Government, health & safety, the court of public opinion…what about the Bible?

3 July 2020

Dave Brennan, of Brephos UK, comments on the roles of Church and State during the current lockdown.

This week FIEC National Director John Stevens posted his response to the contention that the lockdown of churches and the more recent guidelines are unacceptable government overreach into the domain of religious freedom.

He says that this view is “superficially understandable,” but goes on to express his strong disagreement.

His central argument appears to be that in strictly legal terms, religious freedom in this country has never been absolute, and so the government has every right to tell us what we can and can’t do in the current situation, and indeed it seems to be Stevens’ view that the government has been reasonable and wise in its pronouncements so far.

I have to confess that I found this article most concerning, because in it the writer treats three authorities as inviolable – using the word ‘absolute’ for two of them – but not one of these authorities, in this post, is the Bible. Indeed, the Bible is not mentioned or quoted once. Perhaps this is understandable as Stevens appears to be responding (though he doesn’t name it) to Christian Concern’s legal challenge to the government, and he does acknowledge, regarding the history of our religious freedom, “I am not commenting as to whether this is right as a matter of theology, merely that it is the legal reality.”

But we need to know whether it’s right as a matter of theology; we cannot have a thorough discussion of this all-important question of Church and State without reference to the Bible.

Far from being “superficial” – or “petulant teenagers” in pursuit of “libertarian self-indulgence” as he describes would-be dissenters at the end of his post – many who want to at least question the overwhelmingly prevalent approach of simply accepting the government’s every command and even wish, do so because they find themselves being asked by the government to disobey certain commands from the Bible, which as Christians they take to be the inerrant and infallible word of God, the final authority for all doctrine and conduct.

“Let us not give up meeting together…” Hebrews 10:25

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them…” Matthew 28:19

“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Ephesians 5:19

“Greet one another with a holy kiss.” 2 Corinthians 13:12

“…do this [the sharing of physical bread] in remembrance of me…” 1 Corinthians 11:24

It is true that there are also verses in the Bible commanding general civil obedience, for example the paying of taxes, but nowhere is it suggested that we are to take obedience of earthly authorities to the point of disobeying the Great Commission or breaking any of the laws of God. Indeed, we find plenty of examples – Daniel, and the Apostles, for example – of the people of God defying earthly authorities in the domain of what we might today call religious freedom, and they are commended for it.

Both the Jewish and the Roman authorities wanted the Apostles to stop speaking about Jesus. Famously the Apostles responded, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” They defied the authorities and paid the price.

True, it is not our speaking (yet) that is being restricted in our context, but speaking is not the only thing we are commanded to do by Jesus and the Bible. Our faith is fully human, embodied – not a cerebral, theoretical, gnostic faith – and part of living out our full Christianity takes bodily expression, even if that offends the three authorities paid homage to here (indeed, to varying degrees, it always has and always will).

My argument, respectfully, is that it is Stevens’ case that is “superficial” and “dangerous,” since he merely describes these three authorities and their demands, asserts but does not really argue the legitimacy of their (absolute?) sway over the Christian believer, and crucially does not question where they stand in relation to the ultimate authority, the Bible. He strongly urges all churches everywhere to obey these authorities entirely, including their non-binding suggestions, even though that means forsaking – for as long as these three authorities say so, it seems – clear Biblical commands.

Let’s take these three golden calves – because I fear that that is what they are becoming – one at a time.

1. The Government

With a clear and succinct summary of the relationship between Church and State over the last few hundred years, Stevens concludes that religious freedom in this country has never been absolute or unconditional. The State has reserved unto itself the right to interfere as deemed necessary, for example in the interests of public health.

I am no lawyer, but it seems that Stevens might well be correct in this, in strictly legal terms. (Christian Concern have posted their own reply here.)

But do we as Christ-followers need the permission of the State to carry out the Great Commission, which includes baptising new believers for example? Does our command to do so come straight from Christ without condition, or is it more like guidelines from Christ, only to be implemented if the government says we can? Who is really Head of the Church? Is Christ’s authority over the Church absolute, or does the government trump Christ when push comes to shove?

Most non-conformists would see the moment when Henry VIII made himself Supreme Governor of the Church of England – as well as King – an unhelpful mixing of spheres. Indeed it imposed total State control over religion.

A greater freedom of religion was won over the next 150 years as non-conformists refused to worship according to the formularies of the Church of England. This freedom was achieved at great cost and sacrifice, as many were martyred for their convictions… We easily forget that religious freedom in England was won by violent protest and iconoclasm. Without this, it is doubtful that greater freedom would have been granted.

What puzzles me is that this retelling of the birth of non-conformism – with all its disobedience of the government – is narrated positively by Stevens. He notes that such religious freedom as we have was gained through courageous disobedience. He acknowledges that Christians today still do not have absolute freedom in the eyes of the law to worship as instructed by the Bible, and yet he does not advocate disobedience today, either to exercise the freedom we do have directly from Christ or to effect such changes in the law as would ensure that our religious freedom becomes absolute legally. “It is somewhat ironic that many Church of England clergy have acted as non-conformists,” he writes, but may I suggest that what is even more ironic is that here is a ‘non’-conformist acting rather like Church of England clergy, as if we look to the government to tell us how to worship!

I would not for a moment suggest that our freedoms are anywhere near as restricted as those of many of our brothers and sisters around the world, nor am I arguing that Christians here have been targeted specifically or any more than, for example, Muslims. But it is interesting to note that around the world where the Church really is persecuted, they continue to gather, often secretly, in defiance of government laws. They do not consider gathering physically as an optional extra, but as essential, and they do not wait for government permission to do so.

So here, it seems, Stevens is right and he is wrong. Right, I think (but I am no lawyer), in terms of what the laws of our land happen to say about religious freedoms. But wrong in simply asserting – after all the example of the Apostles and the martyrs and the non-conformists – that conformity to the law of the land is always the way to go, even when it infringes on how the Bible says we should worship.

2. Health and safety

Here’s a fun lockdown activity. Pick an episode in the Bible, any episode, and try writing a risk assessment for it. Turning tables in the Temple, perhaps? Paul’s missionary journeys? The four men lowering their friend through the roof to Jesus’s feet? Walking through the streets of a foreign city preaching against it. Marching through the Red Sea with elderly and infants and then on to the Promised Land through a desert. Publicly teaching against Artemis in a city where sale of her idols is a major source of income for many families.

Almost every story we read in the Bible is dangerous!

And in the centuries that have passed since then, Christian believers have continued to risk much – including with their health and the health of others – in the spread of the gospel. Mission to unreached people groups is particularly high-risk in terms of dangerous infection both ways. But we have, up till now, taken the view that the urgency of fulfilling the Great Commission in its entirety trumps all. Eternal well-being matters much more than temporal well-being: that’s at the heart of the gospel.

But here in this post, Stevens says that it is “public health” that is “the absolute priority of the moment as we come out of lockdown, and we ought to be doing everything necessary to ensure that this virus is defeated and contained so that life can return to normal as soon as possible” (which could be, for example, two years from now, or not before Christ returns). That may be, understandably, the government’s absolute priority, with its natural lack of eternal perspective, but is it the Church’s absolute priority?

When Spurgeon ministered during the cholera outbreak, it would seem he considered things of eternity the absolute priority. He continued to visit the sick and dying (today we would condemn him as a super-spreader), anxious that people in their final moments should have the opportunity of hearing the gospel. Today we are keeping our distance, and seem more perturbed that a few should die from avoidable infection than that many should die alone and possibly without ever hearing the gospel. We have dropped deathbed evangelism remarkably easily.

Even if we are to agree that lockdown is doing more help than harm purely in health terms (that itself is an important debate to be had; because of lockdown, cancer patients are undiagnosed or untreated, domestic abuse is on the rise, mental health problems and suicides are increasing, and of course all manner of problems, including health problems, will come as a result of economic downturn), it has to be conceded if we believe our Bibles (and scientific reason) that many more infectious plagues are yet to come, probably of far greater severity than Covid-19 (which is closer to the common flu end of the spectrum than the black death end): disease and risk are here to stay, likely increase.

Are we going to give up meeting every time ‘pandemic’ is declared? Is this how we propose to spend these last days?

3. The court of public opinion

Increasingly the word ‘witness’ is synonymous with ‘what people think of us’ in conservative evangelical circles. ‘Good witness’ means people think well of us. ‘Bad witness’ means people think ill of us. And this seems to be the case regardless of whether the actions they are responding to were righteous in God’s eyes or not: it is reception, not righteousness, that counts.

Or, to put it another way, it’s what they think, not what God thinks, that makes witness ‘good’.

Fear of man, rather than fear of God.

Twice the example of Dominic Cummings is wheeled out in this article. Even though it’s been established, by the police, that he did not break the law, and therefore was in the eyes of the law justified in making reasonable arrangements for the care of his 4-year-old in the event of both parents being incapacitated, Stevens has joined the Church of England bishops in declaring Cummings’ behaviour anathema, and warns churches not to fall under the same judgement.

Not the judgement of God, that is, but the judgement of the media and the masses. It is the ‘court of public opinion’ that is deferred to here, not the heavenly court. We don’t want ‘negative headlines’.

I am grateful that John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles could not have cared less about the headlines that were written about them. Indeed, almost every single one of them was killed by the authorities because the headlines were so unfavourable. Jesus promises bad headlines to those who follow him (“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11)). It is not, of course, that we go out to try and offend. That would be perverse. But neither are we – as far as I can tell from Scripture – meant to make any significant decision driven by fear of popular opprobrium. We may temper our tone, but not change who we are.

As one evangelist said recently: “The right thing is the right thing, even if everyone is against it. And the wrong thing is the wrong thing, even if everyone is for it.”

I am not saying this because I believe it is blindingly obvious from Scripture that, contrary to popular opinion, we ought to disregard lockdown entirely. I don’t believe that. But I am concerned that it is what the culture around us thinks that seems to keep us awake at night far more than what the Scriptures command. There is a heart issue here, a question of lordship.

It is for similar reasons that we talk often and candidly about the acceptable (to the media and the masses) issues like race, but are much quieter and more ambivalent about issues such as abortion, even though abortion kills more people every year than climate change, Brexit, racial violence, Dominic Cummings, and Covid-19 combined. It is not, I think, because the latter are more offensive to God than the former.

Under God (and I mean something by that) our freedom in Christ is absolute, our freedom to worship him as instructed by him is absolute, no matter what any earthly authority says. I am not claiming that that provides easy answers in a situation like ours today, but it must be the foundation and the starting-point for the robust discussion that needs to be had with Bibles firmly open.

We are not like cinemas or theatres (though it is natural for a government that does not see with the eyes of eternity to think that we are; I do not blame them). We are the Church of the Living God, utterly unique and essential. Our Head is Christ and we obey him absolutely, if necessary to the point of disobeying earthly authorities and bearing the consequences as our forebears have done, even when (prayerfully and with careful consideration, of course) taking risks with our own physical health and with the health of others.

I say this in love and with the greatest respect. What we need in this present crisis is more than just to act as implementers of government guidelines. What we need, is to exercise real, courageous, spiritual, Biblical leadership. And we need to be clear on what our ultimate authority is.

Find out more about Church lockdown
  • Share

Related articles

All content has been loaded.

Take action

Join our email list to receive the latest updates for prayer and action.

Find out more about the legal support we're giving Christians.

Help us put the hope of Jesus at the heart of society.