A Little Wisdom Might Help Us Love Our Neighbor

Two Albuquerque, NM megachurches are being fined by the governor for disobeying regulations on gathering for worship. Both held Christmas Eve services with crowded auditoriums. In one video there are few masks evident. KOAT has the story. One congregation claims to have encouraged attenders to wear masks. Both congregations are facing $10,000 fines, half for violating the order limiting the number of people who may gather indoors and half for not wearing masks.

There are two issues here: civil liberties and wisdom. One the first, the direction of the Supreme Court of the United States as well as circuit and district court decisions has been to overturn the more extreme limits on church attendance in states where people may flock to Costco, Walmart, Home Depot or to a casino. The courts have been clear enough that even California is beginning to relent on its crackdown on congregations gathering for worship. For more on the court decisions see the resources below.

The second issue is wisdom. One of the congregations protested that they had taken reasonable steps to ensure the safety of the congregation. That is as it should be. Another, however, posted video of a large gathering of mostly unmasked people. This raises two issues. Why post the video? What did the congregation think that a hostile governor would do when she saw that video? Of course she was going to make an example of them. When the early post-apostolic church violated Roman civil law by gathering to worship Jesus as King of the Kingdom of Heaven, they did not do it openly. They did so privately and quietly. Their practices were so secret that Pliny the Younger (c AD 112) had to torture two female servants to find out what the Christians did during their services. Perhaps we can learn from the early post-Apostolic Christians as they lived under pagan rule as we seek to live under hostile, sometimes neo-Pagan rule in the 21st century?

This is not to say that these megachurches do not have civil liberties. They do. Apparently and remarkably, the governor of New Mexico is even more backward than the governor of California. The congregations would seem to have the resources to challenge the regulations in light of recent court decisions. One of the congregations sued the state in July and lost but that was before the most recent court rulings upholding religious liberty.

Wisdom regarding masks might also have helped. Think what you will about the efficacy of masks but the state has issued a regulation, which, under the law, it has the authority to do. In America, if you do not like a law, you have the potential to get it changed. Citizens are free to start political action groups against masks or to lobby the legislature or to start a petition to get a referendum on the ballot. Until the law is changed, citizens, especially Christians, are obligated to obey it unless it is manifestly unjust or unless it requires them to violate the moral law of God. It is far from clear that the state mask mandate is manifestly unjust or requires Christians to violate God’s moral law, even if we concede that the regulations are mere political theater. By “manifestly unjust” I mean the deprivation of a natural right. A criminal smashing an innocent victim with a hammer (as happened in Las Vegas recently) is manifestly unjust. We need no legislature to tell us to stop the criminal. Nature tells us to do it. There is a debate, however, among reasonable people, about the efficacy of masks. There is no debate among reasonable people about the injustice of smashing innocent people with a hammer.

As in the case of Grace Community Church, so too here I am arguing that the congregations have a moral right to practice civil disobedience (and to suffer the consequences—remember that the civil rights pioneers of the 1950s and 60s spent a good bit of time in jail and were attacked by dogs and hit with water from fire hoses) but that they should do so wisely. In that case, I complained that GCC flouted the state’s rules regarding social distancing and masks (see the resources below). Now, Julie Roys (as of December 28, 2020) reports that GCC has a Covid outbreak among staff and members. Is there a relationship between the one and the other? I do not know but I am confident that had GCC not publicly mocked social distancing and had their pastor not denied the seriousness of Covid-19, they would have denied the news media an opportunity to criticize them. Was defying the mask and distancing regulations worth the photo op and culture-war points scored during the election?

It is not 1961. It is not even 1993, when the Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 97 United States Senators voted in favor of that law. The House vote was unanimous. As 2020 draws to a close, that seems like another world. Today, one fears, any such bill would be hooted down in the Congress and, if, by some wonder, it passed it would be vetoed by the incoming administration. RFRA might have been the last gasp of “Christian America.” My point is that we need to pay attention to where we are. Our neighbors elect people like Gavin Newsom and Michelle Lujan Grisham. That tells us something about what they value and it would not seem to be civil liberties or the worship of God. It tells us that they are not imbued with the spirit of the founding fathers, that they are not classical liberals seeking to maximize liberty. It tells us that they want someone to take care of them, that they no longer believe that they are capable of taking care of themselves. In California and New Mexico, voters have done this to themselves and this despite the fact that, in California, the current administration is driving businesses, jobs, and residents from the state in huge numbers. Voters, our neighbors, do not seem to care about the things that we might value.

What do such neighbors see in us then, when we gather in large numbers without masks and without distance to worship? We need not guess. Governor Lujan Grisham spoke for our frightened neighbors: “We all wish this pandemic were over, but it’s not, and no pro-virus pastor may deem it so. So many New Mexicans have sacrificed—and lost— so much in this pandemic…These illegal and selfish gatherings will directly contribute to more suffering and illness in our state. These church leaders should reflect on the danger they’ve unleashed in their communities.” According to our neighbors, to gather without masks and distance makes one “pro-virus.” I am not asking you to agree with the Governor but merely to try to understand what her language signifies. Our neo-pagan neighbors believe that this life is all there is. They see death—not standing before a righteous and holy God in judgment—as the worst possible thing that could happen. Thus, when we gather for worship without masks or distancing they see us as selfish. Should we not do everything we can to signal that we love God and our neighbor? The Supreme Court says that we may meet for worship but as we do, should we not do everything in our power to show our neighbors that we are concerned about their welfare, that we are not indifferent to their suffering and to their fear of death? How are we going to talk to them about the love of God for sinners, when we seem so indifferent to their welfare?

©R. Scott Clark

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20 comments

  1. Thus, when we gather for worship without out masks or distancing they see us as selfish. Should we not do everything we can to signal that we love God and our neighbor?

    They believe in masks and social distancing as some sort of magical talisman when the high-quality evidence for both is slim-to-none. In the case of masks, several randomized controlled trials have been run, in most of them, and they found no effect. Social distancing isn’t even a practical idea. How much is really going on at Costco? In Asia, there are so many people that social distancing is an absurd idea – an idea which originally came from computer modeling not quality studies. It just doesn’t work, (see also Japan’s cases lately) probably because the virus spreads on surfaces. There is a ton of high quality evidence for hand-washing and quarantining the sick, but the liberals never talk about that. I go along with masks at church for the weaker brother, but I also feel like I’m lying wearing one knowing the evidence for their uselessness. I’m already violating my conscience going along with the measures as they are.

    As this applies to unbelievers, they don’t see our need to gather at all for “Sky Bully” time, especially when they believe it spreads the virus. They understand we’re going to do it because we’ve won in court and so their next front is to demand masks and social distancing, which they probably know will gradually put us out of business just like the other businesses because social distancing means meeting at greatly diminished building capacity. From their point of view, the best way to love them is to disappear and definitely not attend worship. They saw us as a threat in the first century as well, when back then demonstrating our love for them meant offering incense to Caesar as a mark of good citizenship. They also said we were cannibals because we observed the Lord’s Supper.

    The other question I have is what are we going to do the next time the Left decides Christians are a threat to public safety? They’re already saying white evangelical Protestants are a source of “white supremacy” which is a public menace. Should public menaces be allowed to gather at all? What if they see our mere existence as a threat?

    I feel like a big part of the church is just going to keep getting pushed by the Left in response to every cultural outrage (BLM, critical theory, Side “B”, etc). Where do we draw the line?

    • Bryce,

      I understand your frustration and even your doubts about masks etc but your reply both illustrates the problem and misses the point of the post.

      Let me try again.

      1. The church, as church (as a visible institution where the gospel is preached, the sacraments administered, and discipline is practiced) is not an instrument in the culture war. I’m not saying that the culture war is utterly invalid though I have my doubts about the way the grounds on which it is usually fought.

      2. I don’t know how much clearer I can be: there is a place for Christians and even churches to exercise their civil liberties and even, as I wrote, to make use of civil and legal remedies.

      3. There is even a place, when it comes to it, for civil disobedience.

      4. You’re entitled to your opinions about masks. Your opinions are not law. Until the law is changed (and I think it should be) the question is whether Christians must obey a law with which they disagree personally, so long as that law is not immoral? The biblical answer is yes. 1 Peter teaches us this as does Paul in Romans.

      5. No, the unbelievers don’t see the need for Christians to gather. That’s why, when we do, we ought to take every precaution to let it be the gospel that offends and not our culture war points. If they are to come after us, let it be for something of eternal importance rather than over masks and distancing.

      6. The church is multi-ethnic and multi-cultural.

      7. Should the (neo-) pagans decide that our meetings are illegitimate, we have legal remedies. Should that fail, then I take that a broader constitutional crisis is at hand. Christians live in two spheres simultaneously. We have duties to each. Should it come to that Christians will likely come to different conclusions about what duty requires.

      8. If you’ve been listening to the latest Heidelcast series, then you know that 1 Peter teaches us how to respond to informal persecution and even to formal persecution. We have historical patterns and resources from which to learn.

      9. We’re not there yet. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

      10. As a former pagan, I would hope that you would have seen me as an object of pity, a subject for prayer, and an object of Christian love and not just as a pawn in a culture war with “the Left” (of which I was once a member). I’m grateful for those theologically and culturally conservative Christians who were patient with me and helped me to think through the issues and didn’t just write me off as a stupid leftist.

  2. Scott,

    1. I never said that it’s an instrument in the culture war. I believe it’s a casualty of it. We have no may interest in the culture war, but it has interest in us and we are targets of it.

    4. Masks may be a grayer area. The magistrate certainly has interest in public health. I think the social distancing requirements and business shut-downs are clearly immoral, especially given their lack of evidence. If I obey, it’s merely for wrath’s sake or because I have no other choice. Moreover, what laws has the governor actually signed about this? AFAIK he’s handed-down edicts which are not laws from the legislative branch.

    The Reformers were not uniform on their obedience to civil government. The magistrate has a scope and any laws or edicts he creates outside it are tyrannical and are obeyed merely for wrath’s sake, not conscience’ sake.

    5. Non-sequitur. This is not about the culture war for most of us. I don’t think it even is for MacArthur, even though I thought he was unwise to embarrass the magistrate publicly and go on Fox News.

    8. I’ll check them out.

    10. Also a non-sequitur. Pagans as my neighbors are different than the Left as a cultural force or stronghold of Satan opposed to Christianity. I may love the former while opposing the latter.

    • Bryce,

      1. I never said that it’s an instrument in the culture war. I believe it’s a casualty of it. We have no may interest in the culture war, but it has interest in us and we are targets of it.

      When you speak of “the left pushing us around” that’s culture-war rhetoric. The “us” in this case is the visible church, which was the subject of the post.

      4. Masks may be a grayer area. The magistrate certainly has interest in public health. I think the social distancing requirements and business shut-downs are clearly immoral, especially given their lack of evidence. If I obey, it’s merely for wrath’s sake or because I have no other choice. Moreover, what laws has the governor actually signed about this? AFAIK he’s handed-down edicts which are not laws from the legislative branch.

      I didn’t speak to the business shutdowns but I’ve opposed them as I’ve come to oppose the church shutdowns, which you must have seen on the HB:

      Resources On Religious Liberty

      The Reformers were not uniform on their obedience to civil government. The magistrate has a scope and any laws or edicts he creates outside it are tyrannical and are obeyed merely for wrath’s sake, not conscience’ sake.

      I agree but to argue that churches should not mask or distance because such rules are tyrannical seems, well, hard to defend.

      You’ve evaded Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 so far.

      5. Non-sequitur. This is not about the culture war for most of us. I don’t think it even is for MacArthur, even though I thought he was unwise to embarrass the magistrate publicly and go on Fox News.

      We interpret the GCC episode very differently. GCC clearly picked a side of the culture war. The intentional refusal to mask or distance, especially early on when they went public with their disobedience was cast in culture war terms. As I noted, aligning with President Trump was also a culture-war move. The alignment with some of the more visible ministers of the congregation with Doug Wilson & co seems like a culture-war stance.

      10. Also a non-sequitur. Pagans as my neighbors are different than the Left as a cultural force or stronghold of Satan opposed to Christianity. I may love the former while opposing the latter.

      The left as a cultural force is composed of individuals, who are our neighbors.

      I’m as concerned as anyone about “cancel culture,” Antifa and the rest of it. These are terrible, illiberal forces in our society but inasmuch as the visible church is an embassy of the Kingdom of God, not of one side or the other of the culture war, we have a duty to represent that Kingdom in a certain way.

      The NM Governor’s language is deplorable but we had better consider what it signifies beyond making her just another enemy.

  3. Just saw that lawyers are going forward now, to take to court, those who impose mandates for the reason of an emergency. The lawyers will be making the case that there is no real emergency. Just heard about this and think this may be the only course to take now. They decided to do this based on all the failures in court having to do with loss of freedoms as the course of action. Heard this on a video by Spiro Skouras speaking to the organizer of this. This could change everything for the churches and businesses.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    I greatly appreciate your perspective here. My wife and I have continually struggled with the severeness of our leaders’ response to this virus, and our responsibility to 1: love our neighbor, 2: be faithful in our corporate worship, 3: satisfy our personal/human/good need for friendships and in-person community (Zoom is a poor poor substitute, though perhaps we can thank the Lord for this mercy), 4: submit to our authorities, even when they are acting from fear, irrationality, or selfish political gain (which isn’t too say _all_ our leaders are doing so), and 5: trying to understand if/when they have usurped their earthly authority over Christ’s church.

    The past year has required a substantial change in my daily routine. I work from home, quarantine when exposed (4 times last year!), wear a mask when I’m out and about, and limit our family/friend gatherings based on the shifting rules/restrictions/whims? coming from our officials.

    I hate it.

    Honestly, I know these things are used by Christ for the good of His people (and therefore good for me), but my heart has really struggled with frustration, exasperation, and resentfulness over the application of these rules and the (in my mind) ineptitude in our leaders crafting them.

    But…this isn’t all there is. Our pastor finished taking us through Revelation last year, and the continual reminder we were given is that Christ has conquered our greatest enemies and we await His coming to restore/renew/create anew all things, while enduring (being thankful for!) hardships in this age. A life of comfort and ease and individual self-determination was never promised to the Church, but our comfort isn’t too be found in this world: it’s to be found and rooted in our God and Savior.

    Is our difficulty in taking on these restrictions/self-limitations partly due to our tendency to sinfully cling to this life, forgetting what we are waiting for? Is, perhaps, a solution to our self-involvement in part a desperate remembering that this age is fleeting and we are called to sacrifice out of love for God and neighbor? Personally, I find it incredibly challenging, but a comforting. If I have to wear a mask because my neighbor is afraid of my spreading a disease, and wearing a mask doesn’t violate any of Christ’s authority over my life, well…at least I won’t have to do that _forever_.

    Anyway, thank you for your kind & convicting words, pointing us to our dear Savior and our need to love our neighbors. May He return soon!!

    Aaron

  5. In this (as in many other discussions), the effectiveness of various orders, especially mask mandates, have rightfully come under scrutiny.

    I’ve been watching various reports evaluating the natural experiments that emerged as different parts of the United States have implemented differing restrictions: see, e.g., two from the CDC (October (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33031366/) and November (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33237889/)) and one in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32543923/).

    Whichever of the various measures are particularly effective in slowing the spread of the virus remains unclear; however, they are effective at slowing the spread! To be clear, these measures are no panacea (i.e., they have not eliminated the spread of this pestilence). They are inconvenient, and they carry other ramifications. Let us continue to debate whether the measures are not worth bearing for the benefits that they provide, but the evidence supports that slowing the spread of COVID-19 is achievable by these measures, including mask mandates.

    Since the effectiveness of such measures showed up in the discussion earlier, this information seemed worth sharing.

    -JM

    • They are inconvenient, and they carry other ramifications. Let us continue to debate whether the measures are not worth bearing for the benefits that they provide, but the evidence supports that slowing the spread of COVID-19 is achievable by these measures, including mask mandates.

      The evidence shows no such thing. The evidence shows an association of certain measures with declining growth rate based on timing. There is a correlation and without a correlation, there is no causation. However, there could be many other reasons for this including the virus was already close to peaking in a certain population versus the “control” in which case the growth rate was headed down on its own. Waves of the virus tend to run in 3-4 month intervals. Difference in population density and housing density also affects the secondary attack rate and the rate of spread of the virus. Did these studies control for this? What about differences in rural vs. urban areas?

      From your second link:

      Community-level mitigation strategies emphasizing wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, staying at home when ill, and enhancing hygiene practices can help reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2.

      They’ve bundled a lot of evidence for masks and social distancing in with other measures known to be effective. Hand-washing has enormous high-quality evidence behind it. So does staying home and quarantining if you’re sick. If I’m not out in public when I’m sick, I can’t spread the virus to the public. Social distancing really hasn’t been studied and many high-quality studies have shown that masks are ineffective for the general public. For example, here’s even-more tightly controlled experiment refuting the other claims bundled into the conclusion I quoted.

    • Bryce,
      From the New England Journal of Medicine study on Marine recruits that you reference: “Shared rooms and shared platoon membership were risk factors for transmission.” Many of the transmission events were between roommates. The recruits did not wear masks while sleeping. Thus one could conclude that NOT wearing a mask for several hours, daily, in a closed room, can increase transmission. But from this study, you cannot draw any conclusions on the efficacy of mask-wearing one way or the other. That was not a control variable. That is, it does not support your claim that mask-wearing is ineffective.

  6. Dr. Clark,
    In your mind do you make a distinction between government authority and the authority of law of the land…or are they the same thing? If you make that distinction, what would be good way for one to understand how to make a proper distinction between the two?

    The point you make about Christians/Churches being wise is a great one!

    • Jason,

      Two points.

      Neither Peter nor Paul make this distinction explicitly. Arguably, the Apostles make this distinction in Acts 5:29, to which I’ve been referring frequently since the Covid lockdowns began.

      There is a law beyond the government, namely the natural law. This is the American argument in the Declaration. The Constitution is above other laws but that does not mean that people may simply ignore local, state, and federal laws on the grounds that they do not believe them to be constitutional. This is why the process of complaint and appeal is so important. If every citizen has his own interpretation of the Constitution, then there is no law in practice, only chaos.

  7. Don,

    Thus one could conclude that NOT wearing a mask for several hours, daily, in a closed room, can increase transmission.

    Maybe. How practical is it to wear a mask while you’re sleeping? Are there other health risks associated with doing so, such as suffocation while sleeping? If it’s not practical under these military-controlled conditions, how much less is it practical for households negating any perceived reduction in secondary attack rate?

    In the military, typically they use sneeze sheets to try to reduce the spread of illness in a barracks, not masks. They may even work to a first order, but not once the virus is transmitted from the sheets to the hands as you open them, hence the need for copious hand-washing.

    That is, it does not support your claim that mask-wearing is ineffective.

    Do you have proof that it is for the general public? At best, the studies cited above are inconclusive.

    • Bryce,

      What do you mean by “maybe”? Please explain.
      Regarding your other questions in that paragraph, they are misdirected. I am only reading and interpreting the article, not making recommendations to the Marines.

      The CDC has a Scientific Brief which summarizes a few dozen studies and explains why they believe that mask use is beneficial. Take a look:
      https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/masking-science-sars-cov2.html
      It looks like most of the references are open-access, so you can directly read the research (and not rely on a press release or a journalist’s commentary).

    • Don,

      By “maybe,” I mean, “that would have to be tested against a control. Do you wear a mask when you sleep?
      Here is the US army’s guidance on prevention of respiratory illnesses in barracks as of 2010. It applies to sleeping in a barracks. It does not include the use of masks but does include spacing beds and arranging them head-to-toe, hand-washing, covering coughs, and quickly isolating infected individuals.

      The CDC has a Scientific Brief which summarizes a few dozen studies and explains why they believe that mask use is beneficial

      Thanks. I’ve read that. Studies from China are extremely likely to be fraudulent. The others were poorer-quality studies than those in this review. I have more. I am also concerned that the CDC’s SCIENCE! is becoming tainted by woke politics.

      Yesterday I heard a lot of people coughing into their masks in outdoor worship. Wouldn’t it be better for them to stay home altogether? It seems to me the emphasis on masks has come at the expense of proven, traditional virus mitigation strategies such as hand-washing and quarantine of the sick. Now people seem to believe you can put on a mask and STOP THE SPREAD whether or not you’re sick. If anything, the emphasis on masks is probably contributing to the spread.

    • > Studies from China are extremely likely to be fraudulent.
      What evidence do you have of this?
      > The others were poorer-quality studies than those in this review.
      What objective criteria are you using to evaluate the relative quality of these studies?

      I will note that the review that you promote says: “In conclusion, there is a limited evidence base to support the use of masks and/or respirators in healthcare or community settings. Mask use is best undertaken as part of a package of personal protection, especially including hand hygiene in both home and healthcare settings. Early initiation and correct and consistent wearing of masks/respirators may improve their effectiveness.”

      That quote (and the CDC Scientific Brief) address your concluding question: of course it would have been better for them to stay home. Probably the most important use of a mask is to reduce virus emission from those who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, i.e., those who don’t know they should be staying home.

  8. Dr. Clark,

    You mentioned in a previous comment that the church… is not an instrument in the culture war. How are we to understand passages like Matthew 5:13 (salt of the earth)? Would we say these verses are directed to Christians individually and not to the visible church? Thank you!

    • John,

      Even if we take these words as addressed to the visible institutional church, why should we interpret them relative to the culture war rather than to the clearly revealed vocation of the church to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, and use discipline – that is to use the keys of the kingdom according to Matthew 16?

      There are lots of organizations in the world advocating for this position or that in the culture war but there was only one institution established by Christ himself and only that institution is entrusted with the ministry of the gospel.

  9. Don,

    What evidence do you have of this?

    You can find plots on the web showing that China’s rate of retracted papers needs to be plotted versus other countries on a log scale. This’ll get you started, but the right terms in the search engine will take you as far as you want to go. Do you read Retraction Watch?

    What objective criteria are you using to evaluate the relative quality of these studies?

    Cohort, case and observational studies in the CDC’s page are much weaker than the RCTs cited in my paper. This is well-known in scientific research. To the extent that the studies on the CDC’s page proved that cloth masks reduce droplet travel does not mean that it slowed the spread of the virus in a public setting (the first half of the CDC’s citations). Very few of those studies examined the effect on transmission rate and those that did were low quality. It’s suspicious that most come from this year when viral transmission has been studied for 100 years, and high-quality studies from the previous decades were inconclusive on the use of masks.

    I think I’ve said what I needed to say here Don, thanks.

    • > You can find plots…
      So it sounds to me that you have no actual evidence that these particular studies are “extremely likely to be fraudulent.” Instead, it sounds like you are simply extrapolating from general trends.

      > It’s suspicious that most come from this year when viral transmission has been studied for 100 years
      I’m not sure why you would think it’s “suspicious” that viral transmission has been heavily investigated this year.

      It seems to me that any study that disagrees with your belief is deemed “low quality,” and any evidence on the efficacy of masks in the studies you reference gets explained away. That is not a healthy way to approach scientific literature.

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