On Christian Obedience
Perhaps it is just that I lack the courage of my convictions. Under UK guidelines there are a number of exemptions to wearing facemasks, including if doing so causes ‘severe distress’. Arguably I could claim that one, because wearing a facemask does distress me – partly because I believe it to be a futile gesture, mainly because of the terribly detrimental impact it makes on interpersonal communication. But I think by ‘distress’ the guidelines probably mean experiencing a panic attack rather than the kind of angst I feel. Whatever, in the current climate it would take a brazen moral strength not to wear a mask: we are herd animals, and it is very difficult to go against the herd.
A more positive reason for me conforming to facemask wearing requirements are my convictions around offering obedience to the governing authorities. This is also tied to the sense of responsibility I feel as a church leader – that in my position it is important I am seen to be setting a good example. For the last fifteen years I have often taught classes on Christian ethics and in those sessions have emphasised how Christians owe the state our respect, honour and obedience. We are called to be model citizens, regardless of how we might personally feel about whichever political party is in power at the time and the decisions they make. So if the state asks us to wear facemasks we should do so. End of. We are free to lobby government to change laws with which we disagree, but we are not at liberty to disobey those laws.
Yet when teaching on the relationship between the church and the state I always end by saying that there does come a time when Christians should resist the state. The negative examples of when the church has failed to do this are legion – the obvious standout examples of the last century being the way the majority of the German church acquiesced to the Nazis and those white churches that supported apartheid in South Africa. Who would disagree that their failure to resist was simply a failure? But how do we define where the line is drawn beyond which we should say ‘No!’ to those in authority?
Answering this question from within the broadly Reformed tradition in which I stand my answer runs like this: that it is God’s intention that human authorities should govern in a God honouring way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way, ‘Government, like all created things, is designed and directed towards Jesus Christ. Its goal is Jesus Christ himself. Its purpose is to serve him.’ This means we have an obligation to speak out when government acts in a way that fails to serve Jesus. The church should resist any move by the state which might directly or indirectly suppress the freedom of the Word of God, because if we are not free to declare the Word of God then we are not free to intercede for the state, and we would fail in our first responsibility towards the state, which is to pray for it. Christians would, in fact, become enemies of the state if, when the state threatened their freedom, they did not resist!
The obvious biblical example of this was when the Apostles were commanded not to preach about Jesus, and responded by saying, “Should we obey men or God?” (Acts 4:19).
When government seeks to curtail Christian freedom – whenever it starts to dictate what churches may and may not do – it damages itself and should thus be resisted. This is expressed in the Barmen declaration, the classic document of Christian resistance to the state, written in response to the Nazification of much of the German church:
The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament.
So what of facemasks?
In a context where we are still free to proclaim the gospel it might seem that we have not yet crossed the line where we should disobey the state. We can still put our messages online. I’m not going to be arrested for posting on this blog. We are now permitted to gather again.
And yet, and yet…
We are still not permitted to sing praises to God when we gather, even from behind our masks. I don’t know how we can celebrate the Lord’s Supper when we are masked. I haven’t yet worked out how we baptise people and adhere to social distancing rules. This is serious. And any failure of Christians to grasp how serious is a theological issue rather than an political one.
It does feel as though the decisions the government has made are significantly limiting, if not entirely preventing, us from ‘delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament.’ So is it time to resist? Is it time to remove the masks?
I’m not there yet. At the moment I’m still being obedient - and if someone were to refuse to wear a mask in one of our gatherings simply out of stroppiness we would ask them to leave. To do otherwise would feel a huge step. But I think it’s time to at least start debating the question.
What do you think? Why are you obedient?