Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Tragedy of the Silent Church

The church* is under assault, yet remains silent. The prevailing mode seems to be "stay out of sight" and hope for the best.

The church in America (and throughout the Western world) is facing direct challenges to its most basic ministries. While health risks are widely recognized, less visible -- and in the long term, more deadly risks -- are threats to the teaching and disciple-making efforts of the church.

The lack of exposure to regular teaching, the increased tolerance for missing church activities, the move to parachurch online sources, the lack of continuity, and breaking bonds that encourage disciple-making are threats that show no sign of abating anytime soon.

The longer shutdown orders last the more likely fissures will arise between those that differ on the mitigations, the mandates, and the efficacy of government dictates (especially when so many outspoken politicians have been caught contradicting their official decrees).

Some may choose to break fellowship to attend other churches that more closely aligned with their understanding of the severity of the threat posed by the virus. While this may seem a less than compelling reason to leave, it must be considered, because the underlying assumptions are not trivial: Does the church answer to the state when the state's directives contradict the clear teaching of scripture? Do we believe God is still in control during a pandemic? Do we place fellowship and ministry high enough to risk exposure to this disease? Are those who cannot wear a mask de facto less loving, concerned, or "spiritual?" What of the tens of thousands of elderly and ill who have been isolated for months? What about the grieving families who are forbidden from seeing loved ones left to die alone? Can weddings and funerals and special events such as Easter, Christmas, and Thanksgiving be postponed or even canceled indefinitely?

Alone: No Visitors, No Advocates

Despite these valid concerns, many Christians have appealed to Romans 13:1-2 to buttress the argument that Christians must abide by all government decrees:

13:1 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. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 

The current lockdowns, constraints, limits, and marginalization of anyone who does not subscribe fully to unproven mitigation strategies raises anew the paradox of the relationship of church and individual believers to the state.

Re-Open Protests

The church has wrestled with this relationship since Pentecost. Peter and John were arrested because the Jewish authorities were “greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.”

This was not mere squabble over religion — this was a significant social, economic, and political challenge to the status quo. This “new teaching” threatened the temple economy and the uneasy tolerance of Rome, challenged the established social order, pit the educated against the uneducated, suborned tradition, and exposed the injustice of a system under which Jesus had been tried and convicted:

Acts 4: 18 And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; 20 for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” 21 When they had threatened them further, they let them go (finding no basis on which to punish them) on account of the people, because they were all glorifying God for what had happened;

In many regions of the world today Christianity is an oppressed minority. In those areas, the relationship is clearly delineated, making the choice simple: survive. In most of the West, churches are still open, and Christians gather and practice the norms, traditions, and rites of the faith.

Mass Arrest of Christians in China

Augustine described this relationship in his City of God, where he described differing domains of interest. Sometimes those domains overlap: an example would be the state’s interest in buildings that meet certain standards of access and safety. In other areas the domains are clearly separate: the pastor preaches the truth of the Word no matter the “officially acceptable guidance” from the state.

Thus, it is clear that There will be tension between the commands of the state and the mission of the church.

Further, various levels of government have issued contradictory mandates. Recently several counties determined to open ahead of the state governor’s timetables. The Federal government defers on some topics to the states but contradicts state guidance on others. A clear example of inconsistency is the mandatory mask rules imposed by many states. The CDC’s guidance reads: “CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain...” Yet the Pennsylvania Department of Health has decreed masks are required.[1]

"Wear a Mask! (Except when you don't need to)"

What is the message if we disregard a law? (We’ll concede for sake of argument that the orders have been deemed “lawful” by the state). Proponents of a “quiet witness” approach will argue that it is our duty to obey the government (Titus 3:1), that governments are ordained by God (Romans 13:1) and upholds the good of all (1 Pet. 2:14), and that Christians should respect and honor those in authority (Romans 13:4). Further, we are commanded “...to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you...” (1 Thessalonians 4:11).

Peter before the Sanhedrin

These verses are aspirational, but not necessarily normative. Jesus, Peter, Paul, and others contradicted edicts when the state overstepped its bounds.

Contradiction to illegal orders has been an essential component of Christian witness. In fact, this principle has carried through to most western legal systems, reinforced by Principal 4 of the Nuremberg Trials:

"The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."

The appeal that "I was simply following orders" is rejected. Any agent of the state who carries out illegal orders is guilty of a crime.

Thus the principle of conscience is invoked as an axiom of law: recall Hus before the Council of Constance, Luther before the Diet of Worms, Wilberforce and the Slave trade, Marin Luther King against separate but equal, and the March for Life protests against abortion.

In each case Christian-molded conscience rejected authority and appealed to a higher law.

Confrontation has been a critical element of the salt and light aspect of Christian testimony since the beginning.

Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, April 17, 1521: "I can not and will not recant anything, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience."

Christians have been at the forefront of many changes to society, culture, and laws. These changes include the establishment of hospitals, orphanages, and universities; the promotion of art, literature, and music academies; outlawing infanticide, pedophilia, child abandonment, and abortion; instituting humane prison reforms; granting property rights and suffrage to women; banning polygamy; advancing universal education; abolishing slavery, and the insistence that every person is equal before the law and before God. In every case, these efforts were opposed by some elements of the established order.

William Wilberforce, British Prime Minister, Abolished Slavery

The promotion of justice, the sanctity of life, the individual as an image of God, the defense of the oppressed all reflect the Christian understanding of the Gospel. The history of the relationship between church and state in the west ranges from tolerance to symbiosis to adversarial.

It is certainly within the realm of Christian testimony to challenge infringements on religious freedom.[2] This confrontation need not be acrimonious, but it must be unambiguous. As citizens of the United States we can appeal to the law in the same way Paul was able to appeal to Caesar as a citizen of Rome. There is no guarantee the appeal will be successful, but it must always be an option lest it becomes meaningless.

There are many risks in life and one of the dangers of freedom is that we need to assess risk and then determine our level of tolerance. Ignoring risk does not make it go away. There is no time when all risk is eliminated. We may do everything possible and still fail miserably. Or we may continually –and unknowingly -- fail but no threat ever manifests. In either case, we can’t claim success. We are charged to do the best we can with the resources available. Anything beyond that is in God’s hands.

*"Church" here being defined as the church universal of all those who confess that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh.

[1] “Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover.html

[2] The US Constitution is unequivocal: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The Pennsylvania Constitution is equally clear in Section 3: “All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.”

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