When should Christians disobey Government over Coronavirus restrictions?
As church leaders continue ministry through the coronavirus pandemic, how should Christians respond to restrictions imposed on churches by Government?
During a recent Leadership in Lockdown webinar Q&A, John Stevens, FIEC's National Director, responded to this question: “what right, if any, does the Government have to tell us how we can or can't worship?”.
There's a real question here because there's what legal power the State has under the current law and what it ought to do biblically. So we at least have to recognise that the State has the power to coerce the closure of places of worship and then enforce that through the police and through the authorities so, in terms of blunt power, the state is able to do that.
The question is if the state chose to order closure or to take that action how Christians should respond to that?
I think the key thing for us all here is to think through the key biblical principles in all that, and it seems to me that we're trying to hold together two principles at the same time: one is that the Bible clearly teaches that we should respect and obey authorities that have been placed over us; the other side is that we should obey Christ rather than men if there's a clash between what the State requires and what God requires.
Applying that in practice is a much more difficult question and we have to recognise that it will be an issue of individual conscience for individuals, Christians, and leaders, who might reach different judgements because it's not a clear black and white, obvious situation. I don't think it's the same as the command to the Hebrew midwives of "kill the babies", nor is it quite the same as the command to the apostles never to preach in the name of Jesus. So one of the problems is that we're having to discern what the Bible commands us to do and then think about how that works out with the State. So I think there's an inevitable issue of conscience and there'll be an inevitable degree of difference of opinion amongst Christians.
It seems to me that what's crucial is that the Bible doesn't allow us to disobey simply because we dislike a law and find it inconvenient, and the Bible doesn't allow us to disobey just because we distrust the Government. So distrust is not a reason for disobedience.
It seems to me that we're not entitled to disobey simply because we disagree with a policy choice and a law that's been made to implement it, and at the moment there are lots of different opinions about what's to be done about COVID, and it's hard to know which of those opinions is right. But I'm not sure we have the right to disobey just because we disagree with a policy.
The circumstance in which we have the right to disobey and ought to disobey is when we believe we have a higher duty to obey Christ, and obeying Christ would be prevented by obedience to legislation. And when we're prepared to do that we've got to openly and honestly recognise that we ought to then accept the due penalty for our disobedience. We disobey with our eyes open of knowing that there will be consequences that follow from that.
So I think the difficult question that we've all got to work through is that in a time of public emergency, which is how this is described, to what extent do we have the duty to gather as Christians physically. That's the real question that we have to wrestle through biblically and in conscience. And I think that means we have to do a number of things:
- We have to bear in mind what it is that we're actually prevented from doing: we're not prevented from believing, we're not prevented from preaching, we're not prevented from gathering online. There are some things we can't do if we don't gather physically but there's a margin between what we can do and what we can't do and we've got to work through: does Christ demand that we disobey in order to meet physically in that way?
- We also need to think through what's the principle we're standing for? Is it the principle that the State could never order churches to close? I think the problem there is that I'm not seeing anybody really arguing that. The argument is often bound up with not believing it's a real emergency and not believing the measures are necessary. But even at their most extreme, I'm not hearing Christians leaders saying "God commands that we gather, and no matter how bad it is or how big the risk, we ought to be allowed to gather". So really what we're negotiating is what is the principle? Is it that the measures are disproportionate to the risk? So we've got to be careful that we articulate it in the right way.
- It's important to think through whether churches are being discriminated against in the wider picture of society. If this is all about restraining the virus, are we being wrongly treated compared to others?
I think that in how we approach this we've got to be very careful not to bind the consciences of others and say that others have to agree with us, to take the action that we want to take, or even support it. So for example, if we're saying there's a duty to gather, what are we saying to the vulnerable people in our churches, what are we saying to the people who are nervous and risk-averse and don't want to come out? Are they disobeying Christ because they are making that judgement? Pastoral leadership in that context has got to take account of the different opinions amongst God's people before we start commanding them what they've got to do. I think many of our congregations are far more risk-averse than our leaders and we've got to bear that in mind.
I think it's inevitable that denominations and networks can't support disobedience when it's not clear cut and when it isn't the case that it's obvious that we ought to disobey and everybody agrees with that. There's a difference between individual choices and what denominations and groupings are going to say.
We also need to bear in mind public opinion: what does the public think of what we're doing? If maybe they think we're making the right judgement in insisting on that right to gather when maybe they are not gathering?
It's important for us to bear in mind that we have other options before disobedience. We've got the right to enforce our legal rights. Under the Human Rights Acts we've got the freedom of worship; that can be set aside on the grounds of public health but that is subject to judicial review. If we really believe that things are not proportionate and not necessary, then we can challenge them in that legal form. All the cases so far would suggest that we wouldn't win but if, for example, the death rates and hospital rates in the future are very low it will be much more difficult for Government to argue that the rules are proportionate.
Of course, we can protest and lobby Government. Whether writing to our Government MPs, MSPs, letters to newspapers, making use of lobbying groups.
In my personal opinion, the kind of arguments that are unlikely to work with the Government, and indeed the public, are the arguments that churches are a special case compared to other sections of society. I think once Government starts taking action to lock down the whole of society - people's gyms, cinemas, pubs, hospitality venues - I don't think it's a winning argument in the public sphere to say that churches are exceptional. The statistics are that only 3 million people attend church in the UK - that's about 4.6% of the population. 53% of people say they prefer to spend their leisure time in pubs, 40% visit a pub once a fortnight, there are 176 million cinema visits each year. We need to have some perspective that, in a secular society, churches are actually a very minority activity compared to the restrictions that the rest of society is having to bear.
I think we need to bear that in mind as we make arguments trying to persuade a secular world that church is exceptional when quite clearly that's not what society believes.
That's not an easy answer to the question but I think that's the framework by which we have to go about asking it and, in the end, it's a matter for conscience bearing in mind all of those principles before God. And I don't think there's any easy, simplistic answer at this point.