Halting In-Person Worship: Christian Liberty? Obedience to Romans 13?

Note: This post is the fourth in a series, “Technologizing of Worship Before, During, and After COVID: Epistemology, Eschatology, and Presence, part of a larger project suggesting a pastoral response to COVID and lockdowns in the church. Read more and subscribe here.

Some might object to my strenuous insistence on the essentiality of in-person worship, on the grounds that Christians are obliged to respect civil authorities (Rom 13:1–7), and should be willing to lay down our rights for the sake of others (1 Cor 8:9–13). Throughout the pandemic, some churches have voluntarily stopped meeting for extended periods of time (here, here); others have defied civil authorities in order to stay open (here, here, here).

If the government says we may not meet or should not meet, mustn’t we take that into account? Don’t we as churches have Christian freedom not to meet for worship? While these considerations should not be blithely dismissed, such biblical texts and principles cannot faithfully be deployed as justification for suspending in-person worship (Heb 10:25).

Within the long history of wrestling with Romans 13:1–7 (and related texts) and the relationship of the civil authority, with great diversity of opinion within the Christian family—there is unanimity in the tradition that civil disobedience is justified when civil authorities seek to prevent the proclamation of the gospel (e.g., Acts 4:19–20). To the extent that corporate worship is necessary for gospel proclamation and the formation of disciples (which we will consider in a subsequent post), civil disobedience is justified.

Some Christian leaders argued that 1 Cor 8:9–13 should lead us to lay aside our rights for the good of the community:

But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? 11 For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. 12 And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble. (NASB)

Some understand this as support for the idea that Christians should not assert or exercise their rights to gather for worship, and pastors should not place a stumbling block in the way of their congregations by meeting against the orders or recommendations of government authorities.

This interpretation fails to account for the context of 1 Cor 8, where the end to which Paul exercises his Christian freedom (in refraining from eating idol-meat) is in fact embodied fellowship with fellow Christians. Laying down Christian rights to avoid stumbling others involves making necessary accommodations so that others feel safe and welcome coming to worship and enjoying table fellowship.

Thus, following 1 Cor 8 may entail significant restructuring of worship spaces and perhaps ritual acts for health and safety (as we will consider in a subsequent post), so that those who are more vulnerable may join the gathering with as low a risk as possible. We now know of many tools to protect the vulnerable, including meeting outdoors, physical distancing, those who have symptoms choosing to stay home—and all this, before vaccines were even available in some parts of the world. Opening the church for worship and allowing individuals to weigh the gains of participation against their own personal risks actually respects the freedom of other believers; closing church indefinitely, for entire seasons, is robbing them of knowing God’s love in a way that is essential for human life.

Christians living under oppressive regimes have long understood that gathering for worship is essential for continuing in the Christian faith—after all, Christians in the book of Acts routinely violated government bans on worship and preaching the gospel. Though Christians in modern secular societies such as Europe and North America must guard against the “martyr complex,” neither should they regard the secular state as an empathetic ally. Civil authorities in secular society, I have argued in previous posts, do not possess the categories to fully reckon with the “essentialness” of worship—and will therefore never appropriately balance public health concerns with the need for corporate worship.

It is therefore the role of Christian leaders to advocate both for the safety of the vulnerable and for the rights of individuals to gather, mediating in good faith between the state and their communities.

Summary

Biblically, we must affirm that worship of the Triune God of the Bible is essential to human existence. Human beings were created to give God glory, and we find ourselves living most fully into our image-bearing vocation when we worship. Worship is necessary for a kind of “knowing” that is essential to our human existence, and worship is the chief end of human existence. Without worship, we cannot know who we are or fully be who we ought to be.

Modern secular society does not have the categories to assess or embrace this truth claim, and therefore health authorities will never successfully balance this aspect of our human identity with other concerns (like economics or physical safety). In the worldview where “religious experience” is merely a construct that brings comfort, community and an ethical framework, worship cannot be an end in itself.

In the next few posts, we will turn our attention to “online church,” its possibilities and its shortcomings, and the technological innovations that existed before the pandemic on which churches have come to rely quite heavily. Is “online church” acting as a placebo or spiritual “junk food” that prevents us from hungering for the real thing?

For more in this series, click here.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
This entry was posted in Bible-Theology, Culture-Economics-Society and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Halting In-Person Worship: Christian Liberty? Obedience to Romans 13?

  1. Pingback: Re-Forming Church Biblically | think hard, think well

  2. Pingback: Science, Worship, and an “Epistemology of Love” | think hard, think well

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