By Bruce Ashford
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, various governing authorities have called for the cessation of public gatherings, including church gatherings. In my own state of North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper gave an executive order forbidding public gatherings of more than 100 people. This means that the majority of churches in North Carolina are forbidden to meet for at least two weeks. Now with the latest CDC guidance, churches may be asked to not hold services until well after Easter.
By the time the executive order was announced, my church and many other churches had already decided to cancel services. But what about other churches who had determined to meet? Should they hold services anyway, engage in an act of civil disobedience, and use Bible passages to justify doing so?
RENDER UNTO CAESAR?
After all, Jesus famously said to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Mark 12:13-17). Doesn’t that mean if churches had determined it best to hold services, they should violate Caesar’s prohibition and hold their weekly gathering anyway? A number of pastors and Christian leaders have expressed this view.
But the answer is no.
In fact, Jesus’ point in this oft-misinterpreted passage is that God alone should command our ultimate allegiance. In other words, Jesus was saying, Look at this coin. It’s got Caesar’s face on it. Fine, he can have it. Give him your money. But never give him your ultimate allegiance. That belongs to God alone.
So, if the governing authorities were forbidding Christian corporate worship in general, then the answer would be, “Yes, churches can and should be civilly disobedient. They can and must find ways to meet corporately, even if that means gathering more covertly into house churches.”
But that is not what is happening. State and local governments are working hard to ensure the safety of the individuals and communities under their jurisdiction. Together with epidemiologists, medical specialists, and other advisers, they have determined it best to briefly suspend public gatherings of a certain size.
The best thing for churches to do, therefore, is to follow the guidelines given by our national, state, and local governments. We should thank them, actually, and recognize that their actions help protect us—especially the weaker or more vulnerable among us—so that we can worship for many more years to come.
PAUL’S ULTIMATE AUTHORITY
Paul was not a conformist. He was regularly beaten, flogged, imprisoned, and otherwise abused because of his Christian faith. Historians almost universally believe that he was martyred. Paul was not one to back down.
In fact, he constantly urged the church to realize that Christ was the supreme Lord of the entire universe and that He would return one day to consummate His rule. To the Christians in Philippi (a Roman colony), he wrote that every Philippian citizen would one day bow the knee to Jesus and confess that Jesus—not Caesar—is Lord (Philippians 2:10). To those in Colossae, he wrote that Jesus was the One who created the universe and held it together, and who would one day return to consummate His kingdom (Colossians 1:15-20).
But this same Paul wrote to the Roman church, “Let everyone submit to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). Again, Paul is not speaking about ultimate allegiance. Only God gets our ultimate allegiance. But he is talking about allegiance.
“Paul understood well that our Christian witness is not disconnected from our citizenship.”
Paul understood well that our Christian witness is not disconnected from our citizenship. We should respect the government as a means by which God rules His world. We should realize that, in this fallen world, God mediates His rule through earthly governments who can guard public safety by shuttering public gatherings temporarily.
So, what should churches do when their governing authorities suspend large public gatherings? We should help safeguard public health by observing the Lord’s Day in smaller gatherings. And we should hope and pray that this short-term suspension of church services eventuates in the long-term health of many people to which the church can minister for decades to come.
ABOUT BRUCE ASHFORD
Bruce Riley Ashford is Provost of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His latest book is “Letters to an American Christian.”