When COVID-19 first emerged, the scientific and medical communities were primed to expect the worst, thanks to lessons learned from the SARS and Ebola outbreaks. Fearing unprecedented catastrophe, governments around the world took drastic action to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Borders, schools, stores, cinemas, gyms, bars, and churches were closed as citizens were told to self-isolate. Mass gatherings were banned, streets were deserted, parks and green spaces were shrouded in police tape.
Given the widespread fear and uncertainty, it was not surprising that the authorities felt compelled to respond aggressively. Early scientific models projected millions of deaths by October 2020 in the United States and Great Britain alone, even in the “most optimistic scenario” involving stringent lockdown measures. Other experts, however, expressed concerns about the lack of data needed to make “precise and proportionate” decisions that would more accurately weigh the risks posed by COVID-19 against the “self-induced” harms caused by emergency interventions. Although we still have much to learn about the virus, it would now seem that the disease is not as deadly as we initially feared: we can be thankful that the dire predictions made in March have not come to pass. Increased familiarity with the virus has taught us that population density, age, and comorbidities are among the most significant factors in determining risk.
Even so, as case numbers and hospitalizations are once again on the rise, most jurisdictions continue to enforce (or re-enforce) strict public health protocols designed to limit communal interactions, including prohibitions on corporate religious worship and even certain religious rites (such as communion or baptism). In the early months of the pandemic, most religious groups willingly complied with these restrictions while seeking innovative ways to serve their communities. This spirit of cooperation in striving towards a common goal – protecting public health – may be characterized as one of the finest hours in recent church-state collaboration. However, as doubts emerged regarding the potency of the disease and the perceived inconsistency of rules and regulations, a small minority of outlier churches began to lose trust in government directives. As the predicted cataclysm did not materialize, the rationale behind prolonged church closures became less persuasive when compared to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of congregants suffering from isolation, job losses, mental health concerns, and more.
One of the most prominent, and perhaps controversial, examples of resistance is Grace Community Church in California, led by John MacArthur. For the first twenty weeks of the pandemic, the church obeyed government protocols and did not meet in person. Eventually, however, the elders concluded that continued compliance would be a violation of their spiritual faith and in July, the church decided to resume meeting indoors. In a piece published on his church’s website, Pastor MacArthur argued that the church stands “immovably” on the biblical principle that Christ is “sovereign over every earthly authority” – so when faced with a perceived conflict between spiritual and secular commands, the church had no choice but to obey divine authority. A succession of ongoing legal challenges followed between Los Angeles County and the church. The resolution to the litigation may have significant implications in the United States and beyond.
L. A. County’s attempts to forcefully impose its mandate on the church, and the church’s staunch defiance, bring to mind the long history of debate – at times acrimonious and even violent – between the institutions of church and state. Pastor MacArthur’s theology echoes the “sphere sovereignty” concept which was promulgated in the writings of twentieth-century politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper’s position was that church and state have respective boundaries of sovereignty that must not trespass on the other.
In practice, this view allows for mutual respect and autonomy – the kind of deference shown when Indigenous groups in Canada were allowed to continue with communal religious ceremonies at a time when other gatherings were banned or severely limited. In early May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explained, “We should be able to work with [Indigenous community leaders] to develop ways of continuing with important customs and practices for them, in a way that abides by health recommendations.” Compared to the suspicion we’ve seen in other situations, I would argue that this respectful approach offers a more positive and productive way forward for both governments and religious communities.
Looking ahead, governments and religious groups will need to find common ground, based on good faith dialogue, in order to work together in recovering from the pandemic. The future outcome of public health emergencies requires serious evaluation on both sides to ensure that the public interest is maintained no matter what crisis may come our way.