An open letter by a concerned congregant

IMPORTANT NOTE:  Any member of Antioch Bible Church (Johannesburg, South Africa) who happens to stumble across this blog post is advised to not read the below without permission from the church elders or without assuming full responsibility for doing so, as it offers a view contrary to the opinion held by the elders of Antioch Bible Church (ABC), and makes explicit mention of views that were advanced within and outside the local church. The purpose of the below is not to adversely influence or cause dissension among church members, but rather to present “the other side of the matter” for the benefit of those who wish to submit to the wisdom of Proverbs 18:17. The letter below is therefore made available as a public testimony of a failed attempt to respectfully and fruitfully engage with the elders of ABC. The purpose of the below is also to present a biblical case for submitting to the governmental restrictions of 2020/2021 within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and with the focus primarily on the South African context, in accordance to how matters were understood by myself at that point in time.

BACKGROUND TO THIS LETTER:
The letter below was emailed to the elders of Antioch Bible Church (ABC) on the 17th of January 2021. The letter was written in the context of South Africa having entered the second wave of Covid-19 infections, with the Western Cape already having seen a sharp increase in fatalities, and President Ramaphosa consequently announcing the prohibition of social gatherings to curb the impact of the disease and to bring relief to overburdened hospitals. (This prohibition was lifted a couple of weeks later when the infection rate and death rate showed clear signs of being past the peak of the second wave.) The elders of Antioch Bible Church, however, decided to flout government regulations during this time, calling upon church members to follow their example, whereby they would purportedly show allegiance to Christ. But even prior to this, safety protocols established by the government (as the SA government followed the advice of the WHO and medical experts) were declared optional – a pure matter of private opinion. Two of the church’s elders have already resigned during 2020 on account of the approach taken by the rest of the eldership in dealing with the Covid-19 restrictions. The concerns of other members who objected to the relentless pursuit of a politicised narrative by the elders also basically fell on deaf ears. Members were kept in the dark as to what was really going on within the church.

The letter below was first published on this blog three weeks after it had been emailed to the elders, and namely after the elders responded with utter silence during those three weeks. They obviously did not count it worthy of their time to respond to the concerns of one of their church members. The first and only response from them was received after this letter, along with 3 other blog posts, had been published on this blog. The subsequent response from the elders was a very hostile email, which included several allegations. Amongst others, the elders explicitly indicated their unwillingness to engage with me on the matter of concern. The reason provided was the accusation that I was “draw[ing] the church into an unhelpful and divisive public debate.” This allegation was, of course, not true, as I never intended to engage in a public debate with the elders, or with the entire church, for that matter. They simply jumped to conclusions, judging motives and intentions without having spoken a single word to me on the matter. What I desired was a written response to my letter, which is what I also communicated to them, as it is common courtesy to respond in writing to a written letter. (While it is so that I did mention in one of my blog posts that I desired a public response to my arguments, I was not, in fact, calling for a public debate. My motivation was one of transparency, where the elders could respond to objections as coming “from the horse’s mouth” rather than responding to their own portrayal of the objections. The purpose was also for them to be able to address the counterarguments head-on, based on solid research and exegesis, rather than simply repeating their politicised rhetoric. In addition, it should be noted that my views were made public only after the elders remissly failed to respond in private.) But even if I did desire to engage in a debate – and it is likely that I would indeed have welcomed a private debate via email – they were prejudging the matter in declaring it “unhelpful” and “divisive” to engage in a debate. I usually find healthy debates very constructive for my own growth and understanding, as it compels me to search the Scriptures and carefully consider the merits of someone else’s arguments. Debates can also be extremely helpful to move beyond the surface of a contention to uncover the essence of disagreements. So I do not understand the unwillingness of the elders to engage with me, a church member who has spent way more time than I could afford in formulating the view below, nor the unhelpful response of ignoring the concerns of a church member through utter silence for 3 weeks, and beyond. In any case, the letter below, along with 3 other blog posts, were removed for a time in order to avoid it being a cause of dissension in any way. My purpose is for truth to prevail through transparency, for the sake of God’s Kingdom, and not to divide a church along the lines of contention that were delineated by the elders of ABC.

It essentially appeared as if the elders of Antioch Bible Church could not and would not tolerate disagreement on the matter that was addressed in this letter. Unity of opinion had to be maintained at all cost (it seemed), and objections had to be silenced in the name of “unity”. Ultimately, there was no real space for disagreement without having to dissociate oneself from the church, as others have already done. We may have had the space for disagreements on some minor doctrinal issues, but the matter of civil disobedience was effectively elevated to something on par with or even part of the gospel itself. And so, in order for others to know and understand why we decided to leave Antioch Bible Church: we did NOT decide to leave because of a disagreement in and of itself. We decided to leave, firstly, because a prudential matter was elevated to the level of the gospel itself, and was raised above the consciences of those who disagreed with the elders’ interpretation of Scripture. (Insofar as this is indeed the case, it implies that the gospel is not maintained in purity anymore, so that it effectively becomes a false gospel that is being proclaimed.) We decided to leave, secondly, because of the animosity shown towards members who dared to disagree with the eldersposition on this matter. We decided to leave, thirdly, because no space was granted to accommodate healthy disagreement. What is encapsulated in the letter below is an attempt that was made to respectfully engage with the elders, and a testimony of the arguments that were remissly left unanswered by the elders of Antioch Bible Church.


17 Jan 2021

To the elders of Antioch Bible Church,

OVERVIEW:

In what follows an argument is made against an attitude of indifference, or of having everyone decide for him- or herself, what to do regarding the matter of wearing masks during church services.  In addition, an argument will be made against the insistence that, if the local church wants to act in faith and obedience towards Christ, it necessarily has to gather in defiance of the government’s lockdown regulation that temporarily prohibits religious gatherings in the face of a global pandemic.  This letter is closed off by explaining what the most pressing concern is that prompted this letter.

WEARING OF MASKS:

Romans 13:1-2 is clear when it says “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.”  To resist the authorities appointed by God boils down to resisting the ordinance of God.  The same principle is reiterated in Titus 3:1: “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, …”  This does not mean that the principle of these texts is valid without exception, even though no exception is explicitly mentioned in any of these texts.  In his commentary on Romans, Bird (2016:449) notes: “It is worth remembering, though, that 13:1–7 does not give governments a license to do whatever they want to whomever they want and the citizens just have to take it. Stanley Porter believes that 13:1–7 should not be seen as teaching unqualified obedience to the state. Paul thinks authorities can be called to account because they are exercising divinely given powers and disobedience is warranted when this power is misused.”  Schreiner (2018:669) agrees: “This text is misunderstood if it is taken out of context and used as an absolute word so that Christians uncritically comply with the state, no matter what is being demanded.  Here we have the general exhortation that delineates what is usually the case: people should normally obey ruling authorities.”  Moo (2018:814) also points out the following:

Paul calls on believers to “submit” to governing authorities rather than to “obey” them; and Paul’s choice of words may be important to our interpretation and application of Paul’s exhortation. To submit is to recognize one’s subordinate place in a hierarchy, to acknowledge as a general rule that certain people or institutions have authority over us. … It is this general posture toward government that Paul demands here of Christians. And such a posture will usually demand that we obey what the governing authorities tell us to do. But perhaps our submission to government is compatible with disobedience to government in certain exceptional circumstances.  For heading the hierarchy of relations in which Christians find themselves is God; and all subordinate “submissions” must always be measured in relationship to our all-embracing submission to him.

Douglas Moo

The important question then becomes: At what point is the state misusing its power in such a way that one is called to go against the state, rather than to submit to its authority?

There are two overriding principles that are generally proposed[1].  The first principle is that, when government regulations outrightly contradict God’s commandments, the Christian’s allegiance lies with Christ first of all: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  As John Stott (cited by Bird, 2016:450) says, “Whenever laws are enacted which contradict God’s Law, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty.”  “The principle is very simple,” says Sproul (2014:53), “If any ruler … commands you to do something God forbids or forbids you from doing something God commands, not only may you disobey, but you must disobey. If it comes down to a choice like this, you must obey God.”  However, even with such a straightforward principle, the application is not always as straightforward, as Sproul (2014:53) argues: “You can memorize this principle in a few moments, but the application can be exceedingly complex. … Before we disobey the authorities over us, we should be sure to be painfully self-reflective and have a clear understanding as to why we plan to disobey.”

The second principle encompasses the first, but is much broader in its scope as it spans across an ethical space that can sometimes become more of a grey, contentious area.  This principle has to do with the separation of power, and is namely the neo-Calvinistic idea that different institutions in society should exert authority only within the sphere of sovereignty that has been assigned to that particular institution by God, through the creational order.  According to this principle, the government may not prescribe what the church ought to do within its religious or ecclesial sphere of sovereignty, neither should the church be prescriptive towards the government in civil matters.  Sproul (2014:55-56) alludes to this principle when saying that “God has established two realms on earth: the church and the state. Each one has its own sphere of authority, and neither is to infringe on the rights of the other.”  John MacArthur[2] also appeals to this principle when he says: “God has established three institutions within human society: the family, the state, and the church. Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected. A father’s authority is limited to his own family. Church leaders’ authority (which is delegated to them by Christ) is limited to church matters. And government is specifically tasked with the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community.  God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church. The biblical framework limits the authority of each institution to its specific jurisdiction. The church does not have the right to meddle in the affairs of individual families and ignore parental authority. Parents do not have authority to manage civil matters while circumventing government officials. And similarly, government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders.”

One ought to clearly distinguish between the two principles mentioned above, as the principle of obeying God rather than men is much stronger and clear-cut than the principle stating that an institution ought to act only within its God-ordained sphere of sovereignty.  MacArthur[3] argues that “when any one of the three institutions exceeds the bounds of its jurisdiction it is the duty of the other institutions to curtail that overreach.”  However, what MacArthur does not appreciate is that the church is not called to always resist the government when such an overreach occurs in order to “curtail that overreach”, and that there are greyer areas where the spheres of sovereignty of church and government overlap[4], and where it may be difficult to decide whether the responsibility falls on the state or on the church.  One should not confuse the matter of obeying Christ as opposed to Caesar with a government overreaching its prerogative.  It does not, however, appear as if MacArthur recognises any such distinction.  But this distinction is crucial for evaluating the matters of concern, since a conflation of these two matters does not do justice to all the relevant factors that need to be taken into consideration.

When it comes to the wearing of masks in public, which has been mandated by the South African government, the person who does not adhere to this ruling would be resisting the ordinance of God (according to Romans 13:2), unless it can be shown that the regulation is overruled by a more fundamental and clear biblical principle.  Since there is no biblical principle that speaks to any divine prohibition of wearing a mask, no justification for defying the government’s regulation can appeal to obeying God rather than men.  However, it is also questionable if one can make a solid case for arguing that the government has overstepped the bounds of its authority by enforcing such a regulation.  For if that were the case, why can a person not also argue that he or she can defy the law that requires everyone to buckle up when in a car on the road?  Can such a person not argue that the government is overstepping the bounds of its authority by depriving the individual of his or her freedom and right to do as he or she pleases, as long as it causes no harm to anyone else[5]?  Similarly, it is not clear at all if a person has the liberty to defy government regulation of wearing masks in public, on account of the government’s purported encroachment on people’s rights as it pertains to a different modal sphere of being, where another institution holds sway.  For even the authority of the church has no bearing on whether one should wear a mask or not.  Whatever the case may be, even if there is doubt around the matter, it would be wise to rather err on the side of obeying the government, than taking matters into one’s own hands.  For, perhaps reminiscent to Pascal’s Wager, if one is mistaken in one’s argument for defying government regulation, one would be rebelling against God, but if one is mistaken in not perceiving how Romans 13:1 may perhaps be overruled by a more fundamental principle (apart from defying God’s law, of course), there appears to be very little to lose.  Even so, the burden of proof lies with the one who claims that the government is indeed overstepping the bounds of its God’s ordained authority; otherwise the default position would be to obey the government.

Does this mean that one can argue that the question of wearing masks in defiance of government regulation is a matter of opinion, so that each one can decide for him- or herself?  Could we not see this as being analogous to Romans 14, where Paul says that we should not “quarrel over opinions” (Rom 14:1; ESV)?  Paul uses this example: “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.”  And another example: “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”  The question that arises is whether there is a common feature in these examples which either applies to all matters of dispute, or only to certain kinds of differences of opinion (i.e. secondary matters of disagreement).  There seems to be a clear difference between these examples in Romans 14 and the matter of wearing masks.  In our particular context and in this case, there is a solid biblical principle (Romans 13:1) absent from the above examples.  There is no law that says, “thou shalt not eat meat offered to idols,” but there is a Biblical command to submit to the government.  But even if it is, nonetheless, possible to make a case that it remains a matter of opinion whether to wear a mask or not, Rom. 14:13-15 suggests that there is still a “default” position to adhere to for the sake of the consciences of others.  In light of the regulatory obligation to wear masks in public, the default clearly falls on “wearing masks” rather than the refusal to do so.  For, even if the one who argues in favour of wearing a mask is mistaken in his or her opinion, he or she would more probably be offended by others not wearing masks than vice versa.  Hence, the agreement should therefore be that everyone still needs to take the pandemic seriously, take the necessary precautionary measures, and wear a mask.  The point is that the matter of wearing a mask in public is not a private matter of conscience.  What a person eats (as in Romans 14) does not affect other people through the act of eating itself, but not wearing a mask in the midst of a pandemic may[6].  Actions speak louder than words.  The message conveyed by someone who deliberately chooses to not wear a mask in public appears to be the message of not truly caring about the well-being of others.

It is not only a matter of conscience (in light of Romans 13), but not wearing a mask also boils down to contempt for the advice of medical professionals who assert that the risk of contagion can be mitigated if everyone wears a mask (and not only some individuals).  This carries yet another message to a world that looks at the Christian community to see how they will respond.  1 Pet 2:12-15 says: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.  Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.  For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.”  Schreiner (2003:130) comments on verse 15: “By submitting to government, Christians demonstrate that they are good citizens, not anarchists.  Hence, they extinguish the criticisms of those who are ignorant and revile them.”  It is therefore not only that which was discussed above that has a bearing on whether Christians should wear masks during worship services, but also the message it conveys to those outside of the faith.  Wearing masks would portray the image of “good citizens” known by “honourable conduct” that “submits to every human institution,” whereas an indifferent or defiant stance does not convey such a message.  It also sends a message of apparent recklessness and even lovelessness in the face of warnings by medical staff and experts amidst a global pandemic.  And the image portrayed to the world is not completely irrelevant, even though Christianity is not bound by or dictated by it.  For Scripture is clear: “[G]ive thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all,” (Rom 12:17), and “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (1 Cor. 10:32-33).

DEFYING THE GOVERNMENT REGULATION THAT PROHIBIT RELIGIOUS GATHERINGS:

When contemplating the decision of whether or not to defy the government’s regulation that temporarily prohibits religious gatherings in the face of a second wave of infections of a global pandemic, the applicability of the same two overriding principles needs to be considered.  In this case some would argue that obedience to Christ demands Christians to defy the government’s regulation.  In what follows, it will be argued that (a) there is no law that commands Christians to necessarily meet physicallyevery single Sunday, with no exception and (b) such an argument fails to appreciate the heart of the matter as it pertains to Christian fellowship and its witness towards the world.

The common rhetoric that insists on Christian gatherings in defiance of the government’s regulation that prohibits it, advances the idea that such defiance is an act of obedience to Christ.  But the assumption that appears to be made is that a failure to gather in person every Sunday, with no exception, even in the face of unprecedented circumstances, is a clear Biblical command; and the Christian who does not adhere to this precept, is not obedient to Christ.  The problem is that it is not so indisputably clear that the Christian is indeed under such a divine obligation.  But on what basis is it argued that “the law” demands Christians to gather for public worship every Sunday?

Reaume[7] argues in an open letter:

The pattern since creation has been for believers to meet officially for worship at least once weekly. The Ten Commandments were written in stone by the finger of God, thus signifying the abiding authority of God’s Law. The fourth commandment reads, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God” (Exodus 20:8-11). The Old Testament community set aside the seventh day for rest and public congregational worship: to do otherwise was a transgression of the Law. Christ was raised from the dead on the first day of the week, and since then churches have regularly met on the first day, Sunday, for worship, prayer, preaching, and the ordinances (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). To cease meeting together for worship at least weekly is to be a disobedient Christian.

The notion that weekly Sunday worship is commanded by the Ten Commandments, and that Christians should adhere to this as a Law of God, is also taught by the Heidelberg Catechism: “Question 103.—What does God ordain in the fourth commandment? Answer.—In the first place: that the ministry of the Gospel and schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the day of rest, diligently attend church, …”  (Note, however, the Heidelberg Catechism does not specify that it should be weekly under all circumstances, which is also consistent with what the Bible alse teaches.  The word “diligently” does not necessarily mean “weekly”.)

Does this settle the matter?  By no means.  Firstly, one should note that Baptists who do not follow the doctrines of covenant theology, do not generally regard the Sunday as a replacement or continuation of the Sabbath.  Yes, the Sunday is regarded as the Lord’s Day, but that is something different from saying that it is a continuation of the Old Covenant Sabbath.  It might perhaps be understandable if someone who does adhere to a covenantal view of the Sabbath would build an argument on the basis of the OT Law.  But it would be fallacious to build an argument on the foundation of a covenantal view that one disagrees with.  The second problem is that the whole point of the Sabbath was not about communal gatherings per se, but about rest.  And apart from the fact that the Bible does not tell us that all the Israelites assembled at one place – the tabernacle or the temple – every Saturday, it is rather inconceivable to imagine how the entire nation would have been able to assemble at the tabernacle or the temple every Sabbath.  And so, in order to deem a weekly gathering, in person, to be a “law” on account of the Ten Commandments, one has to assume (apart from a covenant-theological view of the Sabbath) either that the command to rest has been replaced by the command to assemble for worship, or that the latter has been added to the already existing command to rest.  If one has to dig so deep to unearth a divine law that one would have expected to be explicit and clear, one is probably grasping at straws.

But what about Hebrews 10:24-25?  The text reads: “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.”  When Heb. 10:25 exhorts us to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, it does NOT specify that the “assembling of ourselves together” needs to happen at least on a weekly basis, no matter the circumstances.  At best it appears to assume that it happens regularly, as the exhortation is informed by the purpose of such gatherings, which also forms the heart of the message: “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (verse 24).  The heart of the matter is, therefore, the fact that “the mutual care which the author has commended to his readers in v. 24 cannot be sustained unless members of the Christian community meet to encourage and exhort one another” (Ellingworth, 1993:527).  Or, as Cockerill (2012:479) asserts: “those who absent themselves from God’s people can do nothing to ‘provoke another to love and good works.”  The focus is NOT on the regularity of such meetings per se, but the purpose thereof.  And so, the practical application of this text needs to primarily speak to such purpose, rather than to more external factors – the manner (i.e.: physically and all at once) and regularity (i.e. weekly) – as though it constitutes some kind of law that needs to be followed to a T.  Indeed, it really appears to constitute bad hermeneutics to interpret the text in such a literalistic way (even beyond what it actually says).  And it is unthinkable that anyone would consistently follow through on this kind of argument in all its practical ramifications, as it leads to awkward dilemmas which have never been an issue for the conservative church.  Rogers[8] points out the implications: “If it were read in such a literalistic way then the church leaders who get arrested and miss church are disobeying! You couldn’t go on a business trip where there was no church for a few weeks. Or a holiday. Or sick in bed.”  Indeed, it would become a choice between Mammon (when going on a business trip) and God, and between Hedone (when going on holiday) and God.

It seems as if the point that has just been discussed can hardly be overemphasised in light of the rhetoric that is being advanced in this regard.  If there is no divine precept that is being disobeyed or clear ethical principle that is being disregarded, it would appear to boil down to nothing but emotional manipulation (as opposed to godly persuasion) to accuse, whether directly of by insinuation, those who are allegedly not “bold enough” to defy the government’s regulation, of being ones who are not acting by faith or in obedience to Christ.  For when there is a call to a heroic faith that would stand up against the ruling powers, just as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did, the insinuation can barely be missed.  Even more so when Spurgeon’s comments on Daniel 3 are quoted: “…They might have said, ‘It is only for once, and not for long. Ten minutes or so, once in a lifetime, to please the king; such a trivial act cannot make any difference; at any rate, it is not enough to brave the fiery furnace for. …It would be ridiculous to throw away our lives for such a trifle. …In the supreme hour many fail, because the trial is seemingly so small.’ They mean to stand for God; but this is scarcely the right time; they will wait, and choose a more worthy occasion, when something really heroic can be attempted. Were they to stand for such a little thing, the world would laugh with derision at such a straining out of a gnat.”  But the implicit appeal encapsulated by quoting Spurgeon on this text in light of the current state of affairs, fails miserably to persuade, because, firstly, it is not comparing apples with apples, and secondly, it assumes that there is law, undergirded by Christian love, that demands Christians to physically assemble, all at once, every week, with no exception.  We have not been commanded to fall down and worship a golden image as in the case of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego (cf. Daniel 3:10).  It is therefore not right to compare the worship of other gods, the commandment on which the entire covenant with Israel rested, to a regulation that temporarily prohibits religious gatherings in the name of safety.  And if someone is not convinced that there indeed is such a biblical precept that Christians ought to adhere to, in the very letter of the command (as discussed above), that person is not acting contrary to his or her faith, or the Christian faith as such, and is not disobedient to Christ, because the law that he or she is purportedly failing to obey, does not exist.  The call to “heroic faith” may even be interpreted as a case of leaving the command of God (in this case: Rom 13:1, and perhaps even the “law of Christ”) in order to “hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8), while calling it something like “ecclesiastical authority”.

Having addressed the conjecture that there is a divine law on account of which the church is obliged to always, in all circumstances, with no exception, meet weekly (and no less), physically (and under no circumstances virtually) in one location, the next question would be whether or not the state has overstepped the God-ordained boundary of its authority.  For the sake of argument (and not through conviction[9]), it will be granted that the government indeed overstepped the boundary of its authority by prohibiting church gatherings.  (If this point is not granted for the sake of argument, then Romans 13:1 has to be adhered to, and the case is closed – clear and simple.)  However, the argument that will be made in response is that such a “trespass” by the government might, nonetheless, constitute insufficient justification for flouting its regulations, and that in the case under consideration, it indeed constitutes very inadequate justification.  Surely the church is not called to take on a pugnacious demeanour, jumping up and down, trying to make sure that everyone understands that she is being oppressed or persecuted or treated unjustly or deprived of her God-ordained rights, simply because the government dared to make a ruling that touches on her sovereign sphere of authority, while there is no obvious intention of malice on the part of the government.  But even if there were reasons for suspicion of maliciousness on the part of the government, it may still be a more loving response to give the government the benefit of the doubt.  But, of course, some churches may decide to silently defy government regulations merely on account of the fact that the government has no “right” to tell the church that she should not assemble.  Does such a “misstep” by the government count for enough justification to silently ignore its regulation, in light of the current state of affairs, namely of the country being in the second wave of a global pandemic?  The contention is that it is not.  The following reasons are offered in defence of this position:

  • The government regulation does not prevent the church to still adhere to the heart of the concern in Hebrews 10:24-25.
  • A false dichotomy is created when the risk to people’s physical welfare is dismissed through the argument that their “spiritual well-being” would suffer without physical church attendance during these extraordinary circumstances.  There is no justification in presenting that state of affairs as an either/or situation.
  • It does not appear to be true that the proclamation of the Gospel is being inhibited by a lack of physical togetherness.  A case to the contrary can even be made. 
  • If the government’s regulation, as informed by the medical profession makes sense, then the church can still adhere to it, not simply on account of it being a government regulation, but on account of it being a wise decision on its own merits.
  • Even if the government’s justification for instituting the regulation appeared to be dubious, wisdom might still demand adherence to the regulation on account of other Christian principles.

(a) The heart of Hebrews 10:24-25:

The Bible makes mention of the “law of Christ” in Gal. 6:2 when it says: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ”.  (The phrase also appears parenthetically in 1 Cor. 9:21).  The “law of Christ” most probably speaks to the command of loving God and one’s neighbour (cf. Mark 12:32-33, Deut. 6:4-9, Lev. 19:18).  If this is the case, then the main concern of Heb. 10:24 has the very same “law of Christ” in mind when it says: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.”  The question one should now ask is this: Is it really impossible, considering the fact that our generation has providentially been endowed with technology that makes long-distance communication possible, even visually so, and prevalently available, to “stir up one another to love and good works” without weekly (and no less – God forbid!) physical (and never virtual – God forbid!) gatherings on Sundays?  There is, of course, no such limiting features attached to the Biblical notion of “love”.  We can “stir up one another to love and good works” by social interaction that would have been inconceivable for most generations since the beginning of the world.  It would therefore seem ludicrous for Christians to insist on “the letter” of the matter (i.e., the specificity of having physical gatherings) while the opportunity to fulfil the “spirit” of the matter (i.e.: love for one another) has in no way truly been endangered.  Even home visitations are still possible, over and above the possibility of digital communication, through which Christians can “stir up one another to love and good works.”  Consider also the fact that Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.  In the same way, one could argue that the assembling of ourselves together was made to benefit Christians in that it opens up the opportunity to “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (Heb 10:24); Christians were not made for “the assembling of ourselves together”.  Are we not exchanging the heart of the matter for a practical means of accomplishing it, if we focus only on the “the assembling of ourselves together” as if it is an end in itself?

The point is not to diminish the value of and preference for physical gatherings, nor to argue that there shouldn’t be weekly Christian gatherings under most other circumstances, or to suggest that the church should patiently bear with an indefinitely prolonged absence of physical gatherings, long after the threat has dissipated.  Amongst others, a lack of physical togetherness does have implications for the regularity of observing Holy Communion, for example.  The point is simply to argue that one should not get entangled in secondary matters while the most central and important matters could still remain intact.

In addition, apart from the heart of the matter being explicitly stated in verse 24, the broader context also suggests that Hebrews 10:25 was never intended to address a situation in which all congregants should consider suspending physical gatherings due to extraordinary circumstances that may require them to do so.  As Rogers[10] explains: “Hebrews 10:25, which calls believers to not forsake the assembly, is addressed to believers who were in danger of voluntarily forsaking church gatherings because they were slinking back into old Jewish ways.”  Indeed, verse 26 immediately contributes to the contexts when it is connected to verse 25 with the conjunction, “for” (γάρ): “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment …”.  And so, Heb. 10:25 has to be interpreted in the context of the apostate who refuses to meet with other Christians.  This is also how Schreiner (2015:321) interprets this text: “Refusing to meet with other believers in this context signifies apostasy, the renunciation of the Christian faith. If believers renounce meeting with other Christians, especially because they fear discrimination and mistreatment, they are in effect turning against Christ.  Apparently, some were following this course of action, for they had made it a habit of not attending. For the author of Hebrews, this isn’t a light matter. Forsaking such meetings signaled great danger, for if they did not return to the assembly of fellow believers, they would face final judgment and destruction.”

The challenge to those who insist on physical gatherings of all congregants every single Sunday is this: How much did you (as proponents of this view) labour hard during the months of the pandemic (like the apostle Paul would have done through living for Christ) in stirring up the flock “to love and good works” by regular encouragement through phone calls, Zoom/Teams/Skype meetings, home visitations, personal counselling and active involvement in the lives of those who are now called to “boldly” defy government regulations?  Is it not inconsistent with the heart of Heb. 10:24 to fail in acts of love and care through personal involvement that could serve to stir up “love and good works”, and then to expect the physical gatherings of all congregants for a sermon (that could have been listened to on YouTube as well) to be the sole means of achieving that goal?  And would a pastoral appeal to the flock to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good work” during this time not be a greater display of the love of Christ in the church, and adherence to the law of Christ, than insisting on physical meetings in defiance of government regulations in order to “be obedient to Christ”?  Because the “law of Christ” would already have been adhered to through mutual acts of love towards “one another” even without the physical gatherings by all congregants, all at the same time, in the face of the second wave of a global pandemic.

(b) There is no mutually exclusive choice to be made between the “spiritual” and the “physical”

It may be argued that, since Christians are not to fear death, and since the well-being of their “souls” takes priority over their “physical” well-being, there is an impetus towards “facing the risk” involved in gathering physically in spite of being in the midst of a global pandemic[11].  For the sake of focusing on the essence of the argument, one can set aside the fact that the argument seems to rest on a disputable anthropological dualism that has its origin in the writings of the Greek philosopher, Plato, rather than the Bible.  More accurately, the contention may perhaps be better described through the terminology of 2 Cor. 4:16, by asserting that “our outer self,” which is “wasting away” in this life, is of lesser importance than our “inner self” that is “being renewed day by day”.  However, such an argument would make the mistake of using the state of affairs – the fact that we are dying, while our inner being is being renewed – as a normative argument: we should desire the renewal of our inner self even at the risk of putting our “outer self” in danger.  In addition, it assumes that, given the current state of affairs, our inner selves can only be renewed at the cost of our “outer self”.  (As argued in the previous point, this is not true.)

The kind of either/or-dilemma that is presented to us does not appear to appreciate the fact that the Great Shepherd cared for the physical well-being of people through feeding the multitudes, healing the sick, raising Lazarus from the dead, etc.  In 3 John 2 we also see the heart of John who writes as an elder to Gaius whom he loved in truth: “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.”  Even though it is true that we will all eventually die, and that the Christian hope is set upon the eschaton, life is still a gift from God that ought to be cherished as such, not for its own sake, but for the sake of God’s purpose in granting us life in the first place.

The Christian ought not to fear death.  But that does not imply that he or she should desire death more than what is Biblically permissible.  One has to consider the words of the apostle Paul in Phil. 1:21-24: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.  But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”  It is clear from this text that there is a godly reason for the Christian to desire to stay alive (and hence, if a risk to his or her physical well-being can be avoided or mitigated, to act accordingly): living for Christ through fruitfully labouring in the Body of Christ, i.e. the Church.  The guiding principle should therefore be this: Love, even if your life is endangered by that love; but choose to live if you can still genuinely love without endangering your life, in order to labour for Christ.

 (c) The proclamation of gospel has not been inhibited.

Le Cornu[12] argues that the South African government has imposed “a clear prohibition on the proclamation of the gospel” (as a translation for: ’n baie duidelike verbod op die evangelie verkondiging).  But it is hard to see how this assertion can adequately be defended.  “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ,” writes the apostle Paul in Rom. 10:17.  Now what essential part of the “hearing” of the gospel is lost when a sermon in a pulpit with an assembled congregation is replaced by a YouTube rendering of the same message?  It might be true that the added testimony of a godly life that accompanies the preaching of the Word, and the love of the saints, might play an important role in the conversion of people.  But such a living testimony is developed over years of consistent godly living and friendship, not over the time span of a couple of weeks.  It might be for such a reason that Rom. 10:17 does not even mention this dimension to the gospel witness.

In any case, the potential for a sermon to reach far beyond the borders of a local community is amplified by having it posted on the internet.  Looking at it in this way, one can even make the case that the Gospel can reach further and quicker through the internet than when it stayed confined within the walls of a church building.

(d) The regulation should be considered on its own merits

If the case can be made, bearing in mind the fact that there is no divine law that commands weekly physical gatherings under all circumstances, with no exception, that it may be wise to not all meet in one location for a couple of weeks, then it does not even matter if the government overreached its societal function.  In such a case the merit lies in the case itself, regardless of whether or not the government “trespassed” in requiring the same precautionary measure through regulations – it would have been wise to temporarily suspend physical gatherings for some time period in any case.  Then it also does not matter if the government appears to be inconsistent[13] in allowing cinemas, casinos, museums, restaurants, libraries, gyms, etc., to be open.  (This is important to note, because some would argue in favour of defying the government by pointing to such an inconsistency of having some institutions closed down, while others may remain open.  But what biblical principle would undergird this kind of reasoning?  Isn’t 1 Pet 3:9 applicable in this case: “not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead,” rather than something reminiscent to “an eye for an eye”?)

The position that will be defended is that it is indeed wise to suspend gatherings under the current circumstances (again under the reiterated contention that such wisdom is not dictated by a purported law that never allows for the suspension of physical gatherings under extraordinary circumstances).  But on what basis can a course of action be deemed wise?  In many cases wisdom requires not only discernment in terms of what biblical principles to apply and in which way (as far as Christians are concerned), but it also needs to be informed by knowledge and understanding of what is happening in the world and how to interpret it.  Much grace and humility is required to find wisdom in a world filled with voices of medical experts, who do not always speak with unanimity, the voices of strongly opinionated people who think that they can become medical and statistical experts in a matter of days, the doomsayers, the proponents and believers of conspiracy theories, etc.  What will be taken as a wise rule of thumb, however, is to not disregard the general consensus amongst experts and the testimony of frontline workers, unless there are very good reasons to reject their insights and understanding.  In this regard, Michael Rogers from Heritage Baptist Church[14] puts it well: “The arrogance to claim that all the Drs, virologists, epidemiologists are deluded is quite startling. Are they infallible? Of course not. Do they make mistakes? Obviously. Are they trying their best to figure this thing out and save lives? I certainly think so; the ones we know are.”

The question over the seriousness of the threat posed by the pandemic is arguably one of the more important questions that would dictate the wisdom of suspending religious gatherings until the perceived threat subsides.  The answer to this question lies in numbers and in how these numbers correspond to what is really going on.  The problem, however, is that not everyone knows how to wisely deal with numbers in order to interpret them in a responsible way and draw inferences that would render a balanced view of matters.  And not everyone works in the frontline and can attest to the reality of what is going on.  Hence the need to tread carefully in this regard, and to be patient with one another.

Covid-19 is contagious, and people are dying from Covid-19.  To date there have been more than 1.3 million reported cases of infections in South Africa, and close to 37,000 deaths.  Do these numbers embody sufficient reason for concern?  Do they justify the temporary closure of church doors?  The following is a proposal for how to look at the numbers:

Numbers have no meaning without context.  The contexts that render meaning to numbers can be obtained through an understanding of how a business operates (for example), or by means of comparison, or by understanding the process behind the generation of data, etc.  In order to provide context for evaluating the seriousness of Covid-19, some people have chosen to compare the number of Covid-19 fatalities to that of previous pandemics, while others decided to compare it to other diseases.  Such comparisons may provide interesting insight into the relative magnitude of the disease’s impact, but on its own, it leaves one with a very inadequate picture on which to base a wise decision.

The following graph[15] presents us with a graphical view on what is currently happening in South Africa:

What can be seen in the graph is not only a clear depiction of a second wave of the coronavirus, but it also provides an indication of roughly – perhaps very roughly – how many people may be considered contagious at this point in time.  What about the accuracy and validity of this data?  The quality of data is, of course, crucially important when evaluating statistical results.  However, knowledge of poor data quality, based on an understanding of how the testing process works, amongst others, can still be factored into the interpretation of what one observes in “the stats”.  We know that the numbers almost certainly represent an underestimation of the true prevalence of the disease at this point in time, because we know that not everyone with symptoms undergoes testing, that there are asymptomatic people who also don’t undergo testing[16], and because of a great proportion of false negatives in the tests that are actually conducted.  But there is a clear trend that can be observed in the graph.  Now, while it is also true that the number of positive cases correlates with the number of tests being conducted, which may introduce a bias that can skew the observed stats, there are two crucially important factors that confirm the message of the trend.  What confirms the fact that something is going on, is this: the number of Covid-deaths are also increasing, and the hospitals’ overworked medical personnel attest to an alarming uptick in the inflow of Covid patients.

Dr Lindy Leone, a specialist anaesthetist in private practice in Johannesburg, testifies about what is going on in local hospitals in Johannesburg (as on the 17th of January 2020): 

The hospitals that I work in are under major strain. Our ICU’s (intensive care units) are filled with Covid positive patients. There are concerns as to the ability to sustain supply of the amount and rate of oxygen required for these patients. As a result of the ICU’s being at maximum capacity, not only are the Covid positive patients requiring ICU admission not all being accommodated in ICU but patients who have non-Covid related illnesses and requiring ICU admission are also being impacted, in that they too can’t be admitted to ICU.  There are limitations on numbers of patients able to have surgical procedures due to bed constraints.

This pandemic is having far-reaching consequences, not only on Covid positive patients but on the community at large.  We all need to play our part in protecting not just ourselves but everyone around us, this is our moral and ethical duty.

Another doctor also testifies:

Healthcare workers on the floor in various units are saying the hospitals are full, that there are no more beds.  Officials are then quoted as saying that that’s not true, that hospitals are nowhere near full occupancy and that these lies and rumours must stop. …

There was no reserve in the system to accommodate this: a rapid increase in patient load with fewer staff than ever before.

So, what the HCWs are saying is that the usable, staffed beds are full.  And those are the beds that count, not what the piece of paper says the hospital should be able to admit, all else being in place.

Rogers[17] also testifies to the testimonies of frontline workers in his church:

When we come to a situation like we are experiencing we also speak to trustworthy experts and those on the frontline in our own church. We have several doctors who are working in the hospitals and studying the virus telling us that the situation is dire and that the protocols will help you stay safe. We are being told that ICUs are full, and that on our health system is under severe pressure.

At Heritage we are blessed to have several doctors who are on the frontlines. They are not armchair experts scrolling through Facebook. They are risking their lives to help others and we as pastors rely upon them for guidance when it comes to complex issues like this.

One of the statistical depictions that is quite useful in rendering a more realistic picture of what the situation is, is the following one[18]:

It is clear from this graph that we have already, by the end of December 2020, exceeded the point where the number of actual deaths is more than twice the forecasted number.  This is not insignificant.  As a matter of fact, the reported number of Covid deaths itself appears to be significantly under-representing the real impact of the disease (which can, amongst others, be attributed to the fact that patients without Covid symptoms can often not be admitted to the overfull hospitals).  The following graph shows this under-representation:

Having provided the statistical detail and testimonies by medical personnel that emphasise the magnitude and seriousness of the disease, it should be pointed out that the prevalence of the disease (or threat) is not the only important piece of information that ought to be taken into consideration.  Perhaps equally important, if not more important, is the question of whether there is anything that can be done to mitigate the risk.  The answer to this question is just as crucial as the numbers to inform wise decision-making.  The goal, based on the law of Christ, the law of love, should be to preserve life as far as possible.  Even when in doubt, if there is any merit to the stats, any merit to the testimonies of frontline workers, any merit to the notion that the risk of contracting Covid-19 can be mitigated by precautionary methods and/or by avoiding larger gatherings of people, wisdom would rather err on the side of caution.  Because the guiding principle is love for our neighbour.  And by loving our neighbour, we are loving God.  There is no contradiction.  The contradiction is only created by a false dilemma, which pitches an alleged divine command (which would boil down to a lack of love for God if disobeyed – if in fact true) against the love for our neighbour (through the attempt to reduce risk to their lives as far as possible, and according to the light we have).

Therefore, if the probability of contracting the (potentially deadly) disease can be lowered by wise conduct, as informed by the medical profession (to the best of their knowledge), in ways that may be a bit uncomfortable (like wearing masks, social distancing, and hand sanitisers), why not?  The more contentious issue relates to the fact that religious gatherings have been said to be super spreader events.  If there is any merit to this claim, which would make logical sense in that people are in the presence of more people for a longer period of time, then there might be wisdom in the decision to suspend physical gatherings for a prudently chosen period of time.  If the likelihood of contracting the disease is greatly inflated by physical meetings and if the “law of Christ” can be observed in spite of a temporal suspension of such meetings, is there really no prudential merit in fulfilling the “law of Christ” in every other possible way for a limited period of time?

In an official document sent out by the Deputies Authorities of the General Synod of the Reformed Churches of South Africa (GKSA) on the 15th of January 2021, a formal response was given to requests from two church councils that requested the GKSA to oppose the government’s new lockdown regulations.  The first reason given in response to this request states: “We realize that our actions are under the authority of the 6th commandment, of which we confess in the Heidelberg Catechism “that I do not wilfully (may) put myself in danger” and also “try to prevent everything that could harm my neighbour as much as possible.”[19]  Thus, the wisdom of a delegation that represents an entire church denomination in South Africa, appeals to this very principle: if we can possibly do something to preserve lives, we would be obeying the 6th commandment.  What undergirds this principle, is love.  In the same response document, it is also argued that, where there appears to be the demand for a choice between different commandments in the law, the ethical principle adhered to is to give priority to the commandment that stands closest to the command to love.

Notwithstanding the claim that it might be wise, regardless of what the government says, to suspend physical meetings for a couple of Sundays, brothers in Christ may still earnestly disagree on the wisdom behind meeting or not meeting.  The one may proclaim that there is no pandemic (as John MacArthur averred, albeit within a particular context that should be taken into consideration), while another perceives it to be a real threat.  The one may be of the opinion that a mortality rate of 2% does not justify all the measures taken in mitigating the risks, while another is concerned about every single additional death that could have been prevented. Whatever the case may be, if this is a matter of wise judgement (or the lack thereof), should it not be the place where different opinions should be respected?

 (e) There might be a place for lovingly overlooking an ignorant overreach by the government

When governmental overreach occurs, but it does not constitute a demand that is contradicting a clear command/law/precept by God that would render obedience to the government to constitute a denial of Christ, there appear to be other biblical principles that might suggest a prudent reaction of lovingly overlooking such overreach, instead of vehemently objecting to and resisting it.  For otherwise we may actually be “confus[ing] … anti-authoritarianism with faithfulness to Jesus Christ,” as Rogers[20] neatly puts it.  In 1 Cor 10:23-24 we read: “ ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.”  If the government overreaches the bounds of its authority into the sphere of the ecclesiastical domain, there may be a real sense in which it could be deemed “lawful” (or justified) to not adhere to the government’s regulation.  But would it be helpful?  Would it be the kind of conduct and demeanour that builds up?  Would it truly glorify Christ?  Context should dictate how these questions should be answered.  But to indiscriminately rise up against the government every time it overreaches the bounds of its sphere of sovereignty might not exactly correlate with what Jesus meant when He said that we should be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16).

If even pastors have been grappling with how to best respond to the pandemic, whereby patience is being called for on the part of everyone else, how much more should we not be patient with a government that does not have the same biblical and philosophical principles to guide them?  If perhaps, and most likely, they have never heard of the neo-Calvinistic doctrine of sphere sovereignty, what would they think of churches jumping up and down, accusing them of things they may not even understand?  (On top of that, there is not even agreement amongst churches that they are indeed overreaching their God-ordained mandate.)  They will probably be flabbergasted; they might even scorn at the fact that the church is not united on this matter, with one small portion of the church making ready for war in the name of “allegiance to Christ,” while the rest retreats in order to fulfil the law of Christ, and submit to them (also through “allegiance to Christ”).

Considering the fact that not only the religious gatherings of Christians, but also of Muslims, Jews, Hindus – all religious groups – have been prohibited, it does not seem as if they are targeting Christianity.  This is not a moot fact that can be ignored.  And even where there are apparent inconsistencies in their policies, the more loving stance would be to not jump to conclusions regarding the intentions and motivations of the government (even when we suspect socialist agendas, and are aware of their corruption, sinfulness, etc.)

CONCLUSION

Both the reality of the current global pandemic and the biblical command to submit to the authorities ought to be taken seriously.  An attitude of indifference towards wearing a mask, for example, appears to take neither of these seriously, and is hard to justify. Prudence calls for rather erring on the side of caution, and the Christian’s default position should be to submit to the government, unless overruled by more fundamental considerations.

One could perhaps grant that the South African government has indeed overreached the bounds of their authority when prohibiting religious gatherings to take place in the face of a pandemic.  And yet, even if this is indeed the case, prudence still demands patience and a careful evaluation of the matter against the backdrop of unprecedented circumstances.  If Christians had no choice but to defy the government in their overreach (whether done unwittingly or not), as they would otherwise be disobedient to Christ, the case would have been settled: Christ should be obeyed.  But it is not the case.  Therefore, notwithstanding the fact that regular physical gatherings form an essential part of Christian worship and that the government has no right to meddle in ecclesiastical matters, there are various biblical principles and considerations that ought to be brought into the equation.  Firstly, it should be recognised that it is, generally, still possible to fulfil the law of Christ and to “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” when there is a temporal suspension of physical gatherings.  Secondly, the argument that one ought to put oneself and others at risk for the sake of “spiritual benefit” does not hold water.  Thirdly, the missiological command to preach the gospel is not inhibited by a temporal suspension of physical gatherings.  Fourthly, it might be wise to temporarily suspend large physical gatherings as a matter of prudence when there is merit in mitigating risk.  In such a case it does not matter if the government wants to also enforce the same mitigating measures through law enforcement.  Finally, one has to discern whether it would truly be helpful, wise and upbuilding to defy the government on this matter, in light of the current state of affairs.

A MATTER OF GREAT CONCERN

What also deserves to be responded to is the communication that was sent to the local congregation.  On the 30th of December 2020 the following message was sent: 

If you’re wondering what [our church] is doing this Sunday, here’s the plan: the same thing we did last Sunday, and the Sunday before that, and before that, etc.  Never in Scripture is it a virtue to be “tossed to and fro” by the latest winds, or fearing what the world fears.  Like Daniel of old, God is pleased when churches remain “steadfast, immoveable”, unwavering and stable, “the pillar and support of the truth”.  In this chaotic world, we want to reflect the consistency of our unchanging and faithful God.

We invite you to join us at [our church] again this Lord’s Day for corporate worship … knowing that we must “obey God rather than men”, and that Christ (not Caesar) is Lord over His church.  In His strength, let us continue standing firm, “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:23-25).  The church has never been more essential!

On the 8th of January 2021 the following message was sent: 

Beloved church family – You’ve been on my heart all week long, praying that we stand firm in faith together under our great Captain, Christ Jesus.  I miss you all greatly and long for us to reunite in singing the praise of our worthy King and hearing His Word.  By His grace we will continue obeying Christ by gathering for corporate worship this Sunday, 9am and 5pm, at Antioch.

In my Bible reading this week in Exodus, I was struck by how Pharaoh was happy for God’s people to worship – as long as it was on government’s terms, not on God’s terms.  Some brave brethren in Canada recently put it well: “We believe that Scripture command us to meet for worship in person, that the definition of “church” requires us to gather in person, and that the Law of God demands we gather at least weekly. This has been articulated in our church doctrinal statement, and each of our members has taken a solemn oath and covenant before God to meet regularly for worship, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper.  Scripture, which is God’s Word to us, commands Christians to gather in person for church (Hebrews 10:24-25).

What is concerning about all these messages is the manipulative insinuations weaved between the sentences, veiled behind a cloak of care and encouragement.  If we, as congregants, do not agree with the church elders – at least with those who have not yet stepped down – but come to different conclusions, are we then “children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14)?  If this is not what is being insinuated, why was it included in the message?  The implication is, of course, that all the neighbouring pastors adhering to the majority view on this matter, are also “children, tossed to and fro by the waves,” not so?  Where is the humility in such an accusation?  And does it not amount to jumping to conclusions to suggest (by insinuation) that those who disagree are “fearing what the world fears”?  “Dear sheep,” says the shepherd, “there is a wolf!  Don’t run away!  Face him!  Risk your lives!  Put yourselves in danger! For it is not a virtue to fear what the world fears”.  This is what it sounds like when it is in included in a message to the congregation, in the context of them being called to defy government regulations, and put their own lives at risk!

Then it is proclaimed, as if it is an indisputable fact, that we will be obeying God rather than men, and serve Christ as Lord rather than Caesar, only when we attend church in defiance of government regulations.  The terribly weak assumptions that undergird this conjecture have been addressed above, so it will not be repeated here.  What is concerning, though, is that no provision is made for honest disagreement – not even in light of the fact that this is a highly contentious minority view that is being imposed on congregants.  If the sheep of a local churches are allowed to only ask questions and only for it to be addressed by the elders, while no space is created for disagreement, does it really align with 1 Pet. 5:3, which says that elders should not be domineering over those in their charge?  Or is it not domineering when employing emotional manipulation by inserting veiled accusations of congregants not being brave (like the “brethren in Canada”) if they don’t agree, and of being fearful, disobedient to Christ, not continuing strong in the faith, etc.?  I, for one, intend to remain faithful to the revelation of God’s Word, so as to obey Christ (through the “law of Christ,” the “law of love,” and the command to obey the government) rather than men who appear to hold to the “tradition of men” (through the Pharisaical[22] and hermeneutically flawed interpretation of what is otherwise a good and godly principle of church gatherings) in the name of “ecclesiastical authority,” or something like that.

This is where I stand.  As it has now been brought to the light, may the Lord grant wisdom and grace for the sake of his Name, and for the sake of his Kingdom through his Church.

Yours in Christ,

Br. Pieter Krüger

Bibliography

Bird, M.F. 2016. Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Cockerill, G.L. 2012. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Ellingworth, P. 1993. The Epistle to the Hebrews: a commentary on the Greek text. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.

Moo, D.J. 2018. The Letter to the Romans (Second Edition). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Schreiner, T.R. 2015. Commentary on Hebrews (Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation). Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group.

Schreiner, T.R. 2018. Romans (Second Edition) . Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Sproul, R.C. 2014. What is the Relationship between Church and State? Orlando, FL; Sanford, FL: Ligonier Ministries.


[1] It is, of course, also possible for some to argue that we are only commanded to obey a government that is just in all its ways and philosophies.  However, such a view is not supported by the Bible, and it appears as if most Bible scholars would disagree with it.  Schreiner (2018:669-670), for example, writes: “It was not [Paul’s] intention to detail here the full relationship of believers to the government.  Stein (1989:334) rightly says, ‘Governments, even oppressive governments, by their very nature seek to prevent the evils of discriminate murder, riot, thievery, as well as general instability and chaos, and good acts do at times meet with its approval and praise’” (emphasis added).  If one argues that South African government should be disobeyed in principle, due to a perceived socialist agenda, it is nothing but an anarchicalposture towards the state in general.  It basically dismisses, in principle, the applicability of Romans 13 to Christians living within South Africa.  Which government on earth can truly be said to be an entirely “just” government?

[2] https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B200723/christ-not-caesar-is-head-of-the-church

[3] https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B200723/christ-not-caesar-is-head-of-the-church

[4] David de Bruyn of NCBC recognised such an overlap in his sermon delivered on the 10th of January 2021 (http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=19211924312402)

[5] Surely, if we are going to appeal to some kind of “doctrine of the face” to justify our position of flouting government regulations concerning masks, we can use some “doctrine of the body” to argue that the government has no right to curtail the freedom of bodily movement by imposing a law that demands us to wear seatbelts.

[6] According to an article published by the University of California San Francisco, the consensus under medical experts under the representation of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) is that “the evidence is clear that masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and that the more people wearing masks, the better.” (https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2020/06/417906/still-confused-about-masks-heres-science-behind-how-face-masks-prevent).  The Mayo Clinic attest to the same fact, explaining that face masks were not initially recommended, because “experts didn’t know the extent to which people with COVID-19 could spread the virus before symptoms appeared.  Nor was it known that some people have COVID-19 but don’t have any symptoms.  Both groups can unknowingly spread the virus to others.  These discoveries led public health groups to do an about-face on face masks.” (https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/coronavirus-mask/art-20485449).

Even if someone disagrees, concluding (perhaps based on scientific findings that they believe are applicable) that masks (and especially cloth masks) make no real difference, one should still consider the fact that many would remain convinced that it is better – not in rendering a false sense of security, but being the safer option.  Whether or not masks truly helps makes no difference to how this matter should be seen in light of Romans 14 – it is really the gesture that counts more than who is right and who is wrong.

[7] https://trinitybiblechapel.ca/here-we-stand-the-church-must-meet/

[8] https://www.heritagebaptist.co.za/blog/post/principles-by-which-we-shepherd

[9] Some pastors do not think that the South African government has actually overreached its God-ordained function.  The elders of Brackenhurst Baptist Church “believe that government is, at this point, acting within its biblical mandate to prescribe restrictions on corporate gatherings in view of the pandemic and their concerns for an overrun health system” (http://brackenhurstbaptist.co.za/faithless-hirelings-or-faithful-shepherds/)

It is also the view of the Reformed Churches in South Africa (GKSA), as represented by an official document sent out by their Deputies Authority of the General Synod on the 15th of January 2021, that the decision to prohibit religious gatherings does indeed reside within the government’s sovereign sphere of authority, and not in that of the church.  The reason is that the state has “a calling and responsibility with regard to the well-being of society as a whole” (Afrikaans version:“Die staat het ʼn roeping en verantwoordelikheid ten opsigte van die heil en welsyn van die samelewing as geheel”).

[10] https://www.heritagebaptist.co.za/blog/post/principles-by-which-we-shepherd

[11] One elder made an assertion along these lines when writing: “We recognize that most assessments today only weigh the risks to one’s body, not to one’s soul.  … It is our conviction that gathering for the health of our souls is worth the potential risk to our physical health.”

[12] https://proregno.com/2021/01/12/vereis-romeine-13-dat-ons-nie-publieke-eredienste-hou-in-covid-tye-en-wetgewing-nie/

[13] As a concerned Christian brother has pointed out in a letter, the government’s thinking might not be as irrational (or inconsistent) as some would make it out to be: “Daar is verskeie restaurante, filmteaters (en selfs kroeë en casino’s) ensovoorts wat nie ’n tweede harde lockdown sal oorleef nie. So, baie gesinne gaan hulle inkomste verloor indien mens alles voor die voet net toemaak. Die regering probeer regtig dit verhoed. Ons kerke kan egter steeds bydraes en kollektes insamel, al kom ons nie fisies saam nie. So, die ekonomies impak op kerke is nie dieselfde as op ander besighede nie. En daarom is hierdie spesifieke regulasies nie so irrasioneel soos party dit afmaak nie.”

[14] https://www.heritagebaptist.co.za/blog/post/principles-by-which-we-shepherd

[15] https://www.covid19sa.org/provincial-breakdown

[16] On 10 Oct 2020, the Advisory Board claimed that experts noticed “the first scientific evidence of asymptomatic transmission of the pathogen” in a study (https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/2020/08/10/asymptomatic).  However, during a recent Q&A, an elder quoted a more recent update by the CDC, saying: “Studies have not found evidence that clinically recovered persons with persistence of viral RNA have transmitted SARS-CoV-2 to others.”  The conclusion that was drawn from this quote?  “There’s no such thing as asymptomatic transmission.”  However, this conclusion does not appear to follow from what the CDC is actually saying, because, firstly, they refer to “clinically recovered persons,” and secondly, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  As a matter of fact, according to the Advisory Board, “Marta Gaglia, a virologist at Tufts University who was not involved in the study, said … “[t]here’s no actual reason to believe a priori that they would transmit [the virus] any differently”.

[17] https://www.heritagebaptist.co.za/blog/post/principles-by-which-we-shepherd

[18] https://www.samrc.ac.za/reports/report-weekly-deaths-south-africa

[19] The following is the argument in full:

There can be no doubt about the severity and danger of the Covid19 pandemic. The large numbers of current infections from which further infections can escalate, together with the greater contagion of the new variant, indeed puts us in a catastrophic situation which, if the wave cannot be stopped, can assume catastrophic proportions. The Deputies are well aware of this and believe that only the Lord can stop the pandemic. At the same time, we realize and believe that our responsibility is embedded in God’s providential order, and that we too must act as believers with the greatest responsibility possible. Add to that the fact that human lives are at stake and can be spared or lost through our actions, and we are filled with holy seriousness about the matter, also as far as our actions as Deputies and our churches are concerned. We realize that our actions are under the authority of the 6th commandment, of which we confess in the Heidelberg Catechism “that I do not wilfully (may) put myself in danger” and also “try to prevent everything that could harm my neighbour as much as possible.”

[20] https://www.heritagebaptist.co.za/blog/post/principles-by-which-we-shepherd

[21] Cf. https://www.heritagebaptist.co.za/blog/post/principles-by-which-we-shepherd & http://brackenhurstbaptist.co.za/faithless-hirelings-or-faithful-shepherds/

[22] I am employing this word in response to what has been said in the Q&A session on the 10th of January 2021.  For what has been said in this Q&A session applies NOT to the wearing of masks, but by its very nature would rather apply to the contentious issue of government defiance, and to those who fastidiously impose laws on others in this regard.  Quoted verbatimly, the following was said: “I had one of our young people the other day said to me: ‘You know, used to, if you mentioned dress code at church, you were nailed as a legalist – the one thing you never talk about in evangelical churches is what you should wear to church … until masks.  And suddenly there’s this new boldness and authority and judging and condemning like the church has never seen before.  If I told you last year, ‘why aren’t you guys wearing ties, where’s your shiny shoes, you would have nailed me.  Now there’s a new moralism, there’s a new Pharisaism, there’s a hygiene police, there are social distancing Pharisees that are invading the Christian church.  Galatians 5: ‘It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.’  There’s a whole chapter in Romans 14 – why are you condemning, why are you judging, why are you looking down on others …”  So who exactly is doing the condemning, judging and looking down on others, when others are being condemned as “hirelings,” judged as being “disobedient” and “unfaithful,” and looked down upon as the “fearful”?  Who exactly is acting as Pharisees when imposing a “law” (of weeklyphysical church meetings) that has to be obeyed to the T, even if that “law” has never been spelled out in Scripture, particularly not in such detail and fine print as is being purported?  As the apostle Paul says (albeit in a different context), “in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself”.

Subscribe to My Blog

Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s