by John Howard.
It has been said so many times in the last few months – ‘that we are in unusual times’, that there is the danger that we fail to appreciate just how unusual these times are. Amongst the things that have happened and that are easily passed over has been that the government said that faith communities should cease their communal worship – and we immediately did so. When has this happened before? I understand that historians are disagreeing on this – but they can agree that it was a long time ago!
Across all the Churches – as far as I am aware – communal worship ceased on the day the government said it should and for many it has yet to restart. Now I am not questioning the correctness of what the churches did – but I am asking the question – where was the biblical authority for this? Churches have faced persecution in some parts of the world rather than agree to the ceasing of public worship. Some would say it seems far fetched to say so but it is not beyond the realms of the possible, that at some time in the future we may as Christians find ourselves again as being at odds with government in the West and needing to consider carefully whether we recognise civil authority over our religious practices. We should be careful to be clear on what we have done and why.
The passage from the New Testament that at first sight tackles this question most clearly is Romans 13: ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities’. Other passages can be found that take a similar line: 1 Tim 2: 1-2; Titus 3: 1; 1 Peter 2: 13-17. Paul goes on to justify this by the assertion that there is no authority but that which comes from God and therefore if the rulers are in authority – it must have come from God. There is considerable agreement amongst commentators that Paul here is consciously placing the church in a very different relationship to the Roman authorities than certain Jewish sects of the time. These argued for violent conflict with the authorities. Since the Roman authorities viewed the church as a sect within Judaism – it can be seen why Paul was concerned, when writing to the church at the capital city of the empire – to distance himself from such Jewish sects. Paul, and all the Apostles, make use of the order and stability of Rome in the spreading of the Gospel message. Travel can be undertaken in relative safety. Though in later letters Paul is imprisoned and suffering the inhumanity of the State, at this time Paul is hoping to travel to Rome and use it as a place to launch his mission to Spain. This plan is using the ordered, peaceful governance to enable the further spread of the gospel.
There is some resonance here with our situation. Chaos and widespread instability was – and remains a danger in the present crisis. In March the repeated cry of the government was ‘protect the NHS’. The prospect of the health services being overrun in Britain was an indication of the very real danger of chaos, if the public didn’t follow what the authorities were laying down. For the churches to oppose this would have meant that the churches were risking chaos. However this is an argument that needs to be handled with care – it would not, for example, be wise for the churches to accept an argument from Government that bad governance is better than none at all – and so allow church support for a corrupt regime. If the church ultimately answers to a higher authority than national government, then obeying the dictate, ‘to avoid chaos’, is at the very least dangerous, as the early church discovered.
Is there then a ‘non authority’ justification for the willingness of the churches to close at the call of government? I think that there is. It was about what was best for the people, and best for each other, a need to do as you would be done by. Matthew’s ‘Golden Rule’ in chapter 7 verse 12 arguably can be taken to say that since there was a known risk of illness – for which there was no treatment and no vaccine – then the actions were justified as a response of care. Do act with prudence, so that others can be as safe as you yourself would want to be. Not meeting in church was then an act of prudence.
I feel that there is a lot more to say on this subject – in what circumstances should the church obey government in the practice of religious life? The present case is, I suggest, ultimately as a responsible means of care in the situation. However again it would be a dangerous principal to take too far, and again an easy principal for governments to abuse if they wanted to do so.
The issues of church and state might well be ones we need to return to in this very secular society we now live in.