It seems to me that many pastors and elders have assumed that it is their responsibility to not only encourage their church members follow these State Covid mandates at worship, but to enforce them. I want to challenge that assumption. But first things first: What kingdom does the Church belong to - 1) the kingdom of this world, 2) the kingdom of heaven, or 3) both? The working answer tends to be #3 based mostly on the Romans 13 passage on obedience to the civil magistrates. I’ll address that in a later paragraph. With the previous question as context another question follows: what is the Church’s duty in relation to the State?
Scripture’s answer as to what kingdom the Church belongs is #2 - the kingdom of heaven. Just like the law is not of faith (Gal 3:12), the Church is not of this world (John 17:14). Though Christians individually are citizens of both kingdoms the Church is not, even as Jesus Christ is not (John 18:36). The Church is the kingdom of heaven on earth. She is the sovereign embassy in this world of a heavenly kingdom under the dominion of Christ Jesus her Lord. She has one allegiance, one charter. From that flows her mandate and calling. And that mandate is to proclaim the gospel message (calling sinners out of sin and death), confess one Lord, one faith, one heavenly birth. And the sole duties of that calling are summed up as the ministry of word and sacrament (the means of grace). These are the ordained or mandated tasks given by Christ to pastors and elders, ambassadors of His local embassies in the world.
On the other hand, believers are citizens of both the civil earthly kingdom and the heavenly spiritual kingdom. The Church is not. She is Christ’s kingdom on earth and as such is not of this world (John 18:36; Heb 12:22, Gal 4:26).
He declared that his kingdom was not of this world. It is not of the same kind with worldly kingdoms; it has different ends to accomplish, and different means for the attainment of those ends. It is spiritual, that is, concerned with the religious or spiritual, as distinguished from the secular interests of men. It moves, therefore, in a different sphere from the State, and the two need never come into collision. (Systematic Theology by Charles Hodge)
The Church in this world is of the heavenly King. Her officers are His envoys. Her expertise is not in the disciplines or politics of this world but in the gospel means of grace, i.e. solely in the the things from above. Further, she is not a citizen nor agent of the State, the civil kingdom. She is an agent of Christ and her charter is to represent Him by preaching the gospel, calling sinners out of this world to salvation in Christ through faith, and to nurture and maintain believers in that faith. When a church loses sight of that unique heavenly calling she is inevitably tempted to wander into areas where angels fear to tread.
Like Augustine, Luther and Calvin defended in theory a two-kingdoms approach that they did not always follow in practice. More clearly than Augustine, Luther and Calvin articulated the distinction between the heavenly and earthly kingdoms. The former proceeds by the Word alone, not by the secular sword, they insisted... Because Christ inaugurated his kingdom and poured out his Spirit as a harbinger of the last days, this reign is partially realized and becomes visible through the gospel ministry. (The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by Michael Horton, Chapter 28)
As pastors and elders wade into the murky marshes of State mandates they might soon find themselves enforcing those mandates with a sword. No mask? You’re not loving your brother! Sorry, you must leave the worship service. This is the implicit warning put out by church leaders. As a result, many believers are staying home on Sunday. Discouraged by it all they self exile. Discipline according to the State, not discipline according to Scripture.
So what about Romans 13? Well, I don’t think this passage is referring to the Church as an organization visa-vis the State. In Paul’s day the Church had no officially recognized civil standing. Individual Christians did. They were subjects of the State and obliged to submit to civil authority. The Church as a civil organization didn’t exist and thus wasn’t a legally recognized entity in the Roman Empire. Paul was addressing believers. So likewise, shepherds in the church should indeed admonish the saints to submit to civil authorities because, though citizens of heaven, they are also members of the civil kingdom. But it gets murky. The supreme “magistrate” of our day in the U.S. is the written law of the Constitution not a caesar or provincial governor. Not to mention in many locales the guidelines are optional and subject to interpretation. Yet church leaders often decide to make them mandatory. Murkier still. I would argue it is not the place of pastors and elders to require compliance/obedience to State guidelines as a condition of entrance to the worship service.
As a result, many Christians, because of enforced State guidelines have stopped coming to church altogether. It’s a situation that becomes more and more untenable as the weeks and months pass. Sheep are wandering from the fold. Virtual services on computer screens in individual homes fall way short of nourishing the saints before the heavenly throne of grace. Yet the State protocols stay in place! What to do?
Some church members believe it essential for all to wear masks and social distance. Others think it is unnecessary for all demographics. Some think that masks are necessary for all. Some think masks are ineffectual for the asymptomatic and preventing spread of the virus. Both can marshal supporting evidence from authoritative sources. I don’t think church leaders are called to sort out the “science.” What to do? Perhaps allow two or more services? One with masks/social distancing and one that is optional in order that none feel compelled to offend their consciences? The overall mission is: Tend the sheep. Feed the sheep. Caring for the souls of the saints should be the preeminent concern and duty of the church.
But what about those States mandating that churches should enforce the Covid guidelines? Well, what if next the State announces that all churches must worship only online for a period of two years due to the growing number of cases? [Cases - what does that even mean? But that’s for another time] Elders need to consider whether or not they want to be an enforcement arm of the State or ambassadors of the heavenly kingdom. Not an easy path forward given the authoritarian impulses of the State. And that path is all the more difficult because churches by and large have chosen to legally organize under the State as non-profit corporate citizens [501(c)(3)] under existing Federal IRS law. A very modern development.
Prior to 1954, there was no such thing as a 501(c)(3) church. All donations, contributions, gifts, etc. given to churches were automatically tax‑deductible under the old English common law, known as the "Law of Charities." Then in 1954, Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson (D‑Texas) sponsored legislation which brought churches under the new 501(c)(3) section of the Internal Revenue code. As a part of this legislation, churches would incorporate, and having that status, they could not be sued in a legal action. (History Of 501c3 Government Licensing Of Churches by David J. Stewart)
The result is that most churches now exist as civil corporate citizens, subject in some sense to the State, if you would. So there could be real negative judicial and financial consequences for any church organized under State law that deviates from State orders. This is another reason why it is essential for elders and leaders to consider the Church’s heavenly calling so that they may chart a faithful course in the face of encroaching Statism. No easy answers. But we look heavenward…
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)