In late 2019 and early 2020, a novel strain of coronavirus (designated “COVID-19”) spread rapidly across the world, soon becoming a pandemic that posed significant risks to the health and lives of many people. As a result, national, state, and local governments initiated quarantines and stay-at-home orders on an unprecedented scale. In submission to these decrees, and in a desire to protect the lives of their members and communities, many churches, including Trinity Reformed Church, decided to cancel all in-person services and functions for an extended time.
In the context of these governmental orders, and the social and economic upheavals that followed, many discussions arose throughout the evangelical and Reformed world about the appropriateness, extent, and even legitimacy of such orders, and more broadly the nature of ecclesiastical and civil authority in God’s economy. It is from this context that the following statement arose; we trust it will help provide wisdom and application in the days and years to come.
This statement was adopted by the session of Trinity Reformed Church on May 14, 2020, in Bloomington, Indiana.
Preliminary Statement on Sphere Authority, Worship, and Covid-19 Quarantines
Whatever title then men may hold, they are to be listened to only on the condition that they do not lead us away from obeying God. So we must examine all their traditions by the rule of the Word of God. We must obey princes and others who are in authority, but only in so far as they do not deny to God His rightful authority as the supreme King, Father, and Lord. -John Calvin
According to the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice, all authority is delegated by God. Thus the Christian is under obligation to God to honor and obey those God has placed over him.
These authorities appointed by God have jurisdiction in three spheres, exercising familial authority, civil authority, and ecclesiastical (church) authority. Each sphere has some territory it claims sovereignty over which is uncontested by the other spheres, some it acknowledges sharing with the other spheres, and some territory it claims sovereignty over which the other spheres contest or deny.
Familial authorities (husbands, fathers, mothers) preside over the household while civil authorities (employers, councilors, military officers, governors, kings, presidents) preside over the city gate and church authorities (pastors, elders, deacons, bishops) preside over the Church. While it is a long-established principle of tradition, law, and wisdom that the authorities presiding over each of these spheres should, so far as possible, avoid inter-meddling in the other spheres, one man’s duty is another man’s inter-meddling and another man’s oppression. Thus, much of the history of the Western world is an account of conflicts over and between these spheres’ authorities and the ways one or another of the three spheres has thrown its weight behind another sphere in its conflict with the third sphere.
The definitive statement of this Christian doctrine of sphere authority as it pertains to civil authorities is found in Romans 13:
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good.
But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:1-8)
As it pertains to familial authorities:
Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:22)
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you. (Exodus 20:12)
And as it pertains to Church authorities:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. (Hebrews 13:17)
Some believe, speak, and act as if the boundaries between these spheres are easily seen and maintained such that, for instance, the exercise of authority inside the home is none of the business of civil or church authorities, the exercise of authority in the civil realm is none of the business of church or familial authorities, and the exercise of authority in the church is none of the business of civil or familial authorities.
Not true. For instance, fathers and mothers are accountable, principally to civil, but also to church authorities for violence committed within their home. Pastors and elders are accountable both to familial and civil authorities for sexual sin and crimes committed within their church-house or during church activities. Civil authorities are accountable both to familial and church authorities for failing to protect worship from suppression through violence or police action. There are endless such examples that could be listed, but the point to be acknowledged is that, whether that authority recognizes it or not, each sphere is accountable to the other two spheres for its exercise of authority when that exercise is inimical to the well-being and proper function of one or both of the other spheres.
God has limited the Church to enforcing Her authority through the administration of sacraments, moral suasion, and excommunication, whereas He has granted the civil authority the sword to enforce its authority. God has denied familial authority the administration of the sacraments and the sword in the enforcement of its authority, but granted fathers and mothers corporal punishment of children as well as instruction and moral suasion.
Exercising the power of the sword, the civil authority has authority to protect life through quarantine.
As a general law of neutral applicability, a quarantine at times interferes incidentally with the worship of God. This incidental interference in itself does not necessarily exceed the civil sphere’s authority as long as it is understood to be temporary and localized, lasting no longer and extending no farther than the conditions that gave rise to it.
Yet, through a protracted, extensive, and comprehensive quarantine whose sway over the lives of the people is nearly absolute, the civil sphere does exceed its authority. When a sphere exceeds its authority and acts ultra vires, its acts are void. Even for acts that are void from the beginning or become void over time, familial and ecclesiastical spheres must approach the proper response thereto through prayer, wisdom, humility, and honor, if not exact obedience, to the civil sphere.
One exercise of ultra vires power in the current crisis is a declaration from the civil sphere that the church is an essential or inessential entity. The civil sphere has no authority to confer or withhold essential status regarding an institution that God Himself ordained for the gathering in, sanctification, and protection of His people. Instead of the word “status,” prior generations would have used “station,” a word that communicates solidity, dignity, and a God-ordained assignment of an individual or institution.
Of course, the civil authority might recognize the church as essential in the same way it would recognize any other truth declared by God, but such recognition does not “create” the truth or confer the station. And it should never be understood to do so. No one creates the moon by observing it.
When the civil authority assigns essential status to the church as it would to any number of nonprofits, businesses, or social gatherings, it has arrogated to itself authority not delegated by God. It communicates to the public things that are untrue. The church, to use another legal expression, is sui generis. The church is an institution of God so unique, so long-standing, and so destined for the blessed and eternal work of worshiping God that to describe it as just another “business,” “nonprofit,” “social gathering,” or “religious entity” is to subject the church and Her Head, Jesus Christ, to abject denigration.
This isn’t to say the civil sphere’s quarantine must exempt the church. But it is to say there are limits to its authority. No reasonable person would claim the civil sphere has authority to quarantine its people, including the church, in perpetuity. The question becomes what period less than perpetuity and what conditions would render a quarantine ultra vires at the point of interfering with the duties of the familial and ecclesiastical spheres in their worship of God? More broadly, what period of quarantine and what conditions are inimical to the well-being and proper function of the familial sphere and ecclesiastical sphere?
Given the unprecedented crisis and worldwide quarantine that has proceeded for several months, with some signs in some quarters of indefinite continuation, it is proper for the familial sphere and ecclesiastical sphere to consider how far their obligations of obedience to the civil sphere extend in the matter of worship. In other words, the civil sphere has no authority to render the familial and ecclesiastical spheres so deteriorated and prostrate under quarantine they have no ability to fulfill their God-given duties which themselves are spiritually necessary and thus life-sustaining since man lives not by bread alone.
There is no strict formula possible to answer the question for each sphere in each locale laboring under various levels of quarantine stringency and infectious risk. With wisdom and prayer and a humble posture, the familial shepherd and ecclesiastical shepherd must assess the condition of the flock under their respective care and the condition and risk of the open pasture. If those flocks are languishing because of lack of physical food or spiritual food or are at risk of wandering away from the fold towards the cliff, then the shepherd must see to it that the sheep are fed and protected, obeying the civil authority where possible and disobeying where necessary in order to obey God. It is hoped that such shepherds exercised submission to the civil authority, modeling it for the sheep, when the crisis was in its early stages and no one knew the degree to which a clear and present danger existed.
May God have mercy on us, forgive our sins, and lift this judgment from our land.