During the covid-19 pandemic, businesses and organizations were ordered to cease indoor operations which included religious organizations. Specifically, churches had to stop conducting their usual indoor, in-person services. Some churches, such as Calvary Chapel Godspeak in Newbury Park, decided to disobey this order citing such reasons as defending religious freedom and a determination to obey God as Christ’s church. Churches and Christians rallied around Godspeak’s stance. For example, in response to Ventura County suing Godspeak (for continuing indoor operations), Pastor Lance E. Ralston of Calvary Chapel Oxnard said, “Pray for Pastor Rob McCoy and Calvary Chapel Godspeak in Newbury Park. They are being sued by the VC Board of Supervisors for being a church, BEING A CHURCH.” [caps are Ralston’s]
Three important topics involved here are Christian civil disobedience, obedience in gathering together, and the identity of the Church.
Christian Civil Disobedience
The government’s authority is ordained by God and its primary charge includes protecting its people from harming each other (which would be wrongdoing; Romans 13, 1 Peter 2). The government is required by God to intervene in its citizens’ lives to prevent them from harming each other. And Christians are called to obey the governing authorities and human institutions. With one exception.
In Acts 5 we see Peter’s famous and rousing declaration: “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29, ESV) We are called to obey God above human authority. In Acts 5, the human authorities said to the apostles: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name [Jesus’s].” In other words, they ordered the believers to not make disciples. This was in direct conflict with Jesus’s parting charge to make disciples. It was not possible for the apostles to obey the human authorities and obey God at the same time. This is key: there was no way in which the apostles could obey the human authorities and stay in obedience to God. They had no other option except civil disobedience. When human authorities demand disobedience to God, we must obey God and thereby disobey human authorities. Christians are tempted in many ways to disobey human authorities when it is not necessary which, therefore, is disobedience to God. Concerns regarding government overreach and gradualism often tempt Christians to disobey God’s call to obey the authorities.
Government overreach. In fulfilling its requirement to intervene in its citizens’ lives, it is right for government to be balanced. Government intervention should be appropriate to the level of harm being done. Christians may believe the level of governmental intervention is unwarranted and it is good to stand against authoritative overreach. (I suggest this is an essential role for Christians.) However, overreach alone does not warrant Christian civil disobedience. Christians may disagree with the government on many issues—laws may even cause financial and social misery for Christians—but it is only when disobedience to God is demanded that Christians should disobey the authorities.
Gradualism. Christians may be concerned the government is slowly eradicating religious freedoms which may eventually lead to explicit prohibitions against professing Christ as Lord and Savior (personally, I have this concern). While it is very good to advocate for robust religious freedoms, a lessening of rights and privileges does not warrant civil disobedience. The Christian call to civil disobedience is when obeying humans is directly conflicting with obeying God—not before. We are not called to civil disobedience in anticipation of possible, future conflicts of obedience—even if that conflict is imminent. Therefore, it is important to have a clear and correct understanding of God’s commands so that when—and only when—human obedience demands disobedience to God, we will obey God and not human authorities.
Being the Church
Obedience in Gathering Together
The specific area of obedience that is in question here is that of Christians meeting together for fellowship and to worship God—aka a typical church service. The governmental order to cease indoor operations effectively prohibited churches from having their regular worship services. Meeting together is essential to the Christian life. In Acts, we clearly see the example of Christians meeting together and Hebrews 10:25 tells us, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” Therefore, the question is: does a prohibition of organizational, large, indoor services conflict with the Christian call to meet together? Can we obey the human authorities and stay in obedience to God? Three topics help determine what exactly constitutes obedience in meeting together—in other words, what exactly it takes to be obedient to the call to meet together. 1) How must we gather; 2) how many believers do we need; and 3) what must occur during our gathering in order to qualify as meeting together?
How must we gather to be in obedience? Under the New Covenant (after Christ’s life, death, and resurrection), are we commanded to conduct indoor services? Do we have to be inside a specific room? Do we need to be inside a special building? Do we have to be inside at all? No, we are not commanded to conduct indoor services, nor do we need a specially designated place. Does it have to be on Sunday morning or another ‘special’ time? Must we be in-person? Or can we gather over the phone or over a video call? The bottom line is that obedience does not require a specific time, nor place, nor method for gathering. Believers can gather anywhere and anytime and by any means, including over a telephone or video call.
How many believers do we need in order to obediently meet together?
Do we need 1000 people? Do we need 500 people? Do we need 50 people? Do we need 10 people? If we have a gathering of 5 believers, does that count as “meeting together?” I think it does. In fact, I would say it only takes 2-3 Christians to constitute a gathering of believers. It is also helpful to consider how this redefines what constitutes a “large” gathering. If it only takes 2-3 believers to make up a gathering, I suggest a large gathering may be anything over, say, 12 believers. (12 is somewhat arbitrary—maybe a large gathering is over 24; the point is it does not take very many believers to make up a “large” gathering.)
What must occur during the gathering for it to qualify as “meeting together?” Does obedience require 40 minutes of worship music led by a 5-person band? Must we have singing at all? Would we be disobeying God if we had a believer’s meeting without a song? Does obedience require a 20-minute oration from a leader? How long must the meeting last? 4 hours? 15 minutes? Does communion have to happen every time two or three believers are together? Must there be specific form and length of prayer? What must occur in a meeting is not as clear as “how must we gather” and “how many believers.” Meetings should include activities “so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12-13, NIV84) Meeting together should include activities like teaching, prayer, and singing (or other forms of explicit worship) but we cannot be legalistic about requiring those things in particular ways and particular amounts. Three believers coming together for 10 minutes of prayer may very well constitute an instance of obediently meeting together.
Identity of the Church
Pastor Ralston’s statement touches upon the identity of the Church. Ralston emphatically states that Calvary Chapel Godspeak is being sued for, “BEING THE CHURCH.” [caps are Ralston’s] The lawsuit is regarding continuing indoor operations—in this case, conducting large, indoor, in-person church services. Thus, Ralston is equating “being the church” with large, indoor, in-person church services. In other words, the implication is that large, indoor, in-person church services are essential to the Church’s identity.
This is problematic because the Bible defines the church as so very much more than a large number of believers having a service inside a building. The church is primarily defined by its relationship with Christ. We are His body, His bride, His temple. We are His very own possession—who, by His blood, live that we may love and magnify Him who brings us into His own glory. We are commanded to love others and charged with making disciples.
By saying the restrictions on large, physical, indoor gatherings are preventing us from being the church, it means that prohibiting typical church services prevents us from being Christ’s body, bride and temple. Additionally, by putting our primary energies and focus on fighting the restrictions, we are accepting this far inferior idea of who and what the church is. To accept this church identity—that is defined by having traditional church services—is to accept a serious spiritual defeat. On the contrary, “…we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV). Now is the time we should be heralding truths about who we, the church, are. We should be resolute that these restrictions do not stop us from being Christ’s own possession. We are still His bride; we are still His Body; we are still His temple; and we will continue living this out. We will continue living by His blood to love God, to love others, and we will go on making disciples—just not through large, indoor, in-person services right now.