Children of God and Lockdowns: A Response to Dr. Van Vliet

(Click HERE for the original article "Children of God and Covid-19" to which this article responds.)

Introduction by Prof. David Engelsma

I am a professor of theology emeritus at the Protestant Reformed Seminary in Grandville, Michigan, USA. I have served as pastor of two Protestant Reformed congregations for twenty-five years. I then accepted the appointment to teach Dogmatics and Old Testament studies in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary, in which calling I labored for twenty additional years before my retirement in 2008. I have been married to Ruth for fifty-seven years. God has blessed our union with four sons, five daughters, and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren. I am the author of many books including Marriage: The Mystery of Christ & the Church; Hyper Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel: An Examination of the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel; Gospel Truth of Justification; and The Belgic Confession: A Commentary.

I am convicted of both the truth and the necessity of this witness to the divine calling of the churches of Jesus Christ to gather for the public worship of God regardless of the prohibition of worship by the civil government. The true church is the spiritual kingdom of the risen Jesus Christ, subject in the final analysis to the sovereign will of King Jesus, not to the contrary will of the civil state. Christ’s will is that the church (publicly) worship His Father, (publicly) proclaim the gospel of Him, and (publicly) gather on His day to enjoy His fellowship in the Holy Spirit. This fellowship with Christ Jesus is not a luxury for the believer, but a necessity. It is his salvation.

For a Reformed believer, the conclusive ground of the imperious call to (public) worship every Sabbath day is Lord’s Day 38 of the authoritative creed of the Reformed churches, the Heidelberg Catechism. According to the creed, the fourth commandment of the law of God “requires” the Reformed believer “diligently (to) frequent the church of God, [thus] to hear His word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor.” This (public) gathering of the congregation of Christ is not a mere option, an alternative to be exercised when a state abstains from encroaching on the kingdom of Christ, but the law of God—a law that is part of the first table of God’s law. Obedience to this commandment, declares the Catechism, “becomes a Christian.” Failing to gather with the congregation, then, is unbecoming to a Christian. And gathering with the congregation is impossible if the congregation herself fails to gather.

The civil state is commanded, indeed established, by the Lord Jesus physically to protect His church in her public assembly, not to harass, forbid, and punish the gathering. The latter is persecution, and for this the officials of the state will answer to the Lord Christ.

Since the fourth commandment of the law of God, as rightly explained by the Catechism, is the will of God for all who call themselves “Christian,” the present witness and call to the public worship of the church ought to be the concern of all the Christian churches and members, not only to the Reformed, Presbyterian, and Calvinistic.

The issue is nothing less than the (public) worship of God!

Cordially in Christ,

Prof. David J. Engelsma

Introduction by Dr. Antoine Theron

I am a confessing member of the Free Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Michigan. My Ph.D. studies at Calvin Theological Seminary focused on Guido de Bres, religious liberty, and the Belgic Confession. As a former elder in Reformed churches on different continents, as a member of the Free Reformed Church, and as a Christian concerned about the freedom of the church to worship God according to conscience, it is my honour to contribute to this article, “Children of God and Lockdowns.”

In this article we respond to the remarks of Prof. Jason Van Vliet about government shutdowns of churches in response to COVID-19. In his article, “Children of God and COVID-19,” Prof. Van Vliet asks, “Does there come a point when, out of reverence for the Lord and for the spiritual well-being of his people, we say, ‘We simply must go back to church in a responsible manner and worship in-person’? Is this a time to ‘obey God rather than man’?” His simple answer is “No.” According to him, Christians must simply obey the State’s lockdown of churches.

If Prof. Van Vliet is correct and if obedience to God today requires Christians to obey the State and stop gathering for worship, many pastors, elders, deacons, and church members need to confess their sin and repent: Over the past year many churches (I personally know of dozens, but there are hundreds, possibly thousands) have prayerfully sought to remain faithful to God’s Word by quietly continuing to worship God in ways that disobey, to various degrees, State restrictions. They have not trumpeted their actions, because they act with sadness and they desire no confrontation. These churches include congregations in confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian church federations, and many Baptist and independent churches in North America and worldwide.

Shall we follow Prof. Van Vliet’s conclusion and condemn our brothers and sisters in Christ for their efforts to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29)? I think not. Prof. Van Vliet’s answer, I am convinced, is wrong. As I understand it, he errs by undervaluing corporate public worship. Despite much that is valuable in “Children of God and COVID-19,” its central arguments seem theologically and ethically flawed. Prof. Engelsma, Rev. Hicks, and myself feel compelled to point out why this is the case.

Many additional questions remain to be discussed. If the church of our Lord is to remain “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim.3:15), how will abolishing our worship services affect our church’s public witness? Will the failure to assemble for worship give further currency to the false gods of our age? Are we—also by our worship—careful to be salt and light in the present time (see e.g. Prov. 28:1)? Such questions, overlooked in our present response, nevertheless deserve Christians’ careful consideration.

I trust that many Christians, possibly even Prof. Van Vliet himself, will find this analysis helpful. May God use these discussions to assist believers as they seek to be faithful to God’s Word.

Dr. Antoine Theron

Introduction by Rev. Benjamin Hicks

During this past year we have all been profoundly affected by the COVID-19 virus and the response to it. As pastor of a confessional Reformed congregation in southern Ontario, witnessing the effects of the Lockdown on the members of my congregation has filled me with sorrow. Some examples include children asking their parents why they cannot attend the worship of God, young people suffering from depression and anxiety, families suffering economic hardship, as well as elderly and disabled saints suffering from involuntary loneliness and isolation.

Godly men and women are struggling to understand the nature of the current crisis and what a Biblically faithful response looks like. In particular, as a pastor under Lockdown, I have had to grapple with almost impossible choices. On the one hand, I find myself convinced that faithfulness to God, to my calling, and to my ordination oath require me to defend the corporate worship of God. On the other hand, I fear for my congregation if we ever fail to comply with Lockdown rules.

When a document was commended to me entitled “Children of God and COVID-19” by Prof. Jason Van Vliet of the Canadian Reformed Seminary, I was excited to read it. My hope was that, even if I disagreed with some of its interpretations or conclusions, I would receive some helpful guidance for counseling and leading my flock in these troubled times. However, I was disappointed to find that the arguments it presents are deficient. I remain unpersuaded of the author’s position that the office bearers of the church of Jesus Christ may indefinitely prevent our healthy church members from using the public means of grace merely because the civil government forbids it.

Reading this document and speaking to others about it was nevertheless instructive about the present crisis facing the Reformed churches. Evidently some individuals who advocate this unprecedented step of indefinitely barring the healthy people of God from public worship at the government’s command have found “Children of God and COVID-19” sufficiently persuasive to promote it as a teaching aid. Is it possible that troubled Christians who desire to worship God like our fathers before us will have this document handed to them by their consistories to quiet legitimate concerns?

Publicly disagreeing with eminent teachers in the Reformed churches is not a task that I relish. So far as I am aware, I have never met Prof. Van Vliet and I have no ill will towards him. I have deep respect for the Canadian Reformed Seminary and I love all my brothers and sisters in the Canadian Reformed churches. However, I am in complete disagreement with many things in this article and fear that its impact could be damaging to all Reformed churches. I am concerned that some things in this article are contrary to the central Biblical teaching and the plain meaning of our confessions. For this reason, I feel compelled to contribute to this public response.

My prayer is that, by drawing attention to problems in the reasoning in “Children of God and COVID-19” and by submitting some arguments for the freedom to corporately worship God, this article could serve as a helpful resource. May it be that these words jointly written and affirmed by myself, Prof. David Engelsma and Dr. Antoine Theron will be read by many brothers and sisters with an open mind and an open Bible.

In the service of Jesus Christ,

Rev. Benjamin Hicks

Part 1: The Fifth Commandment

“Children of God and COVID-19” begins well when Prof. Jason Van Vliet affirms his commitment to the principle that we must start with the Word of God also when we reason about COVID related issues. He writes, “God’s Word is the starting point, not the last resort. Our hearts need to run from the divine truth into the miseries of a broken world. Not vice versa. Getting our directions straight from the start is vital.” This is an important methodological commitment, and it forms the best possible basis for discussing our duty as Christians. Unfortunately, his discussion of the fifth commandment soon makes clear that this principle is not always consistently followed.

In the section “The Fifth Commandment and Submission to the Government” Van Vliet raises the important question whether disobedience to the government is ever justified. He starts his reply by pointing out that, taken together, Ex. 20:12, Prov. 24:21, 1 Peter 2:17, and Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 39 ordinarily connect fear and honour to the obedience to be rendered to divinely appointed authority. This is entirely correct. But he then proceeds:

"To be sure, this honour includes obedience and submission (Rom 13:1–5; LD 39 “due obedience”; Church Order Art. 28 “obedience”), but the broader term “honour” is crucial for at least two reasons: it speaks to a certain attitude or disposition with which the obedience is given; it focuses on the person in authority, and the God-given office that he or she holds, not just the particular law or COVID regulation that is presently under scrutiny."

This is a confusing and incorrect articulation of the difference between honour and obedience. Does honour “include” obedience? No, because although honour and obedience ordinarily go together, there is no necessary or inseparable connection between the two. Not complying with abuses of authority does not dishonour the person or office of the one in authority.

Not complying with abuses of authority does not dishonour the person or office of the one in authority.

An example will explain this: Let us imagine that a father leaves for the weekend for a holiday with his wife and leaves a babysitter in charge of his home. Before he leaves, he instructs his children to honour their babysitter by virtue of the authority the father has given her.

Now if the babysitter commanded the children in a legitimate exercise of her authority — telling them to go to bed on time or brush their teeth, for example — they would obviously dishonour her if they disobeyed.

But what if the babysitter suddenly commanded something against the father’s will? What if she told the children to get tattoos at the local tattoo parlor when their father has no wish for them to do so? They could respectfully refuse to comply, and appeal to the house rules established by their father which include nothing about requiring tattoos. Obviously, refusing to comply with an absurd and arbitrary abuse of the babysitter’s authority entails no necessary connection to dishonouring the person nor the “office” of the babysitter.

It is likewise with divinely appointed authorities. As the babysitter receives all her authority from the father, so also the authority of officials like the civil magistrate is not absolute but limited because it is derived from God. This principle is plainly taught in the Word of God, such as in Acts 5:12–32. This passage concerns the high priest and chief priests in the Sanhedrin in the days of the Apostles who had a special office from the Lord. These were persons given divine authority over the people. Yet they were also wicked men who abused their authority: they were “filled with indignation” (Acts 5:17) at the ministry of Peter and the Apostles and “put them in the common prison” (Acts 5:18). When the Apostles were freed, they continued to publicly teach the people about Christ (Acts 5:21). Indignant and fearful at this noncompliance, those in authority summoned the Lord’s servants before their council and told them: “Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us.” (Acts 5:28) The reply of Peter the Apostles is highly instructive: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

In other words, the principle we are taught in Acts 5:12–32 is that where God does not approve of an abuse of authority, such abusive action is the “authority” of mere men who pit themselves against God’s authority. The choice in such circumstances is whether to obey God’s authority or man’s “authority” — a choice that should be self-evident to the godly. We recognize this Biblical principle whenever we celebrate the memory of Christians like William Tyndale, Guido de Bres, John Bunyan, and Hendrick De Cock who have followed in the footsteps of the Apostles in not complying with antichristian abuses of government authority.

Unfortunately, the conflation of honour and obedience at the very outset of the discussion of the fifth commandment confuses the reasoning that follows. For example, “Children of God and COVID-19” soon continues:

"In short, it is not just about the what but also about the who. In the context of COVID we also need to think of, and show love toward, our governing officials as people. Perhaps it is helpful to put their names before ourselves. In my own geographical context of Ontario, Canada, names like Mr. Doug Ford, Dr. David Williams, and Dr. Barbara Yaffe come to mind. In your locale names of other politicians and public health officers dominate the headlines.

Whatever we may think about the regulations concerning religious gatherings that have come from their hands, we must remember to treat these governing officials as real, finite people, struggling to fulfill their responsibilities in a situation that is rapidly changing and does not have easy, textbook answers. In short, the question “to obey or not obey?” may be helpfully re-cast as “how can we best to fear God and honour the governing officials in a complex situation?”

Fundamentally, there is no conflict between fearing God and honouring the governing officials because it is God himself who has “instituted” their authority. For this very reason, the apostle also warns that “whoever resists authorities resists what God has appointed” (Rom. 13:1–2). This is indeed a sobering truth!"

Only if one distinguishes between honour and obedience can the above statement be Biblically defended. If one does not distinguish them, it cannot. To return to the example of the tattoo-enthusiast babysitter: she, too, is a “real, finite” person “struggling to fulfill [her] responsibilities in a situation that is rapidly changing and does not have easy, textbook answers.” We grant that she must be honoured by the children insofar as she is the babysitter the father has placed over them. But this is irrelevant to the question of whether these children may refuse to comply with her abuse of authority in requiring tattoos. Of course they can and must refuse to comply! Likewise, the fact that the civil magistrate must be honoured for the sake of God says nothing about the supposed requirement to submit to abuses of government authority. In this way Prof. Van Vliet’s confusion of categories obscures the nature of the question at hand and is likely to confuse his readers. (The same confusion concerning the relation of honour and obedience is also evident later in the section entitled “Many Different Governing Officials.”)

The quotation above also raises another problem. It suggests that fearing God simply requires obeying (which it equates with honouring) governing officials in a way that makes the question “to obey or not obey?” unhelpful. It cites, in passing, Rom. 13:1–2 as proof. But is this the teaching of Rom. 13? Of course, Rom. 13 is highly relevant and has been much cited in recent Christian discussions of government lockdowns. Yet this first discussion of Rom. 13 in “Children of God and COVID-19” offers readers no careful treatment of this passage in its original context. Rather, it seems to imply that refusing to comply with every decree of any government official —no matter how unjust or arbitrary—would be to resist God’s divinely appointed ordinance. Surely Prof. Van Vliet does not believe that this is what the Holy Spirit intended us to take from Rom. 13? Such a position would be imposing a meaning on the words of Rom. 13 which contradicts Acts 5:29 and is therefore in error.

It is, in fact, the fear of God that makes the question whether “to obey or not to obey” the governing authorities a burning one. This is the question that Christian martyrs throughout history could not avoid. To give one example: In the sixteenth century, many believers in the Netherlands disobeyed the law to continue to assemble in (forbidden) churches under the preaching of Guido de Bres, the author of the Belgic Confession. One family in whose house such a secret church regularly assembled were arrested and interrogated in 1555. The father, Robert Oguier, confessed that they had broken the law: “I knew that the emperor had forbidden it, but what then? I also knew that Jesus Christ had commanded it. I could not obey the one without disobeying the other. I desired to obey my God rather than a human.” Robert and his son Beaudoin were burned at the stake while singing Psalm 16. Eight days later his wife Johanna and younger son Maarten were likewise burned alive.

In Prof. Van Vliet’s section “Our Actions and Their Wider Effects” there are further problems. A principle is distilled from 1 Tim. 2:2, 1 Peter 2:15, and Matt. 5:16: “In other words, the Lord requires us to interact with the government in such a way that, to the best of our ability, we are at peace with them and they with us.” We can know how well we are performing this duty, Prof. Van Vliet explains, by whether people ignorant of the Bible have good things to say about us. Now this is a fine enough maxim, provided that all that is meant is that we should avoid offending unbelievers or those in authority. However, we hope that no Christian will conclude from this argument that passivity towards injustice or cowering in the face of abusive government officials is anywhere countenanced by the Word of God. John the Baptizer is an excellent example of someone who submitted to officials in authority in a godly way, but who nevertheless angered the king by rightly rebuking him for transgressing the law of God (Matthew 14:4).