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Time to Go Back to Church?

Time to Go Back to Church?

Three months into the nation’s coronavirus-inspired lockdown, just before America’s Memorial Day weekend observances, the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, issued a stark declaration concerning public access to worship services.

“Governors need to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now—for this weekend,” said Trump on May 22, a day before the holiday weekend began.

The president said he would “override” decisions by various state governors to keep houses of worship closed, but White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany declined to elaborate on the authority of Mr. Trump to pursue such a course, given that quarantine and lockdown rules are generally the responsibility of individual states and municipalities. (The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would appear to contradict the president. Its text reads: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”)

After the news conference, a new set of interim guidelines specifically for faith communities planning to commence in-person services was issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The emphasis is on safety measures, including “social distancing” and the use of fabric face masks when the former is impractical. The CDC also recommended that those at “higher risk” for COVID-19 infections be offered remote services to limit their risk of exposure.

At the same time, the CDC was quick to disclaim the use of its guidelines: “This guidance is not intended to infringe on rights protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or any other federal law, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). … Religious worship has particularly profound significance to communities and individuals, including as a right protected by the First Amendment. State and local authorities are reminded to take this vital right into account when establishing their own re-opening plans.”

Governors Get the Message

Coincidental with Trump’s announcement and the release of CDC guidelines for houses of worship, several U.S. state governors relaxed prohibitions on congregational gatherings. 

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who ordered the closure of churches on March 19, released guidelines for reopening facilities: “Under the guidelines, places of worship must limit attendance to 25 [percent] of building capacity or 100 attendees, whichever is lower. This limitation will be in effect for the first 21 days of a county public health department's approval of religious services within their jurisdictions, after which the California Department of Public Health will review the limits. They must also arrange for social distancing of at least 6 feet between people,” KPBS reported.

These changes came as faith groups in several states filed or threatened legal action to reopen their sanctuaries.

On the nation’s East Coast, Rev. Christopher Bullock of Canaan Baptist Church in New Castle, Delaware, who asked a federal district court to block Gov. John Carney’s restrictions on in-person worship services, said, “The churches—the voice of the people, the voice of morality, the voice of love, and power, and hope which is so desperately needed in these dark times—are muzzled. The churches need to be open and people need to be blessed by what the churches, the synagogues and the mosques have to offer the people.”

Shadow of Coming Events?

Of note is Rev. Bullock’s description of churches as “the voice of the people.” Whether he meant to or not, this comparison appears to define church as the representative of public opinion, giving the church a leadership role in secular democracy. What an interesting perspective on the unification of church and state.

But is that accurate today? Does the church represent the so-called “nones,” people without any religious ties? Public service advertising of the 1950s and 1960s proudly promoted churchgoing. But in recent years in the United States, society has dramatically shifted, lunging toward secularism and away from any religious affiliation whatsoever. Currently, this non-religious demographic is reported to be as large a group as evangelical Christians or Roman Catholics. Do these “nones” agree with Rev. Bullock’s belief that they “need to be blessed” by the churches?

Are these factors—the contentions on public worship, the lockdown-based showdowns, the dramatic decrease in religious association—merely setting the stage for what the Bible warns us is coming, when the church will join forces with the state?

Lamb with horns

Revelation tells us, “I saw another beast coming up out of the earth, and he had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon. And he exercises all the authority of the first beast in his presence, and causes the earth and those who dwell in it to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed” (13:11, 12). This predicts a day in which governmental authority will dictate how—and who—people are to worship.

But remember that God gave you the gift of free will. He will never coerce anyone into worshiping Him. Worshiping God is a personal choice, an invitation: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). You are not dragged; you are not chained. You must choose to come.

Learn more about how the unification of church and state takes away that freedom of choice in our free online article, “Separation of Church and State.” And see what role the seventh-day Sabbath has in the last days of enforced worship in another free, online article, “The Sabbath in Prophecy.”

Whether or not you’re still on lockdown, these vital resources are well worth your time!

This article contributed by Mark A. Kellner
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