Why Churches Can’t Agree on Civil Disobedience

The current conflict between Christians over responses to government during the pandemic does not really come down to whether we believe in civil disobedience. Likely, we all do. The conflict is about the application of the doctrine of civil disobedience to two other matters: the future of religious liberties, and how the church is treated relative to other public bodies or societies.

1) The first matter has to do with how governments will treat churches and religious liberties in the future. There have been two opposite beliefs about the future of religious liberties. Those who have tended towards complete submission to government emergency regulations believe that this whole situation is an anomaly, and is in no way a harbinger of things to come. If these regulations are simply emergency management rules, then we cannot judge a government’s long-term plans or intentions by its laws during a crisis. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and there is nothing sinister afoot. Once infections levels subside, once the vaccine covers more than 70% of the population, life as we used to know it will return.

Those who have tended towards partial or total civil disobedience believe that this situation is the beginning of a new normal. Powers that governments receive during emergencies are not easily surrendered; they are usually channeled into benign-looking regulations and rules after the emergency is over. The pandemic has provided opportunities for centralisation and greater regulation, all in the name of protecting life. Those on this side of the argument do not believe these restrictions will disappear any time soon. Even if the immediate threat of the pandemic lessens, there will always be the threat of another pandemic breaking out, and therefore preventative measures could become semi-permanent. Prevention of a future pandemic can create a world as restrictive as the one we are in now.

Both of these positions are trying to anticipate the future. On the one hand, those who believe the situation is an anomaly believe that civil disobedience is unwarranted. “Why risk fines and jail-time if this will all pass in a year or so?” On the other hand, those who believe this is the new normal believe that civil disobedience is necessary. “Why accept unfair restrictions in the hopes of restored liberties that may never materialise?” Of course, neither position knows the future. Both are doing their best to anticipate based on knowledge, history, and experience. But both must admit that they lack knowledge of the future, and are acting in light of what they believe to be the most likely outcome. That should chasten the certainty with which we act and speak.

2) The second matter has to do with the relative treatment of the church. The issue is not whether the church is restricted, but how restricted it is relative to other similar public organisations. Theatres, casinos, restaurants, shops, conferences have been allowed to operate, while churches have been told to close. Airplanes, taxis and buses can be filled to capacity with no social distancing, but churches must be restricted to 50 or less with social distancing. Churches have been told that they are super-spreader events, but large gatherings eat and drink without masks, sit closer on aeroplanes, and squeeze more people into their shops, conferences and venues.

Once again, there are two opposite responses to this treatment. The first is to feel no particular burden about this lopsided treatment of the church. Some might smart a bit and perhaps sense the injustice and unreasonableness, but accept it as part of the pain of the moment. Some even agree with the government’s assessment that church gatherings are highly dangerous, due to the tendency to hug, shake hands, sing and so forth. But overall, the discomfort does not rise to the level of conviction in the conscience that one is participating in evil.

The second response is to be convicted in conscience that to participate in the government’s treatment of the church is to disobey the Lord. Whether or not unbelieving governments regard the church as essential or treat it fairly is not the issue. Whether Christians are willing to personally believe and support that assessment becomes a matter of personal submission to Christ. For example, the fact that the government is happy to have unmasked patrons of restaurants eat and drink any day of the week but crack down on worshippers on Sunday is a matter between government and God – they must answer to God for that. But if a Christian goes to restaurants during the week, and yet avoids church on Sundays or believes the government’s assessment of church gathering, this has become a matter between the Christian and God. He is no longer merely submitting to government’s regulations; he is submitting to government’s assessment of worship. His conscience must agree with government in order to act that way. He must believe that going to restaurants is worth the risk, and going to church is not; or he must believe that assembled worship is some of the most dangerous activity in the world during a pandemic. Either way, he must come to several judgements in himself on the importance of worship, the kind of risks worth taking, the comparative value of various social activities. For those on this side of the debate, to submit to the world’s estimate is to be disloyal to God, to demote His importance, to participate in the denigration and marginalisation of God.

Unlike the first matter, this matter has nothing to do with the future, and everything to do with what is right in front of us. Frankly, from my perspective, the only way a Christian cannot be smitten in conscience about this comparative marginalisation of God is if he believes that livestreaming, webcasts and Zoom are allowing true worship to continue.

Therefore, it is not surprising to see the following combinations of beliefs:
1) Those who believe the restrictions are temporary, that the Christian conscience need not be injured by the restrictions, and that livestreaming, Zoom and “virtual” church are valid forms of gathering.
2) Those who believe some of the restrictions will become permanent, that the Christian conscience is necessarily offended by the restrictions, and that gathering means gathering, with actual people in each other’s actual presence.

It is not hard to understand why those who hold the first matrix of beliefs have no problem with submitting to (most) everything the government has ordered during the pandemic, and those who hold the second matrix see no possible way to submit to all government says and remain faithful to God.

Since none of us knows the future, discussing government’s intentions is not likely to bring any agreement. We should focus our discussions on two things: are web technologies valid substitutes for embodied worship, and should the individual Christian conscience tolerate the public marginalisation of Christian worship?

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