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The Worship Wars of COVID-19

The Worship Wars of COVID-19

As some states continue restrictions on religious worship gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, congregations are fighting back—and even winning.

The latest victory belongs to Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., which won a ruling in its U.S. District Court on October 9. Since March, the church has been closed to worship services under orders from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

The point of contention rests with Capitol Hill Baptist’s “doctrinal requirement” that “its entire congregation” of a thousand persons must meet to worship together, an observance that violates the city’s “prohibition on religious gatherings of more than 100 people, indoors or out.”

As a basis for this mandate, the church looks to Hebrews 10:24, 25: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” The church’s senior pastor, Mark Dever, clarified the stance in his book: “A ‘biblically ordered church regularly gathers the whole congregation’”; without such corporate worship, it wouldn’t remain “a ‘biblically ordered church.’”

While “the Mayor lifted other restrictions and welcomed mass protests to the city, the church sought permission to hold its weekly service outdoors, with congregants masked and socially distanced,” noted federal district judge Trevor McFadden in his opinion. The city rejected the church’s petition. Now, after a hearing in federal court, the church has been granted the right to worship as conscience dictates—for now.

David French, an attorney and Iraq war veteran who touted Capitol Hill Baptist for its Christian witness during this process, concluded, “The city may appeal, and the church may ultimately lose. … The Supreme Court has been quite deferential to state regulations during the pandemic, but its patience is no doubt limited. If Capitol Hill Baptist winds up at the Supreme Court, Americans will see an example of Christian political theology that marries conscience, compassion, and courage to advance a cause that is truly just.”

Others Not So Fortunate

Meanwhile, in other regions, church and state continue to butt heads. In New York State, Gov. Andrew Cuomo targeted worship services as a main source of COVID-19 infections.

“We know religious institutions have been a problem,”Cuomo said at an October 5 news conference. “We know mass gatherings are the super spreader events. We know there have been mass gatherings going on in concert with religious institutions in these communities for weeks.”

To illustrate his point, the New York governor used photographs, singling out for specific opprobrium an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. However, according to the Daily Caller website, “it appears that the photos that Cuomo referred to are from 2006 and show the funeral of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, according to Jewish Insider’s Jacob Kornbluh. Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a press inquiry regarding the photos.”

Cuomo didn’t stop with denouncing large gatherings, however. One day after his news conference, according to the Catholic News Service, “Cuomo announced new restrictions on houses of worship in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases in densely populated ZIP codes he has identified as ‘hot zones.’ He said the state has created three zones—red, orange, and yellow—each with different restrictions, including on the size of congregations.”

In response, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn has sued the state in federal court, claiming the restrictions violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. “The executive orders this week have left us with no other option than to go to court,” stated Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.

Church v. Church

The First Amendment does still exist—in principle, at least—but as has been noted in this blog over the past few months, city and state officials and even, sadly, the Supreme Court of the United States, do not seem to favor the rights of the church.

Today, churches are being pitted against secular operations, like grocery stores, restaurants, casinos. The question continues to crop up: If these business establishments are able to operate within certain government restrictions, then why are churches not granted the same liberties? As associate justice Samuel Alito wrote in a dissenting opinion of Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Sisolak, “The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about freedom to play craps or blackjack, to feed tokens into a slot machine or to engage in any other game of chance.”

Yet these “worship wars” keep on occurring. How will this affect matters of religious liberty in the future? Right now, the discord is between church and state. But the Bible says there will come a time when the battle—in fact, the final battle—will be between church and church, or to put it more definitively, between the apostate church and God’s true church, His remnant people.

There are claims that religion is a dying breed, but the Bible clearly tells us that the very last days of this Earth will be centered upon worship: “All who dwell on the earth will worship him” (Revelation 13:8); “he … causes the earth and those who dwell in it to worship the first beast” (v. 12).

In particular, Scripture foretells that those seeking to worship God on the Bible Sabbath, the seventh day of the week (Exodus 20:8–11), will find their choice opposed by a church-state union. What’s the big deal about the Sabbath? And how will it usher in the end of the world?

A great place to start is “The Sabbath in Prophecy,” a free article that leads you through what Scripture says about our future. Be prepared for what lies ahead!

This article contributed by Mark A. Kellner
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