This is one of the longest words in our languages (and also very hard to say many times fast!).
It, along with its antonym, disestablishmentarianism, is what this post is about.
We live in a time of heightened individualism. Even institutions like the state are now commonly and even brazenly flouted. This tension has been heightened during the pandemic, with some heeding government orders and others protesting or even rebelling against them.
How ought Christians to respond to governments during a pandemic? During church closures?
There is certainly a wide spectrum of opinions on the matter of closures, with some radically wanting to keep things shut and others radically wanting things to open (I’m probably in the middle leaning towards cautious reopening). Wherever your opinion rests, such a reflection raises the question of how Christians should respond to government orders.
Jesus famously, and very helpfully said, in Mt 22:21: give to Caesar [the gov’t] the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are God’s. In other words, there is the kingdom of this world which is ending and the Kingdom of God which has come/ is coming. There are two worlds, two cities; yet Christians live in both and so have a responsibility to God, firstly, but also to authorities whom God has set over us for our good. The general principle is that if the authorities ask anything of us that is contrary to God’s law then we are justified in thoughtfully disobeying; but if they ask us to do something that doesn’t go against God’s law we are called to submit, even when we may not like it. This is the spirit of Ro 13 and 1 Peter 2:13–5.
When it comes to the pandemic and church closures, if only churches were asked to close and not Mosques and Synagogues, then there would be an anti-Christian streak in the order that ought not to be obeyed. However, it is a level playing field with all public gatherings and though my thoughts or your thoughts may be this or that on the subject, whether we find it hard or believe otherwise, the government believes it for our good, it doesn’t contravene God’s law (for we have found creative, though imperfect, ways to fellowship by means of technology) and so we must submit.
But submission, the very word a foul stench in society’s dictionary, ought not to be for the Christian. We are called to gladly submit to God appointed authorities so long as they do not ask of us anything that goes against God’s laws (It is an act of faith/trust): I, as a pastor, submit to Christ; Christians are called to submit to their church elders; wives to husbands; children to fathers and mothers; employees to employers and all to the state; and even to fellow believers. When we are disestablishmentarians our hearts are filled with pride, rebellion, self-centredness, anger… Yet when we joyfully submit in faith to who God has called us to submit to, beginning with Himself, the Spirit produces in us love, peace, contentment and joy.
So whatever and whomever the Lord may be calling us to submit to today, may we do so as Christians cheerfully. And whether it be to governments, employers or churches, may our respect to them and God’s word enhance our reputation to the glory of Christ.
 I’m thinking here of churches that have rebelled against government closure orders. They have lost the respect of civil leaders. When persecution comes for other moral matters, they will not be remembered favourably. However, I pray that as the vast majority of Christians have submitted to these orders, the Lord would use this favourably in our civil leaders eyes when they think about persecuting the respectful and obedient for matters which we cannot agree to their laws, laws that God against God’s laws, that they would think twice and remember how we submitted, for a long time, by forgoing our Lord’s Day and other gatherings, so dear to us, out of obedience to them and our Lord.
Whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Ro 14:8b)
In AD 252 there was a mysterious illness that broke out in Carthage, North Africa. It, indeed, swept the entire Roman Empire. Some have likened it to small pox or the measles. It was called the Plague of Cyprian after the North African bishop who had so graphically recounted its effects. (The previous century had also witnessed the Antonine Plague, which equally ravage the Empire.).
Those who contracted the disease were cut off from society, alienated, left to die. Indeed, in Rome 5000 people a day were said to have perished. The population in Alexandria, Egypt, declined some 62%.
Out of compassion for the sick, out of an intense desire to offer a cup of water to those in need, Christians came to help those abandoned by the culture, to care for them, to sit with the dying. As a result many Christians died. This plague also coincided with a renewed persecution of Christians under Decius (Cyprian himself was martyred under the Emperor Valerian in AD 258). Together their simple humble acts and their witness to their faith led to a great revival which saw Christianity further spread to become a major religion in the Empire.
I tell that story to remind us that disease is nothing new to the human existence since the Fall, and as the last enemy to be defeated is physical/bodily death, disease makes no differentiation between Christians and non-Christians. Our response as Christians can also bear witness to our faith. Cyprian reminded his listeners of the first point:
It disturbs some that this mortality is common to us with others; and yet what is there in this world which is not common to us with others, so long as this flesh of ours still remains, according to the law of our first birth, common to us with them? So long as we are here in the world, we are associated with the human race in fleshly equality, but are separated in spirit. (Cyprian, On Mortality, 8).
Today the number one news item is the Corona Virus, or Covid-19, a respiratory disease initially picked up from animals. Authorities, media and specialists are all noting it is unlike anything we’ve seen in recent times, not since the Spanish Influenza after WWI, have we seen a pandemic quite like this (though it remains to be seen how severe its spread and effect will be). With globalization and modern media we’re witnessing its spread, and this in turn is stoking fear and concern. As such we need to be diligent to know the medical facts.
If public gatherings are suspended we may have to worship at home and I’ll preach through the internet and we’ll encourage one another through email or telephone or text. For now we can thank the Lord that this is not the case. We wait upon the Lord with each new day.
What should the Christian response be?
· respect the communications of the government and medical authorities
· though there were no such authorities in Roman days and so Christians bridged the gap in offering aid; today we must respect the authorities’ public restraints, yet also still find ways in which to minister compassionately in a crisis, perhaps by bringing food to quarantined homes; perhaps by joining Health Unit emergency teams and bringing Christ’s light this way, and certainly through prayer.
o We must not test the Lord by presuming that we, simply because we are Christians, will be exempt from the disease. We must still take reasonable precautions, like washing our hands, etc.
But the biggest way we can make a difference is not to worry, not to fear; it is by setting the example of faith. Fear reigns in the world, it has since the Fall. We are slaves to fear because we are slaves to sin and sin is to distrust God and be under His just sentence.
In his address Cyprian spoke to his congregation many helpful words on the subject of trust and assurance in the face of the plague, yet these words stand out:
Who, in the midst of these things, is trembling and sad, except he who is without hope and faith? For it is for him to fear death who is not willing to go to Christ. (Cyprian, On Mortality, 2).
He recognized the truth of passages like Romans 14:8. That if we are in Christ we have nothing to fear, not even death, because we have a proper biblical perspective of the subject and of the hope of the Gospel. As a result, even in the midst of the Cyprian Plague or Covid-19 we can bear witness to our hope in the Lord Jesus Christ and the assurance that comes through believing in the Gospel and lead others to faith in Him by example of our resolute hope in the face of adversity and worldwide fear.
May the Lord increase our faith, for our good and His glory!
 Cyprian, On Mortality, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5., Treatise 7, p. 469. Online access: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050707.htm
Author: Chris Crocker
Pastor, historian and beekeeper.