My city has ordered a lockdown because of the pandemic. I'm not allowed to attend church, but some are choosing to meet anyway in defiance of the government. As a Christian, should I obey the government or go to church?
The ongoing pandemic and accompanying restrictions on church gatherings have forced Christians to reconsider the Bible's teaching on obedience to government in a new and deeper way. Unfortunately, many church communities have been poorly served by teaching encouraging disobedience to government contrary to Scripture.
One often-quoted passage in support of disobeying government restrictions on gathering is Hebrews 10:25 which says:
The writer cautions believers against forsaking the gathering, but the word "forsaking" can also be translated as "deserting" or "abandoning." The writer's concern was for Christians who willfully end their association with the church body by abandoning fellowship with other believers. This passage is not relevant to the present circumstances of the pandemic, because the church is not facing a widespread movement of Christians abandoning the gathering (for the most part). In fact, our present situation is literally the opposite: believers are seeking to gather but are prevented by government restrictions.
Therefore, Hebrews 10:25 is not relevant to the matter at hand nor does it settle the question of how believers should respond to the pandemic restrictions. The question we are facing is how should believers respond when the laws of our land conflict with the customary practices of our faith? The answer to this question is neither simple nor will it be the same for every Christian.
The decision of whether to honor the government's restriction on Christian gatherings depends on several factors, including the purpose and degree of the government prohibitions, the alternative options available for gathering and worship, the impact our decision will have on our Christian witness to the unsaved in our local community, and upon our own conscience.
The biblical principles that guide our decision are ones Paul gives in Romans, First, in Romans 13 Paul says unequivocally Christians must obey governmental authorities:
Secondly, in Romans 12:18, Paul says we must seek peace in all circumstances:
These principles set a high bar for submission and concession to authority. These two truths must be held in equal regard with the general rule of Scripture that we obey God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. In fact, to obey God is to keep His commandments, including the commandment to obey the government.
Therefore, a Christian must seek every possible way to comply with government orders while also obeying God. Disobeying the government must be our very last resort, since it will inevitably result in provoking conflict with others rather than peace, and this is never our desire. As long as reasonable alternatives to disobedience exist, we are obligated to choose the alternate path to maintain peace.
In the case of church gatherings during a pandemic, there is no requirement in Scripture that believers gather in large, public settings with other Christians. In fact, throughout history, small gatherings in homes have been the common Christian experience. Large public gatherings in arenas or amphitheaters are – by far – an exception to the norm.
Moreover, the Church has frequently endured seasons or periods of history when large public gatherings were impossible or impractical, including during times of wars, disease outbreaks, persecution and the like. During these periods, individual Christians still continued worshipping, praying and teaching one another in small family settings in a home or perhaps gathered with others outdoors (activities which are often permitted even during lockdowns).
Today, small, personal gatherings in homes remain the normative Christian experience in many places in the world. For example, in China, large public gatherings of the church are generally outlawed, so believers cannot meet in large groups or attempt to challenge this rule. So in keeping with Paul's command to remain at peace if possible, the Chinese Church developed a culture of meeting in small groups of ten or less in homes, which is permitted in China. This is a good example of how we should adapt to remain at peace with the government even as we pursue Christian fellowship.
So in response to the current pandemic, we should explore every alternative to disobedience to government, including adopting small house-based worship where possible for as long as large gatherings are restricted. When reasonable, biblical alternatives exist, Christians have no justification to disobey the government.
While we may not prefer a smaller gathering over the usual larger setting, we cannot justify disobeying the government simply because of our preference. Once again, large public gatherings are not a biblical requirement, and therefore we cannot justify disobedience to the government on that basis.
Secondly, our witness before the world is at stake in these decisions. After the pandemic is over, the world will remember how the Church responded to the crisis. If their perception is that local congregations acted in unsafe and careless ways by defying local ordinances, our actions could backfire by hardening hearts against the Gospel and diminishing the name of Christ in their eyes, which would be counterproductive to the very reason the Church exists in the first place: to win souls for the Kingdom.
Finally, there may be times when it is proper to defy government restrictions on gatherings, especially in circumstances where the restrictions are punitive and intended to prevent the Church from fulfilling its God-given mission. In such cases, the Church has no choice but to disobey and accept the consequences of our disobedience. Even then, disobedience to government is the last resort based on having no other options, and we do not believe that the present pandemic rises to this level for most Christians.
In all cases, each Christian should act according to his or her own conscience, and let no one be our judge concerning this decision.
As a footnote, the question of obedience to government vs. obedience to God is addressed as part of our study on Romans in chapter 12-15. In these chapters, Paul gives us a hierarchy for obedience, including a system for determining how we should obey in cases where our duty to God and our duty to other authorities come into conflict. We highly recommend you listen to the entire Romans Bible study, since it is a transformative study for every Christian.