The Church And The Virus: Is This An Acts 5:29 Moment?


The Covid-19 Shutdown of 2020 has begun to produce a reaction, at least in the USA. Recently we have seen large-scale demonstrations in several states. The various orders issued by governors, mayors, and county executives to restrict movement has produced a degree of confusion. Last last week, in reaction to the number of people on the beaches in Orange County, the governor of California seemed to issue an order closing all the beaches in the state. Then, according to media reports, that order was modified to affect only Orange County. The early instructions from public health authorities gave the impression that they had the force of law but our county only started requiring the wearing of masks in public when within six feet of a non-family member, on May 1. In Louisville, KY, the mayor sought to forbid churches to gather in any form whatever on Easter, even going so far as to forbid drive-in services where people remained in their cars. Fortunately, a federal court overturned that rule and rebuked not only the mayor but also the governor for his plans.

In response to such restrictions and in the midst of a seemingly growing wave of distrust and even suspicion about the motives of some officials and orders, some Christians have begun to discuss and even to begin practicing civil disobedience of orders restricting gatherings for public worship.  E.g., the elders in at least one congregation in my federation of churches (the United Reformed Churches in North America) have decided to hold services today, Sunday May 3, 2020 despite the prohibitions in place in their state. This is civil disobedience, which the Oxford Dictionary of English defines as “the refusal to comply with certain laws considered unjust, as a peaceful form of political protest.”

Civil disobedience has a long and honored history in this country. Recall that this nation began to be formed in the midst of acts of civil disobedience (the Boston Tea Party was 3 years before the Revolution formally began). In the 20th century Dr King led a non-violent movement that made its point by civil disobedience. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, that was an act of civil disobedience. It seems beyond arguing that civil disobedience is woven into the very fabric of this revolutionary republic.

The questions before Christians are these: May Christians practice civil disobedience and, if so, when?

Peter’s Context And Ours

God’s Word does speak to this question in a couple of ways. First, generally, it describes our twofold citizenship. The Apostle Paul reminded the Philippian congregation, which was probably composed of retirees with Roman civil and military service that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). Yet, when Paul was unjustly treated after his arrest in Ephesus, declared, “I am a citizen by birth” (Acts 22:28). We can see the power of that statement in the next verse: “So those who were about to examine him withdrew immediately, and the tribune was also afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.” Paul knew exactly what he was doing. Are Philippians 3:20 and Acts 2:28 incoherent? By no means (μὴ γένοιτο). John Calvin (1509–64) reconciled these two truths by explaining that Christians have a twofold citizenship or that we live under a “twofold government” (duplex regimen). God is Lord over both cities or spheres and citizenships but he administers them in two distinct ways.

More particularly, we see Peter exercising his twofold citizenship in Acts 5. The literary (in the narrative of Acts 5) and historical context, we have just seen the Holy Spirit put to death two people, Ananias and Sapphira, for lying to him. It was a dramatic, supernatural, and swift act of (Apostolic era) church discipline. It cause a godly fear in the whole church (Acts 5:11). The Apostles were continuing their unique, divinely authorized, and uniquely, divinely-empowered ministry including signs and wonders (Acts 5:12–16). This ministry, however, did not please the Jewish religious-civil authorities. The High Priest had the apostles arrested and imprisoned (Acts 5:18).  The Angel of the Lord, however, rescued them and sent them out to continue the proclamation of the gospel (Acts 5:19–21).

When the Jewish authorities attempted to arraign the apostles they could not find them right away (Acts 5:22–26)  and when they were located and brought before the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas, the High Priest interrogated them (v. 27). “…We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (v. 28; ESV). To this the Apostle Peter and the others replied, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:29–32; ESV).

We Christians have a dual citizenship but when our loyalties conflict we prioritize our heavenly citizenship over our earthly citizenship. This is how the early Christians responded when, refusing to distinguish between secular citizenship and state-religion, the pagan Romans required not only that the Christians obey the secular laws but also that they perform, if only outwardly, the expected rites of the state-religion. The Romans required the Christians to confess that Caesar is a god, to renounce Christ, and to pour out a drink offering to the gods. They authorities did not care what the Christians believed. They only demanded outward conformity. Would that the new pagans were a little less zealous about their orthodoxies.

Some congregations now find themselves compelled to follow the Apostles by saying, “We must obey God rather than men.” Are they right? Do the parallels hold?

The Jewish authorities sought to silence the Christians. To the best of my knowledge, none of the public health orders that restrict the gathering of congregations during the emergency, forbids Christians from proclaiming the law and the gospel. Christians continue to exercise their freedom of speech electronically. With the help of a federal district court, the Louisville, KY congregation was able to hold their drive-in service. Some congregations in California, which is under some of the strictest quarantine restrictions in the nation, are able to meet in drive-in services.

Depriving American citizens of the right to assemble and to practice their religion is a serious infringement on liberties that Americans hold to be divinely given. In the American system of government it is the role of government to uphold and defend those divinely-instituted liberties. Thus, when local magistrates forbid the exercise of assembly, whether secular (e.g., a protest against the restrictions) or religious (e.g., public worship) and some magistrates have not expressed their great displeasure over limiting the exercise of liberty, thus provoking the distrust of authority that is so natural to Americans. Nevertheless, it does not appear that Christians are being targeted because of their religion. The Apostles were targeted because of their religion.

The restrictions imposed by the Jewish authorities were not temporary nor were they issued in view of a grave danger to public health. Our secular authorities have justified their restrictions not on a religious basis but on the basis of public health. Christians might grumble about their worship services being classified as non-essential when groceries, weed, booze, and lotto tickets are regarded as essential. I suppose it comes down to how we see the analogies. Concerts, choirs, and political rallies are also banned for the time being. Formally, at least the analogy between those kinds of group activities and worship services is stronger than between grocery shopping and public worship.

Wisdom And Patience

In short, I do not think this is yet an Acts 5:29 movement. Should the authorities continue the restrictions unreasonably, then we may arrive at that point. For they part, the civil authorities could relieve tensions by being a bit more transparent and less partisan or selective in the way they construct, change, and enforce the restrictions. The ruling of the Western District of Kentucky in “On Fire Christian Center Inc. v Greg Fischer et al.,” may provide guidance to other jurisdictions working through similar issues.

We need wisdom to be able to discern the truth from hype and fear mongering. E.g., a Christian legal organization is reporting that the City of Kansas City, MO is demanding that churches submit membership lists and “register with the government.” This claim has been repeated on social media by at least one prominent Christian media personality. The claim appears to be false, however, as Warren Throckmorton notes, the rule actually says:

Based on public health guidance, non-essential businesses that are not open to the public will be permitted to open one week from today, subject to social distancing guidance. Religious gatherings – including weddings and funerals – of 10 people inside and 50 people outside can resume on the same date, provided social distancing is maintained and event organizers record the names and contact information of all attendees. In the interest of public health and subject to City Order, any Kansas Citian who does not yet feel safe returning to a non-essential workplace cannot be compelled by their employer to return prior to May 15.

It took me a few minutes of searching but I did find the actual order rather than relying on the claims made on Twitter and by an organization.

What we do need is wisdom and patience. We always need wisdom, of course, but especially now as we, as citizens who elect a representative government, are being asked to weigh statistical information about epidemiological trends and patterns. It is easy to lapse into simple analogies and explanations and to skip the ambiguities and difficulties entailed in doing science on the fly. We need the “spiritual wisdom” (Col 1:9) of which Paul spoke. We need to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders” (Col 4:5). We need to ask God for wisdom and trust that he will give it (James 1:5).

As we American Christians, shaped by our culture as we are, chafe at serious restrictions in our movements and assemblies, we need the grace of patience in tribulation (Rom 12:12). We need to be patient as we wait for the coming of the Lord (James 5:7; 2 Pet 3:9). We need patient endurance (Rev 2:19). These are things that our heavenly Father gives liberally to those who ask.

Christian Liberty

As we wait and trust in the Lord, we must also recognize that fellow brothers and sisters will look at the same set of facts, the same Scripture passages, and come to different conclusions. We need to be prepared to bear graciously with those who disagree with us without regarding those who disagree with us as unfaithful. This is not the AD 250s and Caesar is not rounding up Christians for martyrdom. Should it ever come to that we shall know what true suffering for the Lord is. Even then, a Christian consensus developed over the centuries against those who refused to re-admit the lapsed (those Christians who did deny Christ before the Roman authorities) were wrong. We extended grace to those whose courage failed. Christianity is for sinners and failures of all kinds.

Civil Liberties

Of course, in the American federal system, under the tenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States, powers not expressly given to the federal government are reserved to the states. To be sure, governors of the fifty states do have explicit authority to take extraordinary measures, even to suspend civil liberties, in an emergency. During the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 local and state officials cancelled worship services and other constitutionally protected assemblies and acts and the courts upheld those restrictions as constitutional.

As members of a twofold kingdom, however, American Christians have a civil right to expect the magistrate to uphold his end of the contract. We submit to him on the basis that he is protecting our God-given liberties. Should he renege on that agreement, then we have some decisions to make. Remember, this nation was founded by revolutionaries, who formed a Continental Congress and who rebelled against a nominally Christian King. It was a violent revolution in defense of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That is who we are. Most Americans did not understand or accept the cost of liberty in the 18th century and most likely do not today but our founding documents are clear enough. Americans of all religious persuasions should be engaged in the peaceful civil struggle to roll back the massive administrative state and the ever-encroaching reach of civil government in favor of liberty as classically defined.

Certainly this episode should be a wake up call to Christians and to all Americans to recognize how easily and powerfully the vast administrative state that has developed since FDR can move when it wants. That politicians and bureaucrats no longer feel the need to apologize when abridging American liberties sends a signal. It means that they believe that when we are sufficiently afraid, we will choose safety over freedom (defined as the relative absence of civil restraints on movement, self-defense, trade, association, and religion and the like). Caveat civis.


Christians must obey God rather than men but when we chose to apply that divinely revealed priority to civil life we must be prepared to accept the consequences. Dr King did. He knew that when he marched he risked being attacked by police dogs and hit with water from a firehose and more. He lived under the constant threat of death, a threat that was finally realized by a coward shooting from a bathroom window in Memphis. Civil disobedience in our present circumstances probably only means a ticket or a fine but it may not always be so.

Some talk about contemporary application of twofold citizenship as though it is an attempt to flee from civic obligations when, in fact, it is a serious call to take up our obligations to both spheres/cities under the sovereign Lordship of Christ. It is a call to set priorities and to distinguish to two spheres so that we do not confuse our civil loyalties with our loyalty to the heavenly city, where our most ultimate citizenship is.


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  1. Dear Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for this historical, Biblical and civil review of our participation as citizens in the two kingdoms. Regarding the civil magistrate – a governor in Oregon – the person in this office is bound by a State Constitution. In our State of Oregon a governor must comply with Article X-A, Section 6, regarding establishing, implementing and extending an Executive Order relating to a “catastrophe.” Now it seems the governor, after declaring the “catastrophe” and issuing the Executive Order did not follow the law to extend it. Since the executive order expired, we, the citizens of two kingdoms, are now free to meet and worship without fear of the magistrate.

    • Thank you Dr. Clark. Your article seems to state that the major crux of the issue is the restriction of movement. The numbers of unemployment seem to suggest the crux of the issue is restriction of work. Do individuals have the right to work? I understand your perspective that as Christians our work is proclaiming the gospel. Notwithstanding that fact that our overall work is proclaiming the gospel, is our right to work to produce a Gross Domestic Product as an individual rooted in the word of God?

      • Hi Cindy,

        I’m not posing as a constitutional expert. My concern here, on the HB, is about the church and whether or how she should relate to the state on this.

        I do understand economic hardship produced by this temporary regime. I do fear the personal and social consequences. I‘m hopeful that folk can go back to work, maybe in stages, before things get too bad.

  2. Well said Dr. Clark, I would only add that we should also consider our testimony to the world around us and how our actions might be perceived by our community. We might have the right to gather for worship, but if we do, how might we affect our reputation as a church and as Christians? Might we be viewed as needlessly and selfishly putting our communities at risk? Certainly our first priority should be faithlessness to God and His word (love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength….), but also to our communities (….and love your neighbor as yourself).

    • In short, I do not think this is yet an Acts 5:29 movement. Should the authorities continue the restrictions unreasonably, then we may arrive at that point.

      What is reasonable?

      how might we affect our reputation as a church and as Christians? Might we be viewed as needlessly and selfishly putting our communities at risk?

      Hold church but rope-off every other row and have everyone wear masks for awhile. That way, if the cops show up to shut down the service and reporters get wind of it, they’ll see that we were trying to mitigate harm, whether or not it is really necessary. Alternatively, congregations can be broken up into smaller congregations temporarily.

      • Walt,

        I do think that there are ways to mitigate risk and that congregations that are meeting are (as far as I know), doing such things.

        We did this when AIDS became an issue. My congregation gave up the common cup so that communion would not become a stumbling block. We didn’t want people thinking more about their health and less about Christ and his gospel so we went to individual cups.

        We should, so far as it lies within, seek to be at peace with all men.

  3. Also, we’re against cultural headwinds against opening even in the “church.” Evangelicals don’t seem to care that they can’t go to church and asked me why I think it’s such a big deal. I’ve had to explain corporate worship and word and sacrament to evangelicals who largely don’t care. Ironic that this could result in the slashing of evangelical church budgets and layoffs which I, of course, wish on no one.

    Many unbelievers don’t see why we need “imaginary friend” time (ie, corporate worship as allowed by the First Amendment and natural law). On antisocial media, they’re wishing COVID deaths on Jews and Christians who engage in corporate religious activities. In other words, don’t count on support from them to reopen

    • Walt,

      If we use the Noahic (or Abrahamic epochs or perhaps Daniel and the exile) as our paradigm, rather than Christendom, we should not surprised. The early church did not expect support from the pagans. They only asked to be left alone. As D. G. Hart has argued in Our Secular Faith, the Christians invented the separation of church and state.

      This is why the American contractural understanding is so valuable. We are in a covenant of works with the state. What we expect of the state is not support but protection of liberties. When the state performs as contracted, we’re fine. When it doesn’t, as the Declaration says, then we have a problem.

  4. They only asked to be left alone. As D. G. Hart has argued in Our Secular Faith, the Christians invented the separation of church and state.

    Will it be uninvented with the end of Christendom? Several prominent Christian and non-Christian intellectuals have shown that the new globalist secular humanism is essentially religious.

    I understand the contract with the State. It doesn’t sound like the State intends to honor it.

  5. Thank you for your analysis. But as you know I have some disagreements. First is your view on two kingdoms. What you say is correct. I am a citizen of my country and a citizen of the kingdom of God. However, that is not true that the church as an institution or rather the kingdom of Christ has one foot in the state. The church is not a subject of the state therefore makes its decisions of it’s own accord. Of course we are to render to Ceasar but this is not a case of rendering but who has the rule over whom. Secondly the reformed church has a particular view of worship that is distinct from evangelicals. And the state of today does not understand our view and never will. Therefore its decisions are based on an evangelical view point or a secular view of association like the elks or a book club. Thirdly the verses in acts is an attack on the churches orthopraxy not orthodoxy. That being said an attack on one is an attack on the other. The state may have good intentions, as the Sanhedrin did in maintaining what they, from their perspective was the correct course of action.
    But their priorities were not Christ’s priorities as articulated by the apostles. It is in this subtle way opponents of the church act in relationship to its existence. 4th the decision by the church not have the church gather for word and sacrament is the churches decision and hers alone. Those ordained to govern the church cannot attribute these decisions to the state or to circumstances. Regardless, of those factors consistories or sessions are solely responsible for their decisions. 5th in the canons of dort second head article 9 it states, there is always a church of believers founded on Christ’s blood, a church which steadfastly loves, persistently worships… The persistent continuation of worship should be the first priority before all else and any decisions made should be driven to do so by any means consistent with other factors. If an argument that the churches in the past hid at homes or could not gather in one place then there is a tacit agreement the church is under persecution. Also, by not seeing a congregational gathering, even in these circumstances, gives some credence to the home church movement.
    Scott, I am not saying you advocate all I have discussed in the above but giving my view on the subject for your and readers of this blog to consider. As ever I am your brother and am glad to be so.

    • Thomas,

      You changed the terms of my argument.

      I didn’t say that the church, as an institution, is in two spheres. Christians do inescapably live in two spheres/cities or under a twofold kingdom. The institutional church is composed of Christians but it is the embassy of the Kingdom of God. It is not a creature of the state.

      Paul did not condition the obedience of the Roman Christians upon the state (Nero) understanding them correctly.

      • Thanks for your reply. I understand the issue with Nero. However, it has to be balanced with how the Huegnots defended themselves against the state. It is true with our Dutch ancestors. Yes their is a mixture of orthodoxy and orthopraxy in how Christians were persecuted in history. Even the synod of Dort was an assertion of the church’s independence from the state in this sense; practices of the church and judgments of the church are formulated by the church the state having no say in it. The church presents these things to the state and it is theirs to determine if they will uphold it. The relationship between church and state in our confessions to reflects even more independence with, at least in the American model, churches have hegemony over their own affairs. But as I state this is not the view of the church state relationship in modern time. This is not the time of Nero. But like that time the state is acserting a type of authority over the church. This should be a concern of every consistory as an issue of first importance in this crisis.
        I apologize that my meaning was not clear. We are dealing with church decisions not individual decisions. The church in the URCNA that decided to open is a case in point. The issue of the day is not what individuals will do but what is the course the church will take. I think I gave a brief explanation of what those issues are for us to decide. As I explained at the end some things I brought are not counter arguments necessarily to what you published above (however some of my comments do) but an attempt at the broader and some specific issues the leadership of our churches face.
        Thank you for your kind reply.

        • Thomas,

          1. When we’re doing theology, Scripture is prior to history–and I say that a historian!

          2. Yes, the Reformed Churches (French and Geneva) did assert some degree of independence of the church from the state.

          3.The Synod of Dort as an assertion of independence from the state? The Synod was only possible because there was a brief window of support for the orthodox over against the Remonstrants. Relations between church and state at Synod were too complex to be simplified as you have done here.

          4. We certainly can’t read the American settlement back into the 16th and 17th centuries.

          5. The church is not a magical society in which members are immune from disease or incapable of having asymptomatic attenders with Covid-19, who are nevertheless capable of transmitting it to others. Churches have to obey fire and health regulations for the same reason that churches have generally submitted to health regulations re Covid-19. Nursery workers and others who work with youth have to be vetted to make sure that they are not disqualified by the state (e.g., sex offenders).

          6. In the case of the URCNA congregation, the question is whether the congregation had grounds to practice civil disobedience, is it an Acts 5:29 case? That’s the question before us.

    • Thank you so much for your insight. I am a housewife and need help understanding the terms you have used. First, I am struggling understanding Romans 13 in light of living in a government ruled by law. If the founding of our country was based on religious freedom and we are ruled by law rather than the whim of an individual, I am puzzled as how to respond. I am very afraid of the pendulum swinging hard in the other direction of home churches, because that is the mood amount the common man. If you could direct me to books that would help me, I would be most appreciative. I attend a URCNA church, Cindy Quaid

      • Hi Cindy,

        Living in a twofold kingdom is like wearing two hats. It’s the same person but she has different responsibilities depending upon what hat she’s wearing. A mom who runs a business out of her house might have to fire an employee. That’s what bosses sometimes have to do. As Mother, however, she might give that person a hug, pray with them and make them a sandwich. One person, two hats, two sets of responsibilities at the same time.

        Romans 13 is God’s Word even in a representative Republic. It happens, blessedly, that we have the right and freedom of electing our representatives but once in office, we are duty bound to obey them until they require us to violate God’s moral law.

        As to religious freedom, governors and others have taken extraordinary measures to preserve public health. It’s the judgment of some magistrates that gathering a lot of people in the same room, at the same time, to conduct worship services presents a serious public health risk. The law gives the authority to restrict public gatherings. Churches were closed temporarily in 1918 too, during the Spanish Flu pandemic.

        In most places there is some way to meet, even if in cars, in a parking lot. There have been cases, e.g., a choir in WA in which many of the members met to practice and most of them came down with Covid-19 and 2 died. We now know, I think, that approx. 80 of all Covid-19 carriers are asymptomatic. They have it, carry it, and transmit it without suffering from it themselves. I do think that when churches open they are mostly practicing social distancing and other measures and I wonder if the governors et al recognize that?

        You might take a look at David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, which may laity have found helpful.

    • Dr. Clark,
      With all respect, you should change that typo to say “Spanish Flu”
      And then delete this comment.

  6. Thomas,
    Thank you for your response; it helps me see our place as elect sojourners in history. But will our leaders actually stand to lead us? Will they stand up to the magistrate, guiding and instructing us in our dual citizenship, as we walk in the freedom of Christ, displaying the power of His Gospel? I am alarmed, as an old citizen, by the restrictions placed on our gatherings by the magistrate, in this case a governor, who is clearly violating the State Constitution. She pressures the lost sheep with fear. Our congregation has not met to be strengthened by the ordinary means for almost 2 months. We are called to be Christ’s family in our community but we are not being lead boldly to display our trust in His Faithfulness by meeting. I am a citizen of two kingdoms and faithful to Him, my Lord and Savior, and devoted to living in the world with boldness.

    • Catherine,

      I would urge you not to suggest that the elders and ministers of the church are failing to do their duty in this when they refrain from meeting. It is a great hardship on everyone to be sure but they have a duty to see to the welfare of their members. Few, if any, of our elders and ministers are public health experts. As much as one might disagree with the policies being pursued or the priorities being followed in some places, God has placed these leaders over us. Romans 13 is still God’s Word.

      If your governor is violating the state constitution, there are civil remedies for such abuses. This is why we have legislators and private legal groups, to pursue remedies in the legislature and in the courts. You are free to campaign against your governor and for a candidate who will do a better job of following the constitution, but unless there is overwhelming evidence that we are in an Acts 5:29 situation we should be patient.

  7. Scott I was not over simplifying merely pointing to a thread that has evolved over the course of history of the relationship between church and state. All doctrine has developed and matured with time. This is not an exception and our view of what is to be defended and to exclude the state from commanding has developed also. The line in the sand moves as our insight into the subtly of what that interference consists.
    As you say, is the current situation an acts 5 of civil disobedience. What I suggesting is that all of the church’s actions are ones decided independently from the state even if they coincide with the state. Even though the stakes were different in acts 5 the essential element of what I am pointing out is the same.
    To take an example from the Kansas city situation. The Christian law group, as quoted, was not verbatim. The order does require the church to record names and addresses for all who attend. Let’s say a church has as many 10 persons services to include all members of the church. Therefore all members of the church would be required to be listed. For what purpose? I assume in case someone contracts the virus in the church all those who attend can be located. Makes sense in a way. But what will the state do with these lists they require the churches to keep after the purpose for which they are gathered. As I read you, your view is we must comply until the state actually misuses the lists. I disagree with you on this because it will be to late. That is the subtlety of what is going on today with literally legions of incidents to refer to. But I believe the prevention of such abuse is asserting our separate authority of our affairs.
    Thanks again.

    • Thomas,

      Frankly, I’m having trouble following your argument.

      1. What you wrote about Dort was regarding church and state is not accurate. Right now I don’t see how it’s relevant.

      2. You seem to be assuming that since Christians make up the church, when operating corporately as the visible church, Christians, as church, are exempt from civil regulation. Is that your argument? You ignored my analogy to fire & health codes. Does the state have the right to insist on fire extinguishers, background checks for nursery/Sunday school teachers et al?

      3. When you say “independently of the state” are you suggesting that ecclesiastical decisions can defy the state so that, e.g., the church might decide that it is not going keep any fire extinguishers on the premises?

      4. The quotation of the language from the city of Kansas City, MO came directly from the city’s own website, to which I linked. The order does not say what LC claims it does. It’s interesting that LC did not link to the order, that I had to search for the order so that I could compare what the order actually says as distinct from what LC claimed it said.

  8. Let me clear. I believe this is exactly an Act 5 situation. The Sanhedrin commanded the church ( the Apostles represented the church) to not do one thing and one thing only; don’t proselytize ,or in other words, preach the gospel. They refused. Today we were asked one thing and one thing only, do not gather to worship. We did not say, we must obey God rather than men. The wide spread persecution for all things Christian did not begin until Paul. Now I agree we must take care of our people because of the epidemic but we can do that and not disobey God. The state declared worshiping was non essential. What minister in the URCNA can agree with that?

    • Thomas,

      The state is not saying “you may not worship” but they are saying, “you may not (for now) gather in the same room at the same time to conduct services.” That has the effect of restricting the normal exercise of public worship. We can gather in an extraordinary way. Ministers are not being forbidden from preaching online or via other media. That was not true in Acts. The Apostles were forbidden from speaking publicly about Jesus. The analogy doesn’t hold.

      You’ve ducked my questions so far about the legitimate interests of the state. Does the state have a legitimate interest in the life and safety of citizens?

      May the state require the church to install fire extinguishers?

    • A good book to start is The Political Theory of the American Founding by Thomas G. West.
      The Federalist Society has several articles and resources on the history of the separation of Church and State. That should get you started.

  9. Thank you Dr. Clark, I appreciate your analogy. I will look for that book. I am also going to write the attorney general Barr and ask him to intervene. Thank you again for the dialogue. Cindy

  10. Relevant to these times, I found T. David Gordon’s essay on Romans 13 to be the best concise explanation of the Reformed understanding of the role of the magistrate. In an email, I asked him what the term “lawful commands” from the magistrate means:

    Charles Hodge at Princeton also said that any law that was not grounded in true morality was a “nullity,” a technical term in jurisprudence, which meant that you had no obligation to obey it.

    Magistrates are only permitted to make laws that are necessary to public welfare (such as laws regarding infrastructures, commerce, travel on the same side of the road, etc.) or are grounded in the two basic civic duties of protecting the persons and properties of others. Anything beyond this is an over-stepping of the bounds of one who is only to be a “terror to evil conduct,” as Romans 13 says. So nearly all of the modern democracies are tyrannical; they require all sorts of things that have nothing to do with public safety or basic morality. Imagine, for instance, that, since 1963, it has been lawful for Gordon to smoke Nicaraguan cigars that are grown with Cuban seed, but unlawful for Gordon to smoke Cuban cigars that are grown with Cuban seed. Does the soil actually make a moral difference?

    Many evangelicals “interpret” Rom. 13 to mean that we must OBEY anything the magistrate says, but the Westminster Assembly, having recently (at the time) turned the king out of office, had no such view of absolute authority.

    This seems to be very much in agreement with your caveat civis above.

    • I’m struggling to understand your political theory. Would you say David Van Drunen’s new book most-accurately summarizes it? I listened to your new podcast with him. He sounds like he’s advocating quite a departure from Reformed political theory to bring it more in line with Scripture as he sees it. I’m not through Tuininga’s book yet but maybe I’ll read Van Drunen’s when I’m done.

      Hopefully a wide variety of views are welcome in modern Calvinist churches, including Calvin’s view.

      • Walt,

        1. The Heidelblog is not a church court. It’s just an online journal where I advocate a recovery of the Reformed confession (theology, piety, and practice) mutatis mutandis. I’ve said many times that Christendom was a mistake. At any rate, it’s over and it’s not coming back (unless the postmillennialists are correct, which I doubt).

        My political theory?

        1. I’m an American Christian. This Republic rejected theocracy in the Revolution. I support that experiment. I’m influenced by Althusius, about whom I’ve written here. His theory of spheres (family, church, state) was brilliant and real development. I’ve been advocating Calvin’s “twofold government” (duplex regimen) doctrine for years here but I want to pursue it without theocracy, the state enforcement of religious orthodoxy.

        In civil polity, I am a secular conciliarist. I think all authority (civil and ecclesiastical comes from God and is best administered, in civil life, by secular assemblies. I think Althusius is right, that the family is most basic human social institution and that secular authority is delegated from the family to the secular representative assemblies. This is not to say, as Calvin noted, that other forms of civil government are illegitimate. See Institutes 4.20.

        I favor a small central/federal government.

        I define civil freedom as the relative absence of external constraint.


        Resources On The Twofold Kingdom

        2. My federation, the URCs, have revised Belgic 36 to remove the theocratic elements.

        3. I’m arguing for a (revised version) of Calvin’s duplex regimen.

        4. I’m opposed to theocracy and theonomy (they are distinct) but (see #1) I’m not the church. I would oppose a minister who was a theonomist. I don’t know what I would do about a theocrat. I suppose we have at least a few theocrats among our ruling elders and ministers. My questions for theocrats are these:

        1. Where in the NT does one see any hint that the church expected the magistrate to enforce religious orthodoxy?
        2. Where in post-canonical church history does anyone see such an argument until Theodosius?
        3. Abraham Kuyper rejected theocracy in part because he saw it as unbiblical and partly because he always goes badly for the orthodox. How will the new theocrats get it right this time (and why isn’t neo-theocracy just like the Marxists, “the right people haven’t tried it yet”)?
        4. Who will decide what orthodoxy is to be enforced in the new theocracy?
        5. What’s the punishment for religious heterodoxy in the new theocracy?
        6. Who decides what the new punishment should be and on what basis?
        7. Who punishes the heterodox magistrate?
        8. Where are we going to find all these orthodox Christian magistrates and in what world?
        9. Who is going to sponsor the revolution to bring about the new theocracy? Will it be bloody?
        10. What happens to the heterodox/non-Christians who were here before the revolution?
  11. Scott,

    Thanks. I certainly agree with all of that. The only theocrats I’ve met in NAPARC churches were full-blown, self-identifying theonomists.

    Calvin had a different understanding of natural law than you do I think, if I’m reading Tuininga correctly. At least, he understood the implications of natural law differently. This has a huge bearing on how you petition the magistrate. Also, can you appeal to the Bible when you petition the magistrate? Calvin and Luther would say, “Yes.” Nowadays, it won’t get you anywhere, but neither will natural law arguments. Maybe Van Drunen explains this in his new book.

    • Walt,

      I may be wrong about Calvin but I’ve not seen the research to show that.

      You’ve read my research? It’s not earth shattering but it was an improvement on the previous work, I think, which tended (Barth) to deny that Calvin taught natural law or that tended to make him a Thomist. Here is my essay.

      As to implications, that’s another matter.

      I’ve met lots of theocrats in the NAPARC world. I’m surprised by how many there seem to be.

      Appeals to Scripture relative to the magistrate are complicated. Did Paul? Did the early church? The magistrate is obligated to natural law. Insofar as the OT law reflects natural law, then yes. I’m not asking the magistrate to enforce my religion. I’m asking the magistrate to preserve order and a measure of civil justice via natural law.

      Again, the question is what do we do after Christendom? Do we get to continue act as if Christendom exists?

      I don’t share your skepticism re natural law. It’s still a thing. It’s in our founding documents. It’s in the law. We can appeal to it.

      Why are you so skeptical about natural law but optimistic about appeals to Scripture? Why will pagans listen to that when they won’t listen to nature? That doesn’t seem evident or coherent.

    • Scott,

      I’m a generation younger and haven’t met really any theonomists other than the explicit ones, unless you count the new left-wing theonomists (SJWs). I’ve met a lot of the latter.

      What we do after Christendom? I’ve never lived in Christendom as Calvin lived through it nor do I want it back. I HAVE lived through the dying Christian consensus upon which our view of natural law is based. Unsurprisingly, most of our rights are going out the window with the dying Christian consensus. I think that could re-emerge simply because non-Christians do not have kids and we do. Christians, over time, simply outbred the pagans in the Roman empire since pagans practiced infanticide. Christians would also rescue exposed infants. The problem Christians have in the modern West is that many of our children become pagans. We need to stop this loss. Should we stop this loss, I imagine a Christian consensus could emerge over time again. If it does, people naturally seek like-minded people around which to have community. This does not mean unbelievers would be excluded, but I think it would resemble something like Abraham’s household. I think the nation-state system is going away, so perhaps some newer, smaller scaled form of governance will emerge. I don’t know. Either way, we should retain our children.

      You asked,

      I don’t share your skepticism re natural law. It’s still a thing. It’s in our founding documents. It’s in the law. We can appeal to it.
      Why are you so skeptical about natural law but optimistic about appeals to Scripture? Why will pagans listen to that when they won’t listen to nature? That doesn’t seem evident or coherent.

      I’m skeptical about natural law because I’ve tried to make natural law arguments with believers and unbelievers and gotten nowhere. It’s simply not part of the modern zeitgeist. Unbelievers roll their eyes when you appeal to natural rights endowed by a Creator and start yammering on about evolution and the brutality of nature. Consequently, our system of laws are nullified in the eyes of the modern non-religious American (half the population at least). I can’t see how natural law has any sway if we have homosexual marriage, abortion, transgenderism, and drag queen story hour.

      Even if believers accept natural law, they’ll disagree on the implications of it. You and I have disagreed, for example.

      ‘m not optimistic about appeals to Scripture, but at least you’re bearing witness when you appeal to Scripture. We’re supposed to bear witness.

      Mostly, I’m trying to look at this whole thing realistically my experience is part of my reality.

      • Walt,

        Your conversations with whomever aren’t a very good test. Most people in America may have practical knowledge but otherwise are fairly uneducated. There is a reason why the founders did not make this a democracy but a republic.

        I didn’t say that it was easy but, properly understood, natural law arguments are the only arguments that are likely to get anywhere before city councils or other decision-making bodies. Unless you are a skeptic and/or a nihilist, you must be able to argue from some basis. You’re not a skeptic.

        We’re talking about what kinds of arguments we can make to a city council or to a school board and the like.

  12. Thank you gentlemen! This all very interesting and I have a lot to learn. Dr. Clark I understand that you are not running church court. What I am observing in the midst of this crisis is that we have a lot of experts in the area of, medical, economics, theology, and government. And all the experts are in their own sphere, I and others are desperate for influence from church to affect all the above spheres of knowledge. I could be wrong but it seems like there is a gap. I hope that makes sense. Thanks again for the dialogue! Cindy

    • Cindy,

      How would you like the church to influence these spheres? When you say “church” do you mean the visible church or do you mean Christians? I think Dr Birx is an evangelical Christian of some kind. I think there are Christians in the various fields you mention.

      The church as an institution (the visible church) doesn’t have any divine mandate to speak to these areas. Even if a minister had training in one or more of these areas (there are some URC ministers who have law degrees or who have served in government) but the question is what is the commission Christ has given to the church? Has he authorized the church to speak to these areas, e.g., public health?

  13. Scott,

    I finished reading your essay. Thanks. You and Tuininga are saying the same thing about Calvin’s natural law theory.

    What would be a good test of the success of natural law in politics?

    You wrote

    I didn’t say that it was easy but, properly understood, natural law arguments are the only arguments that are likely to get anywhere before city councils or other decision-making bodies. Unless you are a skeptic and/or a nihilist, you must be able to argue from some basis. You’re not a skeptic.
    We’re talking about what kinds of arguments we can make to a city council or to a school board and the like.

    I don’t know what persuades school boards these days. A lot of the smaller legislative bodies, if progressive, are operating with a religious fervor that seems to deny right and wrong as written on our consciences. Once these types of people become a majority and get elected, I think they’re impervious to persuasion by the other side. I do not think I’m imagining or that it’s an artifact only of my vantage point.

    If you want to accomplish something politically, success seems to be found more in the behind-the-scenes bargaining and coalition-building rather than through persuasion. I’m willing to be proven wrong on this if you have counter-examples of leftists being persuaded to abandon their agenda through the merits of a natural law argument.

    • Walt,

      You should read VanDrunen’s latest. I don’t know whether I can meet your test or even that it’s a good test.

      I think you’re assuming things I’m not.

  14. Thank you Dr. Clark for your response. I liked the hat word picture that you used earlier in this thread, meaning that we put on different hats as we live in two kingdoms. I would like the leaders of the properly governed visible church to put on a few different hats as they represent the church body in the local community. As lay people we have been putting on our litigators hat as we have used sound reasoning to persuade our government leaders to open up our communities where it is safe. We are not lawyers nor scientists, but there is enough information out there that we can soundly use biblical reasoning. For example, do we have a right to work as small business people, or do just big box stores have the right to work. I’m sure you get my point. The church is recognized as an entity in the community and I want our leaders to represent the body within the community, using the two kingdom idea that you have presented. Thank you! Cindy

    • Cindy,

      Whether the church as church, as an institution should be speaking up or to these issues. Christians can form groups to speak up and to them. The Lord has given the visible church three jobs:

      1. The pure preaching of the gospel
      2. The pure administration of the sacraments
      3. The use of church discipline.

      She can barely do those.

      The church as an instituion has a right to petition the government when the government infringes on her liberty to pursue her threefold vocation. The church, as an institution, however, has no business speaking to public health or economics or jobs.

      Christians may and do form groups to speak to a wide variety of issues and that is matter of Christian liberty.

      • Respectfully, the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments and, the use of church discipline are what is required to be a true church. Thus the Marks. But the church also addresses moral wrongs and encourages the bond of love between brothers and does works of mercy and generosity for its members. Thus the office of deacon.
        A failure of the church in the South is the sinful practice of slavery. It failed to address it with its members as well as a beacon that it was an unjust practice in society as a whole. Knox was the moral conscience of the nation and regularly addressed the sins of the government under Mary Queen of Scots.
        The points you make of what the church has no business involving herself in are well taken

        • Thomas,

          I use the marks as an agenda. Obviously, we have a catechism, a confession, and canons that speak to more than the gospel, sacraments, and discipline.

          What we don’t have is an agenda as an institution to speak to the myriad social evils in the world. Paul was surrounded by social evils. Where did he rebuke the Roman empire for permitting chemical abortion or for tolerating slavery (which could be quite abusive), or for the way females were treated? The list could go on. He didn’t speak to them because as an apostle neither he nor the church as church were called to address them.

          People often want to draft the church for their agenda. If it isn’t anti-slavery in the 19th century, it’s prohibition in the early 20th century. This is why I say that Christians are free to form societies/organizations to address evils. They’re not free to re-purpose the visible church to pursue whatever social evil they think it should pursue.

          When the church has done this, it has lost its way and its message. That’s the history of the church.

          Should the church speak to her own about their sins? Yes! Slavery among them or at least man stealing, which is gross sin but that’s part church discipline, broadly construed. That’s why we preach through the catechism, which entails preaching through the moral law. This is why we read the moral law in our services but the church as such is not called to speak to the world about the social ills of the age beyond preaching the law and the gospel.

          Southern Presbyterians Did Not Invent The Spirituality Of The Church

          Why We All Need the Spirituality of the Church

          Machen on the Responsibility and Spirituality of the Institutional Church

          Let The Church Be The Church

  15. I know you are firm in this but I think there is a way to steer between the Scylla of social justice and the Charybdis of not addressing the culture.
    The general assembly of the reformed church I was a a member has put out several resolutions or statements address the practice of abortion and the government’s sanctioning its practice in all branches of the federal government. In a similar manner the church has spoken to the culture about same sex marriage and the direction our society is going.
    Did Paul address social ills by speaking to pagan culture manner. No. He did not make it his mission to do so. But in his list of the moral decent of Gentiles from God’s law revealed in nature. Now he was addressing the church but he was not listing these things to point out moral wrongs in them but the law exists and the Gentiles are without excuse. But he did address homosexuality and fornication whose practices were protected by the state. Therefore, practices of the culture were wrong. As I said Paul did not speak direct to those outside the church but the church certainly did afterwards.
    Now I accept I might be on shaky ground with Paul, but Paul’s practice is not determinative. At least that is what reformed churches in this country seem to indicate, including the URCNA.
    Thanks for letting me comment on your blog. I hope I have offered so food for thought.

  16. Hi Scott,

    Getting back to the original topic, Governor Newsom has asked us to call upon our household gods as the State, SCIENCE! and Mammon have failed. We have made it to Jonah 1:6/Psalm 107:27 but not Jonah 1:16/Psalm 107:28.

  17. Also, here is San Diego County’s statement on reopening. The governor is rolling out a bunch of trained testing agents (20,000 over two months) to test and trace contacts to meet the last criterion. Perhaps the county will achieve regional testing capability sooner.

    I lot of the projects, modeling, and estimated lives saved are essentially modern astrology and there’s definitely no urgency by the state or county to re-open worship. Our government is placing its importance on worship on its own value and its criteria for suspending rights on dubious science, in my opinion. Yes, the magistrate is allowed to be wrong but how wrong and for how long and for what reasons?

    I think San Diego County pastors have some difficult decisions ahead.

    • Almost 500 churches are planning to open in CA on the 31st. They’ve notified the governor. The rebellion is on.

      This is an answer to prayer. The Yuma OPC can’t take all of us from San Diego County. My new friend in the neighborhood is a bail bondsman, so I will invite him and use him if need be.

      Has the governor been left a face-saving exit from this standoff?

      My friend Chad Vegas, pastor of Sovereign Grace Bakersfield, is involved with an emerging group, Kern Liberty Coalition. This org is distinct from the church but it is calling upon the Governor of CA to open up CA. The organizations supporting it are businesses.

      I love it. Col. John Boyd would like it as well.

  18. Dear Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for your response. I get it. Individuals live out 2 kingdom living, but not the institution of the church. We as individuals have liberty to speak into other subjects, medicine, economics,government etc.,but the institution of the church does not because of the goals you mentioned above, but also it could cause chaos and infringe upon the Christian liberty of the individual. Thank you.

  19. Dear Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for your response. I get it. Individuals live out 2 kingdom living, but not the institution of the church. We as individuals have liberty to speak into other subjects, medicine, economics,government etc.,but the institution of the church does not because of the goals you mentioned above, but also it could cause chaos and infringe upon the Christian liberty of the individual. Thank you.

  20. Dear Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for keeping this thread open. Reading the communications over the last three weeks helped me clarify my identity as a Christian in the Church and to see the blessing of Pastors who are committed to preaching the Gospel, one of the works they are ordained to present. These communications also kick-started a search for the Christian citizen identity.

    Regarding Acts 5:29, I believe we are called to be in a daily Acts 5:29, 1:1 interaction with the world, until Christ’s return. Like Peter, isn’t our response to individuals who are governed by materialism, socialism, fascism, etc. to look for and trust God’s Providence? He rules. He is Good. His Word fills us and sustains us. His Son has died for us. His Name is on our foreheads. There is a true Church.

    Also I believe He is opening our eyes to see our sad condition: Socialism has captured the hearts and minds of individuals into collective identities. Christians are saved individually, not as a group. Do we need to work to see and to understand the ‘collective god’ that defines us in the church and people of the world, as Paul worked to understand the Greeks’ many gods? Do we need to root our and repent of our own collectivism?

    Finally, my concern involves education – helping our children know, understand, trust, and love God’s Providence, Himself and His Word as daily good food. God is trustworthy and has the power to say “no” and love us when we do not want His Power over our lives..

    I recall God using Paul to present facts and to reason with people who overstepped their limits or were ignorant of the Truth. He trusted and obeyed God. Didn’t he raise questions? I recall God using Daniel to present facts that helped individual people see the power of God.

    I believe this is our time to trust God’s Providence, meet and know people individually and trust God to display His Gospel through us. God’s Providence rules and overrules men and nations (borrowing terms from Katherine Tang – Universal Christian Education).

    Thank you, Dr. Clark, for your knowledge of Church History and sharing it with us.

    Catherine Paul

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