Jonathan Leeman writes over at 9 Marks, asking the question When Should Churches Reject Governmental Guidelines on Gathering and Engage in Civil Disobedience.
First off, I suspect that Leeman and I are quite close theologically. While he is a baptist, I imagine that we would work our way down a list of significant biblical and theological truths and double check them all in solidarity. But I do think there are weaknesses in Leeman’s article that are common in the broader Reformed evangelical landscape and therefore worth addressing.
I happily acknowledge that the question he is asking and attempting to answer is an important one, and it isn’t an easy one. Perhaps my biggest overall objection is the apparent over-simplification of his answer. This simplification seems obvious even as he sets the question up, betraying a common contemporary bias, in favor of deference to civil government. But ask a different question: When should a wife reject her husband’s authority and disobey him? Or when should a Christian disobey his pastor or elders? In our hyper #metoo moment, I suspect that Leeman would express a whole lot more sympathy with wives of abusive husbands or congregants of abusive pastors than he does in his article about civil authority. At the very least, I think he would have included a number of qualifiers – indicating that abusive husbands and pastors should be ignored or disobeyed yesterday. But this article doesn’t seem to acknowledge that some American churches may be facing truly abusive civil mandates.
I agree with Leeman’s point that there is often jurisdictional overlap, and I believe there is some of that overap here in this COVID-19 situation. But I don’t think Leeman develops that point consistently. What *I* mean by jurisdictional overlap is that both church and civil authorities retain their authority. When lives in the church are at stake, the church does not abdicate or relinquish its authority. And this doesn’t have to be formal: if you get a call from the police and they say there’s an active shooter in the area of the church, the service can be immediately interrupted. But the civil government does not have the authority to cancel church services. Period. Full stop. Civil magistrates and law enforcement have the authority to interrupt worship temporarily, if there is truly a life and death situation. But if you get that call three weeks in a row and there are no active shooters in your area, the elders would be fine to thank the officer for his concern and carry on. And if the threat is not immediate, then the civil government may ask for the cooperation of the church, and the church may consider that request, which, given what we know now about COVID-19 is most certainly what most civil authorities ought to have done in our country.
Leeman says the church and government have overlapping jurisdictions, but then he actually says that the government’s authority to preserve and protect life comes first. But it doesn’t. That authority is co-equal with the church’s authority to preach the gospel and maintain public worship. Both jurisdictions remain fully in effect. Privileging civil government, by making safety the first priority is a slippery slope. Leeman says we should submit because preserving life now allows for the freedom to gather for worship later. But certainly not always. Is it better to save your life now and worship God later? Well, surely the Biblical answer is: it depends. Sometimes it’s better to lose your life now. I’m pretty sure Leeman would agree, but I don’t think his argument was laid out carefully. And given the actual stats for COVID-19 for healthy folks under 65, what’s stopping a civil magistrate from using the same argument to order churches shut down every flu season, so that we can still be alive to worship every summer?
A Multitude of Jurisdictions
The other weakness in the article was his failure to differentiate between different levels and spheres of civil government. In a constitutional republic, we have the federal and state constitutions, then we have elected officials tasked with upholding those constitutions, both at the federal and state level, and then we have county and city authorities. In America, the constitution is the supreme authority. We don’t have kings (on purpose), and our magistrates are servants of the constitution. While I take the general meaning of overlapping jurisdictions between church and state, it’s really much more complicated than that. There are actually a multitude of overlapping jurisdictions. Beginning with the civil government side, we have federal, state, county, city, judges, sheriffs, legislators, governors, mayors, and police chiefs. Which government am I supposed to submit to? If my governor is looser than my sheriff, do I submit to the sheriff or my governor? If the governor is stricter than the President, do I submit to the president or the governor? And what if a judge says that what the governor is doing is illegal? And what if my city council is stricter than my governor? And what if my state constitution prohibits what my governor is doing? Do I submit to the constitution that my governor swore to uphold or do I submit to the governor who is breaking his vows? And do I have to wait for a judge to announce that or am I allowed to see it with my own eyes?
Then on the church side, there are also often multiple layers of authority. We have local sessions of elders, and some of us Presbyterians have presbyteries and broader denominational bodies that may issue declarations and statements as well. Should I submit to my local elders, presbytery, denomination, or my governor? And if there are only 5 cases in my county, does that matter? And if there are members of my congregation being crushed by all the effects of the COVID lockdowns, does that matter?
Protecting Life vs. Health & Safety
Now add to this the fact that while the Bible does grant the civil magistrate the duty to protect life, it does not grant it the authority to generally supervise public safety. The Bible grants the magistrate the authority to punish evil doers. Let’s have another Period and Full Stop, shall we? The magistrate may pass certain safety laws, but it only has the power to enforce them when an actual crime has taken place. The civil magistrate’s job is primarily punitive not preventative.
In Deuteronomy 22:8 it says, “When thou buildest a new house, then thou shalt make a battlement for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thine house, if any man fall from thence.” This is not a requirement for everyone to live in a castle. This is a safety regulation. It’s perfectly fine for there to be laws that require fences around balconies and swimming pools, but the civil magistrate is not authorized to send building inspectors around to check and see and fine those who do not have them. What the civil magistrate is authorized to do is issue the public warning that if anyone does not have a fence and someone dies, the property owner will be liable for that death. The death penalty for negligent homicide does have certain public safety blessings, but for some reason, that isn’t usually what people have in mind.
On the other hand, the Bible clearly grants the family government the duty to make decisions regarding day to day health and safety. It is the husband’s job to protect his wife as his own body, and see to it that she is fed and clothed and make sure all under his care are provided for and protected (Eph. 5-6, 1 Tim. 5). So, again, if the civil government says COVID-19 is a life threatening disease, and a couple months later, the only thing dead is my business and my ability to feed my children, at what point does a man have the duty before God to thank the civil magistrate for his concern and happily disregard isolation orders and reopen business in order to obey God in providing for his family? I recognize that Leeman’s question and answer were more narrowly tailored to churches gathering for worship, but it seems to me that to the extent that his argument partially rests on the jurisdictional authority of the civil magistrate’s interest in safety, the fact that God has actually given that jurisdiction to the family plays directly into this.
A Lot More Questions
I think my greatest particular disagreement is with Leeman’s conclusions. He rightly states that the government has to have a reasonable argument to ban all gatherings, but then he concludes that in our current situation they do. He says that stopping a pandemic that kills more than 50K in a month is reasonable. But this is really sloppy. How many of those 50K were primarily in a few highly dense populations? How many were over 65 years of age? How many were in nursing homes that got locked down with the disease or were sent sick patients with the disease? How many died with other co-morbidities? And do we actually know that the lockdowns did anything? Some nations like Sweden were fairly light on regulations and seem to have come out at about the same mortality rate. Also, how many have died not from Covid-19 but from the side-effects of the lockdowns – people not getting medical treatment for other “non-essential” medical procedures?
Leeman rightly notes that the government may not single out churches in its regulations, but that is manifestly what they have done in many states. It has not been an even-handed blanket ban at all. Costco and Walmart and the Building Supply and the liquor store have all been crowded with people in my area. True, they do have those creepy dystopian announcements going over the intercom every few minutes reminding me to stay at least 6 feet away from everyone in the store, but I refuse to say “Amen” at the end of those prayers. Now I don’t think most politicians are intentionally targeting churches or religious gatherings, but I do think that their general postures have been singularly arrogant and discriminatory. If Pizza Hut can deliver a pizza to someone’s door, then pastors should be allowed to perform pastoral care. If big box stores can be trusted to implement common sense precautions, so should small businesses. And if you can have a couple hundred people in Costco, then churches should be wide open.
Conclusion: A Bad Witness
Finally, Leeman believes that Christian churches submitting to the civil government is a “good witness.” I would have granted that point at the beginning of this disaster. When no one knew exactly how bad COVID-19 was, I do think it was a good witness to be willing to take precautions and submit gladly to those entrusted to protect our lives. But at this point, (and leaving room for exceptional situations), going along further with this insanity is just a witness to the general fecklessness of the modern church.
My question for Leeman is: What about all the small businesses that are being crushed – the working class, who go from paycheck to paycheck? What about the elderly and shut-ins and alcoholics that are suffering under these measures and being tempted to despair or revert to addictions? What about the spiking suicide rates? What about the soaring domestic violence rates? What about our witness to those people? Many evangelical theologians are relatively insulated by upper-middle class suburban contexts – folks with government jobs or the ability to work remotely at home or several months of salary in savings. But I would argue that unless you’re in a neighborhood that has been completely ravaged by the disease, continued church closures at this point, given all that we now know, is a terrible witness. At this point, continued acquiescence to government orders runs the risk of presenting a testimony of fear and virtue signaling.
The continuation of these regulations is quickly becoming nothing short of pharisaical purity laws which always land hardest on the weak and the poor. My neighbors are suffering, but at least I’m wearing this silly mask. Jesus said it was completely evil to allow man-made regulations to get in the way of obeying the commands of God, things like honoring our elderly parents and grandparents, providing for our families, and caring for the poor and needy in our midst. And the Church needs to lead by disregarding foolhardy and unconstitutional mandates that disproportionately land on the most vulnerable and cause us to disobey God’s clear word.