Do churches have an obligation to stop meeting in-person if ordered to do so by the government?
One month ago, such a question would have been unthinkable in the United States. But in the wake of the deadly novel coronavirus pandemic, pastors and church leaders are increasingly answering “yes” – motivated by a love of neighbor and a desire to “submit to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1).
The CDC issued guidelines this week recommending that “mass gatherings” of 50 or more people be canceled or postponed for eight weeks. President Trump went a step further Monday, urging Americans to avoid groups of more than 10 people for 15 days, saying it is essential to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
Meanwhile, local governing authorities, including governors, have banned large gatherings in some locations.
Many churches have transitioned to online services.
COVID-19 is at least 10 times deadlier than the flu. For the elderly, the death rate is between 10 and 20 percent, according to data from around the world. There is no vaccine.
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Christians “are driven” by Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:36-40.
“Jesus … argued that all the law and prophets hung on these two commandments – love God and love your neighbor,” Mohler wrote on his website. “... For Christians, the command to love our neighbor now looks very different given the realities of the coronavirus. … We cannot meet where we would otherwise meet; we cannot go where we would otherwise go – and we acknowledge all of this in order to try and slow down the spread of COVID-19.”
Bruce Ashford, provost of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said churches should “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,” Ashford wrote at LifewayVoices.com.
“Paul is not speaking about ultimate allegiance. Only God gets our ultimate allegiance. But he is talking about allegiance,” Ashford wrote. “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.”
Jimmy Scroggins, pastor of Family Church in Florida, said “leaders should consider whether encouraging gathered groups of any size is being a good neighbor” in light of how fast the coronavirus is spreading.
“IMO this crisis and these limits are likely to last much longer than 8 weeks before churches are given the ‘all clear.’ Finances are going to be a huge issue,” Scroggins wrote on Twitter. “Leaders that wrap their minds around this situation quicker are going to be more effective. Watch the news. Look at Europe. Look at the acceleration of our situation in the past 7 days. Things will get worse before they get better.”
“Jesus is on his throne,” Scroggins added. “Churches have survived (and ARE surviving) much worse. We are tasked to care for the vulnerable. Most of our concerns are 1st world. Let’s pull together, pray, follow the leadership of the Spirit, adopt best practices, and shepherd well. Leaders lead.”
Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI), told Catholic News Agency that “no right with public effects is absolute, including the precious right of religious freedom.” RFI promotes religious freedom around the world.
“An American bishop bringing suit against a ban [on gatherings], whatever its size, would very likely prevail if the ban were only on religious gatherings,” Farr said. “However, he would have trouble prevailing if the ban is on all gatherings, religious or not, and the act is easily justified by a dire threat to public health and welfare.”
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Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.