When to Render Unto Caesar?
I have been thinking a lot lately about why we cancelled services back in March, and how federal, state, and local guidelines fit into this picture. Many pastors, myself included, registered concerns that the federal and state governments were issuing guidelines to churches, and in some instances, outright restrictions on corporate gatherings. The reasons for this included not only constitutional concerns but also Biblical mandates. The questions many pastors and leaders faced is, Is it appropriate to cancel services for the foreseeable future? And, How far should we follow government authorities in this manner? This post will be longer than others but I think it is worth thinking through especially since once government takes ground in an area, it rarely gives it up.
First, let me say that I am thankful for Governor Brian Kemp (that is not an endorsement, but a statement of appreciation). I sat in on a conference call between him and several hundred Georgia Baptist pastors. It is evident that our governor is a man of deep Christian faith and wrestled with how to handle places of worship as far as regulation was concerned. He was not quick as some other state governors to single out places of worship with undue burdens and restrictions which were a flagrant violation of the first amendment. However, our decision as leaders of Sargent Baptist Church really came before our governor began to engage in regulation. Churches in large part responded by cancelling in person gatherings a week or more before state and local officials began providing guidelines. To be clear: we cancelled services starting March 8th because it was in the best interest of our congregation and not because we were told to from the governor or president.
The question is, Is it appropriate to cancel services for the foreseeable future? The simple answer to that is yes. There are instances in church history where public and congregational health were at risk and churches canceled in-person gatherings to aid in public and congregational well-being. I am thinking in most recent history of the 1918 Flu Pandemic. There are newspapers that reported public health announcements requesting churches suspend services until the public and congregational well-being were no longer threatened. In our situation with COVID-19, the same is true. We have had to bear in mind our responsibility as pastors and leaders to love our neighbor as commanded, and the best way to love our neighbor is to minimize exposure and spread of this virus. It is not loving to ignore the science and good common sense in these moments, and to cause unnecessary sickness and suffering to anyone. It is appropriate to cancel services for a time, but only for a time. God did not intend for his Church to not gather together. The most used text is found in Hebrews 10.24-25, “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, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Here we see that gathering together is key to stirring up one another in love, good works, and for encouraging one another in faithfulness. While not meeting together for a time is appropriate and necessary, it is never to be permanent.
The next question then is, How far should we follow government authorities in this manner? Once again, I am grateful for Governor Brian Kemp and his obvious hesitation in telling churches what they can and cannot do. I, also, believe he has been very reasonable in his requests and guidelines. However, there have been other situations in other states where authorities have gone above and beyond what the law allows and, in some instances, have violated first amendment rights. In case anyone does not know, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The U.S. Constitution recognizes the right that people of faith have to worship and practice their faith as they see fit. When any government authority seeks to abridge that freedom in anyway, we are not obligated to follow it and are granted the right to petition the government to correct course. What about our situation? We have followed medical professional guidelines and government guidelines as best as possible, and will continue to do so. However, if those guidelines become too intrusive on our practices or become permanent, we will have to consider not obeying in those instances. For example, if Governor Brian Kemp tomorrow were to announce that the threat of COVID-19 has passed and life can pretty much return to normal yet keep in place restrictions on places of worship, I would consider that an overreach and violation of the first amendment. I would not comply. On the flip side, if he announced the threat has passed when it clearly has not and that churches can go back to normal, I would not comply. Why? My goal as a pastor is the health and well-being of my congregation; both physically and spiritually.
When do we render unto Caesar, or in our case, the governor or president? It is a case by case situation but always bear in mind God’s mandates stand above any state or national authority. Even if we didn’t have first amendment protections, God’s mandate still stands. This is just a small window into my thoughts on the past few months and the months ahead. As our Deacon Ministry Chairman Millard Floyd said, “We must do what is best for Sargent Baptist Church without any outside pressure one way or another.” That is what we will always do unto the glory of God. We are looking forward to re-opening on June 7th but we will keep an eye on what is happening with COVID-19 and will take precautions as needed. we are thankful for medical professionals who have tirelessly served, risked their own health, and provided us with good, sound advice on how to stay safe.