I was asked by a PCA minister whether I might publish a new post based upon a comment I made in the original post. That comment is #2 below. At his recommendation I expand a bit upon the original comment. I have also taken the opportunity to contextualize comment #2 by including in this new post another comment (#1) from my original COVID-19 post.
#1 [Grace Community Church (GCC) deems it sin for their doors not to be open for congregational worship. They must offer the opportunity to assemble but to my knowledge they don’t suggest member non-attendance is sin.] If the obedience to God premise is somehow now unwittingly off the table as it relates to congregants attending worship, then the entire GCC argument hangs on the premise that the government “overstepped its bounds” yet without requiring worshippers to disobey God. Given that the church is not the ecclesiastical magisterium but those who profess the true religion along with their children, who does GCC leadership believe is in a position to disobey God by submitting to civil authorities?
Granting the validity of the GCC premise, which I don’t subscribe to, that’s a pretty weak hand to play given that Scripture teaches we are to submit even to tyrannical government unless it would be disobedient to God to do so. [Note: Disobedience would have to be considered not just in light of the objective law that binds objectively, but also in light of he law of love that leaves room for taking civil abuse for a season yet also affords room for defying an oppressor lest one sins in non-action.] If the leadership at GCC has abandoned, or never held to, an obedience to God premise as it relates to congregants having to assemble lest they sin, then what’s their case? Even if our government would one day overstep its bounds in this regard, it would be difficult (though not impossible) to build an argument that begins with the government violating two other lawful spheres of government (ecclesiastical and family government) to the conclusion that: we must break the civil law (based upon a subjective wisdom-driven application of the moral law of God) but aren’t objectively required by the moral law of God to break the civil law. That would take a bit more finesse than I believe I’ve seen. And as noted in the original post, the command not to forsake assembling may not be used here in that wooden way. The church hasn’t been forsaking its first love for the charms of this present age. Hebrews 10:25 does not apply. Neither does Acts 5:29.
#2 What I have found most striking about the debate is that neither side distinguishes an edict from the consequent of an edict. The consequent is derivative, not immediate. For instance, imagine a radioactive leak near a community. The civil authorities ban assembling (malls, schools, churches etc.) within an x mile radius. Churches are within that radius. The edict is the ban. The resultant effect is the church may not assemble in its building. Or imagine road construction involving explosives on a main artery that runs by a church. The work is only done on the weekends. The government forbids traffic for months. In both scenarios assembly would be forbidden as a result of the edict. Is the government regulating worship or is it mandating safety that in turn impinges upon worship? That seems relevant. In such cases the government would not be directly regulating worship. Rather, the government would be operating within its divinely appointed sphere. The result would in turn impinge upon the practice of another sphere. That’s common place. Fire codes can impinge upon worship assembly. If a government feared evening bombings during war time, it could ban evening lights in a city, which in turn would impinge upon worship.
The government may not overstep its bounds and directly regulate worship. If it tries to, the church need not submit (though it may be wise to for a time) even if submission would not require objective sin as it relates to law proper or simpliciter; though in such cases not to submit would have to be predicated upon a personal conviction that to submit would be a violation of liberty of conscience against the law of love and a greater cause for Christ. But that is not what is going on here. The government is impinging upon our comforts but only as it operates within its rightful jurisdiction. Our discomfort is a byproduct of the government exercising its lawful mandate to rule in a divinely instituted sphere, as apposed to a result of the government assuming unto itself the church’s sphere of government and attempting to influence the church directly. It’s simply naive and hazardous to think that divinely appointed spheres of government (civil, ecclesiastical and family) can or should operate in hermetically sealed silos. Not only do spheres impinge indirectly, they may also directly interfere. Can’t fathers lawfully be removed from the home? Can’t abusive priests lawfully be locked up?
If government were actually to overstep its sphere and in doing so directly impinge upon ecclesiastical government, we would then be placed in the unhappy situation of determining not the government’s sin (that would be a given) but rather our personal sin with respect to acting or not acting, defiance or acquiescence. That must be determined on a case by case basis (and person by person), which without question would require delving into binding aspects of the law of love as it relates to personal application. The point is simply this. We must be mindful, should we ever find ourselves in such a dilemma, that in an objective revelatory sense we don’t have to wage non-spiritual activist-type war against oppression, though we may and sometimes should in a wisdom non-revelatory sense. The oughtness in such cases would be a matter of spiritual discernment and not a matter of objective black and white law. A more common example would be when should a wife exercise the liberty to put away her unfaithful husband for his abuse of his governing role as her head? Although God’s revealed law allows divorce, it doesn’t require it. In some instances it’s imaginable that a woman should divorce as unto the Lord, even for the sake of her children and her personal service to God. We are often required by God to act when there is no objective command to do so. Discernment and wisdom presuppose these normative aspects of life.