Its’ been widely reported this week that at least two pastors have been arrested after holding church services in violation of government orders to avoid gathering in groups.
Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River at Tampa Bay Church, was arrested by sheriff’s deputies for holding church this past Sunday. The county where the church is located issued an administrative order on March 20, banning “public or private gatherings, including community, civic, public leisure, faith-based events, sporting events, concerts, and any similar events that bring together more than 10 people in a single room, single space, or any venue, at the same time.”
Howard-Browne’s arrest, along with the arrest of a Louisiana pastor caught violating a shutdown order, raises some thorny questions about religious liberty and how churches ought to respond to forced closures.
There are several different dynamics at play here:
First, some of the churches violating orders not to meet hold to what’s called the Prosperity Gospel. Such churches teach that if you have enough faith or pay enough in tithes (often called seed money), God will do what you want, whether it’s good health, wealth, or job success. God is like a vending machine, according to this theology, able to be manipulated into doing our bidding if we have sufficient faith (and drop enough money in the offering plate). These churches not only take advantage of vulnerable people, robbing them of both money and hope, but they’re also heretical, selectively using scripture to create a distorted and damaging image of God. Costi Hinn, nephew of TV prosperity preacher Benny Hinn, documented in his book and in interviews the theatrics and outright fraud employed by his uncle and other false teachers. (I wrote more about it here.)
What happens when you cross the prosperity gospel with a global pandemic like the Chinese flu? This, courtesy of Howard-Browne:
This should be a time of supernatural sustenance, where what you have in your hand will multiply. And every day there will be multiplications. You look at your toilet paper and you think I’m going to run out of toilet paper, but you have another roll where that one was and you don’t know how did that even take place. Are the toilet paper rolls getting together and having families now? What is taking place? When you look again, there’s still enough. You think you’re going to run out but when you look again there’s still enough. That’s supernatural sustenance.
And, as noted above, Howard-Browne has flouted an order banning large assemblies, which is what landed him in the slammer.
A second dynamic involves those who believe that Wuhan flu virus estimates are way overblown and are being dishonestly employed in an effort to take down President Trump. They view their gatherings as a way to prove to the world that this thing isn’t nearly as bad as it’s being made out to be. Louisiana Pastor Tony Spell from Life Tabernacle Church told WAFB that COVID-19 “is not a concern… the virus, we believe, is politically motivated. We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”
A third dynamic revolves around debates over religious liberty and fear that the jackboot of government, once placed on the necks of churches, might not be so easily lifted—or might be employed in the future to silence Christians, who are increasingly out of step with (and hated by) the modern culture.
A fourth group believes that the Bible commands Christians to meet in person and that streaming services do not meet that requirement. While I have not heard of any churches defying the orders for this reason, I’ve heard discussions among pastors and other Christians who are grappling with how to balance scriptural mandates:
- “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
- “But when the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets'” (Matthew 22:34-39).
- “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1-2). [Emphases added]
Others echo the apostle Peter’s vow to obey God rather than men when ordered by the high priest not to preach in Jesus’ name.
Many churches—I dare say most—after weighing their options, have decided to obey the commands to love their neighbors by doing what they can to halt the spread of the virus and are submitting to stay-at-home orders issued by the governing authorities.
It should be noted that there are Jewish congregations grappling with the same issues. PJM’s Rabbi Michael Barclay wrote recently:
While some religious obligations can be done individually or online, many others require the gathering of people. The Passover Seder, which this year is the evening of April 8, is a prime example of the necessity of people gathering together in worship. The Easter Sunday Mass, one of the primary rituals of the Catholic Church, involves physically accepting the Eucharist, and is scheduled this year on April 12. The weekly Mass and Shabbat reading of the Torah require people to personally experience the ritual.
As I said, these are thorny issues, difficult to untangle in the best of times, and even more complicated in the midst of a global pandemic. There is still a lot we do not know about COVID-19—exactly how it spreads, how long it can live on surfaces, whether those who have tested positive are thereafter immune. We also don’t know how bad things will get in the U.S. Perhaps the estimates have been wildly overblown and, Lord willing, we’ll see fewer infections and deaths than we see in a normal flu season. Or we could see, as Dr. Fauci is predicting, hundreds of thousands of deaths and no communities, churches, or synagogues spared. God forbid.
I’m thankful for church leaders, including my pastor, who are approaching these issues thoughtfully and biblically. I’ve personally come down on the side of churches suspending meeting together in favor of online services. Before the order came down in Ohio to limit gatherings to fewer than ten people, I sat in church looking around at all the senior citizens in our congregation and considered how devastating it would be to lose even one, let alone several. It’s not worth the risk and I’m ok with worshipping via a streaming service—for now.
What I’m not ok with are churches that are grandstanding and politicizing the crisis and demanding their rights. God’s people, Paul warned Timothy, ought not to get “entangled” in civilian affairs, nor should they be quarrelsome. That’s not to say individual Christians cannot be involved in politics—in fact, they should “seek the welfare of the city.” But that’s not the role of the church. The church’s purpose is to be devoted to biblical teaching, fellowship, and the sacraments.
But what if this drags on for months on end? What if we’re still battling COVID-19 in September? In December or beyond. Then what? At some point the church, if it is to remain a church and be obedient to scripture, must meet together in person and participate in the sacraments of baptism and communion, whether or not the government approves. Millions of Christians have been martyred since Pentecost, when the Church Age began, because they refused to obey orders to stop meeting, stop preaching, stop talking about Jesus. Untold numbers of Christians huddle in underground churches in China and N. Korea, risking death and imprisonment because they choose to obey God rather than men.
Let’s pray it doesn’t come to that here.
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