By Andrew T. Walker
There are a lot of issues facing local churches in these trying times—the absence of meeting together, caring for one another, budget concerns, you name it.
Two in particular worth briefly mentioning are in response to the federal government’s actions to dull the COVID-19 crisis and how its actions intersect with the church’s religious liberty: (1) Whether churches should take government-backed loans (or financial assistance more generally) in the time of financial emergency; and (2) how churches should think through the government prohibiting weekly gatherings.
Let’s tackle the issue of financial assistance first. I would want to direct readers toward the work of Russell Moore and Joe Carter, both of whom wrote helpful essays explaining the issues at stake in the church accessing financial assistance through the government.
I cannot improve upon their analysis and commend both essays. As both argue, the church utilizing “financial assistance” made available from the government is not the equivalent of the government paying a church’s bills or underwriting its budget directly.
If that were the case, it would clearly be a violation of church-state separation.
When we hear the government is going to give financial support to a church, it would be justified for our ears to perk up in concern. But “financial assistance” is too vague of a term.
What the CARES Act purports to do is to provide operating loans that are backed by the United States government. These loans, which would be administered through private banks, are about the loan’s confidence against default, not direct funding.
A government-backed loan merely means that a private loan is being backed by the stability of the federal government. Though it is true that the loans are forgivable under certain circumstances, as Joe Carter writes:
“In this case, the government is merely compensating the church for the damages that resulted from complying with a government request. This situation would be similar to the government needing to tear up a church parking lot to get to a sewage line, and then giving the church money to fix the damage.”
Though this reality makes things a little bit more uncomfortable in walking a delicate balance in keeping church and state separate, the church should understand that it’s being treated no differently than other qualifying entities.
As is a general rule in the field of ethics, it is important to remember that the principle of keeping church and state separate can look differently depending on the specific rules governing each situation. As with most things, prudence is required.
Second, how should Christians be responding to the growing reality of governors prohibiting church gatherings in their state?
It’s important to get at what the Scriptures do and do not say: It says to gather as a general principle without specifying all the particularities of the gathering itself (Hebrews 10:25).
Does the New Testament require Sunday mornings or Sunday evenings for its services? How about Wednesday evening prayer service?
The New Testament shouldn’t be used to browbeat or condemn pastors who are doing their best to improvise with the circumstances they have been given.
But does the government possess the authority to force churches to close? Yes, I believe it does. I say that with no small amount of concern for how this could be abused by arbitrary rulers.
Rather, basing my principle on Romans 13:1-7, we are to understand that government is given derived authority to make judgments about the best care and general welfare of the political community under its rule.
Of course, in an American context, that means you and I have a part to play in choosing leaders who will not abuse this authority.
Based on the facts we have, and though some Christians may disagree, I believe it’s firmly within the legitimate interest of government to force churches to temporarily close for the purposes of public health.
Because government has the ability to determine what factors in society pose an increased risk to public health concerns, it can legitimately curtail the nature of these meetings until it deems otherwise. This ought to be a directive generally applied, and not targeting religious gatherings in particular.
The presumption of liberty means that citizens and organizations have the liberty to do as they please (such as assemble) up until the government must impede this liberty.
At that point, the burden is on the government to establish why it must restrict a person or entity’s liberty and do so using the least restrictive means possible.
What does this mean practically? It means that the government has not outlawed the gathering of all churches; it has merely outlawed certain forms of gathering because in-person gatherings can multiply infection rates (as actually happened in Kentucky).
Yes, the ideal is for in-person gathering, but gathering in this season has taken on a different form: online and in groups commensurate with your state’s laws.
Protests that the government is arbitrarily decreeing what is or is not an “essential service” misses the point of the larger discussion.
Even as we insist upon the inherent liberty of what it means to be a church, the church always inhabits a particular time and space.
We do not exist in a vacuum. We are to be obedient citizens (1 Timothy 2:2-4). Religious liberty isn’t an absolute principle exempting the church from otherwise just laws.
You cannot murder in the name of religion; you cannot kidnap in the name of religion.
This means that deliberative bodies and officials have to find prudential means to sanction maximal liberty while also tending to general welfare.
To be clear, it is incumbent that any state considering a ban on public gatherings that would include churches be clear, precise, and principled in their formulation and application.
Here’s my plea to pastors from someone who has dedicated much of their career to fighting for religious liberty: COVID-19 isn’t the occasion to have a fight over religious liberty.
This isn’t a targeted assault on the church. It’s not a conspiracy to jail pastors.
If bad laws result, let’s fight them. But if we believe Romans 13 is inspired (and indeed, we ought), now is a time to trust the vividness of its intent for our society. Government is here to serve us by protecting us.
To believe otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of its purpose as ordained by God. This is not the time to victimize one’s self as a martyr or play loose with laws where life and death are literally at stake.
And remember to keep all things in perspective: It’s not as though the church cannot meet; we merely have to be innovative in our understanding of what it means to gather.
Our ideal meeting conditions may not be an option, but complaining about an ideal that could harm others, while alternatives remain available, is just not a good look.
Instead, let us use this time to grow a newfound dependency on the Lord. Being stripped of our luxuries is painful, but it always produces spiritual growth (Romans 5:3-4; James 1:2-4).
Religious liberty is meant to serve the common good of society by availing people the means to live peaceful lives devoted to God. Religious liberty is severely undermined when it is faulted for leading to increased infection.
Fighting over religious liberty means choosing the right battles. This is not it.
Choose the battles where speech, stifling regulation, government orthodoxies, and targeted assaults persist.
Do not fight over an area of the law where our obedience results in a very tangible demonstration of our love for neighbor.
ANDREW T. WALKER (@andrewtwalk) is an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Executive Director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement.