Freedom vs Duty During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 stay-at-home directive, though well-intended by the President’s healthcare professionals, has resulted in some unintended consequences. This should come as no surprise. Unintended consequences accompany most major decisions. This is why executive level decision makers are cautioned to consider the possible unintended consequences of their decisions before acting. One of the unintended consequences of the stay-at-home directive has been to create conflict between our Constitutional rights and Christian duty.
The clash of our Constitutional rights versus Christian duty is centered around the issue of holding face-to-face worship services while the stay-at-home order is in effect. Most churches have chosen to temporarily suspend face-to-face meetings and broadcast their services via Facebook, You-Tube, or other technologies. However, a few have elected to continue face-to-face services, albeit with appropriate social distancing and other precautions taken. Some Pastors and Rabbis have actually been arrested for holding services during the COVID-19 lock down.
Because of the controversy surrounding this issue, I have been asked by pastors, elders, and deacons for counsel concerning whether or not to hold face-to-face worship services while the stay-at-home order is in effect. Before getting into the advice I give fellow Christians on this subject, let me begin with a side note. I believe that any sheriff or police chief who arrests a Pastor or Rabbi for holding face-to-face services should be arrested himself and required to read the U.S. Constitution.
The COVID-19 pandemic does not negate the First Amendment rights of Christians to gather for worship. The majority of our Founders were not just Christians but church leaders. Many were pastors. They did not draft the First Amendment to protect the government from religion. Their intent was to protect religion from the government. Arresting Pastors and Rabbis for holding face-to-face worship services is a clear violation of the First Amendment.
With that point made, let me share what I tell Pastors, elders, and deacons who ask for advice about conducting worship services while the stay-at-home directive is in place. I begin by quoting 1 Corinthians 6:12: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.” Just because we, as Christians, have the right to do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should. This is the message in 1 Corinthians 6:12. For Christians, every freedom comes with a corresponding duty.
For example, the First Amendment ensures freedom of speech. Many Americans take this freedom to mean they can lie, obfuscate, and distort if they wish. But for Christians, our freedom of speech must be counterbalanced by our duty to speak honestly and to follow the admonition in Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may be grace to those who hear.” Remembering to balance freedom with duty is why the Founders were adamant that a republican form of democracy must rest on a foundation of Christian morality.
Our individual rights are enshrined in the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights. It is important to understand that these rights are granted to us not by America’s Founders, but by God. God, not man, is the author of our freedom. This being the case, we should exercise our rights in ways that honor God. This is the key to balancing freedom and duty as well as to heeding the message in 1 Corinthians 6:12.
Another duty that comes into play in deciding when to resume face-to-face worship services is the duty to obey the message set forth in Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” But what happens when the governing authorities act in ways that are inconsistent with God’s Word? For example, what should Pastors and Rabbis do when it becomes obvious the prohibition against face-to-face church meetings is not about protecting people from COVID-19 but about advancing an anti-Christian agenda?
When authority figures interfere with the God-given First-Amendment rights of Christians to freely exercise their religion, they cease to be valid authorities and should be disobeyed. This is the message in Acts 5:29: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” There is little room for misinterpretation in this verse. If authorities use the COVID-19 stay-at-home directive to advance an anti-Christian agenda rather than to legitimately protect public health, the directive is invalid and the authorities should be challenged in court.
In closing, let me summarize the advice I give to Pastors, elders, and deacons who are trying to decide when to re-open for face-to-face worship services:
Although you have a right to hold face-to-face services, balance that right with your duty to set an example for others of appropriate obedience to lawful authorities and to protect the health of church and community members.
Wait to re-open until the stay-at-home directive is lifted or partially lifted. Then take all appropriate precautions to protect those who decide to attend face-to-face worship services.
If it becomes clear that authorities are using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to advance an anti-Christian agenda, challenge their authority in court.
With every freedom granted to us by God, there is a corresponding duty. That duty is to exercise our freedoms in ways that honor the God who gave them to us.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Veterans’ Lament: Is This the America Our Heroes Fought For? Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press, (Release date: October,2020) and Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press, 2020.