On Questions of Authority
Last Friday, our church took some baby steps toward reopening. Sort of. We’ve been recording worship services on Friday night so we can edit and get them out to people by Sunday morning. Last week, for the first time, we allowed a few people to be present during the recording. Attendees had to RSVP in advance, seats were spread out and each person’s place was designated. There were less than thirty people in the building, all told. There was no congregational singing, no handshakes, no hugging, no passing of offering plates, no communion, no touching of hymnals. There were masks and endless supplies of hand sanitizer. It was a rather sterile and unusual service, but then we’re getting pretty used to unusual by this point. I suspect that people were more appreciative of the opportunity to linger with friends in the parking lot after the service on a gorgeous summer evening than anything else.
Our church took this step knowing full well that it was a provisional one. Things could change before we record again this Friday or next Friday or the one after that. There could be a bump of COVID-19 cases in our area as restrictions are lifted and something approximating normal life resumes. Or not. Who really knows anything by this point? We’re all kind of just trying to figure it out as we go. At this point, given the COVID numbers in our area, and given the myriad precautions that we took, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. But it might not be reasonable later this summer or into fall. Adaptability is the name of the game these days, it seems.
As I was preparing for last Friday’s recording, I happened upon this article about some churches in Manitoba that are petitioning their provincial government to lift all restrictions on worship gatherings. I have received similar requests to sign petitions here in Alberta. I think is is wrong-headed approach, personally, even if, as I’ve written before, I think that we made safety into something of an idol and have just begun to reckon with the devastating spin-off health effects that locking down for three months has caused and will cause. But I don’t really have much interest in joining either the inevitable howls of outrage or defiant praise for these churches. My interest is in the nature of the argument that they made in lobbying the government.
According to the article, the letter presented by the churches said the following:
It is not the role of the state to determine that online resources substitute as a peaceful assembly… The church exists by the authority of Jesus Christ himself and not by the authority of the civil government.”
To which the obvious response is, “Ok, then why are you asking permission from the civil government?” If you really believe that all this is a question of authority, and that Jesus Christ would rather that you gather in an unrestricted manner, then why bother with the state at all? Is not your lobbying of the civil government itself evidence that you believe that the state has higher authority than Jesus? Why not just extend the proverbial middle finger to the state and pack your buildings?
Of course, some churches have done just this, essentially snubbing any and all advice from health authorities and gathering as they always have. Just last Friday, before beginning our service, I got a phone call informing me that the nephew of one of our members had died of COVID-19 in Bolivia and that his wife and child also had contracted the disease. Their church had ignored all pretty much all health guidelines and had now done five funerals in the last few weeks. I have heard similar stories about churches in other parts of the world.
At any rate, It seems to me that the language of authority should sound at least somewhat different coming off Christian lips. Jesus himself said that his followers shouldn’t be keen to lord authority and power over others but to serve. To set aside our own rights for the welfare of others. To assume the position of a humble servant. Now, Jesus was talking to a handful of followers here, not addressing how an institutional church should align itself with public health guidelines in a liberal democracy. And it would be another matter entirely if, for example, we were talking about prohibitions against worshipping as Christians or being coopted to agendas of evil (I’m thinking of the state church during the Third Reich, for example) Then, it would be very appropriate to say that we do not bow the knee to Caesar but to Jesus Christ.
But these are very different scenarios than trying to navigate a global pandemic responsibly. I get uneasy when I hear Christians using “authority” language to attempt to gain special status or exemptions or privileges in the broader culture. It feels like we’ve sort of lost the plot at that point.
I took the picture above a few minutes before our little worship gathering last Friday night.