Statement of the Issue at Hand
It has come to our attention that a pastor has been arrested for assembling against a county order that assemblies are outlawed. We must begin by making the statement that we do not believe the same way Rodney Howard-Browne does regarding doctrine. We do not agree with how he handled the issue either. He makes the wrong argument that churches are exempt businesses with regard to the stay-at-home order in Florida. Instead, Lordship churches should take a consistent stand. As with any other issue, we should determine to follow the Word of God above all without regard to whether or not the government will allow it. Businesses do not have First Amendment rights. Individuals have God-given rights that are protected by the First Amendment. This is a very important distinction to make. Instead, the argument of a Scriptural church should be this:
We have been commanded by God to hold church services. If we do not, we fear the wrath of God due to our disobedience more than we fear arrest.
From a Christian Post article penned by Leonardo Blair on Monday, March 30, 2020,
“[Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad] Chronister noted that Howard-Browne’s church has the technological resources to simply resort to online worship temporarily and abide by the order but the church instead chose to endanger congregants.”
The article continues:
“The River Tampa Bay Church has an advantage over most places of worship,” said Chronister, “as they have access to technology allowing them to live stream their services over the internet and broadcast television for more than their 4,000 members to watch from the safety from their own homes. Instead, they encouraged people to come and gather at the church, even provided bus transportation for the services."
The second assumption made by Chronister is even more insidious. He alleges that individuals can worship adequately in a corporate sense through the internet. The reason this is particularly dangerous is that this line of argumentation, the livestream, could be applied to all assemblies as an alternative to “dangerous” gatherings. What is the next danger that will be the pretense for dispersal of assemblies? Society has already declared in the realm of psychology that religion is pathological and harmful to our children. If online assembly meets the requirement for the Constitutionally-guaranteed right of assembly, why would a government allow any physical assembly at all? After all, it is dangerous. Someone could get hurt.
The safety over liberty mindset of the sheriff is shown in the following statement:
"Our goal is not to stop people from worshiping," Chronister said at a press conference, "but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first. "
This is a denial of liberty of conscience. Sheriff Chronister may not realize or admit it, but he has placed himself above God by demanding Christians and any other religious group be allowed to only worship how he sees fit. He is willing to enforce this idea of worship by imprisoning pastors.
We have no doubt as to the sincerity of Sheriff Chronister. More than likely, he believes he is doing what is right and good by keeping the people of Hillsborough County safe. It is our opinion that he was truly concerned for people. Law enforcement officers are on the front lines of panic and disease and they need our prayers. It is not the job of law enforcement, however, to protect people from disease at the expense of liberty. Chronister goes on to state:
“It’s a shame that someone has taken advantage of this. For whatever reason, I just don’t understand it. The only reason I can see is it’s a reckless reason – to put your parishioners in jeopardy."
In the case of Hillsborough County, the sheriff was wrong in his exertion of authority over a peaceful, voluntary assembly. This is the case even though there is a deadly contagion spreading throughout our country. Chronister over-stepped his bounds as an earthly governmental authority and put himself in direct opposition to God in doing so.
Biblical Commandment and Example of Assembly
The question must then come, what do the scriptures say about the assembly of the saints? Is it optional? Can it be done via technology?
The first time we see the word “assembly” mentioned in the scriptures, God is rebuking two of Jacob’s sons and He is rebuking Simeon and Levi for doing something evil. When He rebukes them, He says this:
O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill they digged down a wall.
Exodus 12:6 gives us additional information about the word “assembly.”
And ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening. And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat it. And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.
In Leviticus, we see a similar usage of the term “whole assembly.”
And if the whole congregation of Israel sin through ignorance, and the thing be hid from the eyes of the assembly, and they have done somewhat against any of the commandments of the LORD concerning things which should not be done, and are guilty;
We have heard such statements as, why can’t churches assemble at home, separately? A brief look at the actual meaning of the word “assembly” dispels this idea.
The first two definitions of “assembly,” as defined in Oxford Dictionary are as follows:
- A group of people gathered together in one place for a common purpose.
- The action of gathering together as a group for a common purpose.
We also find applicable passages in the New Testament to help us apply the principle of assembly to the churches of our day and time.
Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.
As used in other passages in the New Testament, the term “church” comes from the Greek word “ecclesia,” and means “the assembly.” It is an assembled church. A church that has come together for a specific purpose.
I Corinthians teaches us more about why the assembly is important:
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
1 Corinthians 5:4-5
I Thessalonians 5 is also helpful in furthering the definition of a church assembly:
For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do.
1 Thessalonians 5:9-11
And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
The scriptures are clear about gathering together also in the cases of illness and for the purpose of confessing our faults one to another.
And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
We need to realize that when someone says that churches do not need to assemble, as we hear from many different sources now, Christian and otherwise, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches regarding how Christians are to interact. Internet church cannot provide what is needed by and required out of a church.
When we look at the actions of the early church, we see a pattern set forth as early as the first part of the book of Acts.
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.
This is not said to guilt those who would not assemble. Let every man be convinced in his own mind.
So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.
There have been many responses to the arrest of Rodney Howard-Browne of Hillsborough County, Florida. We were sent the audio to a podcast by Dr. Mohler regarding the issue. His answer was very eloquent, but also very dangerous to liberty-minded individuals and churches in particular.
The first clue we have of Dr. Mohler’s viewpoint on liberty actually comes from his Wikipedia page:
Mohler has argued that libertarianism is idolatrous, and as a comprehensive world view or fundamental guiding principle for human life, is inconsistent with Christian ideals. He is a proponent of personal liberty, but believes such liberties can run into problems when applied in the political sphere.
Concerning Dr. Mohler’s argument against meeting together as a church during the age of Coronavirus, he begins with a quote from Sheriff Chronister we have already visited as a question of safety versus freedom:
"Our goal is not to stop people from worshiping," Chronister said at a press conference, "but the safety and well-being of our community must always come first.”
“The kind of orders or requests coming from government entities makes sense in the context of the Covid-19 crisis.”
If the government were issuing requests, a church could listen and consider the request and not expect consequences for going against the request. The government authority, in this case, did not make compliance optional. The church was supposed to listen to the order and directly obey, and they were to be held responsible even if they did not know the command had been given. The police were to enforce the command under threat of fine and imprisonment. That there was a penalty and thus this was in no way a request.
A fundamental question comes out of this action. Does the state have a right to issue a command that overrides the commandment of God? We must consider whether or not a government official is able to override a God-given right. If they do have that ability, under what other circumstances and to what extent can our responsibilities before God be overridden? When the two conflict, we are given an example in the Bible of what to do:
Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.
“If you were to rewind just three or four weeks ago and talk about a pastor, any pastor of any church or religious organization being arrested merely for holding religious services, it would make no sense. But, at the present time, it does make sense. Would it ever be valid for a pastor to be arrested merely for holding services at his church? The answer is yes. Sometimes, but it would have to be extremely rare.”
We are going to guess that if the rare instance would apply to him, he might change his outlook on allowing pastors to be arrested. We truly believe that Mohler is convinced he is doing Christianity and even God a service by making allowance for pastors to be arrested for merely holding religious services. Christ warned His apostles there would be times such as this:
They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.
Dr. Mohler uses Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of Constitutional governance as an example as to how this has been done in the past. It causes us to wonder at how he would not only defend or use Lincoln’s actions to promote the imprisonment of pastors for assembling, but sees it as a good example of how we ought to do things in times of national distress. It would do us well to be reminded that Lincoln’s actions brought about military tribunals of citizens among other absurd and harmful consequences attested to by history. In the end, it was the Supreme Court that stepped in against Lincoln’s unconstitutional actions. They ultimately defended the American people from Lincoln’s tyrannical actions (Ex parte Milligan, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 2 (1866)).
The essence of Mohler’s argument is that because Lincoln violated God-given rights, we can arrest pastors for holding religious services in the United States. We disagree vehemently. He would give powers-that-be the ability to suspend the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the people during times of a national health crisis based on statistical modeling of a future what-if scenario. This power in the hands of an immoral government is frightening to those who love liberty.
Dr. Mohler then argues beautifully for the defense of God-given rights. He follows this with an even more ardent defense as to why inalienable rights should be alienated under certain circumstances. It must be noted that no inalienable rights can removed by any authority, compelling interests notwithstanding, without them losing their inalienability. They become alienable when they are alienated. It was not a coincidence our forefathers used the term inalienable. This means they cannot be taken away for any reason, otherwise they are privileges distributed by the ruling power.
Dr. Mohler then attempts to convince his listener that the infringement of the constitution is made necessary under the conditions whereby the government is operating. Remember, we are talking about a Baptist leader here, not a communist-leaning Democratic-Socialist. This is a very dangerous condition Dr. Mohler would wish to place us under. Who determines the conditions are extreme enough to override God-given rights? What if a government were to find churches to be dangerous to the mental health of individuals who are citizens of the country? Would then this be sufficient a condition to revoke our rights? The end of this argument is that the government gets to pick and choose the conditions under which we exercise our God-given rights, thereby making them the giver and taker of the right of assembly, freedom of religion, the right to keep and bear arms, or whatever liberty we currently possess. The government takes the place of God. The right to exercise freedoms should never be in the hand of the government, but in the hands of the citizenry who exercise their right to assembly based upon the dictates of our conscience.
Dr. Mohler continues by stating religious liberty is not infringed when there is a generally-applicable law. In other words, since they are banning everyone from assembling, they should be able to ban religious assemblies. The danger in this argument is self-evident. It could be applied to any right or liberty. According to Mohler, you can suspend all religious liberty as long as you suspend all others’ liberty as well. Think about this in terms of church incorporation. At the founding of our country, there were several attempts to force incorporation or government participation upon all churches equally. Does this mean the standing government had created a good law, just because it is generally applicable? This is an absurd notion, and that from the mouth of a Baptist theologian. Our forefathers fought a revolution over the issues at hand.
If we were to apply Dr. Mohler’s arguments equally to the rest of the constitutional amendments, we can immediately see the absurdity. It can be summed up this way:
The constitution can be suspended and liberty can be infringed if (1) it is a generally applicable law and (2) it makes sense because of the conditions under which the government is operating.
- Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion unless it is a generally-applicable law and unless the conditions under which the government is operating makes it necessary.
- We have freedom of speech unless it is a generally-applicable law and unless the conditions under which the government is operating makes it necessary.
- We have freedom of the press unless it is a generally-applicable law and unless the conditions under which the government is operating makes it necessary.
- The right of people to assemble peaceably and to petition their government for a redress of grievances unless it is a generally-applicable law and unless the conditions under which the government is operating makes it necessary.
- The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed unless it is a generally-applicable law and unless the conditions under which the government is operating makes it necessary.
This is a frightening line of argumentation. This is an all-powerful government that has the ability to set aside God-given rights at its leisure, even under times of great national distress.
Mohler bases his arguments on the genuine threat of the virus. We do not dispute this threat. He then encourages Christians to surrender certain liberties “that they would otherwise claim largely and unconditionally.”
From the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “inalienable” means:
Not subject to being taken away from or given away by the possessor.
The Bible teaches us very plainly how we are to use our liberty. Notice, it is a use of liberty, not a forgoing of it.
We have been given liberty in Christ Jesus, and we are to use this in our day. We are not encouraging the rejection of all rules the government has made. Instead, we are arguing that in good conscience we should do things safely using our liberty, but not accepting that we have to give up that liberty to do what God is calling us to do.
Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man's conscience? For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks? Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.
1 Corinthians 10:29-31
Likewise, those who have ceased meeting are not to judge those who have continued to do so. For instance, those that meet should not be called “crazy” or “reckless.” We cannot use our liberty to judge another’s conscience.
In a desperate situation, such as the one in which we find ourselves with Covid-19, there is always a tendency to place the blame on others who are not doing things as we are. There is a virus in the air. That is nobody’s fault. We need to pray for each other, not blame each other. There is a reason for this. The Bible says:
But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.
1 Corinthians 8:9
Liberty is a calling to which we have been called and we must avoid giving occasion to the flesh through our exercise of it.
For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
We are not to cause issues and difficulties that can be avoided, but we must do what we believe is right according to the dictates of our conscience out of a love for God and our neighbors.
We are taught this in James, chapter 2:
So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
We see the arguments of Dr. Mohler to lay aside our liberties as abhorrent. We strongly recognize the dangers of what he is postulating.
We also recognize that as believers who love one another, we should be of all people most careful toward those in our congregations that might be affected by the Covid-19 virus. It is not unreasonable for us to make some modifications to our service times and how we clean the buildings in which we meet. We need to be wise as to our response. If we choose to continue to meet, we should take the proper care over the churches over which we have been made overseers. We should not act in fear. We should show our love to each other as a testimony to the world. May God be glorified in our churches as He leads us.