Churches around the world have chosen to respond in various ways to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are complying with the government mandates; many are live streaming their sermons; others are finding a different work-around, such as hosting drive-in services in a parking lot; others are meeting outside in undisclosed locations and changing the meeting place every week; still others are openly defiant and holding services as usual. Should we be shutting down the church, or keeping it open? Here are some things to consider:
1. The church is not a building; the church is the people of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ. So, in an important sense, no one can shut down the church. A building may sit empty, but the church can still be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).
2. Followers of Christ should always seek to obey civil authority unless that authority requires that we do something sinful. We see this principle played out in the lives of Daniel (Daniel 6:10–28) and the apostles (Acts 5:25–42) and in the response of Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem to register for taxation (Luke 2:1–5). Paul states that we are to obey those who rule over us, for they were placed there by God Himself for our good (Romans 13:1–7; cf. 1 Peter 2:13). So, it’s always wise to obey governmental authority unless compelled by Scripture not to obey.
Those churches who defy the mandates of civil authorities, claiming that “we must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29), may be overlooking the fact that the orders are not designed to stop us from worshiping and ministering. In the early days of the church, when Peter and John defied the Sanhedrin, at issue was a direct order to stop preaching in the name of Jesus Christ (verse 28). Similar restraints are in place in many nations around the world where the church is persecuted. But neither parallels the current situation involving COVID-19; the stated motivation of federal, state, and local governments for the personal distancing rules is the protection of the general public, including our own congregations. No one is trying to keep us from preaching the gospel.
3. Churches have their good testimony in their communities to consider. We do not want to be seen as rebellious and reckless. Rather, we want to follow the biblical command to “be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:17–18). The church’s response to the COVID-19 crisis should be to show the love of Christ, finding ways to minister to our hurting, fearful neighbors.
4. There’s wisdom in staying out of harm’s way. For instance, we wouldn’t allow our children to be in a cage with a wild animal, even if we have “faith” that God will protect them. It’s not an issue of having faith vs. lacking faith—it’s an issue of wisdom vs. foolishness. We should always choose the path of wisdom.
5. Given that the COVID-19 virus is very contagious and potentially deadly, the church is right to take steps to ensure the physical well-being of God’s family. Temporary social distancing and the cancellation of larger public gatherings (such as church meetings) may be necessary for the protection of people. Pastors are right to be lovingly concerned for their congregations. Churches sometimes close their doors due to harsh weather conditions: ice storms or snowstorms can make travel dangerous. Churches who call off services because of weather emergencies are not disobeying God; they are showing appropriate concern for people’s safety.
6. The situation churches face due to the COVID-19 outbreak is unique and temporary. Once the threat has passed, we will be free to return to our meetings and ministries as before. Pastors should not feel they are disobeying God by obeying the governing authorities during these unique times.
The days of COVID-19 are difficult, to be sure. Yet churches are still finding ways to minister: through the internet, email, texting, and good, old-fashioned letters and phone calls, pastors are staying up with God’s people in the churches they serve. The uncertainty and hardship surrounding the pandemic will not last indefinitely. This time will conclude, and things will get back to relative normalcy. In the meantime, we are patient. We stay faithful. We obey the law to the degree that we are able.
We may be isolated, quarantined, or forced into a temporary separation, “but God’s word is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:9).