Several months ago, we published here the substance of what went on to be adopted as our Evangel Presbytery Statement on Sphere Sovereignty, Worship, and COVID-19 Quarantines. In this document, Evangel Presbytery declared our commitment to civil disobedience when the civil authorities’ COVID-19 decrees reached a level of harmfulness the elders of a church became convinced posed a serious threat to the wellbeing of their flock:
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 such obedience would cause them to disobey God.
When the session of Trinity Reformed Church first adopted this statement on May 14—two and a half months ago—it was clear to us our own congregation would soon face the necessity of disobeying our own civil authorities at some particular of their COVID-19 decrees. A couple weeks ago we found ourselves at that point.
Local county health authorities issued a mask requirement allowing no exception for public worship leadership. Reading the decree, we called a special meeting of our session and deacons for the purpose of acting on a motion that we proceed with civil disobedience. Then, in the final minutes prior to the meeting, our county health authorities issued a clarification in which they specifically excluded preaching and worship leadership from those who must wear masks.
Noting our gratitude for this exception for church worship leadership and preaching, the session’s actions concerning COVID-19 nevertheless included the following (from our July 18, 2020 minutes):
There was additional discussion about what our limits would be in abiding by further health orders. As we have articulated in prior statements (most notably in the Sphere Authority statement approved in the May 2020 session meeting), we are prepared to obey orders of our rulers until they require us to disobey God, and in particular until they significantly interfere with the physical or spiritual health of the flock. Accordingly, we are prepared to view the length of application (i.e., indefinite) of the current orders as part of what we would object to.
M/S/A that we enter in the record our concern that the final statement of the July 17, 2020 Monroe county health order is indefinite (“This Order shall be in effect until rescinded”), has no review date, interferes with the spiritual care of our flock, and may impinge upon our freedom of religious assembly.
We asked Elder Brian Bailey to write a letter to the public health department, thanking them for their clarifying of their July 17 order, yet also noting the growing tension we feel between honoring the regulations and taking care of God’s sheep.
Too, we were unanimous in adopting the following resolution:
By consensus of the elders and deacons, it was agreed that we will not be able to abide by any mandate requiring no singing in worship.
One discouraging part of the posture some Reformed pastors have taken publicly in the midst of this COVID-19 morass is their encouragement of souls to leave their churches if their own elders and pastors do not draw the line of civil disobedience precisely where they do. These men have encouraged sheep in other elders’ flocks to find another church if their own church is limiting in-church-house worship due to COVID-19. They have also called into question the faithfulness of other elders who do not oppose public health laws requiring face masks.
Back five months ago, I warned pastors and elders they would soon face conflict and division in their congregations over face masks. What I didn’t foresee was other Reformed pastors with high visibility through their podcasts and blogs—pastors we had cultivated respect for within our flock for many years—denouncing our elders’ leadership and decisions, and thus alienating the affection of our sheep.
Over health laws requiring face masks.
Reformed pastors are dividing the church over face masks, condemning those not opposed to face mask laws for their “submission to the statist gods.”
Yesterday, I was thinking about this state of affairs and I realized something important. These men aren’t primarily concerned with getting sheep from other congregations to see things their way concerning COVID-19 public health decrees. If this were their goal, the sheep reading and listening to them from churches in other cities would not be critical of their own elders who had (in our own case, for instance) publicly stated their commitment to civil disobedience of these decrees at this or that point.
After all, no reasonable elder or pastor thinks every church in every county and state should draw the line when and where he and his fellow elders draw the line for their own congregation. It should be sufficient that other pastors and elders recognize the temptation to roll over and play dead in front of the civil authority behemoths during this time of crisis, and are taking steps to oppose that behemoth, formally, by statements and actions in disobedience of the behemoth’s decrees.
Nevertheless, it hasn’t been sufficient, and sheep reading these men across the country have been led by them to judge their own elders.
So now, add it all up: the elders of a certain church adopted a statement months ago indicating their commitment to judge and disobey the civil authority’s COVID-19 health decrees when they began to cause serious harm to those sheep under their charge. Then, a couple weeks ago, those same elders declared their concern directly to their local civil authority, telling him they were concerned with indefinite limitations on their corporate worship and going on record acknowledging they were near the point of civil disobedience. At that same meeting, those elders unanimously agreed to defy any forthcoming order demanding there be no singing in corporate worship.
Can any elder or pastor concerned for the church’s unity and peace not see it is schismatic to condemn such a church and her officers for “submission to the Statist gods?” Yet here is one pastor’s condemnation of brothers in Christ who submit to face mask decrees:
Will we worship Him and serve Him or will we keep dabbling with idols and false gods? It’s Christ or nothing. Christ or chaos. Do we want Christian freedom or statist solidarity? Only Christ died for our sins. Only Christ is risen from the dead to make all things new. The statist idols are all deaf, dumb, and blind. They have mandated worthless pieces of fabric be worn on your face. That is their current sacrament…1
In view of all that is written above, yesterday I came to the conclusion that no amount of civil disobedience of any part of COVID-19 public health laws will suffice to heal this breach in the church. The breach isn’t over this or that law and COVID-19 is only the convenient occasion required for the larger cause. What cause?
Reviling the civil authorities God has put over us.
There are many of us who are angry over the COVID-19 laws and this is the seedbed these men are exploiting. Despite their theological denouncements of Biblical proportions against face masks, they wear them themselves, and will continue to do so whenever there’s some store they want to shop in. (Yup, they admit it.)
What they will not do is stop exploiting fellow reformed believers’ anger over COVID-19 laws for the purpose of growing their constituency. And what is that constituency comprised of?
Christians who approve of pastors reviling their civil authorities—that’s the real commitment of these men and the real danger they pose to the church today.
Often I’ve said I’d have more sympathy for these men if they were calling for civil disobedience against the wholesale slaughter of our nation’s babies going on year after year, the pervasive murder of the aged through starvation, dehydration, and narcotic suppression of vital functions, or the murder of handicapped newborns.
But instead it’s face masks. They think they finally have an issue causing sufficient anguish to the sheep to get them on board with reviling their authorities. No matter how much other elders and pastors agree with civil disobedience of COVID-19 laws, if those pastors don’t revile, also, the sheep these men have woke aren’t satisfied. Their hearts begin to grow cold toward their own shepherds as they warm towards those trying to draw disciples away for themselves.
Until the sheep learn to recognize reviling against authority and its sinfulness, they will continue to be misled into thinking this disagreement is over COVID-19 and face masks.
But really, this disagreement is over honoring those in authority over us. In how we speak and write and think. Outside and inside us.
Then Absalom would say to him, “See, your claims are good and right, but no man listens to you on the part of the king.” Moreover, Absalom would say, “Oh that one would appoint me judge in the land, then every man who has any suit or cause could come to me and I would give him justice.” (2Samuel 15:3-4)