Updated: Sep 20, 2021
(If you would like to read the PDF version of this article, it is linked at the bottom of this page)
I love the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is a tragic but inspiring story of a man fully surrendered to the will of God in the face of evil. When I was in Theological school, I had the opportunity to write a term paper which tried to answer the question, “why was the Church not a factor in stemming the evil of the Third Reich?” What I found was quite surprising. Some churches took an entirely pragmatic approach, refusing to condemn the evil being done (Lutheran church). Others sold out entirely to the popular tide, praising the government’s ways. Sadly others made a proverbial deal with the Devil, promising not to interfere in exchange for being left alone (Catholic Church). It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer and those like him who had the courage to stand strong against an increasingly powerful foe. In the end, he was executed by the government for his strong stand, but his soul remained faithful to Christ.
The story of Bonhoeffer is one which I’m sure we all would strive for. There are countless stories in Christian history that inspire us to incredible courage in the face of overwhelming foes. Consider the stories of Ignatius, Polycarp, John Bunyan, Justin Martyr, Aida Skripnikova, Richard Wurmbrand, John Knox, John Hus, or a host of other brave men and women who refused to compromise their convictions to appease the demands of the wicked. Neither the threat of death nor the promises of reward could persuade them to compromise their witness. Their souls were not for sale, and they were willing to endure whatever consequence they were subjected to. The purpose of this letter is to appeal to the church to live up to the high calling it was given, to be brave in the face of fear, and faithful to their true calling, rather than pragmatic in its mission.
THINGS OF GOD, NOT OF MAN
“He shall seduce with flattery those who violate the covenant, but the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action.” (Daniel 11:32 - ESV)
In the book of Matthew we read the story of one of Jesus strongest rebukes, to the man who would lead his church. It reads as follows:
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:21-23 - emphasis mine)
Peter’s heart was in the right place. He wanted to protect Jesus from harm, and believed he was truly guarding the mission of Christ. Without knowing it, he had let his own misguided goals become a hindrance to Christ, setting his mind on his own interests rather than God’s. It can happen to anyone. It can even happen to the church, and I believe it may already be happening as we speak. I believe the church - as Peter did - has adopted a misguided position in the modern day, seeking a pragmatic mission to avoid danger rather than the higher calling to be faithful to the things of God. In this essay, I hope to appeal to the church to reconsider its approach to this pandemic, as I feel that based on Scripture itself, the church may be misguided in its concession to the things being done. My thesis is simple: While the church may have good intentions in trying to obey the government, they are in truth failing in their mission by condoning evil, colluding with the wicked, and compromising scripture in doing so. I sincerely hope that in calling the church back to its scriptural mandate, they may regain the blessing of Christ. As Christ himself implored: ““If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
PART 1: ZEAL FOR GOD, BUT NOT ACCORDING TO KNOWLEDGE
THREE ERRONEOUS JUSTIFICATIONS FOR LOCKDOWNS
“Enthusiasm without knowledge is not good; haste makes mistakes.” (Proverbs 19:2 NLT)
“For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.” (Romans 10:2 - NASB)
There’s a story that I love in the book of Jeremiah that I think is very relevant to our situation today. In this incident, the prophet is warning the people of Jerusalem against placing their hope in a false sense of security. It reads as follows:
Stop putting your confidence in the false belief that says, “We are safe! The temple of the Lord is here! The temple of the Lord is here! The temple of the Lord is here!” You must change the way you have been living and do what is right. You must treat one another fairly. Stop oppressing resident foreigners who live in your land, children who have lost their fathers, and women who have lost their husbands. Stop killing innocent people in this land. Stop paying allegiance to other gods. That will only bring about your ruin. Jeremiah 7:4-6 NET
The people of God had mistakenly convinced themselves that their enemy - the Babylonians - could not destroy Jerusalem because the Temple of the Lord was there. Since the Lord had rescued them from the Assyrians in the days of Hezekiah, it wasn’t a completely foolish idea. However, as we know, the Lord had already prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed if they did not repent (Jeremiah 26:13) and the prophet Ezekiel had already declared that the Lord had left his Temple (Ezekiel 10:18-19). They had put their confidence in a false hope. I believe the church today has made a similar mistake.
There are three justifications that many in the church cite as justifications for the current approach, and I would like to address them before I proceed to provide the reasons why I believe the church is in error in supporting it. I hope to demonstrate that all three of these ideas are similarly based on a false hope as were those of the Israelites in Jeremiah’s day. It should be noted that these critiques of these justifications are by no means meant to be exhaustive, but rather, to point out that these are a weak foundation upon which to justify our actions.
ERROR # 1 - UNQUESTIONED OBEDIENCE (Obey your authorities)
The first of these justifications is that we must obey our authorities. The bible verses used to justify this approach is taken from the following verses:
“Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work.” (Titus 3:1)
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:1-2)
“Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake, whether to a king as supreme or to governors as those he commissions to punish wrongdoers and praise those who do good.” (1 Peter 2:13-14)
Those who point to these verses often suggest that we should obey our authorities but fail to explain why we should listen in some cases and not others. Clearly we should be subject to our authorities for the Lord’s sake; no one is questioning that. The problem is that this approach is being used as an oversimplification of a much more complex problem. Clearly we are to disobey when we are asked to do evil, as the midwives of Egypt did (Exodus 1:17), and we are to disobey when we are asked to directly disobey the Lord, as did Daniel (Daniel 6:10), but there are innumerable examples of people disobeying orders when no evil and no disobedience to the Lord was involved, such as when Mordecai refused to bow to Haman (Esther 3:2), Elijah refusing to obey the king’s summons (1 Kings 18:38), the Israelites resuming construction on the Temple despite the King of Persia outlawing it (Ezra 5:3-5), or Jesus clearing the Temple without the permission of the ruling authorities (John 2:18).
I don’t doubt the sincerity of people who bring up this justification, but I would argue that to determine whether or not we should obey a ruling authority is not a simple matter. Yes, generally it is true we must be subject to the ruling authorities, but to determine when it is or is not what we are to do requires wisdom and insight. It is not sufficient to declare that we must obey our authorities unquestionably without providing a strong justification as to why, lest we become like the Pharisees (or even the Catholic Church during the reformation) and demand blind obedience. Simply saying that we MUST obey… end sentence, full stop, is not sufficient. That is why this justification is not enough to justify the affirmation of these policies. [If you would like, I have provided a separate article at the end of this letter which more fully addresses this issue. I welcome you to read it if you desire].
ERROR # 2 - UNSULLIED WITNESS (What will people think?)
The second justification people often make when defending the current approach is to suggest that we cannot risk looking bad before the world. “What would people think of us” is a common refrain I hear from many who hold this view. This is a pragmatic defence at best, suggesting that the strength of our witness is in avoiding any offence to the world. This is a primarily image based approach which misses the mark in a spectacular way. We are not to be motivated in our actions by any form of vain conceit (a concern for appearances) as Paul very clearly points out in Philippians 2:2, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit.” In Galatians 1:10 Paul says “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Jesus says in Matthew 10:22 that “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” There are many more examples of this principle but clearly while we are meant to act in a way that keeps our conscience clear and in a way that is full of integrity, seeking to avoid doing what pleases God in order to avoid causing offence is not a strategy that the church of God should ever be adopting.
This is all the more true if we consider that the success of the church comes to us through the Lord’s hand alone. It is God alone who will protect the church, who will cause us to grow and thrive, to be full, and we cannot hope to gain his favour if we put friendship with the world before obedience to the Lord. As James lays out fully in his letter: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4). I sincerely urge the church not to fall into the trap of people pleasing for pragmatic purposes. This is what led to king Saul’s ultimate demise (1 Samuel 15:24).
ERROR # 3 - MISGUIDED LOVE (Love your neighbour cures all)
Perhaps the most dangerous of the justifications often used is the third one, which usually takes the following form: “We must do this out of love for our neighbour.” This justification usually involves some form of basis in the words of Jesus, either in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) or in his summary of the two greatest commandments (Mark 12:31). Now on the surface this justification appears to be in line with our Christian witness. Who could argue that loving others is not a Christian virtue? The problem with this justification lies in the inability (or often, in the refusal) to properly define what loving our neighbour means, or to follow the direction given to us in scripture on how we are to carry this out.
Firstly, loving our neighbour should never lead us to disobey God. The Apostle John very clearly stated that “this is the love of God: that we keep his commandments (1 John 5:3) and Jesus said that “the person who has my commandments and obeys them is the one who loves me (John 14:21). Even throughout the Old Testament, it is made abundantly clear that obedience to God is a vital part of loving him. Whether it is Saul declaring that “obedience is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22), God declaring that those who obey him will be his special possession (Exodus 19:5) or Isaiah prophesying that if people will obey, they will be rewarded (Isaiah 1:19). I know what I am raising is not likely a surprise to those who follow God, but I raise it because it is often argued by many Christians that God is pleased when we “love others” in a way that causes us to disobey the Lord (such as when people suggest that closing church is loving even though it directly violates his commands to gather).
Secondly, loving our neighbour is done so that we can love God; it is not an end in itself. Proponents of this view often forget that Jesus was quoting the book of Leviticus when citing this second greatest commandment. He was quoting Leviticus chapter 19 which said:
Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.
Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
Keep my decrees…
(Leviticus 18:16-19 - emphasis mine)
The portion Jesus was quoting was from verse 17 which is underlined. What you will notice, however, is that in the immediate context of this verse are various commands that should be obeyed along with loving one’s neighbor. Verse 16 says we should not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life (which, if lockdowns and/or masks put people’s lives in danger, is that loving to do?). It says we should rebuke our neighbor so that we do not share in their guilt!” In other words, part of God’s desire in our interaction to with our neighbours is is that we rebuke them so they don’t cause us harm. You will also notice that it says very clearly right after “love your neighbor” that it commands us to “keep his decrees.” The reason I point this out is to demonstrate that the command to love our neighbour involves more than simply doing what feels good, which is how far too many Christians tend to define this instruction. Loving includes discipline and rebuke, as Jesus himself lays out very clearly in his words to the Laodicean church: “All those I love, I rebuke and discipline.” (Revelation 3:19). So is it sufficient to argue that we should wear masks, obey social distancing and affirm lockdowns so we can “love our neighbour.” The simple answer is that we first need to determine what is good before we can determine what is loving. Affirming what is not good with good motives is ultimately unloving, as obedience to the Lord, the good of our neighbor and knowledge of the truth are vital in defining what it means to love our neighbor.
In the same way that the people of Jeremiah’s day trusted in a false basis for their security, I believe that many in the church may be relying on these faulty foundations for confidence that we are doing the right thing (defined as doing what the Lord expects of us in his word). Blind obedience of our ruling authorities is not a sufficient justification. The Lord demands that his people do what is right, and that we obey his commands, and this cannot be done rightly if we simply tell the church to blindly obey their authorities. We must explain to them why it is right to do so now, and provide a solid biblical basis for it. Otherwise we run the risk of repeating the “I was following orders” error that we know is not a sufficient justification before the Lord:
“If you say, "But we did not know about this," does not the one who evaluates hearts consider? Does not the one who guards your life know? Will he not repay each person according to his deeds?” (Proverbs 24:12)
Suggesting that we should act in a way that doesn’t offend the world is similarly a foolish mandate, as it ignores the more vital priority of doing what pleases the Lord (Matthew 6:33). Seeking to protect our image is to seek our survival and success from the world, rather than to seek this vital thing from the Lord. Finally, it is a mistake to hold to the view that loving our neighbor can be an arbitrary practice. We first need to determine whether these lockdowns and the varying policies they bring are good BEFORE we can know if it is loving to do them. Loving without defining what is good is a bit like swinging a knife in the dark hoping that we slice the bread rather than our friend. As Proverbs 25:18 says: “Like a club or a sword or a sharp arrow, so is the one who testifies against his neighbor as a false witness.” We cannot risk ignorance simply because we have good intentions. We need to determine what is good BEFORE we affirm it and risk causing harm to our neighbours. That is what I hope to do in the next section.
PART 2: THE CHURCH SHOULD CONDEMN EVIL, NOT CONDONE IT
THREE SERIOUS WARNINGS ABOUT LOCKDOWNS
“When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes.” (Isaiah 10:12 - ESV)
“Why have you agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out!” (Acts 5:9)
There is an interesting contrast laid out in the book of Isaiah. Starting in verse 5, the Lord clearly declares that the King of Assyria is clearly his tool to accomplish his purposes. He is the one who raised him up, who gave him his power, and who “sent him against a godless nation.” (Isaiah 10:6). However, in verse 12 the Lord then declares that he will hold Assyria and its king accountable for all that he has done. He will punish him for the acts of violence and cruelty that he has committed. This same principle is repeated for the king of Babylon, whom the Lord rebuked through the prophet Habakkuk: “For you will pay in full for your violent acts against Lebanon… …you have shed human blood and committed violent acts against lands, cities, and those who live in them.” (Habakkuk 2:17). The same principle is carried forward to the New Testament, when Peter sharply rebukes Ananias and Sapphira, for lying to the church in hopes of getting prestige. The principle is that the Lord holds people accountable for what they’ve done, regardless of their intentions in doing so (Psalm 28:4).
We need to keep this in mind when deciding whether to support the current policies of lockdowns. We bear responsibility if we choose to support these policies, and they turn out to be evil as I believe they may be. I believe the church is in error in affirming these practices, and in this section I hope to show three reasons why these government actions are not just wrong, but why the church cannot support them.
WARNING # 1 - THESE POLICIES CAUSE HARM
It is a grave mistake for the church to support policies that may end up causing enormous harm to people, regardless of how good the intentions may have been. Let’s remember the mistake that David made in 1 Chronicles 21. In this chapter, David foolishly decides to take a census of the armed forces of his kingdom. His general tries to warn him saying:
May the Lord increase the number of his people a hundred times over! But why, my lord the king, do you want to do this? Are they not all your servants? Why must you cause Israel to sin? (1 Chronicles 21:3 - NLT)
Now clearly this is in the context of a greater move of God, but the warning is that David did a foolish thing in ignorance and the end result was the death of 70,000 people. Now I understand that our government is telling us that if we do not comply with these lockdowns, many people will die. What they are not telling us is that these lockdown measures are likely to kill far more people overall than the virus will. Consider the following:
These policies are absolutely devastating the jobs and livelihoods of millions of people both in Canada and abroad.
It has been estimated that millions of the worlds poorest will die because of these lockdown policies.
The devastating impact on children and young people is horrifying, already resulting in horrible rises in teen suicide, serious mental distress, and an unknown number of lifelong health impacts.
These lockdowns are creating an epidemic of poverty which has been absolutely unprecedented.
People are dying from untreated or undiagnosed diseases or illnesses in record numbers.
People are dying from opioid overdoses, suicides, domestic abuses, and so much more.
That doesn’t even take into account the massive negative impacts of putting people in isolation, joblessness, anxiety, division and so on. The harms from these policies are simply undeniable, and those are just the health harms.
They offer only superficial help
for the hurt my dear people have suffered.
They say, “Everything will be all right!”
But everything is not all right. (Jeremiah 8:11)
There are terrible harms being committed by this government. Why is the church looking the other way?
WARNING # 2 - THESE POLICIES PROMOTE INJUSTICE
On top of the health and wellness harms caused by these lockdowns, we also have to consider the enormous injustices that these lockdown policies are wreaking on our world. People are being imprisoned now without being charged with any crime, which flies in the face of the justice that God calls for. Our government is prioritizing rich and wealthy businesses and punishing small businesses, completely defying the just treatment that the Bible calls us to seek. The authorities are punishing some people and completely ignoring the same sins of others they favour, leading to an epidemic of injustice in law. The fines being enacted to hold up these policies disproportionately impact the poor and working class people, and the cost of these fines is so overwhelmingly unjust that it is tantamount to extortion. As if all that is not bad enough, there are now Churches are being shut down while big box stores and airplanes are still allowed to open, resulting in churches being asked to compromise their mission unjustly.
“Open your mouth for the mute, For the rights of all who are unfortunate and defenseless; Open your mouth, judge righteously, And administer justice for the afflicted and needy.”
Proverbs 31:8-9 AMP
There is terrible injustice being committed by this government. Why is the church silent?
WARNING # 3 - THESE POLICIES ARE RIDDLED WITH LIES
Finally, on top of the harms and injustices being perpetuated by this government, there is also an epidemic of falsehood being committed as well. Our government is presenting huge numbers of cases, but they are not telling anyone about the enormous flaws and problems with the testing they’re based upon. They’re telling us that hospitals are at capacity, but they never mention that this has been a problem for hospitals for years. They say that this virus is a incredibly deadly killer, but do not tell people that the excess deaths are in line with other years. They tell us that if we don’t lock down people will die, but fail to tell us how many people might die if we lock down. I cannot possibly list the innumerable amounts of misinformation and falsehoods our government is telling, but I do know that this tendency to spread lies and falsehoods is at incredible odds with what we are called to do in scripture. For instance:
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another (Ephesians 4:25)
Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight. (Proverbs 12:22)
You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man. (Psalm 5:6)
This is your lot, the portion I have measured out to you, declares the Lord, because you have forgotten me and trusted in lies. (Jeremiah 13:25)
I cannot imagine a way in which the church could affirm a government policy or approve of government officials that have (and in many cases continue to) rely on lies, deceit or false testimony. Now I understand that there are lies mixed with the truth throughout this process and that there may be some debate on what may be lies and what may be truth, but the church is truly delving into extremely dangerous waters if it supports of affirms government polices without ensuring that they are based upon truth. If the church gives a stamp on approval on deceit and deception, they will be held responsible by the Lord for the very things they approve of and the irreparable harm that may inevitably flow from these lies.
“Listen now to my argument, and be attentive to my lips’ contentions. Will you speak wickedly on God’s behalf? Will you speak deceitfully for him? Will you show him partiality? Will you argue the case for God? Would it turn out well if he would examine you? Or as one deceives a man would you deceive him? He would certainly rebuke you if you secretly showed partiality!”
Job 13:6-10 NET
There are too many lies being used by this government, Why is the church silent?
PART 3: THE CHURCH SHOULD CONFRONT THE WICKED, NOT CATER TO THEM - THREE REBUKES TO THE CHURCH
“He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” (Proverbs 17:15 ESV)
“The prophet Jehu son of Hanani confronted him; he said to King Jehoshaphat, “Is it right to help the wicked and be an ally of those who oppose the LORD? Because you have done this the LORD is angry with you!” (2 Chronicles 19:2 )
Jehoshaphat was one of the best kings in the Old Testament. He was involved with one of the most amazing miraculous victories given by God, winning victory without a single blow (2 Chronicles 20), he was involved in another miraculous rescue through the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 3:13) and he did much good during his reign. His biggest flaw was that he teamed up with evil men despite the repeated warnings of God through his prophets. This is part of the problem I see with the church and the lockdowns. I hear many church leaders suggest that we can oppose the lockdowns while not compromising our mission, but as things currently stand, I do not think this is true. The church should be confronting the wicked, not participating in the wicked deeds that they do. In this section, I hope to provide rebuke for the three approaches the church is taking when responding to this pandemic. I do so out of concern for the church and out of love for it, as Jesus himself would do (Revelation 3:19).
REBUKE # 1 - DEALING WITH PRINCES (Sin of Caiaphas)
Then one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is more to your advantage to have one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish.” (John 11:49-50)
The first approach the church has taken in this current crisis is essentially an attempt to quell the threat of government intervention by making a deal with them. I call this approach “dealing with princes” in line the warning in Psalm 146:3 (“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man in whom there is no salvation.”). This approach is characterized by attempting to solve a problem by making deals with the ruling authorities that attempt to remove the threat by human means. While I can understand the impulse to do this can seem wise, I believe it is a terrible error in practice, and I’d like to demonstrate why this is.
There are numerous examples in scripture that warn against this approach. We are warned in various places to be wary of trusting in the power of kings or of ruling authorities to get ourselves out of trouble by human means. Consider the following examples:
“Give us help from trouble, For the help of man is useless. Through God we will do valiantly, For it is He who shall tread down our enemies.” (Psalm 60:11-12 - ESV)
“It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.” (Psalm 118:8-9 ESV)
“Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” (Isaiah 2:22)
“The LORD says, ‘I will put a curse on people who trust in mere human beings, who depend on mere flesh and blood for their strength, and whose hearts have turned away from the LORD.’” (Jeremiah 17:5)
There are innumerable other warnings about placing our trust in human authorities instead of in the Lord, and making deals with the authorities today without considering the cost of doing so is to tread on dangerous ground. I would warn the church heavily against making deals with Caesar in order to avoid trouble, as Caiaphas did.
Another major problem with making deals with the government is that in doing so we become liable for their sins as well. For example, in the book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul gives a great piece of advice. He says “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” (Ephesians 5:11) This principle is repeated in the words of the prophet Jehu above who warned Jehoshaphat of teaming up with men who are at enmity with God. In fact, David even went as far as suggesting that he avoided entirely those who hate God: ““Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” (Psalm 139:21-22). How then can the church truly believe that they will not be held liable for promoting and enforcing the very laws that our government is enacting. If these laws prove to be harmful, unjust and deceitful, will the church not be tainted and punished along with the government for participating in these? Consider the following verses regarding this dangerous approach:
“You implement the regulations of Omri, and all the practices of Ahab’s dynasty; you follow their policies. Therefore I will make you an appalling sight, the city’s inhabitants will be taunted derisively, and nations will mock all of you.” (Micah 6:16)
This rebuke in Micah involves the danger of implementing unjust policies. If you, the church, believe that implementing the policies of the government does not implicate you in potential judgment if these policies prove to be evil, on what do you base this on? Now consider another verse:
“You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.
Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.” (Revelation 3:20-25 - emphasis mine)
Jesus warned the church in Thyatira that those who were involved and participated in the deeds of the false prophetess named Jezebel would be punished with her, but those who neither hold to her teaching nor practice it will be spared from judgment. As I pointed out with the verse at the beginning of this section, the sin of Caiaphas was in choosing to avoid the threat of government intervention by practical means. The danger of this approach is that the church implicates itself in the sins of the wicked and attempts to resolve problems by making deals with human actors. Both are dangerous and I urge the church not to continue in this path if it is the one they have chosen.
REBUKE # 2 - DEALING WITH PHARISEES (Sin of Judas)
“What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.” (Matthew 26:15-16 ESV)
The sin of Judas involves making deals that involve selling out your own people. How is the church doing this you may ask? By adopting and enforcing practices that hurt the people in the church and which cause the church to compromise their mission for some short term gain. Allow me to point out some examples of this in the current policies being practiced by the church.
One great example of this compromise is in culling a major part of the church in order to comply with government dictates about building sizes. The government demand (at least in Alberta) is that churches can only have 15% of their members attend. The others must stay home and watch online. How is this biblical? Not only is the church commanded to be an assembly of believers, as is explicitly stated in places like Hebrews 10:25 which clearly states that we are “not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some,” (I know some people argue that assembling is figurative and can involve doing it online, but this does not properly exegete the word “ἐπισυναγωγή” (episynagoge) which does not allow for that interpretation) but the church cannot perform numerous practices without people attending in person. For example:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) How can people be baptized from home?
“Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery.” (1 Timothy 4:14) How are we to pray for healing, bestow blessing or follow commands like this if we are not physically present?
“For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:23) How are we supposed to share communion if we are all apart?
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16) Paul gave this instruction to churches, NOT to individuals. Is the church not expected to sing together? Yet you are suggesting that the majority of members sing alone at home. How is this honouring to God? Consider the countless verses presupposing corporate worship (Ephesians 5:18-19, Psalm 150:1-6, Psalm 95:1, Matthew 26:30, 1 Chronicles 25:1-7, Psalm 5:11, Psalm 9:2, Psalm 51:14, and so on). The church seems to have no problem declaring that singing is commanded in scripture, but when it comes to singing together, you seem to believe that this is a completely arbitrary command.
I could go on about the countless ways that a church is expected to meet together, as there are so many examples of these commands. What I cannot understand is why the church believes that these commands can be fulfilled by forcing the majority of their members to stay home. Remember that you have a sacred duty to care for the church, as given by Paul in Acts 20:28: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” I cannot tell you how many people I’ve talked to who are struggling with the restrictions being enacted by the church. The health and well being of the people in the church should be your first and most pressing concern, and I worry that you may be selling out your own people in an attempt to comply with government edicts.
Another prime example of how the church is compromising its own mission, is that in enforcing these policies, the church is forcing their own members to sin. Consider the instructions given in Romans Chapter 14. The discussion in this chapter involves whether the people in the church should or shouldn't eat certain foods. Paul himself states that "the one who eats everything must not despise the one who does not, and the one who abstains must not judge the one who eats everything, for God has accepted him." (Romans 14:3) So certainly we can agree that judgment should not be given by neither those who abstain nor those who don't.
What I think the church seems to overlook is what Paul says in verse 14 is that even though he knows that there's nothing wrong with eating this controversial food, "it is unclean to the one who considers it unclean." And then he says in verse 20 "it is wrong to cause anyone to stumble by what you eat." Finally, in the final verse of the chapter, Paul says very simply "whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin."
Why do I bring this up? Quite simply it is because the principle that Paul is laying out is that if someone does something that violates their conscience, they are guilty of sinning. He also lays down the warning that those who cause others to do so are also condemned for putting a stumbling block before their own brethren. That is why he warns the Roman church not to put a stumbling block to believers that may cause them to violate their conscience and thus be committing sin. If we want to honour this principle, we cannot and should not be forcing people to do something that violates their conscience. I understand that the problem is that the church has placed themselves in a conundrum, in that they cannot follow this scriptural principle without violating the government's edicts. It is not that different from the practice that Jesus criticized in Mark 7:1-13, where the Pharisees had made a rule that caused people to break God's commands: “Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like this.”
The current approach, which involves bending the rules and thinking that they’re still technically obeying the Lord, is a very dangerous one. Consider for example what Daniel did as a case study. When he was forbidden from praying to his God, he did not seek a cowardly way to do it in secret, but opened his windows wide and prayed as usual:
Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. (Daniel 6:10 - NIV)
If we were to apply the modern church’s strategy to Daniel, someone might say “Daniel, you shouldn’t look for trouble. Just close your windows and pray secretly, or pray in your head. God is still honoured.” The same people would probably suggest to the disciples that they should not preach the good news publicly when their local government demanded them to stop, even though the Holy Spirit himself instructed them to preach the word publicly after being freed from jail (Acts 5:19-20). The truth is this half-measure approach is more akin to that of King Saul, who excused his disobedience, suggesting he had technically obeyed the Lord when he had not. Listen to the stinging rebuke he received through Samuel:
Does the Lord take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as he does in obedience?
Certainly, obedience is better than sacrifice;
paying attention is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and presumption is like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the Lord’s orders,
he has rejected you from being king. (1 Samuel 15:22-23)
This is the danger of this approach. Suggesting that watching church online is “technically” obeying the command to assemble together is a compromise. Arguing that forcing someone to wear a mask in violation of their conscience is fine because the end goal is “commendable” is wrong. How are we any different than King Saul in believing that partial obedience is pleasing to the Lord? Or how are we not in danger of emulating the sin of Achan, who troubled the people of God by his hidden disobedience? (Joshua 7) Have we not crossed over into Judas’ territory by taking a bribe (in our case, the permission to stay open) that causes us to sell out God’s people in exchange for a short term prize? The church needs to be extremely careful in engaging in this approach. Not only does the church have a sacred duty to care for their own people, but they also have an obligation to care for the needs of others in our society, including other churches which have been forced to close. Anything less than complete obedience to the Lord is a lukewarm measure, and we know how our Lord Christ feels about lukewarm Christianity (Revelation 3:15-16)
REBUKE # 3 - DEALING WITH PRAGMATISM (Sin of Peter)
“Then he began to curse and swear, “I do not know this Man of whom you speak!” A second time the rooster crowed. Then Peter called to mind the word that Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times.” And when he thought about it, he wept.” (Mark 14:71-72 - NKJV)
I truly believe that pragmatism is the most dangerous threat to the modern church. Sadly, I have encountered far too many people in the church who argue that the church must be pragmatic above all else if we are to survive this age. I understand why the church is drawn to this approach. It’s easier to comply than to fight. It’s a survival approach. The problem is it isn’t the way the church is called to live. I’d like to present as example that I believe truly illustrates the ideal. Consider the rebuke Asa received vs the commendation he got when he chose pragmatism vs reliance on God:
In 2 Chronicles 14:11-13, we are told that king Asa prayed exclusively to God for deliverance from a massive enemy army. The Lord himself struck down this army in answer to Asa’s prayer. Asa is thereafter commended for his reliance on God through the prophet Azariah: “The LORD is with you when you are loyal to him. If you seek him, he will respond to you, but if you reject him, he will reject you.” (2 Chronicles 15:2). Later in his reign, when Asa was faced with a much lesser threat, he chose to bribe the king of Syria to rescue him instead. The plan worked and Judah was saved. However, Asa was strongly rebuked by God, who said:
“Because you relied on the king of Syria and did not rely on the LORD your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped from your hand. Did not the Cushites and Libyans have a huge army with chariots and a very large number of horsemen? But when you relied on the LORD, he handed them over to you! Certainly the LORD watches the whole earth carefully and is ready to strengthen those who are devoted to him. You have acted foolishly in this matter; from now on you will have war.”
(2 Chronicles 16:7-9)
Asa’s story should be a huge warning to the church about relying on pragmatism to solve our problems. The reason I believe it is a mistake for the church to rely on pragmatism is that it wrongly assumes that our success can come by our own hands rather than knowing that whatever success we may have comes from being faithful to God. We know that God very clearly reminded the Israelites that their success in the promised land came by his hand “You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.” (Deut 8:17). The bible outlines in so many places the principle that our blessing or success is given to us by God (Psalm 44:3, Hosea 2:8, 1 Samuel 2:7, Joshua 24:12). Even in his admonition to the church in Philadelphia, he said he alone can open doors no one can close (Revelation 3:7).
The story of Peter’s denial should be a grave warning to us that we should never seek to solve any problem by avoiding consequences. Yes, I understand fully that if the church takes a stand against the government that they may face consequences. I am also fully aware that the church may be trying to protect people from the virus by complying. Both of these approaches though are consequence avoidance strategies, and that is the heart of the problem. Do not forget that it was the church that cared for the sick in Rome when the Antonine Plague (165-180 AD) and the Plague of Cyprian (249-262 AD) ravaged the Roman Empire, killing an estimated 25-35% of the population. Even Martin Luther, when speaking of the Christian duty during a plague, said, ““We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations.” We must be wary of any approach that encourages the church to avoid potential consequences by denying Christ, abandoning his church, or quelling the dangers we face through appeasement. Let us take courage in these words whenever we are tempted to seek to hide in the face of danger:
Be strong and brave! Don’t be afraid and don’t panic because of the king of Assyria and this huge army that is with him. We have with us one who is stronger than those who are with him. He has with him mere human strength, but the Lord our God is with us to help us and fight our battles!” The army was encouraged by the words of King Hezekiah of Judah. (2 Chronicles 32:7-8)
I would like to conclude by presenting you with a story of valour that I thought perfectly illustrates the approach I am advocating for the church to adopt:
“In 1934, Adolt Hitler summoned German church leaders to Berlin office to berate them for insufficiently supporting his programs. Pastor Martin Niemoller explained that he was concerned only for the welfare of the church and of the German people. Hitler snapped, “You confine yourself to the church. I’ll take care of the German people.” Niemoller replied, “You said that ‘I will take care of the German people.’ But we too, as Christians and churchmen, have a responsibility toward the German people. That responsibility was entrusted to us by God, and neither you nor anyone in this world has the power to take it from us.”
Pastor Niemoller was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and like many Christians in Germany who resisted (like Bonhoeffer), he was imprisoned and punished for his stand. This is the admirable legacy of so many valiant Christians throughout history who stood for truth, justice and faithfulness. This is what I pray that I may see from the church today. I realize fully that it takes enormous courage to take a stand in the face of an increasingly unfriendly government, but I think the call of Christ would have us take no other stance. When Jesus spoke to the churches most embroiled in trouble, he did not tell them to give in, but rather, admonished them for their endurance and encouraged them to continue on despite the danger (Revelation 2:3, 2:10, 2:19, 3:11).
Truly, the church should be taking the lead on all these issues. They should be the ones defending the weak and the oppressed from the hand of those who oppress them. They should be voicing concern over the harms, raising objections over the injustice, and addressing the lies being so often spread by our government. The church should be the one place where Christians can go without fear they will be excluded, their conscience violated, or their voice ignored. I know that these are difficult times, and yes the consequences of not complying may only increase over time, but the church cannot afford to be silent at such a time. Your people need you to be the voice of reason and the advocate for righteousness in a world increasingly losing its soul.
I urge you to consider condemning the evil being done rather than affirming it.
I urge you to confront the wicked rather than enabling them to succeed.
I urge you to reconsider your enforcement of these measures as they cause you to be unfaithful to the Lord and to your own people.
If you would like the PDF version of this article, you can download it below:
Additional articles regarding lockdowns: A BIBLICAL CHALLENGE TO UNIVERSAL MASKING WITH NO CONSCIENCE EXEMPTIONS
A BIBLICAL CHALLENGE TO THE IDEA THAT ONLINE CHURCH IS A VIABLE ALTERNATIVE TO IN-PERSON CHURCH