Pastor's Thoughts: Is the Government Really our Friend?
Updated: May 8, 2020
The founding fathers, like John Adams said it this way:
“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”
Sometimes I wonder if we have before us a slow suicide of democracy, or if we are witnessing the murder of liberty. When we face situations of government action like those related to the COVID-19 virus, it really does force us to look at the scene and investigate the gory details--even though we might be repulsed by the idea of looking too closely.
On the one hand, some government entities have punished those who are trying to live according to the dictates of their conscience. In one case, people are exercising constitutionally recognized rights to assemble and excercising their religious liberty—they are abiding by health standards imposed on the population in general... yet, they are being punished. Are government entities in the right to interfere in the free exercise of religion in these cases? The government is, at the same time, working toward the public good with compelling interest in keeping people employed. They are essentially returning taxpayer's money to cover the financial imposition of constraining actions they have taken. Is this a just action within the bounds of their God given responsibility?
Now, I know it may sound like a line from a communist propaganda reel, but in reality, the institution of government is originated in the heart and mind of God. It really should be our friend--but a friend with healthy boundaries. After all, it has a legitimate and proper place in the world. Its relationship to the institution of the church and family should be honored as it operates within its biblical bounds, but it should be confronted, and corrected when it does not.
So what is the proper place of Government?
We want to be careful that in our protests of government limitations we are not guilty of overstating our case and undermining God's design. After all, let's be reminded that those in government (whether appointed or elected) have been put in position by God. That does not make them inherently good or evil. God may allow an evil ruler to achieve His good purpose. All we know is “all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God” (Romans 13:1, 2). And furthermore, "whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed...". The Apostle Paul told Titus that as church leaders we are to remind believers to honor those in authority (Titus 3:1). This is not without limits, but God has revealed to us this place of Government to "punish evil," and "reward good." Peter tells us it is the "will of God" for us to submit ourselves to the just actions of this God ordained institution (1 Pet 2:15). We are even commanded to pray for "Kings and those in authority" as we lead "quiet," "peaceable lives" (1 Tim 2:1,2). So, while government does what it is intended to do, and while it does not step over what God has defined as good and evil, we rightly support, and submit to the leadership of those in that realm of authority.
Unfortunately, in the case of government restricting religious liberty, there are ample examples of boundaries being disregarded. Whether it's the pastors arrested in Florida, or Louisiana, or churches man-handled in Michigan and Kansas by power grabbing leaders, these incidents are filling the news cycles. We all understand the intentions of many of these efforts on the surface. When in good faith, these are efforts to preserve life and promote the general welfare of our communities. When malicious, they can erode the very rights that have made our nation great. As Christian people, we want to be good and helpful citizens, but when our God given rights are violated, we also need to be intensely vigilant--even when those rights are violated in the name of public good.
How do we respond when the compulsion of government prohibits our obedience to God's commands?
Does a government entity have authority to ask us as a church not to meet when God tells us to meet? My answer to this is--at times, yes, and at times no. We have already seen recognition of civil authority by God, and the scripture also gives us some examples to help our discernment. First, in the Acts of the apostles (Acts 5:29) who said, "We must obey God rather than man." It’s clear from this passage, there are times when the answer is "no." Even though a God ordained civil authority had commanded the Apostles to refrain from action, they saw it right to obey God instead. We can also draw from the words of Jesus in Luke 14:5. Jesus asked the question: "Which one of you who has a child or an ox fall into a well on the Sabbath would not immediately pull him out?" In other words, although God has commanded the Sabbath to be kept, the rescue of a child, or even an ox would warrant the temporary suspension of that command knowing this is neither a permanent course of action, nor an act of willful disobedience, rather, it is an act of expedience in a genuine crisis. So at times, yes, there are proper times when those activities are rightly suspended.
In our case, the government should not be asking us to forfeit our free exercise of religion (we know many liberal politicians secretly aspire to this, and may try taking advantage of our willing submission), but it seems appropriate for them to temporarily suspend that liberty for the public good they are ordained to protect. If done in the right motive the government is actually obeying God. In the case of an emergency (like a suspected pandemic, or a war), and in seeking the public good in order to preserve life, it seems consistent for governments to ask us to refrain from meeting and it is consistent for us to submit. When the desire is not hostile toward our right to assemble and freely exercise our worship there is no need for resistance.
But the threat of over-reach in our day is real. Thus the public, vocal protest that is rightly rising. Not only does the constitution recognize our rights in this, thankfully our current municipal (Bartlesville city council), state (Oklahoma Governor), and federal leadership (President, congressional leadership) recognizes it as well. This is clearly reflected in what Attorney General William P. Barr said in a recent New York times article:
“Even in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers.”
In other words, the federal government under the Trump administration rightly sees its place to "reasonably" and "temporarily" suspend our rights when the greater public welfare and good is in view, but at the same time they realize the caution required in order to preserve these specifically designated constitutional privileges. Therefore, they are to do so with the least possible intrusion. It was clearly indicated by Oklahoma's Governor Stitt in the friendly dialogue he opened with churches, and in our city council that saw fit to clarify that drive-in services were not prohibited.
As this public response to COVID-19 continues, if the effects of the virus proves to be substantially less threatening, or in decline and the government controls remain sustained for an indefinite period, or become cyclical this would no longer be a temporary measure. If the efforts then further threaten to end the sustainability of our families, or organizations or cause lasting harm, it is also no longer reasonable. The attorney general also tells us that the rules imposed must be equal so that there is no additional or special rules that single out religious entities. Meaning, no rules can apply to us as a church that don't apply to everyone else. The rules could be less restrictive, but not more. If liberties are available to others, then we, too, as a special point of interest in the constitution must be afforded at least those same liberties in this moment of crisis. Cars meeting in a parking lot for a worship service pose no more threat than the cars the government has allowed at the liquor store which they have deemed "essential." To break up religious meetings that are observing the same social distancing standards is an injustice, and if left unchecked could be a fatal blow to our liberties.
In a case where the government overreaches its bounds calling something evil that is actually good, we must protest. In Mississippi, U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills ruled in favor of a church drive-in meeting reminding people what we should all remember...that a church has rights that a barber shop does not. If in the case of retail places we are allowing people to enter based on square footage rules, then churches should be allowed to do the same. Outdoor funerals should not be prohibited so long as social distancing is observed. Otherwise, we can neither stop at a red-light next to another car, nor could we line up at Walmart to buy our "essential" dog food. Only posterity will know whether this was a murder or a suicide, but either way... unchecked, our liberty will be dead.
Lets also not forget in this case--we do have a mandate from God to assemble (Hebrews 10:24-25). Although the city, state and federal government may deem virtual, online meetings as sufficient, and drive-in meetings permissible, these acts are still lacking. We are only conducting meetings these ways to be in submission to the temporary, reasonable, and equal demands made by the government to curb the pandemic, but make no mistake, we respect our more weighty responsibility in obeying God.
At some point my religious liberty sensibilities will be rightly stirred to respond with a query for clarification, then an act of appeal, and then God forbid, willful defiance. In that order. As James Madison said, “it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties” because a government that can violate religious liberty in a pandemic may violate it whenever it becomes expedient to do so.
As for us in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, thankfully our city council, and Governor have not shown the Nazi like tactics other cities and states have shown during this pandemic and have been careful to honor our rights in this, and (I believe) would be open to our genuine appeals. We will pray they continue that effort, and when we voice our concerns, and when presented, we pray they will hear.
But if I want to recognize limitations on the government in this way, how can i then take money offered by the government in the Paycheck Protection Program?
The Cares Act, is an effort of the Federal Government, initiated by the President of the United States and congressional advisors to preserve employment in which the government has both a compelling interest (namely, to prevent unemployment), and for which they are the cause of the financial impact on small businesses, nonprofits, and houses of worship, their employees, and our overall communities and economy. The Cares Act creates the Paycheck Protection Program under SBA’s existing 7(a) program. This is a government backed loan from a local bank for an organization to maintain employment and to cover the financial imposition caused by government shutdown. Here are the elements of the program:
It basically is an advance payment to cover payroll costs, including paid sick leave, mortgage interest, rent, and utility payments for an 8 week period.
The key is that the federal government turns the loan into a grant for the given amount—if the borrower does not lay off employees.
If employers reduce headcount, the amount of forgiveness will also be reduced proportionally—meaning borrowers would pay back the difference shown in employment at the end of the period.
In our case, this amount of personnel reduction is known, so it would be retained from the start and would be returned immediately. Thus it is a singular transaction that ends as soon as it begins.
Interested congressmen like Senator Lankford of Oklahoma were among those who challenged congress to include non-profits (and specifically churches) in the program because the government imposition affected these entities equally, and because they too employ a large number of people across our state and in the nation. In this, they contended there should be no strings attached, and this was the way the measure was approved, and gained their favor.
The U.S. Small Business Administration is the administrator of these funds, and has clarified those desires in its position to reflect protections for religious institutions against future intrusions related to this money. They said it this way:
“Receipt of a loan through any SBA program does not (1) limit the authority of religious organizations to define the standards, responsibilities, and duties of membership; (2) limit the freedom of religious organizations to select individuals to perform work connected to that organization’s religious exercise; nor (3) constitute waiver of any rights under federal law, including rights protecting religious autonomy and exercise under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000b et seq., Section 702 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-1(a), or the First Amendment.
Simply put, a faith-based organization that receives a loan retains its independence, autonomy, right of expression, religious character, and authority over its governance, and no faith-based organization will be excluded from receiving funding because leadership with, membership in, or employment by that organization is limited to persons who share its religious faith and practice.” https://www.sba.gov/sites/default/files/2020-04/SBA%20Faith-Based%20FAQ%20Final.pdf
Therefore, if the argument is that we should not take the relief funds for fear of future government intrusion, the SBA has gutted any past, present or future requirements. This was to address anyone who rightly has those concerns. Note, although this fear expresses a proper caution to watch for encroachment, those concerns do not make an iron clad biblical argument for refusal of such funds.
If the argument is that we should not be dependent on government money. The truth is, we are not. We are only allowing the government to compensate for the imposition they created by receiving our own money back to relieve the cost of their imposition. From everything I can tell, it is an effort in their sphere of responsibility to reward those that do good, and promote the general welfare of the nation, and to do so with no threat of intrusion or control in order to protect our rights. Otherwise, we would not, and should not receive it from them. We know it is not their responsibility to support us—it is the responsibility of the local congregation to support itself. In the case of the Paycheck Protection Program, it is not the receipt of support, but the the receipt of restitution in the form of relief. If we can determine that the money is not required, we should either return that portion of the money, or retain it for unforeseen benevolent use for a community suffering from government imposed actions.
If someone says we are are depending on government instead of God, I would ask this: “Would that mean that we cannot depend on FDIC guarantees on money in the bank?" Or if our banks failed, we must not claim the money guaranteed by the federal government because we would be “dependent” on them? Would it mean that you will forfeit the child tax credit money on your next tax return, or from past returns—because it is a grant given to you by the government? Will we not call the fire department because we are dependent on them to preserve our facilities? Would it mean, I as an individual would be precluded from taking money in the form of tax return because there are “always strings attached” when the government gives you money? In this case it is my opinion that the government is fulfilling the will of God in offering the money, and it is right and just for us to receive it knowing that if any unjust action arose later we would resist those efforts justly.
I think the scripture gives us general guidelines to navigate these complex issues. We may come to the end and err too far one way or anther, and at times will be duped by conniving politicians no matter our earnest effort. But lets be careful that in our protest we don’t negate the genuine place of government in God’s world to punish evil and reward good when public interest is involved. Let’s pray for wisdom in this for churches contemplating a very difficult issue. Whether they meet or don’t meet, whether they take the money or refuse it, let’s not accuse them of being “apostate,” “sell-outs” or “ungodly.” Instead let's encourage each other to pursue the Lord as we discern what the will of the Lord is. Let’s encourage each other to think biblically and holistically, lest we be driven more by our fears and intuitions than we are by biblical guidance. Yes, we can treat the government as a friend--a friend with healthy boundaries to be maintained. In this, we will work toward living at harmony with all men—as much as depends on us. And when the entity of government steps beyond its bounds, we as free people in a free society have the ultimate responsibility to check their aggression, oust those who violate its bounds, and prevent the murder of our liberties.