Two Thoughts on Church Closures

As churches across America, and to a lesser extent other countries, struggle with stay-at-home orders and regulations on public gatherings, the basic elements of ecclesiology and political theology become increasingly relevant where, not that long ago, they may have easily seemed to be only of pedantic, ivory-tower interest. Luckily for me, I (almost) never believe it when a doctrine appears to be only of pedantic, ivory-tower interest. Over the past two years, I have put a sizable chunk of time into precisely these topics, so here I'll run the two main trains of thought I've had chugging along on the whole debate. And before I begin, I would like to clarify that I mean none of this as an indictment or condemnation of, or even a response to, anyone, but only as a potentially helpful resource for individual Christians trying to think through these issues.

First, as to civil disobedience, I do not think we need complicate the matter much. A man, or a church, is permitted before God to disobey the civil authorities when and only when he can obey God in no other way. And even when disobedience becomes necessary, it must only be done with a gracious and respectful spirit, taking whatever steps are possible to minimize the level of disobedience required. The goal is what Paul teaches about the Christian life before the world: "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29), but "if possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all" (Rom. 12:18). In relation to kings and authorities, the proper rule is to "lead a peaceful and quiet life" (1 Tim. 2:2), and the will of God is "that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people" (1 Pet. 2:15), lest the name of God be blasphemed among the Gentiles on our account (Rom. 2:24).

This means that all civil disobedience must (1) be an absolute last resort and (2) create as little strife as possible. We may attempt to apply this to church meetings by example. If a state indefinitely limits gatherings to 50 people, then a church of 500 people is not necessarily justified in disobedience. For it is still entirely possible to have the church meet in smaller, legal groups; indeed, this is often a beneficial practice anyway. To disobey the authorities here would be quite unjustified, as there is still a viable path to obeying both God and the authorities He has instituted. On the other hand, if not even two or three families can gather without an end in sight, a church is possibly justified in disobedience, though the first resort should probably be exploiting loopholes in the law, again to minimize the strife and offense.

Some other regulations may be less easy to work around. For example, an indefinite ban on congregational singing is almost impossible to work around if we are to address "one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord" (Eph. 5:19). We must not be silent, lest the rocks themselves be forced to cry out. At least in my own judgment (which is of course fallible), I see no clear way to obey both God and men with such a regulation. If so, civil disobedience would be justified. However, turning back to the point about minimizing the extent of disobedience, strife, and offense, breaking a singing ban should probably be done with an overabundance of caution in accord with the spirit of the law by wearing masks, limiting capacity, and ensuring appropriate personal space. These things may or may not be important in themselves, but they most probably ought to be done in this case to show respect and as much compliance as possible with the God-appointed authorities.

So much for the first point about civil disobedience. The second train of thought is on the doctrine of the two kingdoms. Whenever public evangelical personalities invoke the doctrine of the two kingdoms, it is almost always abused to support questionable public decisions. We have seen it in this current controversy used to support civil disobedience that, according to the analysis above, would not otherwise be justified. It it worth, then, analyzing the doctrine briefly and explaining its proper function.

There are, in fact, two fundamentally different doctrines that go by the "two kingdoms" name. The version invoked by those defending civil disobedience to churches affected by COVID regulations is the newer of the two, and sometimes goes by "Reformed/radical two kingdoms" (R2K). (The name is slightly misleading, as I will explain shortly). In R2K, Christ's two kingdoms correspond approximately to the (visible) Church and the wider society, or the state. The latter, sometimes called the "redemptive kingdom," involves God's saving rule over His own people. The former, sometimes called the "common kingdom," involves all the world under the terms of natural law and/or the Noahic covenant. I do not have the space to discuss all of these concepts here, but the upshot for my purpose is that, in theses accounts, the state has authority only over this common kingdom outside of the Church, and over Christians only inasmuch as they participate in the common kingdom. Only the Church has authority in the Church's own internal affairs. For the state to reach inside the Church in any capacity, even in the case of general restrictions on public gatherings that would also affect the Church, would be an overreach of authority. That territory belongs exclusively to Christ and His people.

The other two kingdoms doctrine is sometimes called the "Lutheran" two kingdoms, and sometimes by this name distinguished from the supposed "Reformed two kingdoms," but this is confused. The material content of this older two kingdoms doctrine was shared by Luther, Calvin, Hooker, and a range of other early Protestant writers for quite some time. Though the R2K doctrine is distinctive to the Reformed tradition, it's also not the original two kingdoms doctrine of the Reformed tradition, which it largely shared with Luther.

Anyway, the point of the older two kingdoms doctrine is that Christ reigns in two modes, or that there are two forums in which Christ's authority bears on us. There is the temporal kingdom, or external forum, in which Christ reigns over all external affairs through numerous human authorities, and the spiritual kingdom, or internal forum, in which Christ reigns personally and directly over each individual conscience. All visible authorities and institutions and actions, in the state or in the Church, are part of the temporal kingdom. All of these are visible, external, and temporal, and there Christ reigns indirectly and behind the scenes through magistrates, princes, governors, parents, pastors, deacons, and all other authorities. Authorities in the temporal kingdom have power over externals, such as where you go and what you physically perform at what time, but not in the spiritual kingdom: they cannot impose upon you something that you must believe or do before God. Only God in Christ can bind your conscience directly so that you categorically must believe or do this or that; all authorities in the temporal kingdom are limited to regulating your outward behavior (where this does not conflict with God's commands) or bearing witness to you about God's Word.

In this case, nothing intrinsic to the doctrine says that the state cannot regulate affairs pertaining to the Church. Since gathered churches are external, visible, temporal institutions, and most of the details of their meetings are not commanded by God, there is nothing in principle preventing the state, which governs in temporal and external matters, from regulating them. When, where, and with how many people at a time a particular church meets are all matters indifferent (adiaphora) to the divine command, so the state may perhaps be justified, at least under proper conditions, in making laws that touch on them. At the very least, these external details are not in principle outside of the state's jurisdiction. Only the actual commands and doctrines themselves are out of bounds.

So concludes my two thoughts on church closures in this year of COVID. For these reasons I am mostly skeptical of church decisions to defy the government in their meeting arrangements, especially when they make a show of it. The theological and ethical principles at play are not usually being deployed properly. It is often the case, as well, that the priorities are mixed. The decision whether or not to open a church service under this or that condition frequently becomes a question of allegiance to this or that side in a socio-political war, masquerading (sometimes even to the conscience) as a matter of allegiance to Christ. Rather than trying to maintain, per the biblical command, a quiet, humble, and peaceable witness without unnecessary offense, we end up with a loud statement that does indeed bring superfluous charges against the Gospel and the Lord. This is not always the case, of course, and it is far from my calling to judge the leaders of Christ's churches for myself. To their own Master they stand or fall, and He is able to make them stand. After all, even for those who I believe have erred in their judgment, is it not the case that they are in fact often seeking fidelity to Christ in a complicated world? Lest I become a fool, I need not press this any further.

None of this, I should add, should be mistaken as an opinion about whether any particular state regulations that make it hard for churches to gather are actually warranted. I very much doubt that many of them make sense. (For example, am I missing something when I suspect that whatever danger may be attributable to congregational singing would be almost entirely contained by wearing masks? Is no singing seriously that much safer than masked singing?) But of course, my private opinion about whether specific laws are truly right is hardly relevant. As long as it's possible to obey both God and men, we must do both, even when we think the men themselves are quite wrong.