Church(es) and State(s): When Should Churches Defy the State?
Updated: Nov 22
An Establishment of Religion
“As His people, we are subject to His will and commands as revealed in Scripture. Therefore 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.” The time has come, John MacArthur wrote this week, to defy the government orders and reopen the church.
After he walked to the pulpit to standing applause Sunday morning, John MacArthur read from Psalm 19, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.” As he preached from 1 Corinthians 2, he reminded the congregation that the wisdom of men will always despise God’s wisdom w and that in cases of disagreement, the church must honor God, not Caesar.
The church and the state have been on a collision course over the coronavirus. Mayors and governors have issued public safety measures to keep people safe and enforce the lockdowns. Still, as the virus has receded in parts of the country and as the orders have begun to single out churches, many Christians have felt as though their right to the free exercise of religion is being violated.
Make no mistake, our loyalty is to God over and against any government. The crucial question is whether or not the church and the state are really in conflict.
Church and State
The relationship between the church and the state is one of humanity’s oldest and most pressing questions. Should the church submit to the lockdown orders? Isn’t it safest to comply? Does the Bible apply to the way the government should enforce the laws? Here’s the argument in MacArthur’s essay: the Bible tells us that God has ordained three separate but interlocking institutions: the family, the state, and the church. They are all good and necessary spheres of society, and Christians function in and among all three. The power of these institutions is not limitless, and when they veer outside of the bounds God has given, they need to be corrected - or in some cases - disobeyed. The state does not have the authority over the “doctrine, practice, or polity of the church.” The church does not answer to the state; it answers to God.
The state of California has restricted church gatherings indefinitely and enacted measures against singing, so the elders of the church have the duty to correct the state or disobey their orders. As MacArthur puts it, “In short, as the church, we do not need the state's permission to serve and worship our Lord as He has commanded.”
Interestingly, he goes one step further. “Notice that we are not making a constitutional argument, even though the First Amendment of the United States Constitution expressly affirms this principle in its opening words: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’” The freedoms of the church precede the Constitution and draw their legitimacy from a higher authority.
But what about public safety? MacArthur seems sensitive to this issue but concludes that it should be the church, not the state, that decides what measures to take and how to respond. Grace Community Church gathered Sunday morning in defiance of the state’s orders.
Churches and State
Maybe unsurprisingly, not all Christians share this view. Jonathan Leeman, director of 9 Marks and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Maryland, offered another viewpoint. After citing his admiration for MacArthur and the decision that GCC has made, he cautions all believers from adopting this same strategy. Leeman prefers to see the issue as a judgment call. He offers four considerations in addition to MacArthur’s letter.
First, there are other ways to meet. When the Bible talks about the Church it doesn’t refer to any particular church or any specific style of gathering. Churches across the country are coming up with innovative ways to continue gathering while complying with lockdown orders.
Second, there is a long tradition of working together with state orders for the common good. Churches in WWII complied with government codes at least as constricting as the ones we face now - and they didn’t have video technology.
Third, it’s worth counting the cost of resistance over the long run and picking the right battles. Is this the right one? “I personally wonder if defying government orders for the sake of a pandemic is the most judicious opportunity to exercise those muscles. The politics of LGBT tells me our churches may have more occasions to defy government requirements in years to come. Do we want to spend down our capital on pandemics?”
Finally, this may be a legitimate use of the state’s authority. To Leeman, it doesn’t seem markedly different from building codes or zoning restrictions, statutes that churches willingly abide by but that have the potential to limit the church’s gatherings. Leeman’s point is that churches should be free to disagree on this point and make different decisions as they see fit.
On the whole, MacArthur and Leeman agree about the limitations of the state and the primacy of the church. MacArthur believes now is the time to push back, Leeman isn’t quite sure.
Churches and States
While it’s not the case that every state is limiting what the church can do, it is the case that it’s happening in a few places. Two additional points deserve to be mentioned. First, the lockdown orders are different in every state, and in many cases, in various cities in the same states. Here’s what Leeman misses in his essay. While he’s right to argue that different churches should be free to respond differently, he doesn’t mention that the ban in California, like the one in Nevada, is not like a building code or a zoning restriction. It is a direct order singling out religious institutions and telling them what they can and cannot do when they meet. This month the governor issued fourteen pages of guidelines for churches and other religious institutions that say they should discontinue singing and chanting, serving communion, and meeting together if possible. Several churches sued the governor over these orders and pointed out that he had supported and participated in protests that included singing and chanting.
Second, neither one of these pastors is maintaining that churches must open and continue as usual. GCC did do that this weekend, but that’s not the argument they’re making. They’re arguing that it’s the church who should decide whether or not the church should meet. They believe that it is time to meet in person again, and they don’t think the state should tell them otherwise. However, they stopped meeting for a few weeks in April and May. Now they’ve decided to continue to meet, and the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, has issued an indefinite ban on religious practices and indoor gatherings.
California has now passed New York and Florida with the highest number of coronavirus cases in America, but because of its population it is only 13th in the country in cases per capita. Yet, it has some of the strictest guidelines in the country and no end in sight. The governor has closed down businesses again and announced that schools will be virtual when they open in the fall.
One state over, the governor of Nevada imposed a limit of 50 people at religious institutions and sporting events but allowed casinos to operate at 50% capacity. When churches sued to get equal treatment, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case 5-4, Chief Justice Roberts siding with the four liberal justices. Refusals don’t require a majority opinion, but the four justices in the minority filed dissenting opinions. Justice Alito wrote, “The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance. But the Governor of Nevada apparently has different priorities.”
Justice Gorsuch’s response is worth quoting in full: “This is a simple case. Under the Governor’s edict, a 10- screen “multiplex” may host 500 moviegoers at any time. A casino, too, may cater to hundreds at once, with perhaps six people huddled at each craps table here and a similar number gathered around every roulette wheel there. Large numbers and close quarters are fine in such places. But churches, synagogues, and mosques are banned from admitting more than 50 worshippers—no matter how large the building, how distant the individuals, how many wear face masks, no matter the precautions at all. In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion. Maybe that is nothing new. But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion. The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”
These justices are not concerned with the Biblical arguments of MacArthur and Leeman but with the legal arguments of Jefferson and Madison. Singling out churches while casinos and movie theaters are free to entertain hundreds of people partaking in similar activities is a brazen violation of the First Amendment. It’s baffling that the Supreme Court would deny an emergency injunction for these churches. Churches in Nevada and California now have different consequences for their choices than churches elsewhere, but that shouldn’t necessarily change their decision-making process.
Who Is My Neighbor?
In a time like this, we have to remember our priorities. When the CDC first issued guidance directed at churches, Albert Mohler took this issue head-on. The command to love our neighbors encompasses the tension between the faithful witness of gathering together to worship and doing everything we can to stop the spread of the disease.
To the first point, Mohler writes, “I think it is a substantial problem for any kind of government agency to say, ‘This is how worship should be conducted,’ right down to mentioning choirs and hymnals and all the rest in the context of guidance addressed to religious organizations, congregations, and churches. The problem is the government doesn't have any business saying, ‘You should sing, you shouldn't sing in such services. Worship can be conducted without a choir. You don't have to use hymn books or prayer books. You don't have to pass the plate.’ It should not speak directly to those issues.”
To the second, “In my judgment, love of God and love of neighbor again means that under almost all circumstances, when it is a reasonable, generally applicable policy, Christians should respect it. We respect government. We respect the role of government and we certainly, out of love of God and love of neighbor, do not want to become vectors for spreading a pandemic. We want to preserve human life. We don't want to endanger human life.”
This is the tension we must navigate. We must seek the wisdom of God in charting the right course for public gatherings. In most places, it’s no problem to continue to meet in smaller groups and services, hold online services, continue small groups over Zoom, and slowly reopen as the number of cases drops in our cities and states. Let’s not be unaware, though, of how these decisions should be made.
What About My Church?
Every state is handling things differently, and that means every church will have to handle things differently, too. Some churches will never run up against government orders, and others will, but we all must be reminded of the calling, priorities, and mission of the Church.
MacArthur and Leeman have both reminded us that the church is subject to God, not to the state, but that insofar as the state and the church have the same goals, we should work together. That means no church should defy the government’s orders for the sake of being defiant. As Christians, we have an even higher responsibility than our non-believing neighbors to do everything we can to keep people safe - as long as we remember that while safety is an important goal, it is not the ultimate goal.
Throughout history, Christians have responded to plagues and pandemics with mercy and care that are inconceivable to the watching world. In the Roman Empire, Christians cared for the sick that no one else would touch. They survived at much higher rates because they nursed each other back to health. They saw the church grow because they showed the love of Christ to a hurting world. They knew that the command to love their neighbors was not conditional on health and safety. Dionysius, the Bishop of Alexandria in the 3rd century, wrote a letter to his congregation reminding them of the value of mercy and care during the pandemic they had experienced; “Most of our brothers showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.”
Whether we decide to meet in person or online, we should pray that as we seek to love God and love our neighbors that we too could have that kind of impact during the coronavirus.
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak.