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God-Given Rights and Responsibilities During the Pandemic

The following was written by Pastor Bruce Naumann as a response
to a request posted on an online forum frequented by CLC members.

Dear Christian Friends,
I’ve been asked to provide some brief comments concerning our government’s instructions, during this time of preventing the spread of Covid-19, to refrain from public gatherings. How are we to respond to this, when our Lord instructs us to gather regularly for Christian fellowship?
Various news sources have reported concerning concerning congregations who have held regular worship services and have been cited by authorities for disobeying the government’s stay-at-home orders. It is disturbing to read of whole congregations, for instance, receiving fines for participating in drive-in services during which the people all remain in their cars with the windows rolled up. Some pastors have even been threatened with arrest. Should we not “obey God rather than men”? (Acts 5:29) There are several principles that come into play as our CLC congregations consider these matters.
1. We certainly do have clear directions from God’s Word to gather regularly for worship and Christian fellowship:
“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
2. We also have the Lord’s instructions to honor and obey our God-given government:
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1-2)
3. The same government which the Lord tells us to obey has spelled out our freedom of religion, and the right to peaceably assemble, in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
“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.”
4. We have directions from our Lord to consider the safety and well-being of our neighbors, in a spirit of self-sacrifice:
“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
(Philippians 2:3-4)
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
(Matthew 22:39)
Given these principles, some of which seem to conflict with others, what is our best course of action? This is a matter of Christian reflection and good judgment, one that each congregation must consider for itself. One example of how to do that is found in the carefully-worded announcement by Messiah, Eau Claire, on its website:
“Messiah’s ‘in-person’ worship services have been suspended until further notice, in cooperation with coronavirus prevention efforts.”
In cooperation with is the key phrase. We reserve our privilege to obey God rather than men, according to the Bible. We reserve our right to peaceably assemble, according to the Bill of Rights. At the same time, we recognize our obligation to help our fellow citizens by participating in efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. For that reason we are willingly cooperating with anti-infection efforts. Meanwhile, we are thankful to our Lord that He has given us the means to help support each other with the Word of God, even at a distance, through online services, phone contacts, and regular mail.
We eagerly look forward to the day when we can assemble together for worship once again in person, after the danger is sufficiently past. When that day comes, we will be gathering because of the Lord’s direction, not because governmental regulations allow it.
Bruce Naumann is senior pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.