Church and State and Virus

This is for notes on churches and pestilences.

See also Pastor Doug Wilson on the Authority of the Church to Require Masks


It is one thing to forbid [services] for a time, upon some special cause,
(as infection by pestilence, fire, war, etc.) and another to forbid them
statedly or profanely . . . If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the
common safety,) forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence,
assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey

– Richard Baxter


What should churches do? Let’s start by seeing what churches are allowed to do in Indiana, putting aside the question of whether it is good policy or constitutional policy, which I won’t be discussing in this blogpost at all. People in other states may find this useful to think about too, even though details will differ. The key Indiana law isIndiana Executive Order 20-26: “ROADMAP TO REOPEN INDIANA FOR HOOSIERS, BUSINESSES AND STATE GOVERNMENT”. I will quote from it at various points in this post. I’ve added boldface and I’ve done things like adding numbers so you know which bits I’m referring to. Two sections, 14 and 6, apply to churches.

14. Religious Entities and Places of Worship
a. Virtual Services Preferred: Places of worship and faith communities are encouraged to continue livestream services or otherwise provide virtual services to safely serve their communities, or alternatively, conduct drive-in services.
b. In either Stage 1 or 2: On or after May 8, 2020, religious services, including wedding ceremonies and funeral services, may continue and will no longer be subject to limits on social gatherings. However, social distancing and other sanitation measures outlined in p6 will continue to apply.

14a is just fluff, nice-sounding words that don’t actually require anything. Taken literally, they say that the Governor wishes churches would’t meet. But 14b says that he nonetheless isn’t making it illegal, so long as the churches comply with paragraph 6. In fact, there is no size limit– a church can have 1,000 people in the room and that’s fine, no worse than having 10.

But we do have to check paragraph 6.

6. Social Distancing and Other Requirements
The phrase “social distancing” includes maintaining at least six feet of social distancing from other individuals. The phrase “sanitation requirements” or “sanitation measures” includes washing hands with soap and water for at least twenty seconds as frequently as possible or using hand sanitizer, covering coughs or sneezes (into the sleeve or elbow, not hands), regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces, and not shaking hands. All businesses and entities must take proactive measures to ensure compliance with the social distancing and sanitation requirements, including, where possible, the following:
a. Designate Six-Foot Distances: Designating with signage, tape or by other means, six feet of spacing for employees, customers, clients or members to maintain appropriate distance. …
c. Separate Operating Hours for Vulnerable Populations: Implementing separate operating hours for the elderly and vulnerable customers.

Paragraph 6 is enforced by paragraph 34, which makes its violation a Class B misdemeanor.

34.c.i) Penalty:
A knowing violation of an Executive Order issued pursuant to Indiana’s Emergency Disaster Law is a class B misdemeanor, punishable up to 180 days incarceration and a fine of up to $1,000.

Paragraph 6 is pretty onerous. The Governor is saying that church services must put markings up to tell people to sit six feet apart from each other. Taken at face value, that would mean children have to sit six feet apart from their mothers, but a reasonable interpretation is that this is simply poorly written and the Governor meant to allow families to sit together (and to allow families to stand together in line at the grocery store).

The requirement that churches (and stores, etc.) can’t let old people in at the same time as other people is even more onerous, but I am sure it is just poor drafting. The Governor no doubt meant to require that businesses set up special exclusive hours for old people, but to also let old people enter during normal hours, rather than strictly separating them from everyone else. It isn’t so clear what this means for churches. I think it means that churches can let old people into normal church services, but must also establish separate “seniors only” services. Of course, the Governor did’t intend that— again, just incompetent drafting, issuing an order he didn’t intend to order.

In sum, normal church services are now perfectly legal, except that apparently the churches must seat everyone, including pastors, musicians, choir, and tech people six feet apart from each other, which may make building size a constraint, especially for nursery and Sunday School. Note, however, that though the organization (church or business) must mark off six foot distances, there seems to be no requirement that the organization enforce its markers, so perhaps the kids in the nursery are free to play with each other.

Romans 13 says:

1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

In many states there is a conflict between the authority of the civil magistrate and the spiritual authorities. This makes for hard decisions very often even if it is clear what authority the civil magistrate has as civil magistrate, and it is even harder when, as now, it is unclear whether the governor of a state is acting tyrannically and unconstitutionally. In some states, the courts have struck down governors’ orders as unconstitutional, and in some states, the legislatures have condemned the governors’ orders as lawless. But in Indiana, the governor is not saying that churches cannot hold Sunday services. There is no conflict to worry about. Churches can do as they like.

At the same time, a church isn’t required to open up again just because the governor permits it to. All that the governor is saying is that he isn’t going to send the police to close the church down. My own church, Trinity Reformed, actually shifted to online services a week before the Indiana lockdown, for prudential reasons. We don’t have many old people, but we have enormous numbers of pre-schoolers, and in March it was very unclear how dangerous covid-19 might be.

What is important, though, is to realize that this is not just a medical decision, or a legal decision, but a spiritual one. It requires tradeoffs. It is unwise and irresponsible to let the specialist make a decision that requires a tradeoff. The doctor will be tempted to sacrifice everything else— happiness, mind, and soul— to keep people as healthy as possible. The lawyer will be tempted to sacrifice everything else– happiness, mind, soul, and health too— to avoid getting arrested or sued. Both costs and benefits of gathering together to worship must be considered.

There certainly is a cost. Even driving to church incurs some danger of car accident (church has been cancelled altogether in the past when the roads were icy enough; I forget if the whole city was closed down or not). Even when there is no epidemic, there is a health danger; someone in weak health like B. K. risks death from flu or pneumonia on a weekly basis, though only a small risk. There is more danger now. How much, it is hard to say— and remember, though few people die, many more get sick enough that if the chance were 100% of getting that sick we’d advise them to stay home. So there is some cost.

There also is a benefit. That’s why we worship together in the first place. It’s better than worshipping at home in front of a TV. Even if you have 10 people gathered in a home together worshipping in front of a TV, that’s still not as good, and I think few churches have people doing that. It’s not so bad for my family, since we have husband, wife, three teenagers, and a few guests— and we didn’t feel strange singing hymns even before we started inviting guests. But it’s very bad for people who end up worshipping by themselves, or even for married couples— I think four people must be critical mass for it to feel right. And I bet there’s a lot of people who end up sleeping late and not worshipping at all if they lack the disciplining effect of gathering with other Christians regularly. We routinely pooh-pooh the formality of worshipping once a week and laugh at “Sunday Christians”, but a Sunday Christian is a long way ahead of a No-day Christian. We need habit to help us, even if it won’t take us all the way to moral perfection.

And so there is a big benefit to gathering together on Sunday. The standard verse on this is Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

There’s also the matter of Communion, which by its very name means gathering together:

20 When ye come together therefore into one place, … 23For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: 24And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. 26For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come. I Corinthians 11, KJV.

And there is the delicate matter of disagreement and its resolution. Some people— many people— are irrationally afraid of contagion. They sincerely believe that if they shake hands with someone else at church, they are doing something imprudent; that if they talk without a mask, they are being reckless; that whenever they leave their home, even if they stay in the car, they are being daring. They are scared to go to church. The relevant passage here is from I Corinthians 8 (KJV) on eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols before being sold to you:

8 But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.
9But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.
10For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols;
11And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?
12But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.
13Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.

We must think carefully about what is important and what is not, and if we think someone else is foolish, give way to him anyway if his foolishness leads only to inconvenience, not sin. As the 34th Article says,

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. Whosoever through his private judgement, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the traditions and ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.

Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.

So: should the Church operate normally, since that is not prohibited by the Governor? I don’t know. If I had to make a decision, I’d think hard and try to figure it out as best I could, but I am glad to leave it to the elders and accept whatever they decide.

There are also other elements of the Governor’s Order that I’ve heard mentioned, but most of those elements are also fluff, like the wish that churches would stick to online services.

7c. High Risk and Vulnerable Individuals:
People at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19, including those 65 and above and those who are sick or have underlying medical issues, are urged to stay in their residence to the extent possible, except as necessary to seek medical care.

7a. In Stage 2, all individuals should stay at home or their place of residence as much as practicable to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Individuals should, to the extent practicable, limit trips out of their home. Trips outside of the home are expected for travel to employment, to purchase necessities of life and to care for a family member, friend, or pet in another household, and to transport family members, friends, or pets. When outside the home, individuals shall, as much as reasonably possible, maintain social distancing of at least six (6) feet from any other person, with the exception of family or household members. Additionally, when outside of homes or residences, individuals are strongly encouraged to wear face coverings.

7b. Retail Purchases:
In conducting retail purchases of goods or services individuals are encouraged to follow these best practices:
i) All individuals in the State should postpone making in-person purchases of goods and services unless and until such items are needed for sustenance, health, education, or employment;
ii) All individuals in the State should use online or call-in ordering of goods and services with either delivery or curbside pickup to the greatest extent practicable;
iii) In instances where an individual must visit a retail business, an individual should limit the number and frequency of retail businesses visited to purchase goods and services; and
iv) All individuals in the State should limit the number of household members who travel to and enter stores for the purpose of making necessary purchases to the minimum necessary.

There is, however, one paragraph churches need to worry about, and here the conflict between civil and religious authority may really require some thought. This paragraph does not pertain to church services— it explicitly excludes them— but it would seem to pertain to “small group” meetings that churches have, and to youth activities. This is paragraph 15:

15. Social Gatherings

All public and private gatherings (outside a single household or living unit or religious service), whether familial, social, governmental, philanthropic or otherwise, are prohibited unless:
a. In Stage 1, any gathering is limited to ten (10) or fewer people who must also engage in social distancing and other sanitation measures.
b. In Stage 2, any gathering is limited to twenty-five (25) or fewer people who must also engage in social distancing and other sanitation measures.

Perhaps I will write more on this a some future time.

May 20. Philip Lawler has a very good article at

Quite often, the restrictions announced by Church leaders have exactly matched, point by point, the regulations issued by civil authorities. In Rome, the police closed down access to St. Peter’s Square (which is within their jurisdiction), and then a few hours later the Vatican announced the closing of St. Peter’s basilica (which is under Vatican control). Was that a coincidence? The same pattern was evident all around the world: Church leaders closed churches as soon as public officials imposed emergency rules.

For the past forty years liberal Catholics have told us that the pro-life cause is not sufficient reason to deny anyone the Eucharist to prominent Catholics. Yet for the past forty days we have been told that the pro-life cause is sufficient reason to deny the Eucharist to everyone. Go figure.

The Catholic Church is not in the business of saving lives, but the business of saving souls. So during an epidemic, while civic leaders rightly have the physical health of the people uppermost in their minds, Church leaders should be more mindful of their people’s spiritual welfare. As important as it is to worry about the health of parishioners, pastors should never do anything to jeopardize the souls of those who worship with us.

Only rarely do the demands of physical health come into conflict with the demands of spiritual welfare. But such a conflict has arisen in these past several weeks. Different pastors have resolved that conflict in different ways, and I am not going to question their judgements. But far too many pastors, rather than making their own decisions, deferred entirely to secular authorities. And that is a choice that I question.

In an article posted the same day by Le Figaro, Cardinal Robert Sarah makes a similar point…Yes, the Church works for the good of society at large, and offers her guidance on temporal affairs, as befits (in the words of Pope Paul VI) an “expert on humanity.” “But little by little Christians have come to forget the reason for that expertise,” the cardinal remarks.
The Catholic Church can offer advice to civic leaders, in pursuit of the common good, because the Church knows what mankind needs to find true and lasting happiness. But civic leaders cannot return the favor; they cannot offer the same sort of guidance to the Church, because the secular world does not comprehend the Church’s mission of salvation. The Church understands the world; the world does not understand the Church.

Cardinal Robert Sarah (what an unfortunate name!) writes in Figaro:

L’Église a-t-elle encore une place en temps d’épidémie au XXIe siècle? Contrairement aux siècles passés, l’essentiel des soins médicaux est désormais assumé par l’État et le personnel de santé. La modernité a ses héros sécularisés en blouse blanche, et ils sont admirables. Elle n’a plus besoin des bataillons charitables des chrétiens pour soigner les malades et enterrer les morts. L’Église serait-elle devenue inutile à la société?

Le Covid-19 reconduit les chrétiens à l’essentiel. En effet, depuis longtemps, l’Église est entrée dans un rapport faussé au monde. Confrontés à une société qui prétendait n’avoir pas besoin d’eux, les chrétiens, par pédagogie, se sont efforcés de démontrer qu’ils pouvaient lui être utiles. L’Église s’est montrée éducatrice, mère des pauvres, «experte en humanité» selon l’expression de Paul VI. Elle avait bien raison de le faire. Mais peu à peu les chrétiens ont fini par oublier la raison de cette expertise. Ils ont fini par oublier que si l’Église peut aider…

The rest of the articles’s probably good too, but “…Cet article est réservé aux abonnés. Il vous reste 83% à découvrir.” Paywall. My inexpert translation is:

Has the Church any place in times of epidemic in the 21st century? Contrary to past centuries, the essentials of medical hare are now assumed by the State and health personnel. Modernity has its secular heroes in white tunics, and they are admirable. It has no more need of battalions of charitable Christians to care for the sick and interr the dead. Has the Church become useless to society?

Covid-19 takes Christians back to the essential. In effect, for a long time the Church has entered into a false rapport with the World. Confronted by a society which pretended not to need them, Christians are forced to demonstrate that they are able to be useful in education. The Church shows itself as educator, mother of the poor, “expert in humanity” according to Paul VI’s expression. She has good reason to do so. But little by little, Christians have ended by forgetting the reason for this expertise. They have ended by forgetting that if the Church is able to help…

The Catholics and conservative Lutherans in Minnesota are defying the Governor’s order to stay closed. As it happens, the day of defiance this Sunday is Pentecost. Is Governor Walz going to put Saint Peter in jail for continuing to preach about that guy Jesus after he thought that headache had been cleared away?

I’d love to see comment from the liberal Lutherans. And from the evangelicals. Where are the conservative Presbyterians in this? (Mabye there aren’t any in Minnesota–seriously.)

The Minnesota Catholic Conference and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in Minnesota sent Governor Tim Walz separate letters today announcing that they would be resuming worship services on May 26 despite Governor Walz’s current COVID-19 executive order which allows retailers to operate at 50 percent capacity but caps church worship services at ten people. Governor Walz’s latest re-opening order allows the Mall of America to open its doors to those seeking retail therapy but disallows churches from providing spiritual healing to their congregations. At the same time, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent Governor Tim Walz and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison a legal letter explaining why continuing to keep churches closed violates the First Amendment. Also representing the Catholic and Lutheran Churches is global law firm Sidley Austin LLP.

It is a real shock to see The Becket Fund’s name coupled with Sidley and Austin, an Establishment law firm. And a pleasant one. Maybe elite lawyer don’t all hate God.

The Becker demand letter to the Governor is here.

At least three federal courts have now held that applying public health restrictions
differently to churches and retail establishments violates the Free Exercise Clause’s
general applicability requirement. …

In Roberts, the
Sixth Circuit enjoined Kentucky’s executive orders as applied to houses of worship in
a per curiam order, asking:

why do the orders permit people who practice social distancing and good
hygiene in one place but not another for similar lengths of time? It’s not
as if law firm office meetings and gatherings at airport terminals always
take less time than worship services.

Here, as in Kentucky, Minnesota’s Order 20-56 and the Guidance favor retail
operations over gathering for worship—even though only the latter constitutes a
fundamental First Amendment right. …
Even if Minnesota could demonstrate some heightened risk inherent uniquely in
public worship services, it would still have to prove that its public health goals cannot
be met by any means other than banning in-person religious worship by more than
ten people.
Minnesota offers no public explanation for allowing the Mall of America to operate
at 50% capacity with store employees, custodial staff, security, and guests for
upwards of 8 hours a day, while demanding that houses of worship be banned from
holding services at 30% capacity for a short time on Saturday or Sunday.

The Minnesota Constitution “affords greater protection against governmental
action affecting religious liberties than the First Amendment of the federal

Would the next step be to ask a Court for a declaratory judgement? Can such litigation be brought under Section 1983 and get legal fees awarded? If this is brought in federal court, can the Minnesota Constitution claims also be decided? As it happens, the Governor simply gave up two days later.

From The Catholic Encyclopedia:

Heresy is opposed to faith; schism to charity; so that, although all heretics are schismatics because loss of faith involves separation from the Church, not all schismatics are necessarily heretics, since a man may, from anger, pride, ambition, or the like, sever himself from the communion of the Church and yet believe all the Church proposes for our belief.

People who say, “Obey the lawful authority” have to deal with the question of who is the lawful authority. For example, is it the County, or the Governor, or the Constitution?
Maryland Governor Reverses Order Shutting All Private Schools in State’s Largest County


1 reply on “Church and State and Virus”

Comments are closed.