Pastoral Perspectives

COVID-19 and Civil Disobedience

Should churches defy governmental restrictions on religious gatherings in this current COVID-19 pandemic? In the past month, a prominent and well-respected pastor of a Los Angeles megachurch repeatedly defied state and county orders by resuming indoor services. After having suspended services for four months, John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church reopened its doors to “six or seven thousand” congregants (according to him), despite Los Angeles County requiring churches to limit indoor gatherings to 100 people or 25% of the building’s capacity, whichever is lower. Photos of the church’s services showed packed halls with no physical distancing and few face masks. In one service, MacArthur was greeted with roaring rapturous applause when he opened his sermon with these words: “Good morning everyone, I’m so happy to welcome you to the Grace Community Church peaceful protest.”

Few Singaporeans would consider physical distancing, the wearing of face masks, and avoiding large gatherings as controversial practices in this current COVID-19 pandemic. Although our government has implemented and enforced regulations requiring Singaporeans to comply with such measures, most of us have kept to them without the need for coercion simply because no one wants to spread or catch the coronavirus. Churches here have been compliant with restrictions imposed on their religious gatherings as well, recognising that the setting of a regular Sunday worship service is all too conducive for the spread of the coronavirus: people congregate, shake hands, sing, pass items, and share food—all activities that allow for coronavirus transmission.

This concern is not unjustified, given that two local churches were the first few infection clusters identified at the beginning of the outbreak here. Accompanying this was news of the heterodox Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu being identified as ground zero of a major outbreak in South Korea. In North America where there is a large Christian population, many church services also became infection clusters. Not only did parishioners and clergy get infected, so did many others in their community. It makes good sense, therefore, to either temporarily stop services or limit congregation sizes (along with physical distancing and mask wearing), as have many churches here in Singapore and elsewhere.

The decision of Grace Community Church to disregard such precautions would strike Christians here as bizarre. In fact, MacArthur commended his congregation for disregarding these precautions: “You’re here, you’re not distancing, and you’re not wearing masks. And it’s also good news that you’re not outside. The Lord knew you needed to be inside and unmasked.” It is unsure if the Los Angeles county would consider this good news while it struggles with 1,500 to 2,000 new cases of COVID-19 daily and chalks up more than 5,000 COVID-19 related deaths. Not that it matters to MacArthur since he is dismissive of the statistics, claiming on Fox News that “in California, you have a 99.99 per cent chance to survive [COVID-19]!”

However, MacArthur grounds this decision mainly on biblical imperatives rather than dubious statistics. Appealing to St Peter’s reply to Sanhedrin council in Acts 5, he justifies the defiance of governmental orders with the need to obey to God and not capitulate to state pressure:

We will obey God rather than man. We’re gonna be faithful to the Lord, we’re gonna leave the results to him. Whatever happens is what he allows to happen. But he will be on our side because we will be obedient and faithful to his word…. We do not bow to Caesar. We will not bow to Caesar. Caesar is not our king. Lord Jesus Christ is our king.

Clearly, he is resentful of state interference in his church’s operations. While he affirms St Paul’s injunction to obey civil authorities in Romans 13, he believes the state had exceeded its jurisdiction when it ordered churches to limit or suspend indoor services: “[It] has never been the prerogative of civil government to order, modify, forbid, or mandate worship. When, how, and how often the church worships is not subject to Caesar. Caesar himself is subject to God.” In this case, St Paul’s injunction no longer stands. MacArthur declared: “[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.”

In a pastoral address, MacArthur also expressed bemusement at pastors who have yet to reopen their churches for services: “I don’t have any way to understand that other than… they don’t know what a church is, and they don’t shepherd their people.” It seems that to him, the only right thing a pastor can do now is to defy the authorities and hold services again. Thus, the entire issue has been framed as a David-and-Goliath confrontation of sorts: a beleaguered God-fearing church standing up to a powerful godless state eager to curtail its freedom to worship (while all the other compliant churches are cowering like the faithless Israelites).

In what might seem like another bizarre act to Christians here, the leadership of Grace Community Church also went on the offensive by filing a lawsuit against the state of California for violating their constitutional rights in enforcing the restrictions. This led Los Angeles county to sue the church in return for continuing to “hold in-person, indoor worship in violation of the State and County public health orders.” In its statement, the county said it “took this action reluctantly after working with the church for several weeks in hopes of gaining voluntary compliance with the Health Officer Orders, which allow for religious services to be held outdoors in order to slow the spread of a deadly and highly contagious virus.”

MacArthur is right to assert that there are limits to how far Christians may submit to civil authorities. Apart from St Peter’s declaration in Acts 5, there are also other prominent instances of civil disobedience in Scripture: the Hebrew midwives’ disobedience of the Pharaoh’s command to commit infanticide, and Daniel’s refusal to pay obeisance to King Nebuchadnezzar. Civil authorities do not have absolute authority over Christians because their authority is derivative; it is derived from God’s absolute sovereign authority over the cosmos. Following from Scripture, the church generally considers civil authority to be legitimate insofar as it does not “assume to [itself] the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Westminster Confession of Faith), or “enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order” (Catechism of the Catholic Church). In this case, MacArthur believes his state and county government had violated the former.

Certainly, we ought to pray that churches in Singapore will be bold to resist should our government take away our religious freedoms or force us to act against our collective consciences. May God give us courage when that day comes! However, such resistance can only be a final resort when all other avenues of resolution have been exhausted. This is to take St Paul’s injunction to submit to authorities in Romans 13 seriously, lest it becomes a bar which can be lowered at will. One wonders if MacArthur genuinely cares about that injunction since Grace Community Church is not left without options: they are not banned from holding services and can still hold indoor services with less than a hundred persons or take their services outdoors. Judging from the official statement of Los Angeles county, it is difficult to imagine they bothered with compromises.

Furthermore, the restrictions could scarcely be considered illegitimate. Puritan theologian Richard Baxter asked this question 350 years ago: “May we omit church-assemblies on the Lord’s day, if the magistrate forbid them?” He then answered in the affirmative: “If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him.” Baxter would consider the preservation of lives more crucial than the duty to gather for worship, and since the duty to gather for worship is not one to be carried out without exceptions, it makes sense to suspend services temporarily to allow for their quicker resumption (rather than to carry on and risk long term stoppages due to the pandemic worsening).

Even if there is an overreach and the church’s protest is legitimate, would St Paul and St Peter have approved of the way it carried out its civil disobedience? Prior to Romans 13 are St Paul’s exhortations to humility and love within and without the church. Yet, conspicuously absent in MacArthur’s statement and address is love for his neighbours. There is scarcely concern for the sufferers of the pandemic or the well-being of those not belonging to his church. Instead, he encourages irresponsible behaviour that could lead to greater community transmissions. It is one thing for the church to defy the state, but it is another thing to cause harm while defying the state. No instance of civil disobedience in Scripture is maleficent because that would be contrary to the love for neighbour. St Peter suffered for his obedience to God in his flesh but did not implicate others in it.

An angry but perceptive Baptist commentator pointed out that perhaps Isaiah 1:10-17 would be an appropriate indictment for MacArthur, that if the church gathers to worship God while ignoring the suffering of the people in their communities, or worse, contributing to it, then perhaps it is better off not gathering at all. Why would God be pleased at such a worship if he desires mercy over sacrifice? Would it not be a better worship if the church suffers inconvenience for a while for the sake of others in the community? If God the Son suffered more than just inconvenience for our sakes as an act of obedient sacrifice to God the Father, then surely the church who lives by his Spirit can suffer a minor inconvenience for the sake of others?

Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. Yet, Romans 13 shows that sometimes the two are not necessarily opposed. Sometimes, what Caesar requires could just be what God requires, and in this case, the greater good of the community over a selfish tribalistic assertion of religious rights and authority. There is much to be thankful for in Singapore where churches are freely cooperating with the civil authorities in this pandemic for the well-being of fellow citizens. For now, we can only pray that the mistake of Grace Community Church and its leaders will not result in further community outbreaks and greater loss of life. God help us.

Pr Png Eng Keat

August 30, 2020