For the most part, our church and the Church have been submissive and compliant regarding the government COVID lockdown. You, we, have done well, and are to be commended for our sometimes-difficult submission to the governing authorities Christ has appointed for us. And we may see restrictions further lifted soon. This is good news.
However, it is often said right now that we should not give up being vigilant. I agree with that, although I would like to think about vigilance towards a different, future threat.
I mean that the church should not become comfortable with the idea of government lockdowns and restrictions, for public health emergencies. I am not making a comment here on the current lockdown – our policy as a church remains that of the Sacramento County Health Department. And of course, I don’t think anyone is physically or psychologically comfortable with our present circumstances.
By “not becoming comfortable”, I mean to resist accepting the idea of government lockdowns and restrictions as a means to address issues that simply displease the values of the current government, be that government blue or red. To put it another way: to be vigilant means to become ever more questioning and wary of the expansion of the definition of the term “public health emergency”, as delineated in the California constitution. Because it is very possible that more lockdowns and restrictions are forthcoming, for other “public heath emergencies”. Scare quotes intended. And they will come, like a Trojan horse, inside the expansion of that phrase, “public health emergencies”.
For instance, one United Nations economist has called for future “climate lockdowns”, that “would limit private-vehicle use, ban consumption of red meat, and impose extreme energy-saving measures”.1 All of it under the notion that climate change represents a clear and present danger to public heath.
It is also not difficult to imagine that same template being used by our government, in response to the high, high rate of suicides among “LGBTQ+” persons. In that gameplan, the finger gets pointed at whatever the government deems, under its “emergency powers”, as “hate speech”. This could easily lead to restricting the straightforward preaching of Romans 1. All under the notion that that speech – the historic preaching of the Christian church – constitutes a clear and present danger to the collective health of this group of people.2
The state is still discovering how far it can impose itself with this generation of people. Again, that is not to say that there has not been death and harm caused by the virus, some of which has been constrained by government actions. That is not a comment on the nature and efficacy of the current lockdowns. It is only to say that more than one thing can be happening at once – one good, one bad, at the same time. As one famous author said, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.3
So what shall we do, while we currently submit to our governing authorities? My charge to us is to prepare well – now – for the future. I can think of the following ways to prepare. Perhaps you would add to these – I would love to hear your thoughts:
1. Repent, and love your church and family well.
I start with this because a holy community, that loves its own, in a biblical way, is a resilient, useful community. This is essentially what John Adams meant when he said that America’s system of governance is fit only for a religious people. Only a “religious”, converted, believing-in-the-resurrection-of-Jesus kind of people can both submit peaceably to a democratically-elected republican government, and at the same time has the chutzpah to stand firm against that government, when it tries shenanigans – like expanding the definition of phrases like “public health emergency”.
On the other hand, a community that’s rife with idolatry, that’s guilt-ridden and chained down by its sins will be too lethargic to lift a finger, too self-absorbed to sacrifice self and risk everything for the common good. A community that doesn’t love its own cannot turn on a dime and suddenly learn to love the common good. The mission and value statement of that community is “Just give me my Netflix, my porn and my video games, and let me soothe myself to my guided meditation, and I’ll be good” – while the world burns.
But a community that is holy, because it is hoping in the age to come (Eph. 2:7); and that therefore cares not for the trinkets of the present age; that is focused intently on the gospel, and living out the gospel intentionally with one another – that community is dangerously good. Because it represents to the world an alternate society, one where peace and rest are truly found. And it becomes an inconvenient bur in the saddle of tyrants – again, be they conservative or liberal.
And all of that begins with doing what we already know to do: to love God and our neighbor, beginning with our closest neighbors – our spouse, our children, and our siblings in Christ. And that love only gets freed up by a life of holy repentance, borne out of faith in God and the gospel.
2. Stand for the church’s right to preach and practice in peace.
At first glance, this feels self-serving of me, since I’m a “man of the cloth”. But it’s biblical (1 Timothy 2:1-4). And it goes deeper – much deeper – than self-interest. It goes to the deep fabric of any society. Bonhoeffer said it best (excerpt from Eric Metaxas’ excellent book):
If the state is creating “excessive law and order,” then “the state develops its power to such an extent that it deprives Christian preaching and Christian faith . . . of their rights.” Bonhoeffer called this a “grotesque situation.” “The church,” he said, “must reject this encroachment of the order of the state precisely because of its better knowledge of the state and of the limitations of its action. The state which endangers the Christian proclamation negates itself.”4
Think about that last sentence. “The state which endangers the Christian proclamation negates itself.” What Bonhoeffer is saying is that the church knows from Where and from Whom the state derives its authority. And the church knows from the Word that the state will function well only when it stays in its lane – when it remains a delegated authority, under the authority of Lord Jesus. But when the state tries to be God, it becomes bloated with pride and paperwork, and then it ceases to be of any good. It becomes destructive. In fact, in the very moment it tries to be god, it then creates the very conditions of its own demise. It “negates itself”.
To put this another way, and pair Bonhoeffer with the Adams quote above: “the Christian proclamation” – the good news of Christ in the gospel – is the very thing that creates a populace that is truly able to handle our system of government.
Some may say that Governor Newsom is not intentionally trying to single out churches right now. And that may be true. But that’s beside the point. Whether intentional or not, as much as any government restriction inhibits the thriving of the church and the preaching of the gospel, those restrictions are actually working against the state. It’s shooting itself – and everyone else – in the foot.5
So then the church must stand for its right to freely preach, ironically, for the benefit of the state, for the benefit of the people. For the benefit of the culture. As someone else has said: culture is downstream from religion, and government is downstream from culture.
3. Count the cost, and preach.
Now is the time to count the cost, as a church, before payment must be made. Will we be willing to give up, as a church
- Our property, when our landlord decides that tenants that believe such “intolerant” things are (ironically) intolerable?
- Our reputation, in the form of social media shaming?
- Our popularity, in form of being “that church” that’s “so extreme” (as to believe and preach the Bible)?
- Our financial resources, in the form of fines?
Will we be able to leave those trinkets and trappings behind, and still be the church? Will we be able to leave those behind, and still preach?
When “soldiers” from this “war” – our brothers and sisters – are wounded in battle
- From the loss of a job
- From the splitting of a relationship
- From being fined, or imprisoned6
Will this church be there, to provide for them, to comfort them, to support them? Will we shoot, neglect or heal our wounded?
And then, will we go out again, preaching?
Now, you might be thinking, this is all extreme thinking. This is worst-case, off-the-Bell-curve thinking. Yes, yes it is. But consider our past year. And consider the last century. How much of just the last century has been defined by worst-case scenarios?
My goal, my aim with this article, is to move us toward resiliency – the same resiliency that has carried the church through worst-case scenarios from its very beginning. Think about the pre-conversion Saul, ravaging the church. And yet today we are the inheritors of the good news that those fleeing Christians took with them to places like Antioch, all the way to modern-day California.
The good news of a God that redeems us out of death and brings us to life, in Christ. And secures for us a hope and lavishly gracious future, millennium upon millennium hence.
So the question is, will we count the cost – counting what we lose now, and then subtracting it from what we gain then – and then preach the gospel, together? We are called to wisely interpret the times and signs and seasons (Matt. 16:1-4), and then act. I believe one way we must wisely act, in this season, is to prepare our church and ourselves for the seasons to come. It’s time to get ready.
2 I’m tempted here to dive into what’s behind the suicide rate among LGBTQ+ persons. I cannot in any great depth, for the sake of time. But it’s true: the suicide rate among this group is tragically great – staggering, by some measures. The question is why? Does it have anything to do with what naturally happens to a person, when that person goes against their essential, created nature, repeatedly, and deeply? Is it possible that going against one’s nature, repeatedly and deeply, becomes a form of hatred of self? And would hatred of self not then naturally lead to suicidality? It’s at this point that the gospel has a much better word than anyone else, anywhere. In Christ, we become MORE ourselves – and we become free.
4 Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer. Kindle ed. Location 8966.
5 What I don’t mean here by “inhibiting the thriving of the church” is if the government inhibits the church from putting on more entertainment-focused dancing bear acts. Our culture can get that anywhere.
6 People forget that, as late as the 1950’s, pastors were jailed for proselytizing in North America – in French-Catholic Canada. And we can easily forget that it was good patriotic folks who imprisoned (“internment”) Japanese citizens during WWII.