Church and secular authorities: tension or synergy?

9 July 2021

The Church has faced many and varied trials and challenges over lockdown, not least how she relates to the secular authorities deciding what’s safe and what isn’t, and how our country navigates this pandemic. But what have been the challenges and opportunities for the Church in how she relates to local government, police and parliament? And where does the state’s authority end and the Church’s begin?

Our fifth Church Unlocked livestream featured three church pastors from across the country who had all faced different challenges and opportunities to relate to secular authorities.

Rev. Daniel Mateola, pastor of Kingdom Faith Ministries International, Milton Keynes, was stopped by the police from broadcasting an online livestream back in November 2020. Similarly, Regan King, pastor of The Angel Church, London, was visited by the police during lockdown as the church had decided to continue meeting. Yet local authorities were happy to encourage them to use the same space for the food bank and social action work they had set up. Peter Naylor, pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Cardiff was meanwhile involved in the Welsh judicial review challenging the Assembly’s decision to ban gathered church worship and force churches to close during the Welsh firebreak.

So what advice did they have for Christians wanting to make the most of opportunities to relate well to secular authorities?

Shouldn’t we just respect our authorities?

The most well-known part of the Bible that talks about relating to authorities is in Romans 13, where it says:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-12 NIV)

So, shouldn’t churches just be obeying the government when it calls them to shut down?

Peter Naylor argued that it wasn’t quite that simple: “One of the first things that was said to me when the government ordered the churches to close was to read Romans 13 and just do what we’re told. But it’s never safe just to build a position on one single text. Certainly Romans 13 calls us to submit to the authorities, but there are other truths and other texts that bear on that.

“One of the basic Biblical principles is that all human authority is subject to limits, and the concern in this case was that the government was overreaching in its authority. And that’s a matter that’s both Biblical and written into the constitution of the law of our country.

“We’re firm on the truth that Jesus Christ is the head of the church and has placed men in the church in authority for its needs. The duty of the minister of the church is to follow the orders of the King – there’s no one that can usurp the authority of Jesus.”

Understanding the role of the Church

All three pastors said that time in lockdown had made them reflect on the need to be clear about the role of the Church in society. Rev. Daniel Mateola commented: “We know that our role [as Christians] does not end within the four walls of a building, but our role is to impact society for the Lord. Which means in times of crisis, that’s when we are supposed to shine the most – to be the salt and light of the earth.

“We didn’t expect churches to be shut down because we saw ourselves as part of the solution, literally we believe that we are an essential service. So we made a decision to keep operating as much as we could without going against the law.”

During the second national lockdown, Daniel was visited by the police at his church, who interrupted a livestream and told him to stop. He commented on the experience and what it taught him: “There are spiritual consequences of corporate worship – corporate prayer, strengthening people’s faith. I think fear did a lot more to paralyse people than the actual virus, and I think this was a time for the people of faith to really stand up. … If you’re reduced to meeting online, how do you do this? … As a pastor, I had the conviction that this was not the time to hide behind a computer screen.

“In my incident with the police, one of the things revealed to me was how much we need to re-educate society on what the church is, who the church is and what we do, and the relevance and significance of the church. Because we were just being treated like a nightclub.”

Regan King thought similarly: “We have a very high view of God’s authority over his people. We believe that the Church – the ekklesia – is the gathering, the actual physical bodily gathering of God’s people to proclaim the glory of Christ in song, the proclamation of his word… we do that together, we have communion, we baptise. All of these things we are called to do in a physical way.”

Serving the authorities

One positive way to engage with the authorities is to serve them and their needs. At the Angel Church, Regan King quickly sought to set up various social action projects run by the church that would serve the needs in their community, helping those in authority. “We started a food bank, local meal provision, volunteering opportunities with local community groups that were based in the church, engaged in evangelism… That was very much part of the church culture.” All of this served to allow the church to remain open: “When the lockdown was announced, we looked at ways into the community, ways of serving, but we also recognised that not being together is not actually the call of the church. So we didn’t try to normalise the idea of going online in people’s minds. … There was so much we were doing for the local community with the blessing of the local authorities that there seemed some inconsistency: ‘we can do that because it helps the local authorities, but we can’t gather as a church…’ So in November, everyone was on the same page, we wanted to gather in-person…

“Who is there to punish you for doing what is good? They saw that stopping us [gathering to worship] was inconsistent with the allowances throughout the week.”

Relating well to secular authorities

When asked how to relate well to secular authorities, Peter Naylor had this advice: “For a start, we pray for the authorities regularly, we pray for the government, we pray for the police. But I think it’s clear now that those in authority don’t understand the church.” Peter argued that sometimes it was necessary for the church to take a stand and go against what those in authority have commanded us – particularly if what we had been commanded went against the Lord’s commands; it might take courage, but it’s actually a way of showing our respect for those in authority who don’t know the Lord. “Our stand is communicating to the authorities. I think when we write and address the authorities, that is actually respecting them – we put our case to them. That is good for the Church to do.”

Daniel Mateola says it’s also about helping to educate those in authority of the role of the Church. “We love the police, we pray for the police – we have two members of our congregation in the police force. … But a lot of people out there don’t really understand what the church is, who we are and what we do. We can change that.”

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