“Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone” (Romans 12:19, NIV).
My wife Jeanie regularly talks with her older sister who lives in a small town in Nebraska.
Her older sister is one of the most talented, intelligent, wonderful, caring, generous and moral people you could ever know. Through the years we have shared the Gospel with her probably too many times, prayed for her much, and she now attends and is very involved in a mainline denominational church–a church of the same denomination her mother attended in Nebraska. She would certainly say she is a believer in Christ—and she lives like it. However, as she was deciding to follow Christ, she made it clear she wasn’t going to be a believer like us.
I’ve never been absolutely sure what that meant. I think it has something to do with the fact that we are evangelicals who take the Bible literally and don’t compromise. However, I think it may also have something to do with our conservative political leanings. Jeanie’s sister boldly professes to be politically liberal. I don’t know how that works sometimes in relationship to the Bible’s teachings, except that more liberal denominations tend to pick and choose what they want to follow from the Bible. However, I think what that might mean to her, in part, is that she is compassionate. For instance, she struggles when immigrants are separated from their children at the border and when they can’t find asylum in a free country and when the only alternative left to them is living in a nation where drug cartels and murderous gangs are in control and threaten their very lives.
I can understand.
She’s enough involved with her church that she knows what’s going on in her community, even among the pastors. And recently about 15 pastors in her small town got together to discuss how churches were responding to the COVID-19 Crisis and the government orders that have shut down church services.
Guess who’s complaining? Guess who wants to challenge the government’s orders?
Yep, it’s the “evangelical” pastors. That’s the word she used to describe the group of malcontents.
Now, I am all for religious freedom and freedom of speech! I am all for equal rights for churches and Christians! If you don’t believe me, just ask why our little church, or any church in Nevada, is able to meet in a public school. It happened, initially at least, because 30 years ago I, along with Northgate Community Church (as our church was called back then), filed a lawsuit against the Washoe County School District because the school district discriminated against tax-paying church members by not allowing them to rent school facilities, even for a church basketball league! The district discriminated against us simply on the basis of our beliefs and the potential content of our speech. It took four years and an appeal, but by the grace of God, we won that lawsuit.
However, when I heard Jeanie’s story about her sister, I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed by the attitudes of “evangelical” pastors who are ready for a fight at the drop of a hat, and eager to call any and every government action that might affect our freedom to worship a violation of our freedom of religion—even when that action is intended to protect us and others in the midst of a terrible pandemic.
We need to ask ourselves whether the President and our governors are really out to destroy our freedom of speech and religion in a time such as this. Yes, I believe we need to be ever-vigilant about these matters. No doubt there are many elements in our society ready to abridge our freedom of religion in a crisis just like this. However, so far this appears to be all about protecting us from a deadly virus that does not discriminate on the basis of religious preferences and practices.
Very early in the pandemic, an evangelical church in Sacramento became the center of a COVID-19 outbreak simply because it had allowed face-to-face home fellowship meetings. The pastor ended up in critical condition. A community Christian choir of about 85 folks met and sang together in the Northwest. They took some precautions, but still 42 were infected, and a couple died. Recently, in South Korea, which handled the crisis as well as any nation on the earth, a single person infected 84 others in one night out on the town after the country opened things up.
No, we haven’t experienced a huge epidemic where we live. There are about 1200 cases in Washoe County. On the other hand, 27,000 people in New York have died in the last three months. It’s not just an ugly statistic—it becomes quite another thing when even one of those people who has died is a friend or relative of yours, or a member of your church family.
As a shepherd of the sheep of Risen King Community Church, who attempts to follow the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for these sheep, you also better believe that I’m all about protecting the Lord’s flock from any predator, visible or invisible.
If that means making sure I’m not the source of someone else’s infection and have to wear a mask until kingdom come, so be it. If that means zoom meetings and virtual church become the norm rather than the exception, then I’m all for it. And if that means preserving Christ and the church’s reputation by following reasonable government orders intended to protect our community, as well as the members of our church, then I’m going to be compliant.
About 2,000 years ago there was another deadly plague. It was called Nero’s persecution of the church. Multitudes of believers died, some torn to pieces by wild beasts in the Roman Colosseum; others’ bodies becoming the candles for Nero’s gardens.
It was as that persecution was beginning that the Apostle Peter, who ultimately became one of Nero’s victims, wrote this:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king (I Peter 2:13-17).
Yes, Peter preached the Gospel in defiance of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. But when the governing authorities don’t require you to disobey Christ and are acting to protect you rather than destroy you, then maybe submitting for the Lord’s sake to every human institution isn’t such a bad idea.