God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. (James 4:6)
As I have observed the discussions and debates regarding the pandemic, both in the political sphere and ecclesiastical spheres, the above verse has continually been on my mind. The pandemic should make all of us much humbler for many reasons. As we sit at home, we all have been reminded that we are not in control of our plans or schedules (Prov. 16:9). In the early days of the crisis, government leaders and medical experts made bold statements, including the assertion that the coronavirus cannot be transmitted through social contagion and predictions that the US is not at risk. These proved to be embarrassingly wrong. As the pandemic spread, some experts made dire predictions about contagion and death rates which appear to have been overstated. At present there are loud voices saying that it is relatively safe to end the lockdown and there are those who say that we must continue to apply restrictive measures for many more months until a vaccine or cure is developed (if such is even possible).
I have a great deal of sympathy for the governmental and scientific authorities. No one in our lifetime has had to lead through a crisis of this nature and magnitude. We should, therefore, be very patient with those in leadership. It will be easy years from now to criticize them in hindsight. In addition to praying that they will lead wisely, I am praying that they would be humble, admitting that they can’t be certain as they try to making the best decisions they can based upon the limited data they have at any given moment.
Perhaps our leaders in government, science,1In general, I think that there needs to be more humility in the field of science. We are often told “science says”. Or “you must believe the science.” But the reality is that “science” does not speak with one voice. Different scientists with different worldviews and different personalities will interpret the data differently and reach different conclusions. Many revered scientists have been very wrong.
Another illustration of the need for humility in science is in the field of meteorology. Sometimes they predict 100 % chance of rain and it doesn’t rain. Sometimes they say that there is 0% chance of rain and it does rain. It seems that they should never be lower than 1% or higher than 99%. and business are having a Nebuchadnezzar moment. The proud king declared, “Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30). We have boasted about a booming economy, full employment, peace, and incredible technological and scientific achievements. Yet in a few months, just as proud Nebuchadnezzar was humbled by God (Daniel 4:31ff), the entire world has been brought to its knees. So, as we pray for our leaders and our nation that they would wisely solve the pandemic problem so that life could return to “normal”, pray also that God will accomplish His good purpose through these hard times. I also realize that the purposes of God’s kingdom may not be best served by a return to “normal” (see the book of Habakkuk).
Personal humility among Christians
I have been very concerned by how Christians (mostly on social media) are joining in the fray about the coronavirus. Some side with those who believe that the government should lift restrictions immediately. They argue that the economic damage done by the lockdowns is greater than the health issues caused by the spread of the virus. Others side with those who believe that the danger is great and that lifting restrictions should be extremely gradual and cautious. Each side posts articles and expert opinions which support their point of view. There are also some who are attracted to alarming theories that the government is taking advantage of the crisis in order to permanently expand its power over ordinary citizens.
One of the greatest threats that the pandemic poses is to our unity.
These disagreements can impact the unity of God’s people as we consider when and how churches should start meeting again. I speak to pastors who are receiving pressure from congregants from both sides. Some militantly insist that churches must resume meeting immediately both as an expression of our freedom of religion and because they believe that the risks of meeting together are minimal. Others insist that we must continue to livestream our services and not meet in person until the government agrees that it is safe for us to meet again. People on both sides of this issue are passionate. Different churches are taking different approaches.
As of this writing we are still not sure of the infection rate and the mortality rate of this disease; therefore, none of us knows with certainty how great the risk of meeting together may be. Years from now we may realize that we were much more restrictive than necessary. Or we may realize that we should have been more cautious. What we do know is that we should be humble (back to James 4:6). We can’t be sure what the outcome of a given decision may be or what the future will hold. “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov. 26:12). Just as some politicians and scientists regret their careless misstatements from January 2020, some Christians who are making very strong statements may be embarrassed in the future when more is known. We also should be humble and gentle with each other. The brother who takes a different view from yours sincerely believes that he is right – and you could be wrong (you have been wrong before). Your church leaders are sincerely trying to make wise decisions in the midst of a complex situation with limited data (and sometimes under great pressure) as they decide when and how to start meeting again or how to deal with distributing the Lord’s Supper. Please be humble and be patient with one another.
The Coronavirus and Civil Disobedience
As I have observed the debates over what the church should do in the face of government restriction on worship, I would like to put forward a grid (not my unique creation) by which we might process the challenging questions posed to churches in the midst of the coronavirus.
- When the government exercises its legitimate authority, we must obey. Both Jesus and Paul taught that we should submit to legitimate civil authority. This may include cases in which our rulers are immoral and unreasonable (like Caesar). Rom. 13:1-7 1 Pet. 2:13-17 Matt. 22:21
- When the government commands us to sin, we must disobey. When the apostles were commanded to stop preaching the gospel they responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). They had been commanded by Jesus to evangelize the world (Acts 1:8 Mt. 28:18-20), and no governmental authority had the right to silence them. We must realize that when we honor God above governmental authority we may suffer. The apostles were often persecuted for their faithfulness to Christ.
When we lived in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, the government there forbade all non-Islamic religious activities. Yet those of us who believe that God commands us to gather together for fellowship and worship (Heb. 10:25) continued to meet in homes, embassies, and even beaches as an underground church. Occasionally some among us would be arrested and/or deported. The house church movement in China operates the same way today. Another example of when disobedience would be necessary was when the authorities in China attempted to compel pregnant women to kill their unborn baby through abortion.
- When the government exceeds its authority, we may choose whether to obey or to disobey. When we disobey we must be ready to face the consequences. For example, I believe that the decision of how many children to have and how to educate them rests with parents and not the State. When visiting Wuhan, China years ago I met an amazing couple who courageously chose to go against the government’s one child policy by having a second baby. Then as their children grew up, they again went against government policy as they home-schooled them. I believe that they were free to make both of those decisions, but they were taking a risk of governmental reprisal. Thus far, the Lord has protected them.
Now let us apply these three principles to our current situation.
- When the government is exercising its legitimate authority, we must obey. In the midst of a pandemic, the State might rightly place certain restrictions on large gatherings as a part of its function of protecting its citizens against harm (1 Pet. 2:14). Most of the initial restrictions on public assemblies were not aimed at Christians in particular, but were designed to limit all kinds of gatherings for the sake of public health.
- When the government commands us to sin, we must disobey. Some would argue that the government’s continuing to prohibit our meeting together, even as other restrictions ease, is preventing us from fulfilling biblical commandments to worship God as we hear His Word, pray together, sing His praises, and observe the New Testament ordinances.2Those taking this position would probably assume that this can be done in a reasonably safe way.
- When the government exceeds its authority, we may choose whether to obey or to disobey. I believe that many of our current choices fall into the third category. In some cases it appears that the government improperly discriminates against religious groups as it classifies certain activities as essential while classifying worship as non-essential.3I also acknowledge that some inconsistencies are just illogical and not necessarily discriminatory. For example, churches have been explicitly told that they may not serve communion. Yet one can go to the liquor store and be handed a bottle of vodka (or in some states, marijuana). Some also believe that many government leaders have exceeded their legal/constitutional authority through some of the unnecessary restrictions they have unilaterally imposed. A church could choose to disobey these “illegal” rules and then fight for their rights in court. It is somewhat ironic that some of our present government leaders have in the past disobeyed laws with which they disagreed.4The governor of California, when he was Mayor of San Francisco, defied the law at the time by issuing same-sex marriage licenses. He also has defied the federal government by declaring sanctuary for illegal aliens in his state. Ironically, there have recently been local officials in California who similarly refused to enforce the governor’s directives.
In cases of government overreach, I believe that we may be free to choose whether or not to obey. For example, a church may decide that they will exercise their freedom to gather for worship, including communion. They would be wise to do so in a manner which would be least likely to provoke a governmental response5For example, when we lived in Saudi Arabia we tried to structure our gatherings in a way which would not call undue attention to what we were doing – meeting in multiple locations, avoiding large crowds, encouraging people not to arrive all at once, etc. and would be safest for their members. For example, they could follow the social distancing and hygiene standards practiced in other allowable settings.6The elder serving communion could wear gloves and place individual cups on a sanitized tray which would only be touched by the user.
Back to humility
Some churches will choose to push ahead and use their freedom to worship. Others may wait until the government allows them to gather again. These issues are similar to the issues of conscience which threatened to divide the early church (Romans 14). We need to be gracious and patient with sincere brothers and sisters who love Christ but reach different conclusions on difficult issues. James, who reminded us that “God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6) has one final exhortation for us. “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12).