In what I write below I am simply thinking out loud. I don’t claim to be infallible, or to have a perfect understanding of God’s Word. No doubt, there are many What Ifs and What Abouts that can and perhaps should be raised; and honestly, time would not permit me to address all of them… However, I believe that what I lay out below is faithful to God’s Word, and is seeking to both glorify God and work for the good of those around me. If you agree with me, great! If you don’t, that’s ok. In all honesty, until recently I had not properly thought out these issues, nor was I living in line with what I write below… But, by God’s grace, I’m trying to do better.
What I’m writing here is not meant to be political, or a part of the current culture wars, or any of that. I’m just trying to be biblical, and I thought that the way I’m thinking about this might be helpful for others, and that’s why I’m sharing my thoughts. I don’t want to argue or debate; if what I’ve written causes you to think and leads you to submit both your thinking and your living to God’s Word, that’s enough for me. And I hope, in my application of God’s Word, that I’ve left enough room for Christian freedom so that you can apply these things to your life according to your conscience and convictions.
As a Reformed Baptist who holds to Covenant Theology (1689 Federalism), I believe that all people everywhere are under God’s Moral Law, sometimes called the Natural Law or the Law of Creation. This is the Law that all people created in God’s image, of right mind, know inherently (we all know the basic truths of right and wrong, of honor, of love, and that there is a God that we should love and be living for). God’s Moral Law is the Law we see in the Ten Commandments, the Law that basically tells us to love God (the first four commandments on the first tablet of the Law) and to love people (the last six commandments on the second tablet of the Law). This is the Law that all people should live by, and this is the Law that all nations should base their laws on and function in keeping with… for it is in the Moral Law (along with the gospel) that we see what justice truly looks like.
There are other Laws in the Bible, such as the Civil and the Ceremonial Law that were given to Israel to help them live and function as a nation-state in the land, and to point them to Christ and their need for a Savior, and to sustain them until that Savior came from the line of Judah. And the Savior who was promised to come through the line of Judah did indeed come; He came in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Israel failed to live in line with all of God’s laws for them: Moral, Civil, and Ceremonial. And all people everywhere have failed to live according to God’s Moral Law, and thus deserve God’s wrath, whether they were under God’s Civil and Ceremonial Law or not. But, Jesus, God the Son, came and took on flesh and perfectly obeyed the Moral Law and perfectly fulfilled the Civil and Ceremonial Law. Through Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial wrath-absorbing death, and death-defeating resurrection, Jesus bought salvation, not only for ethnic Jews, but for Gentiles as well, for people from every tribe, tongue, nation, and generation. God’s people would no longer be in one nation-state, but in all nations, thus eliminating the need for the Civil Law. And as the perfect sacrifice Jesus fulfilled the Ceremonial Law, making all those who trust in Him clean in Him.
Because we have all broken God’s Law, we in and of ourselves are under the curse of God’s Law; but Jesus became a curse for us, and lived, died, and rose again for us… saving all of His people from the curse of the Law. So, in that sense, we are under grace, not under Law. However, because God does not change, His Moral Law does not change. Right and wrong will always be right and wrong. Love is defined by God’s Word, and seen in God’s Law and God’s Son. These things cannot be redefined. So, the Moral Law that calls us to love God and love people is still the standard, even for God’s people who are under grace. We are not saved by our Law keeping or works, but by the person and work of Jesus alone, and our faith in Him. But, nevertheless, we are called to live in obedience to God’s Moral Law. That is the standard.
I lay all of that out because of one of the major issues we all find ourselves in at the moment: Covid-19. Coronavirus has the whole world in an uproar. How did it come about? Is the government behind it all? If so, which government? Is the government trying to control us all? Do they have some sort of ill motives? Are they looking out for our interests, or just their own? Are they trying to persecute Christians, or strip us of our rights and civil liberties? Are we really in danger? How much danger are we in? Do I really have to wear a mask? Is it safe to go anywhere or do anything? Should we gather together with the church?… Should I go wherever and do whatever I want? You get the idea… And while we’ll likely never be able to answer all of these questions, the Word of God is not silent on the issue at large.
God’s Rights and the First Table of the Law
In Matthew 22:37-39 Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (ESV). What we see Jesus doing here is summarizing the Law. The first and greatest commandment is a summary of the first four commandments on the first tablet of the Law. The second is a summary of the last six commandments on the second tablet of the Law.
In the current American culture people love to talk about their rights… Well, in a way what we see in God’s Moral Law are rights: the rights of God and the rights of men and women (or boys and girls) created in His image. And there’s a reason that God comes first in the Law: His rights come first and foremost, not ours. And this is incredibly relevant for the conversation around Covid-19.
In the first four commandments we see that God, and God alone, has a right to be worshipped, and to be publicly and corporately worshipped by His people on the Sabbath, now the Lord’s Day, in accordance with His Word alone. And no one has the right to forbid God’s people from worshipping how God sees fit, where God sees fit, when God sees fit. Yes, God has ordained the governing authorities of the state and given them the power of the sword to promote and maintain justice, and we are called to honor them and be subject to the them… but, according to Romans 13 being subject to them means not resisting them or violently revolting against them. We are to honor them and submit to their leadership in general, but that doesn’t mean that we submit to them in all things, especially if what they command us to do goes against God’s Word.
So, in applying this to Covid-19, we see that God has rights, and His rights come first. So, we shouldn’t just stop gathering as a church because the government tells us to… We have to filter what they are telling us through God’s Word. But, they may have a point, and we might need to stop meeting for a time. God does indeed come first, but that doesn’t mean there are never any reasons for us to not gather together for worship, especially when it has to do with other aspects of God’s Moral Law; but, it does mean that we should not take these things lightly, and that we should always be seeking to put God first in all things.
Man’s Rights and the Second Table of the Law
As we saw, the second greatest commandment is a summary of the last six commandments on the second tablet of the Law. The idea of loving our neighbor as ourselves is unpacked in and through the last six commandments, and these six commandments in a very real way explain the rights that men and women created in God’s image have. But, the New Testament tells us again and again, in one way or another, that we are to lay down our rights for the glory of Christ and the good of His people. Christians are not to focus on our rights, but on the rights of God and His people.
Now, with that said, we should consider what God’s Moral Law commands of us, especially as it pertains to the rights of others and how we should be loving them. To look at this in reference to Covid-19 we really only need to look at the sixth commandment to get the point. The sixth commandment tells us that we are not to murder, but the implications of this command go far beyond murder. For instance, An Orthodox Catechism (a Reformed Baptist Catechism based on the Heidelberg Catechism) says that:
“[We are] not to belittle, insult, hate, or kill [our] neighbor—not by [our] thoughts, [our] words, [our] look[s] or gesture[s], and certainly not by actual deeds—and [we are] not to be party to this in others; rather, [we are] to put away all desire for revenge. [We are] not to harm or recklessly endanger [ourselves] either. Prevention of murder is also why government is armed with the sword…
By forbidding murder God teaches us that he hates the root of murder: envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness. In God’s sight all such are murder…
By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies” (Question 119-121, pg. 103-104).
So, what we see here is that our fellow man has a right to life, and we are not only not to kill them, but we must seek their general wellbeing; we must be gracious, kind, and loving, and seek to keep others and ourselves from unnecessary harm. And in light of the whole of God’s Word, especially the New Testament, we should be willing to lay down our own rights in order to protect and serve the rights of others, especially as it pertains to the sixth commandment.
Covid-19 and the Church
As I stated earlier, people all over are in an uproar, especially about wearing masks and not going to do whatever activities they want wherever they want. People are upset and they don’t know who to trust or what to do; and quite frankly, people don’t want to be told what they can and can’t do, and they certainly don’t want to be inconvenienced. I mean, after all, they have rights.
But, we must remember, the church is to lay down its rights for the good of others. As Philippians 2:3-4 says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (ESV). And that along side the sixth commandment and all its implications clearly shows us that we are not to be overly concerned with ourselves, but with the welfare of others. We should seek to keep ourselves from harm, but we should especially lay down our rights to uphold the rights of others, especially their right to life.
Now, I know there are questions and doubts around the science surrounding masks, social distancing, and even Covid-19 in general. But, I’ve heard enough from doctors and experts who are good Christians, seeking to do what’s right and Christlike, not what’s Republican or Democrat, to believe that masks and social distancing do indeed do some good. Are they perfect? Absolutely not… Do they lessen the risk of getting sick? Absolutely… And after seeing people I care about die because of Covid-19, and others I love suffer in one way or another because of it, I feel I have to take what they say seriously. But let me stress again, the people I’m listening to are not on Fox News or CNN (I don’t watch either), they are real people trying to live in obedience to God’s Word, not engage in politics.
I lay all of that out, because as I put all of it together it leads me to conclude that practically, if we are to live in obedience to the Moral Law and God’s Word as a whole, we must die to self, lay down our rights, and consider the rights and the general wellbeing of others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ, above our own. So, even if we don’t like wearing masks, even if we don’t want to be told where we can and can’t go, or how close to how many people we should be, we should be willing to wear a mask and social distance if there is a chance at all that we are doing good to others by doing them, or if there’s a chance at all that we could be putting people in harm’s way by not doing them. To not do so, in my understanding, would be to disobey God’s Moral Law and God’s Word. And even if we think all of this is overblown, we should jump at the opportunity to love others sacrificially for the their good and the glory of Christ. We should lay down our rights for God and neighbor.
Now, does that mean that we don’t gather together as a church for corporate worship, discipleship, and the like? Not necessarily. As I said, God has rights, and His rights come first. But, we shouldn’t disobey one command to obey another. We should try to find balance. So, if there is a way to gather together without putting one another at unnecessary risk we should do that. I say unnecessary risk because sometimes the risk is necessary and cannot be avoided, and in those times we should gather regardless of the risk. And on the flipside of that, sometimes there is no way to gather without great risk of harm, but it isn’t necessary harm… it can be avoided by not gathering for a short time, or the like. And I would say that’s where some of us, like the church I’m a part of, find ourselves.
We have confirmed Covid-19 cases, exposures, and others with symptoms within the church. So, in order to keep each other from unnecessary harm we will take a few weeks off while people get better, and get to a point where they are not contagious, Lord willing. In the meantime we will do what we can to continue to worship God, disciple one another, and care for one another, even if it’s from a distance. And then as soon as possible we will gather together again.
God has rights, and His rights come first. In His providence He has ordained the governing authorities that are over us, and we should not revolt against them. But, that does not mean we should simply obey anything and everything they say. We must live in obedience to God’s Moral Law and the whole of God’s Word. And in our current situation, regarding Covid-19, living in obedience to God’s Moral Law and God’s Word means finding balance between giving God His due worship and seeking the wellbeing of others, and overall seeking not to harm others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ.
For me, as a pastor who is called by God to be an under-shepherd of His flock, in obedience to God’s Law and God’s Word, I must do all I can to keep myself and others from harm, for their good and God’s glory. I should take every precaution to keep myself from getting sick, not because I’m focusing on my own rights or wellbeing, but so that I can be around the flock under my care and minister to them without risking getting them sick. And I should do all I can not to get them sick or bring them harm of any kind. I should do that to a degree to all people, but especially to the church, because, not only do I need to lookout for their rights, but I need to lookout for God’s rights, and in caring for them in this way I’m helping make sure they can gather together with the saints to give God the worship He is due.
So as for me and my house, we will not be doing any unnecessary travel, we will be wearing masks when around others, and because we’ve been exposed to Covid-19 for the time being we will not be gathering with the church, but as soon as possible we will gather together with the church again, but with masks and social distancing procedures in place.
As I said in my introduction, this is simply how I’m thinking about things. I don’t claim to be infallible, or to have a perfect understanding of God’s Word. However, I believe my view is faithful to God’s Word, and is seeking to both glorify God and work for the good of those around me. If you agree with me, great! If you don’t, that’s ok. Either way, do your best to walk in obedience to God’s Word for His glory and the good of His people.