COVID-19 and the Christian conscience

COVID-19 and the Christian conscience

This is the second of two posts on the subject.

In reaction to the fearmongers fomenting rebellion against the state for mandating public health measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, we have published a number of posts calmly explaining that it is the duty of civil authorities to protect their citizens from pandemics. We have pointed out the long history of such quarantines and the submission of Christians and the church to them. Sometimes these quarantines were effective. Sometimes not. But that the civil authority had this duty was not contested by our fathers in the faith and to rail against the civil authorities for this exercise today is shameful.

Does this mean the public health measures taken by every civil authority during this COVID-19 pandemic has been needed, proportionate, or wise?

Not in the least. Again, we have pointed out regularly here that authorities err, and thus to exercise authority is to err. Authorities know this whether their authority is in the ecclesiastical, military, educational, business, or domestic realm. When our wife tells us she must obey God rather than man and thus she will not submit to the authority of a husband who raised his voice at his teenage son last night, we throw our hands up in the air and leave the room because we did raise our voice to our teenage son last night, but we know good and well that’s not why our wife refuses to submit to us.

When citizens rail against their civil authorities requiring face masks, using as supporting evidence those same civil authorities’ mistakes about the limited helpfulness of face masks months earlier, the wise know the issue is not really face masks, but rebellion. No respectful subordinate who honors authority spends his time throwing his authority’s mistakes in his face, let alone using those mistakes down below decks to talk mutiny.

So no, rattling off this and that study and scientific group declaring this or that finding showing this or that civil authority has made this or that mistake based on this or that bad information is no justification for railing against the governor and his public health officers. Mistakes are normal to the point of being mundane whether the authority is requiring face masks or the traffic department posting a school speed limit out on the four lane highway two miles from the elementary school.

But good Christians know several things that alarm us about our civil authorities, leaving us susceptible to mutinous railing. We know our civil authorities protect the slaughter of little babies, as well as the death by dehydration and starvation of the feeble and elderly. We know our civil authorities violate the constitutions of our nation and states when they declare those constitutions protect sodomy and lesbianism, and even the right to sodomite marriage. We know our civil authorities have long been intent on using their authority and power to violate our freedom of association. We know that, like Pharaoh, these civil authorities fear and suppress our fertility as the people of God. We know they hate and never stop tightening the noose around our free expression of religion so that, soon, it will be impossible for attorneys (for instance) to utter the most basic Biblical truths about sexuality (for instance) without being denied membership in their state bar association, and thus depriving them of their ability to provide for their family by practicing law. We could say the same about other professions including professor, physician, social worker, school teacher, guidance counselor, chaplain, military officer, policeman, and county dog catcher. Christians may have no aspirations to become Amish, but that’s where the civil authorities are driving us inexorably, and have been for decades now. The train is chugging along and it’s perfectly understandable that the draconian measures our civil authorities have taken in response to COVID-19 are causing the sheep to bah and mill about wondering if the butcher is on his way?

In other words, yes, we’re on a train and the direction is set and devastating (or exhilarating) to Christian proclamation of the Gospel, the ingathering of those being saved to the Church, and lives lived under God’s Word and Law. No question about the dark clouds in the sky. Again, it’s been clear for a long time now, so we’ve been warning believers of the terrible dangers the civil magistrate increasingly poses to our neighbors and ourselves in this life and the next when we all must stand before the Holy God seated on His throne to judge all men.

Back then to COVID-19 and start with this: face masks are not abortion. Don’t be the little boy who cried “Wolf!” when the daddy-long-legs walked by. Then when the blackbird landed on the fence pole. Then when the blue-jay squawked scaring the other birds away from the bird feeder. Then when the cat snapped up the mouse and the dog barked at the trashman. In other words, if you’re going to lead a revolution against our civil authorities, crying “statist” and “idolatry!” to mount your revolution on the occasion of the requirement of face masks places you in the Department of Silly Talks.

“But face masks infringe on my freedoms!”

Well, of course they infringe on your freedoms. Mine too. That’s what every authority does. We elect and pay him to infringe on our freedoms, starting with taxes and going all the way up to laws about birth and burial. Mary Lee and I believed hospitals posed a higher risk to the mother and her baby in childbirth than staying home, but doctors were forbidden to attend a home birth. So two out of our five children were born in a hospital and only three at home. All men at all times have had to wend their way delicately through the mishmash of dangerous and safe laws broadly applied in both applicable and inapplicable situations by subordinate authorities in sometimes a judicious and sometimes injudicious manner to sometimes a submissive and sometimes a fractious or mutinous citizenry.

“So there’s no COVID-19 regulation you would disobey?”

Of course there are COVID-29 regulations I would disobey. We’ve said that multiple times in multiple posts. In the last post, I indicated I would vote in our session meeting to disobey any order given by the civil authority banning singing in worship. Singing is essential to the worship of God and any banning of it in worship is a direct violation of this basic duty of worship man made in His image is to give Him—not to mention a violation of our First Amendment rights. Singing with masks is awkward, but others can hear me and I can hear others as together we praise the Lord, so keep the focus in the main thing and stop crying “Wolf!” It’s not like those wearing masks are statist idolaters, after all. We’ve already said we are good and ready to disobey, so why call us “statists” and why declare masks “idolatry?”

What about elders and pastors who lead their congregation to submit to their civil authorities’ ban on singing in worship?

We will disagree with them, but we will not try to draw away disciples from their congregations by fomenting their members’ rebellion against their elders and civil magistrates. We will not try to alienate their members by incessant railing against civil authorities as well as any church authorities who disagree with us.

In the end, we’re left with just a few simple truths. We are commanded by God to obey those in authority over us whether those authorities are good or bad. Pastors are not civil authorities. Pastors are church authorities. Pastors should not rail against civil authorities, fomenting rebellion against those authorities among Christians in their own and other shepherds’ congregations.

There is a great difference between argument and criticism—which are positive, and fomenting rebellion—which is sin.

There are times for church authorities to guard their congregations from civil authorities’ violation of Christian duty. We think singing in worship is one of those places. We also think there will come a time when constraints on worship size, location, and method will have to be violated, although in our own state and county it has not yet been the judgment of our session that we have arrived at that point. It may be in your state and county this time arrived and is long past. This is your session’s duty to decide and lead accordingly.

Pastors and Christian podcasters who claim legal and medical expertise superior to those who have studied and work in those callings are to be taken as seriously as armchair quarterbacks watching Monday Night Football. The man in his armchair is not a coach any more than the man with a pulpit or mic is an epidemiologist, virologist, public health official, or civil authority. Yes, I realize simple Christians have trouble with the degree to which the supposed experts have been wrong, but from the very beginning real experts have recognized and said repeatedly that they don’t know. If there’s one thing that’s been clear throughout this pandemic, it’s that no one knows, so of course many mistakes have been made.

But this is the privilege of each man in his calling. He is one who has the duty to risk being wrong in his exercise of authority over the sphere in which God has delegated authority to him.

Pastors and elders must be very careful about overstepping the sphere of authority God has placed them over. Railing publicly against civil authorities requiring face masks, then calling the requirement and use of face masks “statist” and “idolatry” undercuts the authority of all Church officers; but worse, such behavior by pastors and elders harms the Gospel witness of every believer before the watching world.

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This is the second of two posts on the subject.


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About The Author

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Pastor of Trinity Reformed Church since 1996, Tim and Mary Lee have five children and lots of grandchildren. Tim's books include "Daddy Tried," The Grace of Shame," "Church Reformed," and a new book for elders. Tim spent ten years in the PC(USA) and twenty in the PCA. He's now a member of Evangel Presbytery.

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