This is a difficult one today. There are a number of issues going on that shake our relationship to the governing authorities. I have struggled with these things, as I know at least some of you have.
Let us begin in the best place, with Scripture. “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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.”
But also “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” And “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
You need to understand that I am not launching into a discussion about our rights as Americans. You may make a strong case for this or that if you wish based on the Bill of Rights. But as a preacher I am concerned with teaching what the Word says concerning our duties to the government, and the limits of its authority.
Here we must discuss the duties of government. Clearly Scripture says that it is to punish evildoers as I read earlier from Romans thirteen. Therefore the government’s duty should include putting down rioters and insurrectionists, but currently they are not, in most places. They are not acting like government if they take no action when violent mobs destroy, assault, and murder. Government holds the sword, as Romans says, but they refuse to use it when it is needed. That is a direct violation of their duty. God give them wisdom to do better.
In some sense we can also say that the government has as part of its purpose to provide for the general welfare. But that concept is slipperier. We have clear Biblical examples where the duty of kings and armies was to defend their nation against invading armies. Well and good. But would that include defending against a general threat to health (an invading army of germs, so to speak)? At the very least we can say that the government’s duty is NOT to make sure that everyone is in no danger of sickness, which no one but God could do.
Lest we become too critical of the government, we should not forget that we should continue to respect the authorities. We must not reject the government for poor performance. They are still established by God, even if they fail in some respects. To some extent, we forgive leaders for making their best guess on what will protect the greatest number of people. If their guess is wrong, would we have done better? Maybe, but probably not.
Yet always, we must remember that honor and respect and, as far as we can, obedience, always belong to the government. Even when Caesar was no friend of the Christians for centuries, the Word from God was still, “Obey the governing authorities.”
For almost two and a half centuries, Uncle Sam has allowed us to publicly worship under the freedom of religion. Yet now Uncle Sam has put us on notice that at any time he says so, we will be forbidden to worship publicly. What pretext does he need? Only enough to say that something potentially dangerous is out there. The flu? Sure. It doesn’t have to be as deadly as the Wuhan virus. Who knows what else he may use?
One can argue: The government put limitations on the Church, but it was promised that it was only for a limited time. The idea is that if there is an overwhelming danger, then the government can suspend church functions, as for example when the church building is on fire and we are told that it is unsafe to enter. Perhaps that is true, but the government has continued to string us along. Remember when they said, “Just two weeks, so we flatten the curve and avoid overwhelming hospitals”? Then it became something else. Now it seems to be, “We have to beat the virus!” Moving the goalposts makes it difficult to respect the state, and difficult to understand what we are obeying and why. There has been a lot of inconsistency on a number of issues, and in some cases, outright hypocrisy. Still, after all that, we owe them honor.
BUT they have discriminated against churches by labeling them “nonessential”. When labeled as nonessential, the Church must respond, “No! The Word, which is preached and taught here, which makes the Church the Church, is life eternal and salvation from sin, death, and hell. Nothing is more essential than that. If we were to lose our lives just to receive the precious gifts given here, we would say, ‘Here, take my earthly life. What is that compared to God’s grace and eternity and Christ our dear Lord?’” We must confess that the Church who speaks the Word is essential, as nothing else is essential.
Therefore I am convinced that we have been faced with a case of obeying God rather than men.
Doctor Luther said, “But what are we to do if they want to take the Gospel from us or forbid its preaching? In that case you should say: ‘The Gospel and the Word of God I will not give you. Nor do you have any power over it; for your rule is a temporal rule over worldly possessions. But the Gospel is a spiritual, heavenly possession. Therefore your power does not extend to the Word of God. We recognize the emperor as a lord over temporal possessions and not over God’s Word. This we shall not permit to be torn from us.’”
We also have the example of Daniel. When he was told not to pray to anyone but the king for 30 days, Daniel went straight home and got down on his knees three times a day. Yeah, he worshiped at home, but that was the most worship he had, and even that was threatened. So he opened his window and faced toward Jerusalem and prayed as he always did. He could have said, “It is only 30 days. I can just privately pray in my heart for that long.” Instead, he did not compromise when the king commanded him to give up worship.
We have been commanded to worship at home and not here, that is, to give up crucial parts of worship: the Eucharist, the holy Absolution, and the reverence of being in God’s house. Home worship, while good and helpful in its own way, is not the worship of God’s house. To give up the crucial parts of the Divine Service that God has commanded and offered to us by His grace is to give Caesar what is not Caesar’s, but God’s.
I confess that I should have had better discernment when the time came. For this I apologize to you. I am not alone in that many made errors in judgment. To be fair, these are confusing times, and the issues are not always clear to our limited wisdom. Yet we should have been more faithful.
I am convinced now that what we should have done is for every person be fully informed and assess the personal danger and act accordingly. If a person feels that their health is too endangered to come to worship, or if they feel that they might be contagious to others, then we should respect that person’s conscience. But as far as this congregation as a whole goes, we should not have yielded the public Service of the Word to Caesar. It is not his that we should give it up for him.
In all matters of life, we make threat assessments. What is my risk and the risk to others if I do a certain action? Should I be fearful of getting in a car accident, and so avoid the house of God? That is an extreme example. If I have a sniffle, perhaps that is not enough to keep me from going to worship, or maybe it is. What about a potential disease? It is hard to assess potential risk to self and others. But each man should follow his conscience. If anyone is vulnerable, I think no one would condemn you for staying home for a time.
May we all be understanding toward the conscience of others.
But do not let fear keep you away for too long. We should not give in to the fear mongering that grips our society. We are the immortal saints who are victorious over death in Christ our dear Lord.
The main point is this: We must decide and firmly resolve that we did not ever worship because the government gave us permission. We did not gather here because they gave us the right. No, we worship because God commands us. Even if the highest men in the land command us otherwise, we will obey God. Even if threatened with losing our sanctuary and facing jail time, we will obey God.
May He grant peace in our time, wisdom to our leaders, and resolve to His saints on earth. Amen.
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