IN THE practice of ethics, it’s not always a matter of good versus evil. Sometimes it’s good versus good. Whether from laziness or ideology, one way of addressing this clash of virtues is to opt for one at the expense of the other.
Responding to the virus, some say, “We know better. You shall do this and shall not do that. Or else!” From the opposite extreme we hear, “Ain’t nobody gonna tell me what to do!”
More difficult is to search for how two good things can be complementary, not contradictory.
Besides being a state legislator, concerned for the common good, I also pastor Trinity Church, Kingston. Last March, my physician-wife and I searched for ways that the church could stay open while observing best practices for safety.
Later I was asked to be one of three who made recommendations to the Department of Health and Human Services for the state’s protocols for religious organizations.
People ask my thoughts about the right of the state to regulate churches. Politically speaking, our Founding Fathers steered a moderating course. The First Amendment to the Constitution has two relevant clauses:
The Establishment Clause — Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion — states that there shall be no official “established” state church. (It does not mean that the state cannot help religious groups.)
The Free Exercise Clause — or prohibiting the free exercise thereof — says the government cannot dictate or inhibit a religious group’s worship, doctrine, or witness.
President Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury, Conn. Association of Baptists added the phrase, “a wall of separation between Church and State.”
As for the Bible’s teaching, first, Jesus’ commanded, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” — (Luke 20:25).
Second, the state has a God-appointed role. The Apostle Paul said, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.... The authorities that exist have been established by God” — (Romans 13:10). The Apostle Peter wrote, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by Him” — (1 Peter 2:13-14).
But there is a limit to such submission. The authorities reprimanded early Church leaders, “We gave you orders not to teach in [Jesus’] name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching....” But Peter and the other apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men’” — (Acts 5:28).
We are to obey authorities unless they dictate how we worship, what we teach, or whether we may share our faith.
Nor may government grant one segment of society rights denied to the church. Such bias, decreed in some states, has been reversed following litigation.
New Hampshire has steered a wise course.
Most pastors who have called me either exceed the COVID-19 protocols or, if there’s a question, ask for clarification. Following scriptural teaching, they understand the rights of the state.
In those few cases when someone takes “I will obey God rather than men” out of context, I respond, “Then obey God! Obedience to God is ‘being subject to the authorities,’ and ‘submitting yourselves to every ordinance of man’ unless the state crosses the line of doctrine, worship, witnessing or bias.”
There are a few churches who are acting irresponsibly. They don’t seem to understand wearing masks, social distancing, and the like will not impede their preaching of the Gospel. Approaching town folks to share Christ is their right, but the state has the right to tell those witnessing to wear masks.
Such misbehavior neither honors Scripture, blends rights with responsibilities, nor shows love of neighbor.
Finally, limiting excessive focus on “my rights,” Jesus said, “If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two” — (Matthew 5:41). When the protocols ask you to wear a mask, wear one, but no one, including God, is asking you to wear two.