Rodney Howard-Browne, a controversial pastor in Tampa, Florida best known for leading what has been referred to as the “holy laughter revival” at Carpenter’s Home Church in Lakeland, Florida, in the 1990s, was arrested this week for violating government quarantine orders prohibiting public gatherings of 10 people or more and requiring 6-foot spacing between individuals. Howard-Browne was charged with unlawful assembly and violation of a public health emergency order. He was released after posting $500 bail.
The pastor says people attending services kept the required 6-foot distancing, and the church had engaged in precautionary sanitizing efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Howard-Browne claims that the government has gone too far and violated the church’s constitutional rights. He’s not alone in that belief, as other churches around the country are still meeting in defiance of similar orders limiting public gatherings.
In another example of pushback from people of faith, individuals in Colorado, New York and Texas have brought lawsuits against local government authorities for including churches in closure orders, claiming violations of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion and peaceable assembly.
What should Christians think about these actions, which are all based on the premise that Christians have a duty and a right to congregate (Hebrews 10:25) that government may not restrict?
The Daily Citizen has already explored the constitutional issues at stake. But there is a deeper issue Christians must face at the moment: How should we respond to government authority in a time of national emergency?
Two respected faith leaders have recently addressed this issue.
Jim Daly, President of Focus on the Family, urged believers in a Fox News op-ed to consider closure orders as “wise and reasonable” precautions. He affirmed that while churches would be right to object to such orders in safer times, these times are different. Online church services shouldn’t be permanent replacements for gathering together, but they are valuable in times such as this.
“First, it’s keeping people of faith together during a very difficult time, albeit remotely, but still unified and connected to their pastor and their congregations. There is something powerful about reading the same Scriptures and hearing the same message,” Daly said.
“Second, the rise of the online church is a reminder that a true “church” really doesn’t have walls. In the common vernacular, most people look at a building with a steeple or cross and immediately call it a church. That’s really not the case.”
Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and a former board member of Focus on the Family, also spoke about this issue in his March 31 edition of The Briefing.
“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 services, it would have made no sense, but at the present time … sadly, tragically, it does make sense,” Mohler said. There are obviously deeper issues at stake here, and as Christians trying to think these things through consistently by a Christian worldview, we need to give some attention to answering these questions.”
The context for thinking these issues through is rapidly changing on a daily basis, Mohler notes.
“We have seen all kinds of actions taken in the last several days that we would have anticipated would have been unacceptable, not tolerated by the public, and furthermore ruled unconstitutional in some sense without the context of the coronavirus crisis, but in that context, most Americans have accommodated themselves to the understanding that we are going to have to forgo certain liberties that we would otherwise claim largely unconditionally, because we are now under the threat of a contagion that is genuinely dangerous and deadly,” he said.
What Daly and Mohler are advocating is for the Church to operate out of love for one another rather than demand its “rights.” The Church would not be served well by becoming a pariah because the public thinks we are endangering lives. Throughout history, believers have adapted to the times while facing hardships and persecution. We can rise to the occasion here as well.