(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).
Prof. Van Vliet then continues:
"All this to say that we may not simply say, “We must contradict the government orders and resume in-person worship, and so far as what the government, or our neighbours, or the media thinks or says about this, we just have to let the chips fall where they may!” True, we cannot control what other people think and say, especially biased media channels. It is also true that we must not be driven by what others may think of us. Then the world would be turning the steering wheel of the church. But we do need to take the wider effects of our action into consideration and do the best that we can, also in this respect. This is not pragmatism; it is also obedience to the Word of God. Along these lines, Art 36 of the Belgic Confession and Art 28 of the Reformed Church Order encourage us strongly to maintain good relations with governing officials: All office-bearers are in duty bound to impress diligently and sincerely upon the whole congregation the obedience, love, and respect which are due to the civil authorities; they shall set a good example to the whole congregation in this matter, and endeavour by due respect and communication to secure and retain the favour of the authorities towards the church, so that the church of Christ may lead a quiet and peaceful life, godly and respectful in every way."
The first sentence in the above paragraph is obviously the position Prof. Van Vliet wants to establish. But has he actually supported it with cogent reasoning? We do not believe he has. Again, as long as these principles are understood in ways that carefully harmonize with the other teachings in the Word of God, we can agree with them. However, the paragraph quoted above leaves unclear how implementing these principles faithfully in a context of state abuse of authority will actually look like. In the book of Acts we observe that the Apostles were frequently reviled, insulted, persecuted, mocked, punished, imprisoned, beaten, stoned, arrested, and killed — often by the civil authorities themselves. Why should we expect anything different in our own day?
Remember that the principles that steer our action in the present case of government restrictions may soon face the test of additional laws. If the government makes a law forbidding Christian ministers to condemn homosexuality as a sin against God, for example, it is conceivable that the only way for preachers to avoid the wrath of rulers and the hatred of the broader population will be to betray Jesus Christ by muting their declaration of the whole counsel of God. As ever, to avoid causing offense would be a tempting short-term way to avoid persecution by a state opposed to Biblical truth. We are not satisfied that Prof. Van Vliet’s article does enough to seriously and straightforwardly warn against such temptation.
Prof. Van Vliet’s quotation of Article 28 in his denomination’s version of the Church Order gives important parameters for the behaviour of office bearers. But this article cannot possibly suggest absolute obedience to any human government, or the Church Order would be contrary to Scripture. We also commend for consideration the version of this article adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1914. This version is retained to the present day by the Protestant Reformed Church and other Reformed denominations:
"The consistory shall take care that the churches, for the possession of their property and the peace and order of their meetings, can claim the protection of the authorities; it should be well understood, however, that for the sake of peace and material possession they may never suffer the royal government of Christ over his church to be in the least infringed upon."
Surely all Reformed churches will agree that the principle cited above is sound and biblical. The question then confronts us: Does a state’s prohibiting public worship infringe upon the royal government of Christ over his church?
In the section “The Unjust Governors” Prof. Van Vliet circles back to Rom. 13, again without a careful exposition of the passage. He points out the very biblical principle that, “The authority of human governors is not absolute. We also confess in BC [Belgic Confession] 36 that we ‘obey them in all things which do not disagree with the Word of God.’” Unfortunately, his explanation of the implications of this principle is overly narrow:
"Douma also makes a helpful comment when he defines authority as “the authorization for the (appropriate) use of power” (p. 185). As he explains, the parentheses in his definition are significant. God authorizes officials to use the power he gives them appropriately. Due to their sinfulness, they do not always do that. However, inappropriate action on their part does not immediately negate their authorization. They are still authorized, and therefore they must still be honoured and obeyed. However, if their inappropriate action persists then, with due process, their actions may be corrected, or ultimately, their authorization may be removed. In the church, for example, inappropriate action by an office bearer leads to verbal censure and perhaps even suspension and deposition. But until such a point, the elder remains worthy of the respect due his office."
This example of the church office bearer conveys a sub-biblical understanding of authority. It is not true that every command of a ruling elder or pastor must be obeyed in order to honour their God-given office. If a ruling elder capriciously commanded a church member to stand on one leg and sing the song “Old McDonald had a Farm,” this would obviously be an abuse of his God-given authority. It would certainly be appropriate for the church member to make use of official ecclesiastical channels to have this ruling elder censured or disciplined. However, it must also be said that this church member may and should flatly refuse to comply with his elder’s command because he is obviously acting outside the parameters of his office’s God given authority and acting on merely human authority. In short, this church member should obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29).
The more careful understanding about what the Bible teaches about authority (including the authority of the civil magistrate) is certainly not new. The great Presbyterian divine Samuel Rutherford sets this forth in his magisterial work of Reformed political theory Lex Rex, written in 1644:
"I lay down this maxim of divinity: Tyranny being a work of Satan, is not from God, because sin, either habitual or actual, is not from God; the power that is, must be from God; the magistrate, as magistrate, is good in nature of office, and the intrinsic end of his office, (Rom. 13:4) for he is the minister of God for thy good; and, therefore, a power ethical, politic, or moral, to oppress, is not from God, and is not a power, but a licentious deviation of a power; and is no more from God, but from sinful nature and the old serpent, than a license to sin."
In the section “Sphere Sovereignty” Prof. Van Vliet then attempts to apply the political theology of Abraham Kuyper to the present crisis. He writes:
"At present the government is not regulating in general terms how the church should worship. It is not making proclamations about how the gospel should, or should not, be preached or what should, or should not, be included in the order of liturgy. Rather, for the most part, due to public health concern, the government is regulating matters of “building capacity” during worship services. Here in Ontario we have gone from 100% capacity in church buildings (pre-COVID), to five in total, to 30% of building capacity, to ten in total (the present regulation at the time of writing). To be sure, these fluctuating building capacity numbers have had a great impact on our manner of worship, so far as online or in person worship is concerned. But to be precise, the government is regulating in the sphere of “building capacity with a view to public health and safety,” not worship in general."
Prof. Van Vliet acknowledges that the effect of the government regulations is to change “our manner of worship.” Yet somehow this “is not regulating in general terms how the church should worship”? To take recourse to such subtle distinctions seem expedient and desperate.
Using the language of “the sphere of building capacity with a view to public health and safety” creates further problems. This seems to be a curiously comprehensive “sphere.” Can we, following this logic, give a Kuyperian legitimation of any legislation governing “the sphere of outdoor spaces” or even “the sphere of all habitable space on planet earth”? Would Prof. Van Vliet please clarify how this view of “sphere sovereignty” leaves the church or the individual believer with anything more than the hidden realm of the heart and the inner thoughts? If this is authentic Kuyperianism, one would have to conclude that Kuyperianism is a theological legitimation of state totalitarianism. However, it is more likely that the pious man who said “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” would not recognize his thought in this modern interpretation.
“Children of God and COVID-19” continues:
"Building capacity with a view to public safety is the proper jurisdiction of the civil government. We recognize this, for example, with adherence to fire codes. If a church auditorium has been approved for a capacity of 300 in the fire code, and a congregation regularly puts 350 people in the building Sunday after Sunday, the fire department, with the backing of the state, may say: “Something has to change here with your worship services because you cannot pack 350 in the building every Sunday; it’s not safe.” That is not a case of a confusion of sphere sovereignty, or the state telling the church how to worship. It is the state exercising its God-given jurisdiction. True enough, and this cannot be ignored, limiting the number of people in a church building due to the fire code can have a significant impact on worship and the congregation has some (hard) decisions to make. But it is not a transgression of sphere sovereignty.
Granted, comparing a local fire code to a severe, lockdown-style COVID regulation may feel like a stretch. Indeed, there are differences. From a number of different angles, the consequences of COVID regulations are so much more challenging to deal with, but in principle there is an overlap with the situation of the local fire codes. So, the comparison is meant to illustrate a point: there are certain areas within the life of a congregation over which the government does properly have jurisdiction."
But in this argument Prof. Van Vliet assumes about “the proper jurisdiction of the civil government” what he first needs to prove. To the contrary, nowhere does the Bible give authority over “public safety” to the civil government to the exclusion of the government of the church, the government of the family, and the government of the individual in their respective God-appointed roles and responsibilities. Rom. 13:4 says concerning the civil magistrate “he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” There is nothing in Rom. 13 about public safety per se, only the punishment of evildoers and the protection of those who do good. In other words: the enforcement of public justice according to the standard of God’s moral law is all the official responsibility that is given by God to the civil government.
There are times when God’s moral law entails enacting and enforcing laws that preserve the lives of others through the regulation of buildings (Deut. 22:8) and quarantining of individuals who are demonstrably sick (Lev. 13). Obviously, laws that place sensible limits on building capacity such as a fire code do not impede but ultimately protect and preserve the continued public worship of God in our nations. Growing churches may simply find another place to worship, choose to plant a daughter church, or renovate their building to ensure the safety of all. Even civil laws that prevent demonstrably sick people from attending public gatherings might be required in extreme cases by the moral law.
However, nowhere in God’s moral law is there any prohibition on healthy people gathering in safe buildings to publicly worship God. In fact, since for most congregations a ten person limit on worship services has the effect of abolishing public worship services for the majority of the congregation, this is in clear defiance of the first table of the law requiring regular corporate worship. And, therefore, since whatever is contrary to the moral law and Word of God does not bind the conscience, unjust health regulations do not bind the conscience and need not be complied with. To suggest otherwise would have dreadful implications for the persecuted church in all countries that are hostile to the gospel, since public worship can be permanently banned simply by changing health and safety regulations.
In the section entitled “The Exceptions: Obey God Rather than Man” Prof. Van Vliet begins to address passages like Acts 5:29:
"This raises the question: is the government today commanding us to break one or more of God’s commands? Actually, looking at it from one angle, by limiting the capacity in our church buildings during COVID, they intend to point us in the direction of the same truth that is expressed in one of God’s commands, namely, the sixth. The government is instructing us to “protect [our neighbour] from harm as much as we can” (LD 40). Now we can discuss, and even dispute, whether limiting building capacity actually accomplishes that goal of protecting our neighbour from harm. Nevertheless, the intention of the government is in line with the sixth commandment.
Also, because it is hard to argue that this is clearly an exception (like it was for Daniel or Peter), there is the possibility that engaging in civil disobedience would further fracture our congregations, some of which are already experiencing a degree of internal tension over matters related to government restrictions and regulations due to COVID."
The first thing to be said in response is that the state in several jurisdictions of North America is not merely “instructing” but commanding and compelling the officers of the church. The use of euphemism obscures the harsh truth of the matter. Is it not so that many churches are being threatened and bullied by the state into obeying commands they otherwise, absent the fear of legal consequences, would not? Even the possibility of this happening to any confessional Reformed church is serious and should not be minimized.
Second, Prof. Van Vliet argues that because the professed intention of the state is to preserve life, these rules are legitimate — even though he acknowledges that the rules may not preserve life at all! We shudder to think of the implications if this principle is consistently followed. Almost all laws attacking the Word of God are promoted as minimizing harm to our neighbours, preserving life, showing love, etc. What would happen if we complied with every rule where the government can argue that some good or loving consequence may result? To take a current example, Bill C-6 the “anti-conversion therapy” bill (soon to be passed into law by the Canadian Federal government) is written with the intention of preserving life. Its drafters argue that counseling homosexuals to repent from their sin violates the sixth commandment because this potentially causes them harm, including deaths by suicide. Therefore, we must stop calling homosexuals to repentance. This absurd conclusion follows from the wrong premise that good intentions make a government law just and legitimate. But we all know where a road of “good intentions” leads.
Third, where congregations are divided on the issue of whether the cessation of public worship is warranted by the present crisis, a remedy would be that consistories give good, sound instruction on the matter. How will indefinitely shutting down the public worship of God possibly improve matters—especially if this follows from government coercion more than from church leaders’ loving measures to care for the flock? Will this not fracture many congregations? How long do we imagine that the people of God who are able and willing to worship according to God’s command can endure such a heavy yoke of burden placed upon them? More importantly, the possibility of grieving the Holy Spirit and kindling God’s wrath on our churches is a prospect more fearful than that of causing division among church members.
PART 2: The Fourth Commandment
Prof. Van Vliet’s article “Children of God and COVID-19” correctly recognizes that accurate interpretation and application of the fourth commandment is central to a faithful response to the present crisis. Confessionally Reformed believers affirm that God wants his new covenant church to set apart the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10) as holy to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection. But what does this Commandment practically entail? We believe this is accurately explained by the Heidelberg Catechism:
"What does God require in the fourth commandment?
First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that especially on the sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God, to hear His word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian. Secondly, that all the days of my life I cease from my evil works, and yield myself to the Lord, to work by His Holy Spirit in me; and thus begin in this life the eternal sabbath."
This explanation of the Heidelberg Catechism (in Lord’s Day 38) clearly reflects the historical Reformed position concerning corporate worship — worship that includes physically gathering together. This is derived from the teaching of God's Word that His promise of blessing is given to the church as they literally gather together to worship. This is commendably explained by Prof. Van Vliet himself at one point:
"In the OT the Lord clearly told his people to step out of their homes and go to worship him in the city of his own choosing (Deut 12). The Psalmist rejoices in going to the house of the Lord (Ps 122). Also in the NT, the Holy Spirit not only describes God’s people coming together on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 11:20; 14:6), but he also prescribes that we do so, not neglecting to meet together but rather doing so all the more as we see the Day approaching (Heb 10:25). We cannot gloss over this aspect lightly. Without a doubt this is what we miss the most in lockdown. More than that, it is what burdens our consciences because it is part of God’s command. In connection with the fourth commandment, LD 38 also speaks of “diligently attending the church of God.” My family room is not the church of God, is it?"
Scripture is clear, Prof. Van Vliet is saying: God commands our gathering together in worship. This clear teaching of Scripture should really allow a swift conclusion to discussions about the legitimacy of shutting down the public worship of God at the command of the state.
Instead, “Children of God and COVID-19” makes a surprising argument concerning the recently invented concept of “remote worship” or “online worship.” These terms refer to individuals or families watching sermons via the internet on an electronic device such as a computer or a phone. Not only traditional “in person worship” but also so-called “remote worship” is a form of corporate worship, the argument goes:
"None of the comments, or suggestions, made above takes away from the fact that online, corporate worship is vastly inferior to unencumbered, face-to-face public worship in a church auditorium. Yet there is a difference between imperfect and illegitimate. If the consistory calls the congregation to public, corporate worship, if it retains to the very best of its ability all the key elements of worship, and especially if it assembles the congregation together in one physical (albeit non-traditional) place or one digital space, online worship is still legitimate—albeit compromised—corporate worship. In this way, we can fulfill the fourth commandment, also within lockdown restrictions."
Online worship, in other words, is regarded as a form of corporate worship; it is imperfect and compromised, indeed, but not so imperfect and compromised as to disqualify it as public and corporate worship. Sadly, this understanding endangers the orthodox Reformed doctrine of the church. Despite the qualification given in the first sentence of the paragraph quoted above, we must with sorrow reject with all our heart the words that follow. There is no biblical category in terms of which “digital space” qualifies as an acceptable substitute for worshippers gathering together literally and physically.
There is no biblical category in terms of which “digital space” qualifies as an acceptable substitute for worshippers gathering together literally and physically.
We readily grant that listening to recordings or live streams of sermons is a helpful means of edification. God is merciful to bless it to the good of his saints, including those providentially hindered from gathering with the church in corporate worship. But it is another matter entirely to argue that the recently invented concept of “online worship” is really a form of corporate worship. It is not. By its very nature, watching a video on your phone or computer is an individual or family activity. When a congregation of believers do not physically gather together the corporate worship of the church does not happen.
How does Prof. Van Vliet arrive at his position? His interpretation of the aforementioned passage of the Heidelberg Catechism is instructive:
"In LD 38 we confess that we participate in four main activities in corporate worship: 1) hearing God’s Word; 2) using the sacraments; 3) calling publicly upon the LORD; 4) giving Christian offerings for the poor. Via livestreaming technology and e-transfers it is possible, with relative ease, to participate in #1, #3, and #4."
But this explanation skips over the explicit first element of corporate worship in our Catechism: the gathering together of worshippers. “I am to diligently attend the assembly of God’s people,” or to “diligently frequent the church of God,” as some translations put it. Moreover, the Catechism adds that this public worship “becomes a Christian.” Thus, failure to gather for public worship is unbecoming a Christian. This is the plain meaning of the Catechism’s summary of Biblical teaching.
Obviously, this discussion is not merely academic. The implications are very serious in many contexts across North American. Every confessionally Reformed consistory under government Lockdown is now prayerfully grappling with the key question: “do our church’s current policies concerning corporate worship truly give glory to God according to the Biblical teaching of our confessions?” To help every consistory answer this question, the following additional considerations might assist in interpreting and applying the fourth commandment as understood by our confessions.
First, Christ is the only head of the church (Col.1:18). This was correctly understood by the Reformed, Puritan and Secession fathers to mean that the worship and government of the church is instituted and regulated by the authority and commands of Christ alone (Matt. 28:20). Therefore we may not add to or subtract from the Biblical standard of worship in any way. This principle is identified historically as the regulative principle of worship. Our Belgic Confession addresses the regulative principle in article 32:
"[W]e believe, though it is useful and beneficial, that those who are rulers of the Church institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the church: they ought studiously to take care that they do not depart from the those things which Christ, our only Master, hath instituted. And therefore, we reject all human inventions, and all laws which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatsoever."
The Heidelberg Catechism contains the same teaching when it instructs us: “We are not to… worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word” (Lord’s Day 35). We must therefore ask: how is forbidding congregants to come to the public worship of God and receive the sacraments not a human-made law that illegitimately infringes on the conscience? Has the Lord of the conscience not commanded us to worship him corporately by literally gathering together? If the officers of the church have vowed to protect the consciences of our church members by resisting human laws, how is it permissible to require our congregations to comply with them? These are important questions.
Second, Belgic Confession article 28 defines the true church as an “assembly.” Moreover, in the same context it forbids obeying laws that prevent joining such an assembly:
"We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them. And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God has established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those, who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God."
Laws by the civil magistrate, therefore, do not abrogate the requirement to unite with the true assembly, the true church. That Guido de Bres, the author of the Belgic Confession, was here thinking also about assembling for public worship is strongly suggested by the French Confession (1559) which De Bres, with minor changes, shaped into the Belgic Confession. Article 26 of the French Confession, written by Calvin and Chandieu, states that believers are to “submit to the public teaching. . . even if the magistrates and their edicts are contrary to it. For if they do not take part in it, or if they separate themselves from it, they do contrary to the Word of God.”
This was well understood by the churches pastored by De Bres. We have already mentioned (in Part 1 of this article) the Reformed believer Beaudoin Oguier, arrested for illegally hosting assemblies for worship under De Bres’s preaching. While suffering imprisonment and torture, Oguier wrote to encourage his fellow believers: “My brothers, I plead with you with passion and with all my heart, in the name of our Lord, for which I and others are imprisoned: Guard yourself that you do not forsake your holy assemblies out of fear of your enemies.”
We do not claim to have all the answers concerning how to apply the strong and clear words of the Belgic Confession in the difficult context of a pastoral ministry where many sensitive souls under our charge do not feel liberty or safety in gathering in defiance of the civil magistrate or threat of sickness. Obviously wisdom, care, and patience is needed in such cases. Yet it is nevertheless vital that all those who have vowed to uphold our Confession take all its words very seriously. This entails seeking every lawful and loving means to teach this doctrine and put it into practice.
Third, the Biblical examples of the apostles and early church are also relevant. These confirm that physically gathering together is a vital element of corporate worship. Not even the threat, or indeed the actual reality, of death deterred them from such gathering. In fact, regularly gathering in defiance of the civic and religious authorities resulted in divine blessings. In Acts 4, while threatened by the very authorities who had just killed Christ, the disciples nevertheless gathered together to pray and worship. They were then rewarded with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and boldness. In Acts 12, many were gathered together praying for the release of Peter from prison. He was then delivered from prison to the very house where they were gathered. In Acts 17, the believers were persecuted in Thessalonica, and the civil authorities intervened to crush this new movement. Yet we know that they nevertheless continued to gather together. They were blessed with two books of the Bible written specifically to their church.
Fourth, it is true that the early church did not have the technology that we do today for remote worship. However, they had some means of spreading teaching if they wished to stay safe and unnoticed. The epistles of the Apostles could have been passed around secretly and no doubt sometimes were. Yet in Acts the apostles continually take actions that make themselves vulnerable to legal prosecution. For example, they preached within the temple itself, at marketplaces, on Mars Hill, and in local synagogues. They also gathered together daily, although doing so would have attracted attention and unfavourable comment. They were not content with anything less than physical gatherings and in-person preaching, even when their own brethren were being executed and imprisoned.
They were not content with anything less than physical gatherings and in-person preaching, even when their own brethren were being executed and imprisoned.
Fifth, forsaking public worship out of obedience to government laws is inconsistent with our Reformed tradition and the very notion must be judged historically implausible. In conformity to the teaching of Scripture, our Reformed fathers placed such a high priority upon the church’s gathering for public worship that most of them would likely have rejected such a position forthright.
Confirming this priority of public worship is the practical example of many Reformation churches and preachers in history. The author of the Belgic confession Guido de Bres, to name but one, routinely preached at church assemblies forbidden by law, whether at secret “house church” meetings or at large illegal gatherings outside the cities, often guarded by (illegally) armed Protestants, for example at Bosquillon de la Haye and Bois de la Commune. The royal government justified its prohibition of such church assemblies and preaching by various reasons: There were tensions of a war with France and Reformed preachers in the southern Netherlands (like De Bres) were French, preaching was often followed by protests and public Psalm-singing and even raids on prisons to free prisoners, and preaching sometimes produced violent insurrection, like the iconoclastic beeldenstorm in 1566. Public safety, peace, and civil order required the strict regulation of public assemblies and preaching, the government argued. However, for Guido de Bres, the government’s reasons, whether sincere or not, apparently made little difference.
Similarly, the importance of corporate public worship to the Secession churches in the nineteenth century is evident from the fines, imprisonment, and other punishments that men, women, and children risked for the sake of assembling in greater numbers than the legal maximum of twenty persons. Their sufferings at the hand of an unsympathetic (nominally Christian!) government are recorded by their contemporary, the eminent lawyer Groen van Prinsterer. He makes clear that the Secession fathers demonstrated they were willing to pay any cost to guard the sacred ministry that Christ had entrusted to them. God blessed their faithfulness by restoring the freedom of the church in their nation. Many other instructive examples from our history could be given.
PART 3: The Sixth Commandment
We are thankful to see that Prof. Van Vliet wrote several sensible things in the section “Protecting our Neighbour from Harm” in his discussion of the sixth commandment. For example, we concur with the following paragraph:
"In our common confession, we have all agreed to protect our neighbour “from as much harm as we can” (LD 40). This is part of loving our neighbour by obeying the sixth commandment. Generally speaking, common sense goes a long way in determining how to protect our neighbour from harm: we drive safely when we are on the roads; we make sure we shovel and salt our sidewalks; and we even help an elderly lady get up the steps by lending a hand lest she should break a bone.
True, however there is a limit to all this: “as much harm as we can.” If we never leave our houses at all, presumably we will never infect anyone with a contagious sickness that we may contract. But at a certain point, I need to get some food, otherwise I will recklessly endanger myself, as we also recognize in LD 40."
We urge that these principles be situated in a holistic Scriptural view of love (Mat. 22:38). Scripture teaches that love for God is the chief commandment, and takes precedence over our love for our neighbour. Further, love for God is defined by the first four commandments (see Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 34.) This has been a well-established principle throughout church history, and throughout the world even among the persecuted church today. Most Christians should understand this because from childhood many of us have read stories of martyrs and missionaries. These are people who have willingly sacrificed their own lives (although Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 40 reminds us that self-preservation is included within the sixth commandment) and the lives of others, rather than deny Christ in any way.
Many Christians throughout the ages could have avoided such persecution if they had only obeyed the government’s laws, and refrained from putting their allegiance to Christ into action. Simply believing differently in their hearts or worshiping in their homes would not have attracted the wrath of hostile rulers. Hosting or attending illegal church gatherings, on the other hand, can attract the most extreme of penalties. Yet Christians throughout these times have continued to gather, and have died in great numbers for it. Many of our church libraries contain books extolling these so-called “law-breakers” who put themselves and their families at risk of persecution, torture, and death rather than neglect the public worship of God. Should these books now be removed as “divisive”?
Further, the principle of protecting our neighbour from “as much harm as we can,” has traditionally been interpreted quite conservatively by the Reformed church. Why has our tradition carefully avoided dictating to individuals how the principle of protecting our neighbour from harm must apply? Because to do so would infringe on areas of Christian liberty. The Amish, in contrast, use this principle (at least in part) to justify prohibiting their members from owning automobiles. Their rationale is that when driving an automobile you risk causing harm to your neighbour, to a far greater extent than if you use a horse and buggy. Therefore, as an application of the sixth commandment they do not drive. Likewise if we mandated that church members tithe 50% of their income to social causes and aid organizations, many lives could be improved or spared. Yet the Reformed mandate no such thing. Nor should churches typically intervene in members’ personal or family health decisions. One family is persuaded that by vaccinating their children they fulfill the sixth commandment, another refrains for the same reason. The Reformed church neither disciplines nor bans either. (This is a relevant example, as some government officials are ominously suggesting that those who refuse a COVID-19 vaccination may be prohibited from participating in many aspects of public life, possibly including church gatherings.)
We can therefore frame the relevant question as follows. May the Reformed church bind the consciences of her members by extra-biblical rules because these rules might avoid possible harm to our neighbours? Not without opening the floodgates of endless and intolerable ecclesiastical tyranny. It is not good enough simply to say that we must use our own authority to command our congregants to go “an extra mile or two.” So important are issues here concerned that the very identity of the Reformed church is at stake.
Nevertheless, we commend Prof. Van Vliet for attempting to uphold an important Biblical principle: the preservation of life. To advance the discussion he has begun, we now venture to make the following recommendations as fallible men with finite understanding. We recommend that those members of Reformed churches who have tested positive for COVID-19 (or have confirmed contact with someone who has tested positive) should follow local health guidelines such that they stay away from public worship gatherings until a safe amount of time has passed. Also, those members who have symptoms of sickness should refrain from attending worship until they are well (Lev. 13). While every particular context is different, it is conceivable that in many contexts these few simple policies would discharge much or all of our duty with respect to the sixth commandment as it concerns COVID and the public worship of God. We respect every consistory’s right to weigh these recommendations in light of their local context and come to their own conclusions.
No doubt the freedom these recommendations leave for particular churches will not satisfy Prof. Van Vliet. In “Children of God and COVID-19” he proceeds to lay the theological groundwork for an apparently indefinite shutdown to public worship. Thus we read in the section entitled “Most of Us Are Not Doctors”:
"As in many other areas of life, the Internet has invited us all to become experts in whatever area we would like. Heaps of information are but a click away. Almost instantly we can find the studies or the statistics we prefer. But just as we would not want to learn about how to do open-heart surgery by watching YouTube videos, so we ought to be careful about determining for ourselves the kind, or the extent, of public health protocols that are most effective to curb the coronavirus. If our doctors are struggling to figure this out, why would the rest of us think we have a firm grip on what is appropriate or responsible?
We need to trust their expertise, while at the same time not naively swallowing everything that comes our way from them through the media. Yes, there is a need for that constructively critical and respectfully contrary voice that questions whether the presented facts are all correct, and correctly interpreted. By the same token, even if the government officials present incomplete or skewed data, this does not give us reason to stop obeying God’s commands concerning them. We may certainly seek to correct them, but we must not stop honouring them."
Of course, we do not advocate disobeying God’s commandments concerning the civil magistrate and our position entails no such thing. Rather, we advocate refusing to comply with abusive and illegitimate government laws that would entail that we break God’s commandments requiring the continued and regular corporate worship of God on the Lord’s day.
With respect to the above statements by Prof. Van Vliet, we are deeply concerned that they reflect insufficient appreciation for the doctrine of sola scriptura as it concerns the officers of the church and the sufficiency of Scripture. In this regard we think of 2 Timothy 3:16–17: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”
We would draw attention to the phrase “all good works.” It is important to note that the Holy Spirit inspired these words with the perfect understanding that viruses like COVID-19 (and pestilences that are much more dangerous!) would need to be addressed by the ministers and elders of the church. Yet even so, this passage makes clear that the God-breathed Scriptures provide a perfect amount of revelation for ordained men of God. This would include what they require concerning all the moral criteria for decisions in their calling to govern the church and lead the public worship of God. Accordingly, pastors and elders need to take very seriously their responsibility before God to make their own informed judgments about the relative danger posed by COVID to their congregations. These judgments must be made by the standard of Scriptural teaching and principles alone. Therefore, it is illegitimate to cede oversight of the church of God to unelected “medical expects” dictating policy to governments.
Therefore, it is illegitimate to cede oversight of the church of God to unelected “medical expects” dictating policy to governments.
We will all answer before God for our actions and decisions according to what we know and can know (Luke 12:48). Our counsel to troubled office bearers who are confused about how to proceed with COVID issues is therefore this: spend some time alone in prayer, seek out informed and varied opinions about the nature of the threat of COVID, and then exercise your judgment according to Biblical principles alone. If you did not have sufficient gifts and abilities to do this with the Lord’s help, He would not have called you to your office. Then, having arrived at your best understanding of what the Bible teaches about these things, let the fear of “Him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell” steel your resolve to remain firm to boldly, patiently and lovingly advocate for your Biblical convictions within your consistory (Matthew 10:28).
Prof. Van Vliet continues in the section “Being Careful with Each Other’s Consciences”:
"In grappling with COVID restrictions, brothers and sisters in the Lord have come to different conclusions on practical matters. For example, not everyone agrees on what constitutes a legitimate exemption from wearing a mask or even whether it is proper to wear a mask before God in worship. Let us bear in mind that all of this is not easy for any of us to figure out. Let us think the best of each other’s intentions, uphold each other in prayer, and exerting ourselves to find practical solutions that lead to peace, not further friction. In this way, our almighty Lord will be praised, and our mutual joy will be increased."
We agree with the above statements, and would only add a friendly reminder of the absolute necessity that all Reformed office bearers must ensure that they always act fully and consistently with their oath before God to uphold the Biblical teaching of Belgic Confession Article 32. This directly forbids any and all non-biblical impositions on the consciences of our members.
The final statement in “Children of God and COVID-19” we wish to comment upon is found in the section “Overall Summary”:
"One final thing lingers in our minds: the government always speaks in terms of temporary restrictions (e.g, two weeks, 28 days, etc). We sincerely pray that it will be so. But, if we are honest, there can be a gnawing sense of indefiniteness to all this temporariness. In the meantime, our councils and congregations are suffering, weakened, discouraged. We see the bride of Christ in her travail and we say, “How long?” At a certain point, before the bride becomes too wounded, do we just have to do something more… for the sake of the bride?"
Two actions are then suggested this regard: respectful engagement with the authorities (including court challenges) and an indefinite transition to an online substitute for assembled corporate worship, respectively. The first course of action is worthy of consideration. The second course of action we cannot endorse in any way because we do not agree that it is Biblically justified or defensible.
We add the following two concluding thoughts for everyone’s prayerful consideration. First, may all Christians eagerly seek out opportunities for constant prayer, fasting, and pleading with our covenant Lord to mercifully lift the fearful judgments that He in His wisdom has placed over the churches of Canada and several other places. Second, if it should prove true that there is “sin within the camp,” remember that no such prayers will be heard by Him without repentance (Joshua 7:11–13).
Sola Dei Gloria
Prof. David Engelsma, Professor Emeritus of Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary
Dr. Antoine Theron, Confessing Member of Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church
Rev. Benjamin Hicks, Pastor of London Free Reformed Church