How Should the Church Respond to Mandates?
Recently John MacArthur wrote a blog post entitled “Facing COVID-19 Without Fear” which is an excellent read. I will attempt to share our churches response here with minimal modifications to fit within the context of our local church named Calvary Chapel Fergus Falls.
- A Short History
- COVID Facts
- How Should the Church Respond?
We are convinced that governmental encroachment on basic human freedoms constitutes a more intimidating threat to individuals, a greater impediment to the work of the church, and a larger calamity for all of society than any pestilence or other natural disaster. These are difficult times, calling for a thoughtful, biblical, and wise response from church leaders and their congregations.
A Short History
COVID-19 began to make international headlines in early 2020, and by mid-March, state and local governments across America were issuing emergency orders restricting large gatherings of people. At the time, health officials were warning that COVID might cause a wave of death and disaster, ranking high on the spectrum between the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic and the Black Death in 14th-century Europe. Major media outlets reported that people were literally dying on the streets in China. One report featured a morgue in New York City where bodies were stacked like cordwood. Naturally, such stories provoked a high level of public fear.
In mid-March, Minnesotans were put under a statewide mandatory lockdown. Initially, government health officials said they expected a two-week quarantine (“fifteen days to slow the spread”). The original goal was not to eliminate the virus completely (epidemiologists knew that was impossible), but to make sure hospitals were not overwhelmed until more treatment facilities could be set up. Since the true gravity of the threat was still unknown and the quarantine was supposed to be reasonably short, the leadership team of Calvary Chapel Fergus Falls decided to suspend public services while we continued live-streaming sermons.
More than six weeks passed with no letup on the government-ordered quarantine. While media reports and health department predictions continued to be dire, the actual impact of the virus on our congregation was only mildly worse than the annual flu. Relatively few congregants tested positive, and those who did typically recovered quickly. It was soon obvious (and CDC statistics proved it) that healthy people in their fifties or younger were not in imminent mortal danger from the spread of COVID-19.
The course of action we followed with meeting in the community park and then again inside reflects our unshakable biblical conviction that we must not render to Caesar that which belongs to God. The Lord has not granted to civil government any authority to regulate the terms and circumstances of the church’s worship. That prerogative belongs to Christ alone.
What follows is a brief digest of some facts about COVID that convinced us the virus, while not negligible, is not so much of a threat that it warrants churches to refrain from gathering as the people of God.
The death rate from COVID is nowhere near the original dire predictions.
In early 2020, most policy-makers were citing predictions from a researcher named Neil Ferguson, a professor at Imperial College London. Ferguson confidently predicted that more than 2.2 million people in the United States would die from COVID within three months’ time. Even though that prediction quickly proved to be grossly overblown, government officials continued to cite the Ferguson model as justification for prolonging the lockdowns. Rather than acknowledging that COVID-19 is not the doomsday pandemic, so many had foretold, they claimed the diminished numbers were proof that the lockdowns were working.
To put the facts in perspective: Ferguson’s model predicted that more than 81 percent of Americans would be infected with the virus, and at least 1 percent of those infected would die. It was a colossal overestimate of the virus’s severity. More than eighteen months later, cumulative statistics for the state of Minnesota showed that fewer than 10 percent had tested positive for the virus, and the death rate among infected people was only about one-tenth of what Ferguson’s model predicted.
Furthermore, the figures currently on record are likely inflated and certainly over-sensationalized by the media in comparison with recent flu epidemics, as well as the SARS and MERS outbreaks. Researchers acknowledged early on that a relentless pattern of exaggerated reports and inflated statistics was unnecessarily elevating public fear and fostering bad government policy. A paper published in April 2020 by the US National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) listed a dozen ways false, sensational, and exaggerated media reports were making it difficult to assess the COVID situation objectively. In part, the paper said, “This year’s coronavirus outbreak is clearly unprecedented in amount of attention received. Media have capitalized on curiosity, uncertainty and horror. . . . Other coronaviruses probably have infected millions of people and have killed thousands. However, it is only this year that every single case and every single death gets red alert broadcasting in the news.”
Childhood mortality from COVID is significantly lower than normal flu levels.
More than eighteen months after nearly all schools in the country were closed (and with many still not yet open), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) counted just over 400 young people (0–17 years old) who died from COVID. By comparison, during just six months at the peak of the 2017–18 flu season, an estimated 643 from that same age group succumbed to the flu—meaning the typical flu bug is about five times more deadly for children than COVID-19.
Shootings of children in Chicago alone have greatly outnumbered pediatric COVID deaths across the state of Illinois. In the first eight months of 2021, 35 children died from gun violence in Chicago. In the entire state during that same time span, 15 children died from COVID.
Meanwhile, government-imposed lock-down policies have been catastrophic for the mental health of children. Harsh restrictions imposed on common childhood activities impede every child’s normal physical, spiritual, and intellectual development. The mandatory closure of churches, schools, playgrounds, and even beaches has therefore done far more actual damage to the well-being of children than COVID by several orders of magnitude. According to the CDC, suicide attempts by girls aged 12–17 rose 50.6 percent between February 21 and March 20, 2021. Virtually all public school children missed more than a year of in-person instruction, and a host of other physical and mental health problems rose by large margins as well. A plethora of statistical information exists to show that among children and teenagers the lockdowns have caused a dramatic rise in drug addiction, alcoholism, depression, self-harm, and other unhealthy compulsions—including eating disorders, sleep disorders, clinginess, irritability, and inordinate fear.
Nationwide statistics also reveal a precipitous rise in domestic violence and child abuse (including neglect) during the COVID quarantine.
In short, while COVID-19 was not the fierce pandemic that was originally forecast, the lock-downs have been highly injurious to public health on numerous levels.
To be clear: COVID is indeed a dangerous virus for people in certain demographics. It can cause serious (potentially fatal) pulmonary, renal, and cardiovascular impairment, especially among those who are elderly, infirm, obese, or afflicted with other co-morbidities. But the threat posed to the general public by COVID is not an emergency sufficient to warrant the quarantining of healthy people, the isolation and virtual imprisonment of children, the permanent closure of countless businesses, the destruction of whole economies, or the indefinite suspension of public worship and face-to-face fellowship.
The public has repeatedly been force-fed misinformation from the media and government officials—not only about COVID, but about other matters as well.
In March 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to the White House, famously said on “60 Minutes” that masking the general populace would not help slow the spread of the virus and could even be detrimental to the wearer. “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask,” he said. “Often there are unintended consequences—people keep fiddling with the mask, and they keep touching their face.” When Fauci reversed himself a few months later, he explained that he had discouraged the wearing of masks because he didn’t want to say anything that might diminish the supply of masks for medical workers. In an interview with InStyle magazine, he said, “We were told in our task force meetings that we have a serious problem with the lack of PPEs and masks for the health providers.” He indicated that his task force had met and agreed to be less than candid with the public. In Fauci’s words, concerns about a shortage of masks “led all of us, not just me but also [U.S. Surgeon General] Jerome Adams, to say, ‘Right now we really need to save the masks for the people who need them most.’” That is an admission that truth was not health officials’ first concern; public policy was.
By January 2021, Fauci was advising people to wear layers of multiple masks.
The fundamental question of where the COVID-19 virus originated was either deliberately obscured or handled with gross ineptitude in 2020 by Dr. Fauci and other leading scientists, government officials, health departments, and the major news media. At the time, common sense and publicly known facts seemed to point to what officials did not want people to see—namely, that the virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Many experts now acknowledge that is probably where the virus came from. But for nearly a full year, those who even wondered aloud whether the virus originated in the Wuhan lab were automatically silenced or suppressed in virtually (if not literally) all major scientific, academic, and social media forums.
Vaccines began to be available near the end of 2020. For weeks, health officials assured the public that the new vaccines were effective and life would soon return to normal without masks. But in July 2021, the CDC released a report saying, “Emerging evidence suggests that fully vaccinated persons who do become infected with the Delta variant are at risk for transmitting it to others; therefore, CDC also recommends that fully vaccinated persons wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission.” Rather than providing data to support the revised opinion, the CDC document gave this citation: “CDC COVID-19 Response Team, unpublished data, 2021.”
We now have ample evidence (including data from the CDC’s own reports) that the vaccines don’t work as advertised.
By September 2021, 60 percent of Minnesotans had been vaccinated, but numbers of people who tested positive were still rising. In August 2021, 364 people at Duke University tested positive for the virus. Only 8 were unvaccinated. All the rest—356 people—were fully vaccinated but became infected with the virus anyway. The university’s response was to tighten their mask mandate.
Oddly, the people in our community who seem most fearful of the virus are those who have already been vaccinated—many of them now clamoring for more mask mandates and renewed restrictions—which indicates that they do not trust the vaccination to protect them as they were promised before they took it.
No wonder. Sources purported to be reliable voices of authority have repeatedly shown themselves untrustworthy. Heads of state impose rules on the populace that they themselves refuse to submit to. The rules suddenly change on someone’s whim. It turns out even “the science” is not very dependable. There is even reason to doubt the accuracy of COVID testing.
Major media sources are notoriously biased and inaccurate.
Large pharmaceutical companies, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health organization (WHO), and various influencers in government and media have actively tried to suppress discussion about the usefulness of drugs like Ivermectin, chloroquine, and hydroxychloroquine as early treatments for COVID-19—even though many physicians report using those compounds successfully. It is widely understood that the debate over these medications (more precisely: the lack of any open exchange of information about them) is largely driven by economic and political concerns, not scientific studies. In fact, the WHO halted their studies of hydroxychloroquine, and the FDA revoked their Emergency Use Authorization for the drug just days after President Trump announced it had been successfully used to treat him for COVID.
Support for and opposition to the vaccinations have changed with the transition from one political party to the next in the Oval Office. In 2020, Democrats were openly contemptuous of Donald Trump’s efforts to develop a vaccine quickly, saying they would refuse any vaccination Mr. Trump recommended. But shortly after a Democrat moved into the White House, they suddenly began lobbying for a nationwide mandate and vaccination passports.
Notice, also, that virtually nothing is ever said by health officials or reported by the media regarding the natural immunity people develop once they have actually been infected by the virus and recovered. Natural immunity is God’s design for our protection. It is robust, durable, and long lasting. It’s how we normally survive and ward off illnesses in a world of microscopic dangers. But to suggest that natural immunity is sufficient protection against reinfection would undermine the push for a universal vaccine mandate.
Ideologically-driven propaganda and government pressure are routinely paired with efforts by Big Tech companies to squelch all dissenting opinions. Meanwhile, throughout most of the Western world, government agencies have worked hand in hand with the media to cultivate open hostility toward biblical values while actively promoting the normalization of abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism, and various other assaults on the family structure. It is no wonder that public trust in government and media has severely eroded over the past decade.
Reasonable people know that they are being lied to. They recognize the tools of indoctrination. When what is deemed “truth” constantly changes, it is an insult to people’s intelligence to expect them to swallow every new truth claim put forth by agencies and institutions that have frequently distorted or outright denied the truth.
How Should the Church Respond?
Intense disagreements have swirled among evangelicals since March 2020 regarding how the church should respond to government-mandated COVID restrictions. The clash of opinions only compounds the bewilderment of Christians already confused by conflicting media reports. It has generated a firestorm of contention on social media. And it has caused unexpected division in churches. Oddly, some of the same evangelical leaders who insisted the church must shut down on orders from the state also published essays affirming the duty and priority of congregational worship. No wonder churchgoers are confused.
Here are four non-negotiable precepts about church life that are always apropos but seem particularly suited for the current circumstances. Every sound, Biblically minded congregation should affirm these principles without uncertainty or indecision:
1. The church must stand firm on the truth.
Scripture says the church is “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). In that role we are often pitted against popular opinion and media narratives. It’s a task that normally calls for boldness rather than subtlety.
It would be sinfully negligent for any church to remain passive or pliant when waves of misinformation dominate popular opinion and deliberately foment anxiety. What makes the current case especially urgent is the way officials have intentionally fueled public angst with relentless propaganda, then exploited the public’s fears in order to justify banning public worship—even while bars, strip clubs, and casinos remain open—and radical political protestors are permitted to swarm the streets.
If we truly believe Scripture, we cannot automatically go along with the prevailing values and beliefs of the rest of the world—especially in a culture (like ours) where biblical righteousness is constantly under fierce attack, militant unbelief dominates public discourse, and diabolical ideologies routinely influence public policy. God’s people must contend earnestly for the faith. We are to be aggressively engaged in the battle to liberate people from every falsehood and every lofty argument that is raised against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:4–5). And we must bear in mind that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God” (1 Corinthians 3:19).
Indeed, the average person today doesn’t even believe truth can be known with any degree of settled certainty. Nothing is deemed authoritatively true; truth itself is seen as merely a matter of personal perspective. That brand of skepticism permeates our news media, politics, the secular academic world, the entertainment industry, and most people’s religious beliefs.
Bible-believing Christians, on the other hand, know that the Word of God is not only absolutely true; it is the ultimate standard by which all other truth claims must be tested. Christianity begins with this conviction. Jesus affirmed it in his high-priestly prayer: “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). The Psalms declare it repeatedly: “The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). “The words of the Lord are pure words; as silver tried in a furnace on the earth, refined seven times” (Psalm 12:6). God’s Word is more sure and more trustworthy than any other witness. Anyone who does not affirm such a high view of Scripture is not really a follower of Christ.
Again, authentic Christians cannot allow either majority opinion or government edicts to determine what we believe, especially at this moment in history. Anyone with a modicum of biblical discernment ought to be able to see that Western society has purposely waded into a deep cesspool of immorality and unbelief, just as Romans 1:22–34 describes: “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image . . . [And] they exchanged the truth of God for a lie.”
That passage goes on to outline precisely what we see happening in contemporary Western society. And the point of the biblical text is that this moral meltdown is a judgment from God against a willfully depraved culture. Churches should be the last place on earth where purveyors of immoral values, half-truths, lies, and tyrannical abuses of authority find any kind of approval.
2. Joy, not fear, should dominate the fellowship of believers.
The New Testament is full of instructions and encouragements for Christians to cultivate joy, even in the midst of persecution and distress. “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). One mark of a faithful church is that they are “rejoicing in hope” (Romans 12:12), not cowering in fear.
Fear of death is abject enslavement, and that is the very thing Christ came to liberate us from. The purpose of Christ’s incarnation was so “He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Hebrews 2:14). As Christians, we “have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again” (Romans 8:15).
In today’s troubled world, perpetual fear has been made to seem normal, even noble. Life itself has become all about avoiding risk. But to cultivate that kind of fear, especially at the government’s behest, poses a grave danger to the long-term spiritual health and ministry of the church. If young people are taught that the preservation of their own lives is more important than corporate worship and evangelism, who will go to the mission field?
Christianity does not flourish, and our collective testimony loses all credibility, when the church cowers in fear. Christians should enjoy liberty from the fear of death, hope in the midst of tribulation, and joy and gladness in all circumstances.
The dark cloud of melancholy and anxiety that COVID has brought over the world signifies an extraordinary opportunity for the church—but only if congregations can resist adopting the frame of mind that currently dominates our culture.
3. We must be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
The COVID crisis has been (and continues to be) a malignant source of division and conflict in otherwise sound churches. It is frankly preposterous and deeply troubling that any church leader would regard COVID as a greater threat to the church than disunity. Researchers say the recovery rate among those infected with the virus is as high as 99.75 percent. Many who test positive for COVID have no symptoms at all. The vast majority who do show symptoms are only mildly ill.
Yet some church leaders have said they will henceforth forbid worshipers to attend if they cannot show proof of vaccination. Others sequester unmasked or unvaccinated worshipers apart from the main congregation. Thus they literally rebuild a middle wall of partition between diverse groups of believers, defying the principle of Ephesians 2:11–22.
Ample data demonstrate conclusively that cloth masks cannot stop the spread of the virus. There is good reason to think the hazards of constant masking outweigh whatever benefit the masks might afford. Masking has nevertheless become the most visible and universal symbol of the COVID era. It is also the primary instrument for virtue signaling among those most fearful of the COVID virus. In some circles, masks serve as a kind of secular substitute for religious vestments. They have become the chief symbol of popular culture’s sanctimonious devotion to a secularist credo.
In the context of a church gathering, masks are an obvious impediment to congregational singing, face-to-face-fellowship, and normal human interaction. Regardless, the question of whether to wear a mask in church should be treated as entirely a matter of personal conscience. Churches must not canonize rules of behavior that have no basis in Scripture. On all such matters not addressed either explicitly or by precept in Scripture, “each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). On matters where the law of God is silent, “Who are you who judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12).
Those same principles hold true on the question of vaccines. If the vaccines worked, those who have been vaccinated would have nothing to fear from exposure to those who haven’t. Ironically, as noted above, some of the most fearful people speaking out today are people who have already been vaccinated. But both the safety and the effectiveness of the vaccines is another question that is clearly debatable.
The CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) was established to collect statistics on side effects and health crises that people experience after being vaccinated. In 1976, when three people died after receiving vaccinations for swine flu, nine states immediately halted the immunization program. Nine months after COVID vaccines became available, VAERS had received 7,899 reports of people who had died following vaccination. Nevertheless, the same CDC webpage that reported those figures led with the statement, “COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.”
One leading virologist says, “Scientific analysis of the data from pivotal clinical trials for US COVID-19 vaccines indicates the vaccines fail to show any health benefit and in fact, all the vaccines cause a decline in health in the immunized groups.” After reporting the world’s highest percentage of people who have taken a third booster, Israel was experiencing record rates of infection. Mongolia recorded fewer than 1,000 cases of COVID in the first nine months of 2020 (among the lowest in the world), but the infection rate spiked precipitously a year later, after the Mongolian government had “administered more COVID-19 shots relative to its population than any country in Asia.” So again, the vaccines clearly cannot even promise immunity against COVID.
Nevertheless, several policy-makers in health departments across the country are recommending universal vaccination mandates with no exclusions (even for those who have had the virus and acquired natural immunity). Governors and local health officials intend to require churches to monitor and enforce our people’s compliance.
What is the church’s duty under those circumstances?
The question to get a vaccine or not should be a personal, private medical decision, between each individual and his or her physician. It is not a matter where either the church or the government ought to intrude, especially by force of law. Personal medical decisions are not something we are obliged to render unto Caesar, and the church cannot become an enforcement agency for Caesar.
For a church to demand proof of vaccination is to set a legalistic standard that is not authorized by Scripture. Again, the church is a place where the people of God come together as one, without passing judgment on one another over questions of conscience. And the issues of masks and vaccines are nothing if not matters of personal conscience. So the choice of whether to be vaccinated or not and whether to wear a mask or not should be left entirely up to each individual (Romans 14:1–23; 15:7).
4. A company of believers is not a “church” if they don’t gather.
The word for “church” in the original New Testament manuscripts is ekklēsia. Even before the founding of the New Testament church, that word signified an assembly, a gathering of people. It comprises two Greek roots that literally mean “called out,” and more specifically, it refers to a body of people called out from their homes (or summoned out of a larger group) in order to muster together. Like the English word congregation, the concept of a group coming together is built right into the term.
The church specifically comes together for worship, but the vital benefits of the assembly include fellowship, instruction, mutual encouragement, and accountability. Believers are commanded not to forsake the assembly (Hebrews 10:25), and that command comes immediately before the New Testament’s most somber warning about apostasy.
Fellowship and corporate worship are therefore absolutely essential aspects of spiritual health for individual Christians, and they are also (obviously) vital for the very life of the church.
Believers may be forced by illness, imprisonment, warfare, natural disaster, necessary travel, or some other significant emergency to abstain from the corporate gathering temporarily. But there is no justification for quarantining healthy people, and certainly no warrant for having the entire church suspend congregational worship on a prolonged basis. Plagues, pandemics, and persecution have frequently (if not constantly) threatened the people of God since that first Pentecost. Never have faithful churches responded to such obstacles by simply shutting their doors for months at a time and declaring distance-learning technologies a sufficient substitute for corporate worship.
Christians in America and other Western democracies have been blessed and privileged to thrive for more than two centuries under governments that formally affirm and have seldom challenged the right of worshipers to assemble freely. But COVID is a wake-up call and a reminder to believers of how tenuous that liberty is. Pastors in supposedly free countries were literally jailed for weeks because they led worship services during the 2020 lock-downs. Despite court decisions favorable to churches, a strong current of public opinion favors giving governments more power to force churches to comply with restrictions inhibiting attendance, fellowship, and congregational singing. Many also think churches should be compelled to require vaccine passports and strict segregation between vaccinated and unvaccinated worshipers.
Again, the world’s opposition to the church and her teaching should not catch believers off guard. “Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). Jesus said, “Because you are not of the world… the world hates you” (John 15:19). We are citizens of heaven—mere sojourners and aliens here in this world (Philippians 3:20). And even the world sees the church that way when we are faithful to our calling.
That is one of the main reasons why the people of God need to come together regularly for mutual encouragement and instruction—and all the more as we see the day of Christ drawing near (Hebrews 10:25). Times of crisis and hardship don’t make the church assembly expendable; that’s when it is most essential for believers to congregate. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Faithful churches must assemble even if they have to go underground to do it. That’s how churches in the first three centuries survived and flourished despite intense opposition from Caesar. It’s how the church in Eastern Europe overcame communist persecution in the twentieth century. It’s how many churches in China and elsewhere meet even today.
Scripture gives us several examples of godly people who resisted the ungodly tyranny of rulers who hated biblical truth. Under a despotic Pharaoh, the Hebrew midwives “feared God, and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them” (Exodus 1:17). Elijah opposed Ahab and was labeled “troubler of Israel” because of the stance he took (1 Kings 18:17). John the Baptist rebuked Herod to his face and was ultimately killed for it (Mark 6:18-29).
Western evangelicals now need to have that same resolve—and prepare ourselves for more pressure from the government and more persecution from the rest of society. When COVID has run its course (if it ever does) other crises are already lined up for government officials to exploit, claiming “emergency powers” to assert more and more regulatory authority over the church. Fears over climate change, the campaign to normalize sexual perversions, imaginative applications of “social justice,” and a host of other major ideological shifts have speedily and dramatically changed the climate of virtually every Western democracy already. Some of the people who now wield power for making public policy believe the gospel and its truths are a form of “hate speech.” Churches in this part of the world have already lost much of our civic freedom.
Now is not the time to forsake our own assembling together. The church must be the church—a pillar and buttress for the truth. We cannot cower in fear. We cannot hide our light under a bushel. We are not called to feed the fears of a world that is perishing. We have been commissioned to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15), and we are soldiers in a spiritual war. “The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).
It is past-time for the church of Jesus Christ to confront the prevailing falsehoods of a depraved society and show hopeless people the way to true hope and abundant life. We are the Lord’s ambassadors, and we must stand confidently in that role, with joy and not fear, in bold unity—and all the more as we see the day of Christ drawing near.