On Quarantines, Ethics, and Corporate Worship

This is one of those posts that should have been written months ago when COVID-19 was starting to have an effect on large gatherings, but still remains relevant as churches begin the process of reopening for Sunday worship. When the coronavirus hit, state governments began banning large gatherings out of caution in order to prevent the spread of the disease, with most states banning congregational worship as a subset of these large gatherings. The question that needed to be asked then, and still needs to be asked now since COVID-19 has not evaporated and new quarantines are still a possibility, is, What duty does the church have to still meet in the face of plagues and government restrictions? Scripture teaches on the subjects of gathering for corporate worship, loving your neighbor, and submitting to the government, and so I will examine these three pertinent topics to answer this question.

The Duty to Meet For Worship

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Heb. 10:24-25). These verses encapsulate the biblical teaching that the regular gathering of Christians for worship ought to be normative for the life of the believer and not set aside. This characterized the life of the church in scripture (e.g. Acts 2:42, 13:42, 20:7-10; 1 Cor. 16:1-2) and remains the duty of Christians today.

But the key word in Hebrews 10:25 is “neglect” (ἐγκαταλείπω; engkataleipo, literally to abandon or forsake). The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way, “God is to be worshiped…more solemnly in the public assemblies [of the church], which are not carelessly or willfully to be neglected, or forsaken…” (WCF 21.6). The normal practice of the church is to gather for worship on the Lord’s Day, and forsaking that gathering is wrong. Being non-carelessly prevented from attending (e.g. due to illness) is not abandoning the gathering of the church, while declining to attend out of disinterest or poor schedule management is sinful neglect.

The gathered worship of the church is an essential aspect of the Christian life. It is not negotiable for the Christian, but is the point and culmination of salvation and communion with God. Worship should not be skipped lightly.

The Civil Government’s Authority

God has instituted civil governments for his glory and the good of society. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom. 13:1-2, cf. 1 Pet. 2:13-17). God has established governments, and so they ought to be obeyed. To disobey government authority is to sinfully resist God. Now, there are limits to this. Paul goes on in Romans 13 to state, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:3-4).

Governments were instituted to uphold the good and restrain the wicked. When governments start forbidding the good and mandating evil, Christians have a duty to disobey the government. Governments were instituted by God to uphold his standard of good in society, and when governments start requiring people to violate that standard, those people have an obligation to obey God rather than the corrupt civil authority. The apostles famously make this point in Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than men.”

Christ has appointed a government for his church distinct from the government for civil society. This church government has been authorized to deliver the gospel to the church through the preaching of the word and administration of the sacraments, done in the gathered worship of the church (a brief confessional summary of this can be found in WCF 30 and WLC 45, 63). The worship of the church falls under the jurisdiction of the church’s government. Again, the Westminster Confession states, “Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith” (WCF 23.3).

So the government has overstepped its authority when it mandates that corporate gathering for the worship of God be cancelled because it is prohibiting what is a biblically-mandated Christian duty. It has, in essence, assumed the authority of the church’s government over the preaching of the word and administration of the sacraments by banning the setting in which they are to be administered.

Loving Your Neighbor and Quarantines

Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your being, and that the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Upon these two commandments hang all of the Old Testament (Matt. 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-27). The latter part of the 10 Commandments is summarized in this second command to love your neighbor as yourself, with the 10 Commandments functioning as a categorical representations of all the topics that fall under their headings. This matters, because the sixth commandment (Thou shall not murder) summarizes our obligation to preserve the life of our neighbors. Christians are obligated to act in such a way that the lives of our neighbors are protected (see the breakdown of the sixth commandment in WLC 134-136). That means acting in such a way that endangering the lives and health of our neighbors by carelessly exposing them to COVID-19 is unloving and violation of the sixth commandment.

It also means that governments have the duty and obligation to protect their citizens, including by ordering their citizens to behave in such a way (e.g. social distancing, wearing masks, quarantines) so that the lives of their neighbors are preserved. These orders fall under the jurisdiction of civil governments and are intended to uphold the good, and so must be obeyed. While the government can get specific solutions wrong, or have dubious motivations in its orders, these orders are lawful, protective of its citizens, and conform to God’s law, and so individual Christians do not have the right to selectively obey them. And insofar as the worship of the church is not disrupted in its essence, the gathered church should strive to obey these requirements as well.

In Mark 3:1-5 (cf. Matt. 12:9-14, Luke 6:6-11), the evangelist recounts this incident on the Sabbath,

Again Jesus entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand,And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

The Sabbath and the worship of the church are created for the good of God’s people. When striving to obey the purpose for which it was instituted leads to evil, that striving itself becomes evil. “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to kill?” No, and Jesus was angered that the Pharisees were unwilling to protect the life of the man in their attempt to protect the Sabbath. This is what Jesus meant when he says that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).

What this means for Christian practice is that if gathering for worship willfully endanger the lives or health of the people gathered, then the purpose of the Sabbath has been inverted. Instead of being a place of rest, the worship of the church now violates the sixth commandment. The church’s government has a duty to protect the lives and well-being of its members, and should take the steps necessary to do so, including the possibility of not meeting.

Leviticus 13-14 details in the Mosaic covenant the requirements for quarantine in Israel when people have infections diseases, and these regulations include barring people from the worship of the church at the tabernacle or temple. This exclusion applies to people who may be asymptomatic or are no longer infectious. These regulations for the Old Testament church are out of an abundance of caution in order for God’s people to love their neighbors well. They also reveal that not gathering together for corporate worship in order to contain a plague is a biblically sound principle. The government of the church barring corporate worship in order to protect the lives of the church’s members does not constitute the “neglecting” of Hebrews 12:25 because the prohibition is not carelessly forsaking worship, but love fulfilling the law of God.

Now, the civil government has access to information, resources, and wisdom about pandemics that the church lacks. It is for this reason, that while I appreciate the thoughtfulness of Grant Van Leuven’s article at Reformation 21 and think he is wrong in the extent of the civil government’s authority, I agree with him that the church should be deferential to the civil government’s insight into pandemics, and not meet while the government urges against large gatherings. This is how the church can respect the civil authorities that God has instituted without sacrificing their oversight of God’s worship. Since the civil government was banning large gatherings in general in order to save lives, not singling out churches as a form of persecution, the church is well served in honoring the government by listening to its orders on what is safe.