted with every tool we have.
13. LEGITIMATELY PROHIBITING LARGE GROUPS: It appears that the seriousness of this disease merits closing the normal gathering of large groups. But for now, be encouraged. As noted above, when two or more are gathered together in Christ’s name, either physically or virtually, through electronic means, we are assured the Lord will still be in their midst.
14.FEAR NOT: We don’t have to panic or live in fear. We must be prudent to invest our lives wisely for God’s glory and the sake of the lost.
15. LAYPERSONS PRAYING FOR PASTORS: As laypersons pray for their pastors and submit to the measures they believe necessary to take, this pandemic crisis can become an unexpected joy for their ministry, for their flocks, and ultimately for the sake and spread of the Gospel.
16. FUTURE: Once this immediate crisis has passed, people of faith will need to be profoundly diligent and alert that all such conditions are rolled back immediately, and no future inhibitions continue in place. Three “freedoms” run together: political, economic and religious. Where one rises, the other two tend to rise. Where one is absent, all three tend to be in absentia. “We the people,” that is, all citizens, as well as “we the church” need to insist on Constitutional rights, protections and liberty.
 Acts 4:19-20; 5:29
 Romans 13:3-4; 1 Timothy 2:1-3; 1 Peter 2:13-14
 Matthew 7:12; 22:39; Mark 12:31; John 15:12; Romans 13:9; James 2:8; we are also to love our enemies (Luke 6:27)
 1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Matthew 5:13-16
 Matthew 18:20
 2 Timothy 1:7; Hebrews 13:6; John 14:27; Isaiah 41:10
 Hebrews 13:17; 1 Corinthians 10:31