The state is only a pawn of the true king

Not enough faith to worship

Daniel was a hero for flouting the king’s 30-day edict against lawful worship during the exile. So why have churches today capitulated en masse to the state’s indefinite edict against lawful worship during lockdown?

When Darius forbade prayer to anyone but himself for 30 days, Daniel had three options that weren’t openly idolatrous:

  1. Stop praying for a month;
  2. Pray in private;
  3. Continue to pray with his window open, publicly defying and dishonoring the king.

If he had consulted other Hebrews in exile, they would probably have given him advice something like this:

It isn’t essential to pray every day, least of all with your window open—but it is essential to honor the king. And you won’t be able to pray at all if you’re dead. We need to be very conscious of the damage that your reflex to resist could do to our witness. Don’t bring shame and disrepute on your fellow exiles by publicly dishonoring the king for something that God never commanded us to do.

We are guessing, of course, based on the advice we hear today from our most wisdomous leaders. Nearly all the pastors in the Western world have been told by their governments to stop publicly worshiping God—and judging from their responses, they do not see Daniel’s actions as virtuous, let alone valorous. Indeed, the few pastors who have defied the king’s edict have been excoriated as villains by their brothers, rather than celebrated as heroes. Many Christians have been eager to declare their allegiance to Caesar, and their willingness to turn in anyone engaged in such misplaced heroics (cf. John 19:15; Acts 17:5–7).

You may think there is no true analogy between Daniel’s situation and ours. We are still free to pray or worship as individuals; Daniel was not. We are not being specifically targeted or persecuted by lockdown laws; Daniel was (but Darius, who actually made the edict, did not know that…) Our worship is being curtailed due to an ostensible emergency; Daniel’s was not.

But although there are differences in application between our situations, the deeper principle is identical:

Darius was putting himself in the place of God by deciding whether and how worship should happen. The modern state is putting itself in the place of God by deciding whether and how worship should happen. It is the duty of God’s people to correct this by resisting.

Daniel’s response is therefore of the utmost relevance to us. It is truly instructive to compare how he dealt with the state playing God, and how we are dealing with it.

Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God

The issue here is tyranny—the unlawful use of state power. The state playing God. It is not persecution, where the state targets Christians specifically. Persecution is certainly a form of tyranny, and it has been happening under lockdown in certain locales—but it is not what we’re discussing here.

Our concern is simply the state arrogating to itself the right to tell churches that they may not worship in the normal way. The proper biblical response to this is, “Haha nope.”

It’s not even just, “Nope,” which is what Daniel could have said by resisting in private.

It’s, “Haha nope”—as in, we’re not changing a single thing just because you said so, and it’s actually important that you know that, because you’re supposed to be ordering the world as God commanded, and he didn’t command it to be ordered that way.

Please note two important points we are not making:

1. We are not saying that churches should make no changes in a medical emergency

We might heed the state’s recommendations in a crisis like a pandemic. We might even agree that the best way to balance our competing obligations of preserving life (the sixth commandment) and worshiping God (the fourth) is by suspending services for a time.

But we will absolutely not stop worshiping as usual just because the state presumed to decide whether and how worship should happen.

The reason is straightforward: God decides the law. The state enforces it. The reverse is idolatry and heresy.

Do not get the wrong idea about what we’re criticizing. It is not the idea of churches closing temporarily on their own authority—although it would require a truly deadly plague to invoke the sixth commandment in this way, and a disease with a survival rate in excess of 99.8% for normal, healthy people, obviously does not count. (The solution there is to simply do what we have always done with similarly dangerous diseases, like the flu, and honor congregants’ God-given freedom to make their own decisions about whether and how to protect themselves.)

No, the issue we’re dealing with here is simple: it is with the state assuming the role of God, rather than the role of his minister…and churches not responding with, “Haha nope.”

2. We are not saying churches should only engage in civil disobedience

Daniel’s situation differs from ours in that our governmental structures are more closely modeled after biblical principles, being designed to make it difficult for our rulers to exercise the kind of tyranny that a sovereign so easily can, and to make it easy for citizens to seek recourse against unjust rule. We do believe it is instructive that Daniel, despite having direct access to the king, did not appeal to him; but we also acknowledge that the king’s edict, once made, could not be altered. Either way, this is not our situation. We do have avenues of appeal that are designed to facilitate overturning bad laws. Though these have been severely weakened and corrupted, the doctrine of the lesser magistrate is nonetheless a Christian doctrine—so of course churches should be appealing to that lesser magistrate to interpose for them against the overweening dictates of the central state.

But we do not close down worship while we do this. We should be pursuing such recourse proactively—but churches with this kind of wisdom are rare. We should certainly be pursuing it reactively—but not at the expense of worship. Such processes could take years! Shall we close worship until all legal avenues are exhausted? Again, this would simply signal submission to illegitimate authority. How can we expect our lesser magistrate to find a backbone and resist illegitimate state control when we ourselves have already caved to it? How can we expect a (most likely) secular bureaucrat to stand up for God’s worship, when God’s own people will not? What utter foolishness.

John Knox, like Daniel, understood that “resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” If we expect our lesser magistrates to be obedient to God, we must first expect it of ourselves. Judgment begins with the house of God.

Why did Knox say resistance to tyranny is obedience to God? Why did he put it that way around? Why not rather, obedience to God means resisting tyranny? Presumably because he knew that the converse of his statement is also true: obeying tyranny must entail resisting God—whereas resisting God does not necessarily entail obeying tyranny. (We can resist God in many other ways too.)

The principle behind Knox’s point is that who we really believe is on the throne is revealed by who we obey. Talk is cheap—to know what a man believes, look not at what he says, but what he does. A tree is known by its fruit. We really believe we’re living in someone’s kingdom—but whose kingdom that is can really only be known by whose laws and character our actions conform to.

Is Christ really Lord—even Lord of the state?

In Ephesians, Paul prays for something that it is worth reading slowly and dwelling upon:

…that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him; having the eyes of your heart enlightened, that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to that working of the strength of his might which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and made him to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule, and authority, and power, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: and he put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all … God, being rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace have ye been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus… For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them. Ephesians 1:17–23; 2:4–5, 10

We believe that we are seated above all rule and authority in Christ. We believe that the church is His body, and thus the instrument by which He puts all things into subjection under His feet. We believe that for freedom He has set us free. We believe we should stand firm, therefore, and not submit again to a yoke of slavery. We believe we should not fear those who can destroy the body, but He who can destroy both body and soul in hell. And we believe that if God is for us, who can be against us? He is the one who justifies.

But when we then abandon our freedom for fear of punishment by submitting to tyranny, and when we will not take God’s side for fear of others judging us for being “rebellious,” we show that we believe these things with a dead faith. By our deeds we testify to whose authority and verdict we truly fear and venerate. We testify to whose rule we truly believe in and yield to. We testify whose laws truly sway and constrain us. We testify what we really believe our place, and God’s place, to be.

Put another way, who we obey reveals who we are truly putting our faith in. “You believe that God is one? Even the demons believe! But are you willing to recognize, you empty fellow, that faith without works is useless?”

Who is in charge? Who is our government? Are we a church of Christ? Or are we a church of the state? Is our allegiance and reliance to God? Or to the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4)?

State churches in China get widespread derision from Western Christians. How could any true believer go along with such a Satanic thing? Yet within a shockingly short time, the vast majority of our own churches have quietly consented to become state churches themselves—and those same Western Christians don’t even seem to have noticed.

This is why civil disobedience matters. It is impossible to believe that the Lord Jesus is in charge, that the government is upon his shoulders, that every other government is his subsidiary, that worshiping him is essential to the right order of the world, and that we have his authority to say so on his behalf—and then simultaneously to agree to silently cease worship of him because our government does not believe doing so is essential. To show obedience to the earthly government on this point is to openly flout and resist the heavenly government. When we choose who to serve, we make a silent claim about who is in charge.

Are we citizens of the heavenly kingdom, constrained by the freedom of the law of Christ? Or are we subjects of the state, constrained by the tyranny of the ruler of this world?

Our actions reveal it. More: they reveal what we believe about worship itself.

Worship is participation in the heavenly court

And what shall I more say? for the time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah; of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong… Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God… For ye are not come unto a mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire… but ye are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable hosts of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant… Wherefore, receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us have grace, whereby we may offer worship well-pleasing to God with reverence and awe: for our God is a consuming fire. Hebrews 11:32–34; 12:1–2; 18, 22–25, 28–29

Notice what both Ephesians and Hebrews take for granted about gathering in worship: that it is coming before the very throne of God in heaven. We are seated in the heavenly places if we are in Christ, and when we gather, we gather in the heavenly places.

It is true that all of life is worship. But that does not make gathering as God’s assembly less important; it makes it more so. The local assembly is the capstone of worship because it is how we come together as the one body of the Lord Jesus to praise and testify before the throne to his saving rule. Notice that word body. We come together in Christ’s Spirit, but we do not come together as Christ’s Spirit. We come together as his body, because we are embodied.

Scripture does not permit us to treat this as inessential or optional:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for he is faithful that promised: and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh. Hebrews 10:23–25

Are these not commands? Certainly they are—commands to follow the pattern laid down from the beginning by the apostles (Acts 2:42–47). And were they not written for just such times as ours? Certainly they were:

But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were enlightened, ye endured a great conflict of sufferings; partly, being made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, becoming partakers with them that were so used. For ye both had compassion on them that were in bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your possessions, knowing that ye have for yourselves a better possession and an abiding one. Cast not away therefore your boldness, which hath great recompense of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, having done the will of God, ye may receive the promise.

For yet a very little while,
      He that cometh shall come, and shall not tarry.
But my righteous one shall live by faith:
      And if he shrink back, my soul hath no pleasure in him.

But we are not of them that shrink back unto perdition; but of them that have faith unto the saving of the soul. Hebrews 10:34–39

Now, it is true that Hebrews 10:25 is not such an absolute command that it forbids ever missing worship. It is, rather, forbidding a pattern of forsaking worship (and it is notably forbidding it in the context of possibly being arrested or fined). But for a church to close its doors every Sunday is literally to impose a pattern of forsaking worship. Suspending worship until the state declares it “safe” is precisely to forsake assembling together. There is no more direct and obvious way to defy God’s command here! And if we will not follow the command to worship in church, because another throne decreed it non-essential, who are we really worshiping during the rest of our day-to-day lives? Who are we kidding? How can we believe God will have pleasure in us? Hence, Calvin, in his commentary on Hebrews 10:26, makes the point that forsaking the assembly of the saints is actually embodied apostasy:

Those who sin, mentioned by the Apostle, are not such as offend in any way, but such as forsake the Church, and wholly alienate themselves from Christ. For he speaks not here of this or of that sin, but he condemns by name those who willfully renounced fellowship with the Church. But there is a vast difference between particular fallings and a complete defection of this kind, by which we entirely fall away from the grace of Christ.

The church is Christ’s body (Romans 12:4–5). Refusing to gather as Christ’s body is to renounce membership in Christ’s body. Which brings us to a very significant point.

Gathering to worship must be embodied

Many Christians try to escape the logic above by saying that, really, the government is not preventing us from worshiping. We can do what the first-century church could not: gather online.

But who among these people is willing to argue that the author of Hebrews, in writing to forbid us “forsaking our own assembling together,” had in mind anything other than an embodied gathering? And who among them is willing to argue that the state is authorized to interpret Scripture to us, or to determine what constitutes valid Christian doctrine and practice? It is absolutely clear that isolated people, separated by miles, are not “gathering together” in any sense that the author of Hebrews would have recognized. When we view pixelated representations of each other in small boxes on a screen, and hear tinny reproductions of our voices coming out of speakers, we may be communicating in real time—but we are not with each other in real space. We are together in spirit, perhaps, but we are most certainly absent in the body.

There is a great deal we could say about the central importance of embodied existence, but the heart of the matter requires no explanation at all. The incarnation itself testifies to how seriously God treats this issue. If embodiment does not matter, then Jesus being incarnate in a personal body does not matter. And if Jesus being incarnate in a personal body does not matter, then you can convince us that his being incarnate in a corporate body does not matter. Are we digital docetists now?

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion of the body of Christ? seeing that we, who are many, are one bread, one body: for we all partake of the one bread. 1 Corinthians 10:16–17

Have we become such gnostics in our thinking that we imagine a virtual meeting counts as “offering worship well-pleasing to God with reverence and awe (for our God is a consuming fire)” (Hebrews 12:28)? What is next? Administering the sacraments with virtual bread? Baptizing avatars in online games? Laying on of hands by emoji?

If you will permit us to put this very bluntly, online church is real worship like online porn is real sex.

Were you to ask any remotely qualified pastor prior to 2020 whether the physical gathering of the saints was essential to worship, he would have been puzzled—not by the question, but by your asking it, for the answer is so obvious. No sober-thinking shepherd has ever imagined that we can do away with church buildings, because “The Kingdom of God becomes visible in this world where this community of saints assemble locally” (Declaration About the Gatherings of the Church of Christ).

What has changed, that we mysteriously find this less obvious today? Certainly it is not God’s word. Rather, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his staying out of jail depends upon his not understanding it. But this is hardly a new problem. Technology has simply given us a new resource for justifying our disobedience. In 1561, the framers of the Belgic Confession spoke to the same issue with great force:

We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.

And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God hath established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those, who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God. Belgic Confession, Article 28

Ultimately, this is a question of basic exegetical principles: Do we believe in sola Scriptura—that Scripture is our only infallible authority? And do we believe that the meaning of Scripture must be read out of the text, not into it? Because Scripture indisputably means “assemble together in person” when it instructs us in worship. The author of Hebrews did not know about the internet, it is true—so what? The issue is not what Scripture does not say, but what it does. Do you think the Holy Spirit who breathed out Hebrews 10:25 did not see the internet coming, that He might explain Himself better? And yet He wrote what He wrote. Gather in person is what His words meant then, and gather in person is what they still mean today.

Thus, the burden of proof falls heavily on whomever wishes to insist that worship can be performed without assembling together in person. How did they conclude that real-time communication, rather than embodied communion, is the essence of gathering? Let us see that argument made from Scripture.

But, but, let every person be subject to the governing authorities!

Yes, Romans 13 is still in Scripture, and yes, it is still infallible. But contrary to the innovative readings of modern Christians who are inventing their political theology at gunpoint, Romans 13 is not a blank check; it is a tight constraint:

For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil…for he is a 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 a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be in subjection. Romans 13:3–5

Why needs we be in subjection? Because the magistrate is a minister of God to punish evil and praise good (cf. 1 Peter 2:14). Wherefore means “as a result of which.” So what should we conclude about our subjection to a magistrate that rather punishes good and praises evil? Remember, we are not talking about an edict that simply enforces God’s law poorly or inexactly. We are talking about the state abrogating God’s law; forbidding the worship given into the church’s charge by God; putting itself in the place not only of the church, but of God himself. We are talking about the state playing God.

Should that still result in our obedience? Is such a government still acting as God’s minister…or as a minister of the devil?

To ask the question is to answer it. Again, God decides the law. His ministers merely enforce it. The reverse is idolatry and heresy.

Is the government authorized to do hard things? Yes it is. But Romans 13, in combination with the general principles behind the Mosaic Law, clearly establishes the limits of what it may do.

What is striking is how obvious we think this is when it comes to the other spheres of authority that God ordained. No Christian in his right mind would assume that because Hebrews 13:17 instructs us to obey our pastors and submit to them as keepers of our souls, that the power of the church is therefore absolute, or that resisting ecclesiastical tyranny is rebellion against God. Indeed, we are quick to identify such tyranny as cultic. Yet the link between God’s authority and the church is surely more clear in our minds than between God’s authority and the state.

Similarly in the sphere of the family. Wives are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord—the link between the lordship of Christ and the authority of the husband is explicit. Yet we are, if anything, eager to defy the slightest domestic heavy-handedness as abuse.

We intuitively know to resist tyranny in the other spheres of authority, and have trained ourselves to do so with remarkable vigor. But because we need something to trust in for ordering our world, our defiance, our love of autonomy, our hatred of authority in one area has to balance out somewhere else. The fact that we are incapable of reading Romans 13 the same way we read Hebrews 13 or 1 Corinthians 11 reveals where that equilibrium has settled. That we cannot see the obvious with respect to resisting state tyranny demonstrates the remarkable degree to which the state has already replaced God in our lives. It does not trouble us to signal our allegiance to the god of this world, by tacitly agreeing that worship is non-essential, rather than to the God of heaven, by explicitly declaring that it is vital and necessary. The words introducing the first chapter of the Huguenot treatise Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos could have been written today, rather than in 1579:

For my own part, when I consider the cause of the many calamities that have afflicted Christendom lately, I am reminded of the words of the prophet Hosea: “The princes of Judah were like those that remove a boundary. On them I will pour out my wrath like water. Ephraim is oppressed, crushed in judgment, because he was determined to follow the commandments of men.” (Hosea 5:10–11) Here you see the sin of the rulers and people fully displayed in these two verses. The rulers exceed their authority, not being content with that authority which the almighty and all good God has given them, but seek to usurp that sovereignty which He has reserved to Himself over all men. And not being content with absolute power over the lives and property of their subjects, these tyrants seize for themselves the right to rule over their consciences as well, over which the authority belongs to Jesus Christ alone. Holding the earth not great enough for their ambition, they want to climb and conquer heaven itself. The people, on the other hand, follow the commandments of men when they yield to these rulers who command that which is against the law of God. Thus, the people burn incense and adore these earthly gods and, instead of resisting them (if they are able), they instead permit them to usurp the place of God, apparently untroubled by their giving to Caesar that which belongs properly to God. Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (or, Defences [Of Liberty] Against Tyrants), The First Question: Whether subjects are bound to obey princes, if they command that which is against the law of God

Is the government authorized to quarantine the sick? You can make that argument. But is it authorized to quarantine the healthy? No. That is lawlessness.

Similarly, are these lockdowns effective at destroying the virus? The evidence is conclusive that they are not. But are they highly effective at destroying the lives and livelihoods which all men are charged with maintaining (1 Timothy 5:8)? The evidence is conclusive that they are. In fact, lockdowns kill more people than COVID-19. Again, this is lawlessness.

And is the government authorized to treat worship and supplication of the true Government as non-essential? Is it authorized to instruct us to place our trust and reliance in the state’s management of the crisis, rather than in the management of the Lord Jesus? Is it the job of the state to disciple the people of God?

Quite the opposite! As Douglas Wilson notes in Worship Is Warfare,

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus Christ. Therefore we are to disciple the nations. The title deed to the world is in the hand of Jesus Christ. But the hand of Jesus Christ is part of His body—and we are that body.

This should make our obligations as representatives of God, as citizens of his kingdom, obvious. It should be self-evident what it means for us to pray, “Hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Lord’s prayer is a corporate prayer—our Father, give us today our daily bread, forgive our debts. It is a prayer that we pray together when we gather before the throne in the heavenly places. We enter to hallow God’s name in heaven, to glorify his reign in heaven, to do his will in heaven, so that when we return to earth we can have confidence that he will accompany us through his Spirit, and hallow his name, glorify his reign, and bring about his will here. The Lord’s prayer is a petition for help with the task he has given us to do. We are asking him to go into battle with us, to wrestle with us against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). We are asking him to help us fulfill his Great Commission of discipling our nations and instructing them in everything he has commanded.

How then can we let them disciple and instruct us?

It is amazing that the vast majority of Christians today believe that separation of church and state means that the state can command the suspension of worship, and the church must listen; but the church cannot command the suspension of wickedness, nor must the state heed it.

This, too, is lawlessness. A church that complies with lockdown is a lawless church.

But fear has a blinding effect. This is why God has given us heroes of the faith, like Daniel—to ensure that we will know how to act when fear is making the right path strangely unclear. These things were written for our admonition, and so we are without excuse. Yet we continue to ignore that admonition. We have grown soft, dependent, and complacent.

Daniel was what the Bible refers to as a man of valor; a resolute soldier in the spiritual war that he was called to fight. He saw vividly the power of the spiritual rulers set against him (Daniel 10:5–7, 13–14, 20–21); yet he remained faithful. We today, with far dimmer a vision, appear to have only Ambrose Bierce’s fascimile of valor—“a soldierly compound of vanity, duty and the gambler’s hope,” as illustrated in his little story:

“Why have you halted?” roared the commander of a division at Chickamauga, who had ordered a charge; “move forward, sir, at once.”

“General,” said the commander of the delinquent brigade, “I am persuaded that any further display of valor by my troops will bring them into collision with the enemy.”

In response to our imminent collision with the enemy, the church can either bow in fear before God, look the state in the eye, and say, “No, you move…”

…Or it can bow in fear before the state, look God in the eye, and do the same.

It cannot eat its cake and still have it too.

Last updated August 30, 2021.