The Other Side of the Stay-at-Home Order
I was asked, “Why can’t we meet on Easter in the church parking lot like other churches?” It sure sounded like a good idea. Until …
We are hearing of other churches across this nation who “congregate” in the church parking lot. They broadcast the service live over an FM radio frequency. The people who attend are instructed to stay in their vehicles without exception. No one is allowed to enter the building, even to use the rest rooms. The safety measures surpass those of the local Walmart. I applaud this creativity. These churches have engaged in something I call “creative compliance.” That is honoring to God.
We do not have similar resources (i.e. an FM transmitter). Furthermore, it appears that our county will be under a Severe Weather Warning this Easter. The idea is not practical.
There is one a more basic reason for not meeting. It relates to our compliance with the “stay-at-home” order issued by our governor. The order does not allow the people in Minnesota to leave home for the express purpose of gathering for any purpose on any Sunday in any location. We are frustrated because Hebrews 10:25 instructs us to gather. For the present, we have chosen to comply with the governor’s orders. Things could change.
However, I am alarmed by what others are posting on the internet. Some are accusing compliant churches of cowardice. They say that Christians need to gather because the government is using a crisis to destroy churches. Accounts are coming out of Mississippi where law enforcement fined every participant in a parking lot church service $500. Other churches are congregating in buildings but maintaining the required separation of 6 feet. Those pastors are being arrested and charged with crimes. Is this the persecution of conscience? The government has no right to tell churches what they can or cannot do. That is in the United States Constitution.
Many are telling us that if we fail to exercise our liberty, we will lose our liberty. The “stay-at-home” order is not for public health; it is for silencing churches. Any church that complies with the order is surrendering to a government who wishes to suppress the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.
Every preacher knows how Peter went toe-to-toe with the Sanhedrin. They ordered that he stop conducting his ministry in the name of Jesus. Peter replied, “We ought to obey God rather than man.” On the basis of Hebrews 10:25 and Acts 5:29, these bloggers are instructing every pastor to defy the government’s orders.
Let me present the other side. The same Peter who defied the Sanhedrin also penned the following:
1 Peter 2:11–17
Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation. Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.
Is this a contradiction? How could Peter be defiant in one place and compliant in another? Both of Peter’s statements must be placed in context. The government is not always right, but the government is not always wrong. Peter, the writer, is not calling upon Christians to become blindly submissive to everything the government orders. He makes it clear that if Christianity becomes a crime, then we must own that crime. We do not abandon our faith.
1 Peter 4:12–19
Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf. For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.
At issue is this: When the government orders Christians to “stay-at-home” rather than congregate, do we apply Acts 5:29 or 1 Peter 2:13-14?
Could it be that the orders handed down are benign – that they are not a cancerous trial run to see how easy it would be to legislate churches out of existence? Could it be that these orders are within the scope of the authority that God gave them?
The scale of these orders is unprecedented, at least in my lifetime, but Christians have grudgingly followed similar orders on a much smaller scale:
- Every time the state issues a Winter Weather Warning on a Sunday, people are told to stay at home for their own safety and for the safety of others.
- The same would be true of a hurricane evacuation order on a Sunday. No one attaches sinister motives when the event is visible and apparent to all.
- After a tornado has demolished a city, local officials limit who can go back into the area and when they can go. It would not matter of the church building was still usable on Sunday morning, people would not be allowed to congregate. Again, few resist this intrusion because the crisis is visible.
What makes this crisis difficult is that the virus is invisible and unpredictable. It does not impact every corner of the United States in the same way. Population centers are disproportionately impacted (Minnesota has about 0.3% of the Covid-19 cases and deaths). Rules are being applied state by state instead of county by county as in a weather warning. Furthermore, no one is able to look at the radar and tell us when this storm will pass.
Many Christians who distrust the government tell us, “This is not about safety; it is about who tells who what they can do. We are compelled to put our government in its place (after all, we elect them, and we pay their salaries; they work for us).”
We need to make sure that this defiance is ordained of God and not merely rooted in pride. Dr. Jim Berg writes:
“When we are presented with a restriction by some governing authority in our lives, we have the opportunity to face once again our corrupt heart and submit once again to God’s ways of handling life.Our tendency is to evaluate merely the RIGHTNESS of the RULE we are being told to obey.The real issue is more often our authority’s RIGHT TO RULE in God’s scheme of life.”
Do we know what the motives are behind these oppressive orders? No. Are we sure that they are not part of a conspiracy to silence Christians? No, we cannot be sure. Where fines are being handed out by hostile government officials, are we sure that they are not using this crisis as a pretense to punish the Christians? No, we cannot be sure of their real intentions. It is impossible to prove a negative.
I would ask, are non-Christian groups operating under a different set of rules? Are the officials allowing “secular” groups to congregate and forbidding Christian groups to do the same? Are they issuing warnings to secular groups and punitive fines to Christians? If so, we have a real problem. That is wrong. But if the laws are being applied universally, what reason do Christians have to think that they are being singled-out?
I am not saying that the context of other churches is the same as my own. I am not rebuking those in “creative compliance” with their local governments. These are working with their governments to find acceptable compromises. We are on the same page.
Our governor in Minnesota has made it clear that he is NOT telling CHURCHES what they MUST do, only what the people of Minnesota are allowed to do. We are not expecting fines for violations. Still, he has made it clear that he expects his orders to be followed. Other pastors in conflict with government may be on the cutting edge of a constitutional crisis. If they are, I am not about to cast stones at them. I applaud their bravery.
I hesitate to distribute this response. I do not want some government official to print it out and wave it in the face of a pastor who does not comply with the government. However, each pastor who issues his manifesto on the internet unwittingly sows discord among the brethren. Their manifestos become tools to undermine local churches that disagree with them.
I am not asking anyone to change and come into conformity with me. I only ask that other bloggers respect the context and actions of other churches. If we suffer, let us suffer for our Christianity, not for our foolishness. Let us be Christians – not busybodies in other men’s affairs (1 Peter 4:15).