COVID-19: a pastoral letter
This letter is an updated form of what was sent to the souls of Christ Church, Cincinnati, this past week, by Pastor Joseph Bayly. Thinking it might be helpful to others, I post it here.
On Friday, Clermont County, where we are currently meeting, was added to Ohio’s list of counties requiring masks be worn while in indoor public gatherings. This means that those 10 years old and older are required to wear masks while at church for the time being. Any sort of material will suffice, and we recommend finding something comfortable. If you forget your own or do not have anything that will work well, we have masks available in the lobby.
So far there has been remarkable unity and charity within our fellowship as we’ve faced new circumstances and challenges this year as a church. This is not something we take for granted, and we are encouraged and emboldened in our work of preaching and pastoral care through conversations we’ve had with many of you. We are not all in perfect agreement about everything that should be done, but there has been a remarkable level of grace as we focus on the work of building Christ’s church in a time of upheaval and uncertainty…
Still, we have seen a growing chasm of division in the broader body of Christ in some areas, and it has gotten close enough that we must address it as shepherds. We do not desire to see the work that God has accomplished in our midst undone.
There has been some divisive rhetoric from some people claiming that we should not submit to the civil authorities concerning masks. Some of these people have been media personalities. Some have been lawmakers. Sadly, some have even been Reformed pastors. If you have been reading and listening to such people, we exhort you to stop. It is one thing to read and argue about the effectiveness of masks or what actions are really necessary because of COVID-19. It is another thing entirely to be feeding from the hands of those who are condemning your pastors and elders and encouraging rebellion against the civil magistrate over a law that transgresses none of the laws of God. Such divisiveness and rebelliousness will bear bad fruit in our lives if we give it a foothold.
We are prone to justifying disobedience, and I know that many of us have no desire to do what this law requires. So we want to address some of the excuses we’ve heard for why it is reasonable to disobey this law.
“Other people aren’t wearing masks,” “nobody is enforcing this law,” “masks don’t help against Coronavirus anyway,” and “it’s a liberal conspiracy” may all be true statements (for the sake of argument), but they are certainly not valid reasons to disobey a lawful and moral order from the government. Governor DeWine and his Interim Director of Health may or may not have good reasons for this requirement. They may be wise or foolish. They may or may not have good motives driving them. They may be acting in faithless fear, or they may be acting from courageous faith that God will use their actions to save lives, fulfilling their duty before God as civil magistrates. None of that bears on the question of whether we should submit.
These are the rulers God has given us, and these are the rules they have made. Is it our place to question them? Sure. To make our opinion known? Yes. To exhort and appeal to those over us? Absolutely. And even to hold them accountable. But every man is not to do what is right in his own eyes when God has given us a governor—whether he be good or bad. At the time of Jesus and the apostles, the rulers were just as bad, if not worse, than ours today, yet Jesus and the apostles are the ones who remind us most strongly to submit to those in authority over us.
Aside from God’s clear commands to submit to governing authorities, there are other wise reasons to comply with this mandate, which would include: creating a welcoming environment for outsiders during this time when masks are expected; as well as being respectful and honoring to the owners of ––––, our hosts, who have been very gracious and accommodating in facilitating our worship services here for the past couple of months.
The mandate from Governor DeWine does specify certain exemptions which affect certain individuals in our midst. As we already mentioned, children under 10 are not required to wear masks. The law also exempts those who have health conditions which would be adversely affected by wearing a mask. We know that applies to some of you here, and if it does we want you to feel free to take advantage of that exemption. The mandate also exempts pastors who are leading religious services. Because of this, and because of the practical difficulties of preaching and leading worship with a mask on, some of us up front will not be wearing a mask while leading.
One of the most significant questions is when and where civil disobedience to such regulations is appropriate. As regards this particular situation with COVID-19, we think the following from Evangel Presbytery’s Statement on Sphere Authority, Worship, and COVID-19 Quarantines will be helpful:
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 [families] and [churches] to consider how far their obligations of obedience to the civil [authority] 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 such obedience would cause them to disobey God.
It is inevitable that we will have differences of opinion on this matter, as we do on many other matters of doctrine and practice. We encourage debate and argument; as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.
However, God forbids us from being quarrelsome or uncharitable, and we ought to be very careful of falsely or precipitously accusing our brothers of sin. We all need to be quick to first confess our own sins and willing to have our own arguments and opinions improved by our brothers and sisters. Other churches and other families in other states, or even in other parts of Cincinnati, will make different decisions about how to act in response to mandates like this one.
Let us look first to ourselves, seeking God’s wisdom in how to be faithful, and only then let us seek to help and correct others in a spirit of humility and gentleness.
Finally, we exhort you to cheerfulness as we submit to those God has placed in authority over us:
Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world. (Philippians 2:14–15)