The dreaded announcement has come: Government restrictions on religious gatherings have been tightened. Churches are now limited to 250 persons for outdoor gatherings and 100 persons for indoor gatherings. This has presented the elders with another COVID-challenge: deciding how BBC should respond. In this article, I will share plans for the next several weeks, along with a brief explanation. I will then provide the biblical defence for BBC to comply with the government’s restrictions. It’s longer than normal, but hopefully it will be worth reading it in full.
For at least the next four Sundays (through 10 January), as well as Christmas morning, we will have one indoor service at 9:00 AM. These services will be livestreamed. In line with government regulations, only 100 registered people will be able to attend, which means that registration is essential. We want to give preference to those who live alone as well as to those who have no access to the livestream. Since private gatherings are permitted, we encourage small groups of church members to gather for the livestreaming. You will be able to sing and to pray together. Further, we encourage you to invite to your home those who either live alone or who do not have the livestreaming option.
We have chosen this option for a couple of reasons. The size of our church means that, if we go with the outdoor option, we are still unable to gather as one body and it would make livestreaming a practical problem. Further, the uncertainty of weather conditions adds too many variables into the mix. The option we have chosen assures an orderliness that will help all of us with our planning and virtually guarantees everyone access to the preaching. We will reassess the situation after 10 January and will keep you informed concerning the way forward.
Some perhaps would question the rightness of our decision to comply with government’s regulations. As an eldership, we understand this concern. Personally, I don’t entirely agree with government’s decision. Yet I do believe, in terms of Romans 13:1–7 (please read) and other biblical principles, that our church should comply. Let me defend this.
If you follow the news, you are aware that many churches in the United States are responding in defiance of similar restrictions by their government. They argue that, since Jesus Christ is Head of the church, human government has no right to restrict how the local church is to worship. “Christ, not Caesar!” is their battle cry. In addition, many of these churches argue that for government to enact restrictions is a violation of their constitutional rights.
Though there are some churches in South Africa that are making the same arguments, responding with similar civil disobedience, they are in the minority. The question, however, must be considered: Do they have a legitimate point?
Clearly, government has no right either to define what constitutes a local church or how the church should worship. Regardless of a pandemic, government cannot legitimately command the church to not read the word, preach the word, sing the word, pray the word, or observe the word in the ordinances. When government oversteps its legitimate sphere of authority, we ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). I have concluded that, earlier in the lockdown, when we followed the government’s mandate to not sing during our gatherings, they, and we, went too far. Thankfully, we are no longer faced with that restriction.
It is important to recognize that the latest government restrictions are neither an attempt at persecution, nor, in my view, an attempt to interfere with the worship of the local church. No doubt, this latest restriction hinders our full gathering, and hinders our ability to do church as we are accustomed. Yet we are not being forbidden to preach, sing, read Scripture, pray, or observe the ordinances. Our conviction about the proper observance of the ordinances does mean that the restrictions will hinder it. But our conviction, arising from biblical principles rather than government persecution, is at play here. Government is not targeting churches. Its decision is guided by medical prudence, not ecclesiological persecution. For this reason, the elders are notpersuaded that government, at this stage, has overstepped its God-given mandate.
Further, we do not view these restrictions as a violation of our constitutional rights entrenched in the South African Constitution. The right of freedom of religion is not a right to do whatever you want without concern for others. These restrictions are being implemented for the health and welfare of the nation. And though many of us may disagree with some of the restrictions, according to Romans 13:1–7, we need to submit to them. Yes, even on Sundays.
Fallen man has always had a problem with authority. We don’t appreciate being told what to do. We like our freedom. Therefore, when we don’t agree with a decision by those in authority, we are prone to chafe against it. But this is precisely why God commands us to submit to those in authority. If it were natural to follow our leaders, the command would be unnecessary. God tells us to submit, among other reasons, because he knows that we do not always agree with those in authority. I seriously doubt that Jesus was always in agreement with his earthly parents, yet we are told that he was “submissive to them” (Luke 2:51).
The term “submit” means “to rank under” (see Ephesians 5:21; Romans 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13; Hebrews 13:17). It is a term recognising that somebody is tasked with the authority to make decisions and their subordinates are tasked with obedience. I am persuaded that this is where we find ourselves in this pandemic and the response of our government.
I reject the conspiracy theories that government is using this to put an authoritative stranglehold on citizens. I reject the suppositions about a one-world government and the 666 hype. Rather, I am persuaded that our government, composed of fallible men and women, are doing the best they can, with the information they have, to stem the potential disaster of this pandemic. We should give them a break by giving them the benefit of the doubt and submit to the restrictions.
I am concerned that Christians who are digging in their heels and defying government will pay a price, which could potentially be paid in the currency of devalued authority in their own homes and local churches.
After all, if it’s okay to defy government because we disagree with a decision of prudence (again, not one motivated by persecution) then why should Mrs Church Member submit to her husband when she disagrees with him (in a matter of prudence)? Why should church members submit to elders with whom they might disagree when those same elders have counselled the church to disobey government with whom theydisagree? What kind of example is this for children? Is it not implicitly teaching that it’s okay to disobey mom and dad whenever they have a different opinion?
Of course, I am not arguing that those in authority always get every decision right. Rather, I am recognising the reality that authorities make decisions and, for society to properly function, those being led need to give the benefit of the doubt. Yes, I understand that, in a fallen world, authorities can abuse their position. For this reason we need to be careful. It’s acceptable to ask questions and sometimes to engage in respectful pushback. But that is different from defying rules that pass the test of being biblically justified.
Brothers and sisters, we as a local church need to respectfully submit to these latest restrictions on gatherings. In the end, this will prove to be a season, not a permanent situation. We will get through it. Let’s do so to the glory of God.
I’m aware that not everyone will agree with this article. That’s okay. Respectful debate can be healthy and helpful. But in the meantime, let’s be submitting on Sunday.