It seems as if I haven’t blogged in forever! I really haven’t! During this COVID-19 event I have been using Facebook live to keep my regular preaching schedule so instead of blogging I’ve been doing videos at least five times a month! It’s been great fun actually but there’s been something on my mind for some time now that was just triggered again by a post I saw on Facebook.
A pastor in Kentucky is calling on faith leaders to ignore their state stay-at-home orders and open their churches in defiance to the government. He’s not the first I’ve seen do this; Christian leaders throughout the country have been making similar statements, believing that state governments are violating federal constitutional rights regarding the free exercise of religion.
My first thought is this: American Christians are SO SPOILED!!!!
There are Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world who would be killed if they were found with even one page from the Bible. Did you not see the arrest of Chinese Christians participating in an Easter Zoom service? I thank God I was born in a country were I truly can practice my faith without government interference!
That said, I get the friction all this is causing. I actually teach Constitutional Law at the local university, so I am pretty welled-versed in the legal pieces here. So, let me see if I can mitigate the Christian response to all this based on scripture and the law.
Scripturally speaking, Jesus was clear, and I think Paul was even more clear.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:21 that we are to give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. In other words, there are worldly things and there are heavenly things. There are things we do to obey the government and there are things we do to obey God. For Jesus it seems as if these two are mutually exclusive and clear cut.
Paul tells us in Romans 13:1 that we are to be in subjection to the governing authorities. In fact, he tells us the king has a sword for a reason! In other words, as Christians we are not only to be citizens, but we are to be the best citizens.
As a Christian, I believe it is my duty to obey the government unless they cross the line Jesus drew about giving to God what is Gods. For example, Jesus paid taxes and did not revolt against Roman occupation. However, He would never worship Caesar as a God which was required.
But to truly understand this you have to go back to when Israel decided it wanted a king like all the other nations! In 1 Samuel 8 the elders of Israel come to Samuel and say they want a king to replace him when he dies. They don’t want Samuel’s sons taking over. Well, the problem with this request is God is their King and they are rejecting Him and his chosen prophet in lieu of being like everyone else! So, God gives them what they want with all the requisite warnings!
Paul then tells us in that same Romans 13 verse these words, “For there is no power but from God; the powers that be are ordained by God.” In other words, leaders are chosen by God…even bad ones! Of the 39 kings chosen to rule over Israel and Judah 31 did evil in the eyes of the Lord and the eight who did God’s will were in Judah – Israel never had a decent king once the kingdom split after King David.
What we learn from this can be disappointing:
- We are subject to a king or government because we chose to a king over God.
- God chooses who serves as our leaders even if they don’t follow Him.
- We truly do get the government we deserve.
Now, let’s switch gears to being an American Christian with constitutional rights!
Our First Amendment rights are very clear: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Do you see the detail there? It says, “Congress” shall make no law. The Constitution is a document that sets up two governing forces – the federal government consisting of the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches – and State governments. The Constitution originally was one of limited and enumerated powers to the federal government with all powers not enumerated in the Constitution given to the States. The idea was each state retained some sovereignty within the new Union but less than they had under the Articles of Confederation.
The Bill of Rights – the first 10 amendments to the Constitution – were proposed by the States to limit the authority of the federal government because states didn’t trust the feds. Imagine that! The states wanted to ensure they retained power over their own destinies and that the federal government only did what they were specifically allowed to do!
From there, each state drafted their own constitutions most of which look very similar to the federal constitution, especially when it comes to the establishment and practice of religion.
While the 5th Amendment – part of the Bill of Rights – placed the burden of due process of the law on the federal government, the 14th Amendment placed due process of the law requirements on states so that they also could not violate the rights of its citizens and violations could be enforced federally – think civil rights laws.
All this being said, what does that mean for churches opening up when there are stay-at-home orders?
You have to understand one more piece before you get there!
One of the powers of government is to protect the health and welfare of its people. The courts have upheld “police” actions – government orders – that restrict constitutional rights if the health and welfare of the people are at stake. Further, congress has the right under the Constitution to pass any law that is “Necessary and Proper” so long as it doesn’t violate constitutional rights without cause.
At one point in constitutional law, the Government had the burden of proof to show that their actions were necessary to protect the health and welfare of people if they took a police action that violated constitutional rights. However, the courts flipped that and today the plaintiff who accuses the government of violating their rights has to prove that there is not a health and welfare issue at stake regarding the government’s actions or that the action taken by the Government is not the least restrictive means. This came about first when Congress began giving the legal benefit of the doubt to Congress that their laws were constitutional and then filtered down to states enforcing their own laws.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road: Should we as Christian open up our churches in defiance of the government because they are violating our free establishment and practice of religion?
Let’s see if we can check the boxes!
- Is the free establishment and exercise of religion being restrained? Certainly, it is! Churches are not allowed to gather, Bible studies can’t meet, and some states have even banned drive in services! Our rights to practice our faith as we see fit is being restrained which would be unconstitutional if there is no legitimate health and welfare issue supporting those decisions.
- Is there a health and welfare issue? I know some would disagree, but I would say certainly there is. I believe it would be nearly impossible to convince a court that the government has acted in bad faith in its police actions given the reality of COVID-19. You could argue that the pandemic is not really as severe as they say but you’d never be able to say it doesn’t exist.
- Are all the actions a state takes against the Church constitutional under the health and welfare police actions? No – precedent says you can only use the least restrictive means to protect the health and welfare when it comes to suspending constitutional rights. This is where the Church has a decent argument because some states have been quite draconian in their approaches to church service. Further, some states have singled out churches which violates due process of the law as well.
- As an American Christian should I be calling for opening my church? I can only speak for myself here, but my answer is no. This may surprise some of you, but I think our governor here in Oregon has been incredibly measured in her approach. I’ll confess I’ve known her for about 25 years, but we are on the opposite sides of the aisle politically. In fact, I’ve run dozens of campaigns against her candidates. However, unlike Michigan, California, NY and other states, Oregon has done a really nice job of protecting the health and welfare of people while doing their best to respect their rights. Our church buildings are closed but we’re not being oppressed. The police measures she has taken to date are, indeed, some of the least restrictive in the nation.
- I truly believe what scripture says and that my governor was chosen by God even though she’s not a believer and I certainly wouldn’t agree with most of her policies. I believe that as God’s chosen leader I am to fall under the authority of her government. She legally has the right to do what she’s doing and I don’t feel that by obeying her executive order that I am giving unto Caesar what belongs to God. Here’s why:
- I can still worship – worship isn’t about the building it’s about Jesus.
- I can still connect with my congregation – We are not in jail; I can call people, Zoom with people, and even visit them! Nothing is keeping me from connecting.
- I’m not being told I can’t believe in Jesus! I’m not being told I can’t own and read the Bible! I’m not being told that I will be arrested for my faith. I’m just being told that during this health and welfare issue we can’t gather in large groups.
- The Bible is our example: Peter, John, Paul and others were arrested for practicing their faith, yet they didn’t rebel against the government or call for insurrection! They simply showed their faith under trying circumstances. Isn’t that the point?
So, while I don’t like not being able to hold church services; and while I think some states have, indeed, gone beyond what is reasonable and should be reined in, I’m good with following what scripture tells me which is give unto Caesar what is his and to God what is His.
One more thought: I also believe God uses all things for the good of those who love Him. COVID-19 restrictions are no exception. Every church in America has had to get out of their comfort zone (and by church I mean pastors, staff and congregations) to try new things. The reality is the church is thriving more today than it was pre-Coronavirus! More people are watching the online services; more people are contributing to help the needy; more families are spending time with their kids in Bible study. We’ve found new ways to worship; we’ve had to get creative about how to connect with one another; we’ve had to overcome obstacles to reaching the homebound and those in care facilities. Yet, the church thrives!
Not even the gates of hell can stand against us and certainly Coronavirus and our governments don’t rise to that level either!
So, my friends, don’t fall into the trap of being an American first and Christian second. Our constitutional rights are fantastic – better than any other nation in the history of the world – but we need to show the world the true face of our faith during these types of crises.
What does it say for our walk and our witness if we are out there protesting the government when in fact that is not what Jesus did who was under true oppression? The apostles all gave their lives for the faith yet never waivered in giving God what is God’s under the most severe and totalitarian circumstances. I would hope that we could do the same even though we are forced to wear masks, do online services, and not gather in large groups.
This too shall pass, my brothers and sisters. Let’s show our communities what Jesus really looks like.