Some church leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have objected to government restrictions on worship imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Grace Community Church in California, where John MacArthur is pastor, met for worship last Sunday, despite the State authorities’ ban on such gatherings. The elders of the church issued a statement explaining clearly and graciously their reasons for this action – in essence, they believe that the State authorities have no jurisdiction over when and how churches meet.
In the UK, a lawsuit has been launched to challenge the government’s restrictions imposed on churches during the lockdown. Like Grace Community Church, they base their claim on the principle of the independence of churches from government. Unlike Grace Community Church, which says it is expressly not relying upon US constitutional rights, the UK claim is based on ancient (Magna Carta, 1215AD) and more recent constitutional and legal provisions of English law.
Both cases are well argued. I am not in a position to comment on the actions of Grace Community Church – I know nothing about either the Californian legal system or the impact of Covid-19 there. Jonathan Leeman of 9Marks has written a coherent response, as has R. Scott Clark. The church apparently did cease to meet for several weeks at the start of the pandemic, in line with government policy, but did so, they make clear, on a voluntary basis. Their decision to start to meet again is rooted in their assessment of the health risks now posed by the virus and their view that a continued suspension of public worship is no longer necessary or justified. I have some sympathy with that approach: if government restrictions on worship continue when they are clearly no longer needed, I believe it would be right for churches to consider disregarding them – though they would need to ensure that their assessment of the risks and of any justification for government restrictions was solidly based on clear, persuasive and reliable evidence.
I know a little more about the position in the UK, though I have not read the legal documents in full. I do not agree with the actions of the church leaders in bringing their claim. I think that the English authorities have, on the whole, acted reasonably, in a very difficult and fast-moving situation where hard facts were, and to a large extent still are, unavailable. I believe that governing authorities have the power to take general measures to regulate activities which affect churches: as others (including Leeman, above) have pointed out, we do not generally object to the restrictions imposed upon us by planning laws, health and safety legislation, safeguarding rules and so on. We recognise that, in the UK at least, these rules apply to everyone and are not aimed at curtailing Christian worship. The regulations adopted to combat the pandemic, though unusual and extreme, fall into this category. Churches are right to abide by them.
The ban on worship has now been lifted in the UK. Nevertheless, stringent restrictions remain in place which make it very difficult, or even impossible, for some churches to meet and, for those that can meet, worship is a very different experience from what they would like. There is no indication as to when these restrictions will be lifted. Does there come a point at which, like Grace Community Church in California, we conclude that restrictions are no longer justified and begin to disregard them?
As indicated above, I think that the answer to that question, in principle, is yes, but I believe that we are a long way from reaching that point. It is my view that, at present and for the foreseeable future, churches are well advised to comply with the restrictions that remain in place.
At the same time, we need to be wise, informed and alert. I suggest that, as we emerge from lockdown, church leaders need to keep in mind some important questions and subject them to regular re-evaluation.
- Are we doing all that we can to meet for worship in as biblical manner as possible? Bear in mind that we are commanded to meet regularly for worship (Heb. 10:25). While I recognise that there are differing views on this question, I believe that this command is not met by online communication – though that is a subject for another time. Hence, I believe, we should be making every effort to re-establish physical meetings, while remaining sympathetic to those who face difficult or insuperable obstacles to doing so at present.
- Are we distinguishing law from policy? We are bound to observe the law. There is, however, now surprisingly little in the way of express legal prohibitions in force in England in relation to coronavirus. Much of what we are being asked to do is now in the form of government guidance which is not formally enshrined in law. This is the case, for example, for the restrictions on congregational singing and on baptism by immersion. Engaging in such activities could, nevertheless, have serious legal consequences, in the form of interventions by health and safety authorities, the loss of insurance coverage and the initiation of private law suits, for example. We are well advised to refrain from such activities at present. If government guidance were to be widely ignored, steps would no doubt be quickly taken to criminalise the relevant activities. Quite apart from legal consequences, we would surely be guilty of ignoring our duty of love for our neighbour by allowing such activities to take place at present.
At the same time, we need to be conscious of the legal status of the various measures, policies and guidance that are being issued. It can be difficult to keep track of this degree of nuance, but church leaders need to ensure that they have some grasp of what is strictly required by law and what is being asked of them as a matter of (strong) guidance – and of the implications of contravening one or other set of rules.
- Are the restrictions still justified? The previous point is important because the time may possibly come when churches believe that particular restrictions are clearly being continued for significantly longer than is reasonably necessary. We should be very slow indeed, in my view, to reach such a conclusion. The assessment of public health risks is complex and difficult at the best of times. In the face of a new virus which appears to be easily transmitted from person to person, it is almost impossible for anyone other than governmental authorities to assess it with any degree of confidence.
Nevertheless, let us suppose, by way of example, that the studies currently being conducted on the transmissibility of the virus via singing come to a clear conclusion that singing by a gathering of people indoors poses little in the way of health risk, but that the government take no action to amend or withdraw their guidance against congregational singing in worship. Let us assume that churches make strong and sustained representations to government to amend the guidance to reflect the studies’ findings, but that still no change is made and no reasonable justification for the continuation of the restriction is provided. I think this to be a very unlikely scenario indeed, but it would be in such circumstances, in my view, that churches should seriously consider ignoring the guidance and beginning to sing again. Congregational singing, after all, is not a minor issue, but an integral part of biblical worship.
- How long should this continue? The current situation is not normal and we must not allow ourselves to begin to think that it is. The longer that these restrictions apply to us, the more used to them we will become. We will adapt our meetings and our buildings to comply with them. They will become part of our thinking about how we conduct corporate worship. This is all very dangerous. We cannot forever refrain from congregational singing, from human physical contact, from conversation and from all the incidental but vital aspects of regular assembly for worship. There must be an end point and there needs to be a way out of the current situation. I believe that the governmental authorities, in England at least, share this view – though I also fear that they may be more concerned for the economy and for general social life than for Christian worship.
Church leaders have a responsibility to remind themselves continually that we are in an exceptional situation which must not become permanent. We must take every appropriate opportunity to remind the authorities of this fact and of their duty to lead us out of these restrictions as quickly as is reasonably possible. Otherwise, we may all find ourselves eventually having to issue statements like that of Grace Community Church and face the consequences.