There may be no greater earthly grief than when true brothers in Christ are divided over secondary matters (Jn 17:22-23). To me, one of the most heartbreaking stories in the Bible is the separation of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). Each had to follow his own conscience in a practical matter. It was right for Paul and Barnabas to go their separate ways, given their convictions, and yet, it’s a grief that they couldn’t agree.
Christians have so much in common: one body, one spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father. My constant prayer throughout COVID-19 has been that God would keep Satan and his allies from sowing seeds of division and discord among true brethren, which only fractures our unity and weakens our strength in Christ and witness to the watching world. The providences in this season are complicated for a number of reasons, and good brothers will see things differently in some respects. We need to allow for that. That having been said, here is how the elders and I at my church have been thinking about leadership during this time.
1. You should listen to your own pastors over news media, internet personalities and other preachers (1 Thess 5:12-13). That is, while your pastors can be wrong in how they’re leading the church, and you have every right to approach them and discuss your differences with them, you have covenanted with them to be your pastors, and you should give them your ear above news agencies, popular evangelical preachers, and influential podcasters. That means, you should listen to your own pastors more than you listen to what I’m going to write in this post. If you are not confident in your pastors’s abilities to lead biblically through difficult matters, perhaps you should replace them with better ones, or find another church, where you can trust your pastors and follow them when it counts, which is what Scripture requires.
According to Scripture, you should listen to the leaders God has placed over you in your church (Heb 13:17). This is especially important when it comes to confusing matters of Scriptural interpretation and necessary applications. One of the reasons God gives pastors to churches is to lead through difficulties. Sadly, it seems that many internet personalities insist that they are right and allow no room for legitimate differences of opinion. They imply that all Christians should think as they do and should follow them, rather than their pastors. But that’s a serious and divisive violation of church order.
2. At our church, we have tried to accommodate people’s consciences within the bounds of Scripture, where it is practical to do so. Our first goal has been to recognize that Christians have liberty to believe, think, and act differently on secondary or tertiary matters, and we’ve tried to provide practical accommodations for the differences in order to prevent unnecessary divisions. We’ve taught people that if they believe they have the stronger position, Christian liberty requires them to defer to their weaker brothers, and curb their own liberties, for the sake of love (Rom 14:13-21).
For example, even before the governor issued any mask mandates, the media, including conservative media at that time, was recommending masks, and people had different opinions about whether to wear masks in worship. Some of our members wanted to be in a mask-only room. Others believed that masks don’t do any good whatsoever. So, we looked for a solution that could accommodate both views as much as possible. Our church has an overflow room in addition to the sanctuary, and we designated one room for people who want to wear masks, while in the other room, masks are optional. We encouraged the church to welcome one another, to love and accept one another in Christ, but not to quarrel over opinions about masks or views of the virus (Rom 14:1).
3. Churches have biblical authority to suspend meetings for a season to protect life and health. For example, if there is a dangerous snow storm or hurricane, churches have authority to suspend the Lord’s Day meeting until the storm has passed. Some have pointed to Hebrews 10:25, which says, “not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some” to insist that churches may never suspend meetings. But if you study the word “forsaking,” you’ll find that it means “to abandon or desert,” which refers to complete abandonment. Furthermore, the context of Hebrews 10:25 is about individuals skipping church because they’re falling away from the gospel. It does not refer to churches suspending their meetings due to an epidemic, moral necessity, or other practical emergency. Choosing not to meet for those reasons is not abandoning the assembly (Matt 12:1-14). The Second London Baptist Confession teaches that works of “necessity and mercy” are right and good on the Sabbath day (2LCF 22.8).
It’s also important to understand that the assembly of the church and the observance of the elements of new covenant worship are not moral commands, but positive commands. Moral commands may never be disobeyed. There is never a time that is right to murder, lie, or steal, when those terms are properly defined. But the Bible teaches that positive laws should not be obeyed at the expense of moral laws. Jesus says, “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy [moral law] and not sacrifice [positive law],’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matt 12:7).
This is why you can stay home from church, when you’re sick on Sunday. In a technical sense, you’re breaking the positive new covenant command to gather with the saints at church on the Lord’s Day, but you’re only breaking that command because you must obey the more fundamental moral command to preserve your life and health as well as the life and health of others at church, which is the sixth commandment: do not murder. Jesus says it’s right to save a sheep if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath Day, reasoning from the lesser to the greater: “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matt 12:12). The Pharisees (religious formalists) failed to grasp the essential difference between moral and positive law, and Christ condemned them saying, “For you tithe mint and dill and cumin [positive law], and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness [moral law]” (Matt 23:23).
In light of this, if there is a pandemic that threatens the lives of people, churches are well within the bounds of biblical authority to cease meeting for a period of time. Nearly all churches closed down at the beginning of this pandemic, which shows that there was much unity about this principle, even if it wasn’t clearly understood or articulated.
4. Churches must obey the government when it gives orders within the boundaries of its jurisdictional authority, but churches may or may not obey the government, when it exceeds its proper jurisdictional boundaries. This is a hotly debated issue, but the Bible is clear that God establishes human government, and He gives it real authority.
Romans 13:1-2 says, “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.” The implication of this text is that when the government is doing its job within its sphere, Christians must obey the government, even if we disagree with it. We must submit to the government and obey it, even when it does its job incompetently, wastefully, inefficiently, or badly.
Of course this does not mean government has authority to command anything at all. Acts 5:29 says, “We must obey God rather than men,” which means that if the government ever tells us to sin, we must disobey the government. God’s authority is higher than any human authority.
But government’s rightful power is more limited than that. If the government usurps the authority of the home or the church, it transgresses its jurisdictional boundaries. For example, in the sphere of the home, government has no authority to spank our children. In the church sphere, it has no authority to determine a church’s confession of faith or order of worship. And in our nation, the federal government has no authority to violate the United States constitution, and state governments have no authority to violate state constitutions. In cases when the government violates its jurisdictional boundaries, we may obey or disobey the government, but I believe it is often wiser to try to obey the government, while seeking a legal remedy through the legal process appointed in the constitution. Of course, there are exceptions.
Some questions, however, are very difficult to decide because the government requires something that may or may not violate the constitution, and it has overlapping authority with the home or the church. This is exactly what has happened with COVID-19. Churches clearly have biblical authority from God to determine the times and places of their meetings. But the government also has authority from God to enforce natural law, when it comes to the protection of physical life and the defense of its citizens (Rom 13:3-4).
So, who has the final authority in such matters, the church or the state? I believe that in places where governmental authority overlaps with the authority of the church, the church and state share authority, and they both ought to be very careful when that happens. The church may obey or disobey the government in matters of overlapping authority, if it has sufficient grounds, but the state may also decide that the church is in the wrong, if it has sufficient grounds. The question for churches, then, has to do with the grounds on which the church should decide to disobey.
5. Church leaders should be reluctant to lead the church to disobey the government on the basis of unsettled science, but rather should seek to lead from the Word of God as much as possible for the sake of unity. We’ve already established that churches have biblical authority to suspend their meetings for a time, when people’s health and lives are at stake. Therefore, churches may not rightly claim that the Bible requires them to remain open and hold worship services during a dangerous pandemic. It seems, however, that many churches that closed down earlier in COVID-19 pandemic are now opening because they have come to conclude that the virus is not a public health threat. For these churches, the deciding factor in their leadership to disobey the government is not the Word of God but an epidemiological determination. I believe it is unwise for a pastor to use his understanding of epidemiology to lead the church.
Now, I personally enjoy learning about the SARS-COV-2 virus and the resulting COVID-19 disease. I’m fascinated by it all, and I have spent many hours reading academic studies, examining conflicting reports, listening to experts on opposite sides, etc. I have my personal opinions, but I shudder at the thought of leading my church based on my personal opinion about a very complicated matter on which good scientists and good Christians disagree.
In their effort to lead on the basis of epidemiology, pastors have made public pronouncements about SARS-COV-2 that are demonstrably false. Pastors should be men known for speaking the truth alone. If they boldly declare demonstrable falsehoods from the pulpit and in the media, either due to ignorance or prejudice, then how can such pastors be trusted when it comes to Christ and His Word? Pastors, therefore, need to be very careful not to claim things are true that are not true, and they should understand their own limitations when it comes to matters in which they are not as knowledgable as others.
Finally and most grievously of all, when pastors take sides on unsettled science, where the Bible does not require them to take sides, they force a division among God’s people. True Christians may be confused about why their pastor is taking a strong stand on something not revealed in Scripture. They may grieve that though they had previously trusted their pastor, now he seems to be saying things that they’re not convinced are true. And the pastor is making decisions on the basis of his personal views, either in the name of preserving life, or in the name of preserving liberty. Church members, in turn, may become confused and forced to take sides. This is what I believe we should try to avoid.
Therefore, at our church, the pastors are seeking to base our leadership decisions upon the Scriptures, rather than unsettled science. That means trying to accommodate consciences, follow the lawful orders of the governor, hold services safely, and as much as possible, to be at peace with all men.