Wednesday, February 10, 2021 : By John Wesley Reid
—John Wesley Reid is the editor-in-chief at the Falkirk Center. Follow him on Twitter at @johnwesleyreid.
Grace and truth, if nothing else, is what I hope saturates this op-ed and that my vehemently held opinion should never come at the expense of a Christ-focused delivery.
I am not a pastor nor virologist, and I hope not to speak beyond the authority of my credentials. In this op-ed, I address why I believe that pastors should reopen their church doors in full capacity despite any current prohibitions. I also address counter-arguments in this piece, and I hope to have done so charitably. I hope the same charity will be shown to me. Unless all parties, including myself, are willing to learn, this article will have been a waste of our time.
During the first few months of 2020 when COVID-19 information was unknown, it was understandable that you would stop indoor services. But midway through 2020, COVID data became clear enough to see that the biological threat was disproportionately less severe than the oppressive restrictions would indicate. Now going into 2021 it is simply sheepish to continue following the charade.
As of recently, some pastors have agreed to hold more indoor services for two reasons: the weather and state governments easing restrictions. How sad it is that, for many pastors, weather and government took priority over God’s Word.
Pastors, it is time to reopen your churches at full capacity. Reopening your churches is not disobedience to man, it is obedience to God. This is no longer about a virus, but about wisdom. COVID data exposes how fiercely disproportionate and unnecessary these restrictions have been. To follow these restrictions, especially considering how many governors have targeted churches over casinos, is unwise and damaging to the pastorate. Remember, draconian measures don’t create precedents — citizens create precedents when they timidly follow draconian measures.
When obedience to God puts you at odds with government, then you have a decision to make, and if the integrity of the pastorate is of any importance to you, you’ll choose God over man.
When King Darius signed an edict prohibiting prayer or petition to any power but himself, Daniel prayed to God regardless. Daniel wasn’t praying in order to spite Darius, he was praying out of obedience to God. On the matter of intent, the Bible reminds us that Daniel had been praying to God routinely far before the edict was even a thought. If Daniel’s prayer routine began immediately following Darius’ edict, then there would be room to speculate whether Daniel was being obedient to God or just using prayer as a prop towards a political agenda. But Daniel was simply being faithful and consistent in his obedience to God, as he had done for several years.
In the case of Daniel, defiance towards man was not his intent but rather the result of his obedience to God.
“But King Darius wasn’t facing a global pandemic!” one might contend.
True, Darius was facing no pandemic other than his pride and naivety towards his impish advisors. But that doesn’t invalidate the point because the “pandemic” we’re facing does not have the severity needed to shut down churches.
To be fair, Daniel’s options were either pray or don’t pray. There was no middle option. For churches today, there are alternative options to gather as saints, such as meeting online or outside. But this issue is bigger than that. You’re pandering to oppressive measures that don’t align with the science of COVID and are thus displaying a less-than courageous posture against draconian measures — a trajectory that mirrors regimes like the Chinese Communist Party.
Perhaps now would be a good time for me to address the first counter-argument:
Counter-argument #1: “Why so much emphasis on meeting indoors? We’re meeting as a Church — we’re just meeting outside or online.”
This is a fair statement, to a degree. In response to Hebrews chapter 10, meeting outside certainly qualifies as sainthood assembly — no disagreement there. However, meeting online should not qualify since the intentionality is not there and the potential for distraction is almost inevitable. Sainthood gathering is for growth and accountabilty, which can hardly be found online for a long period of time.
But this particular scenario is more about wisdom than it is about scripture. Again, scripture doesn’t say assembly has to be indoors, but discernment should throw up the flag of mischief and call-out the unnecessarily imposed restrictions. Wisdom would also be keen to realize the slippery slope that many are already tumbling down. Religious liberty is no longer simply a talking point of concern in the U.S. The threat to religious liberty has been boiling over the past decade, and the ease by which many are submitting to these tyrannical COVID restrictions is evidence of our naivety as a Church.
By following tyrannical COVID restrictions on worship, Churches are stimulating the decay of religious liberty in America.
Yes, I used the word tyrannical, partly because these restrictions wreak of tyranny, and, if I’m transparent, also because it’s a convenient segue to my next point.
Counter-argument #2: “‘Tyranny’ is a conspiracy. Governors aren’t being tyrannical; they’re simply implementing measures to protect public health.”
Well, if that were the case then governors would realize that biology works the same whether you’re at a casino or at a house of worship. But a number of states have implemented restrictions that disproportionately target houses of worship. When you give government an inch of your liberty, they will inevitably abuse it. History and recent events prove so.
Consider Nevada, California, New York, and others who have implemented COVID restrictions much more strictly on houses of worship than on liquor stores and casinos and movie theaters. Thankfully we have a Supreme Court that has been good to identify, aggressively so, how religious liberty has been trampled on. Earlier this year, Nevada implemented an edict that limited churches to hold no more than 50 congregants in a service, regardless of the size of the building. But the same edict allowed businesses, including bars and casinos, to operate at 50 percent capacity. So, a church that can hold 1,000 people is only allowed 50, but a casino that can hold 1,000 people is allowed 500. Apparently COVID is more aggressive in church, so they must restrict congregants more dramatically?
Justice Neil Gorsuch, a soft-spoken man, was aggressive in his response to this discriminatory application:
“This is a simple case. Under the governor’s edict, a 10-screen “multiplex” may host 500 moviegoers at any time. A casino, too, may cater to hundreds at once, with perhaps six people huddled at each craps table here and a similar number gathered around every roulette wheel there. Large numbers and close quarters are fine in such places. But churches, synagogues, and mosques are banned from admitting more than 50 worshippers — no matter how large the building, how distant the individuals, how many wear face masks, no matter the precautions at all. In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion. Maybe that is nothing new. But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion. The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”
Gorsuch relayed a similar tone when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo tried to implement a similarly discriminatory edict:
“Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all ‘essential’ while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.”
Remember, tyranny doesn’t happen overnight — although I will argue that tyrannical measures are certainly happening quicker than the historic piecemeal approach. The frog has gone from a slow-boiling pot to a microwave and yet many are still unable to see how quickly things are heating up.
Counter-argument #3: What about health issues? The vulnerable?
I am certainly not of the mindset that COVID isn’t real or harmful. I have known and currently know people who contracted COVID. It is real, but with a ~98 percent survival rate, the threat simply does not measure up to the overreaching restrictions — especially when safety measures are implemented.
Safety measures do not have to come at the expense of indoor worship.
Most churches have a large number of elderly parishioners. Given the vulnerability of the elderly towards COVID, it would be wise to make accommodations. Sanitization, spacing for the elderly, or the option to livestream for those more susceptible to contraction are some examples of accommodations. To be clear, I said the option to stream online, not a requirement.
Pastors, you have a responsibility to be informed. How much you should know about political or public matters is up for debate, but what should not be debatable is being highly informed on matters that directly impact your church and the way you and your congregation worship. As I stated before, the data is out there on COVID, and the threat does not even begin to justify the restrictions.
While I strongly disagree with the way many pastors have caved to oppressive restrictions on church attendance, I do hope that these pastors find grace during this unprecedented season in their ministry and that they can look back on it with a humble and teachable posture.
**I want to encourage all of my readers to also consider this exhaustive theological overview of why churches should reopen: It Is Time for Churches to Reopen: Theological and Legal Implications of Unfair Restrictions on Churches by David Closson.