A year ago, just after we entered the Lenten season, most churches shut their doors — not because their pastors or elders had decided to do so, but because government officials had deemed the free exercise of religious liberty a threat to public health. And so, the Body of Christ, striving to be both good citizens and obedient to Christ’s call, live-streamed Lent, Palm Sunday and Easter services like some Netflix miniseries. What we were ordered to do was wrong, and what we learned is that online services are no substitute for gathering together.
The good news is that some parts of the Body have returned and reunited for worship. The bad news is that government authorities in certain jurisdictions continue to limit worship gatherings. The worse news is that government actions in response to COVID-19 have had the effect of convincing a large percentage of Christians that participating in worship is no longer necessary.
What an awful consequence of the COVID-19 lockdowns. In the Law, Moses instructs us to honor the Sabbath. In the Gospels, Jesus reveals, “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” In the epistles, we are called to “worship God…with reverence and awe.” But in an America stricken by fear, a third of self-described Christians — and another 11 million seekers — have found something better or easier to do with their Sundays.
Being together — uniting with other parts of the Body of Christ — is central to the abundant life. The Book of Acts uses the word “together” 15 times in relation to believers and worship. We are made to praise and pray together, to and hope and heal together, to repent and rebuild together, to serve and sacrifice together. We need to gather together because the Holy Spirit works in those moments when the Body of Christ unites as one, because there’s strength and encouragement — and courage — in numbers, because the Word tells us, “Don’t stop meeting together with other believers.”
We were prevented from doing that by the lockdowns — which perversely and ahistorically quarantined the healthy.
Some look back at what our federal, state and local governments did and say it was all for the greater good. Others look upon the wreckage — the millions who have fallen away from faith, the hundreds of thousands who succumbed to addiction, the uncounted thousands who lost all hope and gave up on life, the generation that lost a year of education, the dying who faced the last hours of this life alone, the churches that will never reopen their doors — and mourn not just for what has been visited upon so many innocents, but also for the violence done to religious liberty.
It’s telling that the first words of the First Amendment focus on religious liberty. The notion that government has no place telling a person whether, how, where, when or what to worship is a foundation stone of our free society. We don’t have to worship on the same days or in the same ways — or at all — to recognize this. For government to prohibit people of faith from holding or attending religious services is something that should never happen in America.
The First Amendment exists to prevent government from preventing religious activity. Yet somehow, at the height of this pandemic panic, 15 governors barred Americans from gathering inside a place of worship; 21 governors severely limited religious activity.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court — self-styled “guardian of the Constitution” — was slow to act. The High Court sided last summer with governors in Nevada and California, after those states denied churches the right to open their facilities to the same level of public access as casinos, movie theaters, bars and restaurants.
“The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion,” Justice Samuel Alito intoned. “It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack. The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch offered this last November, as the Court struck down New York’s unconstitutional actions: “Government is not free to disregard the First Amendment in times of crisis.” New York and other states, he wrote, “have asserted the right to privilege restaurants, marijuana dispensaries and casinos over churches, mosques and temples…We may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack.”
Those who are sick or at-risk should stay safe and let the Church do what she was made to do: serve people in need. Those who don’t want to go to church, shouldn’t go. But those who want to gather together for worship shouldn’t be hindered, discouraged, shamed or mandated from doing so by government authorities. For those who follow precedent and history, governors didn’t close churches or issue worship guidelines during the pandemics of 1968 or 1957. And for those who “follow the science,” the 1957 pandemic had a case-fatality rate of 0.67 percent; the case-fatality rate of COVID-19 is between 0.2 and 0.5 percent.
From Moses and Mordecai, to Peter and Paul, Scripture reminds us there are times when we cannot obey human authorities and follow God’s call. This is such a time.
May the Church — dormant too long — awaken. Like Lazarus and the widow’s son and Jairus’s daughter, may the Body of Christ hear the words of our savior-king: “Dear child, get up! Come forth! I say to you, arise!”