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Op-ed

How Christians should respond to religious oppression in the coronavirus era

This isn't new, even if it feels like it

Pastor Jerel Hagerman conducts a drive-in Easter service in the parking lot of Joshua Springs Calvary Chapel on Sunday in Yucca Valley, California. Worshippers do not leave their cars during the service for safety reasons as the spread of COVID-19 continues. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Nails on the ground blocking cars from entering a church parking lot, and authorities ordering anyone caught attending a drive-up service to be quarantined for two weeks. Police writing $500 citations for church attendance and arresting Christians offering assistance and alternatives to women about to get abortions.

These are real incidents in the United States over just the past few weeks. Jarring infringements on the freedom of religious expression, allegedly in service of public health. How should Christians respond?

Know the rules, obey them whenever possible

"Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves" (Romans 13:1-2).

Christians sometimes misinterpret this passage. The Apostle Paul does not call for blind submission to all authority, even if that authority commands you to sin. There are limits (more on that later). But he does clearly establish the mandate to respect authority when possible, and not to rebel unnecessarily.

Rebellion based in ignorance, or rebellion simply for the sake of conflict or attention, is unhelpful, and unbiblical. Resist authority only when the authority is unrighteous or unjust. One must know the laws in order to know when they are unjust.

When a Christian is harassed by an authority while obeying the law, it exposes the authority's corruption, and reveals the anti-Christian motive behind the harassment. A Christian who is needlessly violating the law, however, is simply a lawbreaker and the authority will be perceived as justified, even if the motive is corrupt.

It's quite easy to take advantage of someone who doesn't know the rules of the game. Such a person is vulnerable to deception and oppression. Christians should work to educate themselves, not only on their basic rights as Americans, but on the specific rules and guidelines authorities have instituted to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Be wise, and love others

"Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16, English Standard Version).

John Gill, in his Exposition of the Bible, explains this verse in a way that applies very directly to our current situation (emphasis mine):

"The serpent is a very sharp-sighted, cunning creature, and uses various arts and stratagems for its own preservation, and especially of its head; and is so far to be imitated by the followers of Christ, as to make use of all proper methods to preserve themselves from the insults and rage of men, and not expose themselves to unnecessary dangers: and, as much as in them lies, they should be careful to give no just occasion of offense, or irritate, and provoke them to use them ill, and to avoid all snares and traps that are laid for them; and, at the same time, maintain the innocence and harmlessness of the dove, being free from all wicked cunning and craftiness, without rancor, malice, and wrath; not meditating and seeking revenge, but meek and humble in their deportment, leading inoffensive lives, and proceeding in the course of their calling, though liable to many insults, and much oppression."

Wisdom means avoiding unnecessary danger. Gathering large crowds for Sunday service during a pandemic may be unwise. It may also cause offense to those in the community, Christian or otherwise, who would prefer the threat of contagion be treated with more caution. Is it necessary to put a target on your own back, and to potentially endanger others? Does that advance the gospel? Does that draw more attention to Christ, or to you? The answers to these questions are situational, but worth consideration by all.

Wisdom and faith are not mutually exclusive. It could be wise to suspend normal, large in-person gatherings for a time, and it would also require faith to believe that the God you worship can sustain his people even if they can't sit in the pews.

Know when (and how) to take a stand

"Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego replied, 'O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us. He will rescue us from your power, Your Majesty. But even if he doesn't, we want to make it clear to you, Your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up'" (Daniel 6:16-18 NLT).

Note reason for rebellion here; they were being ordered to sin. Note the tone of the rebellion; firm, decisive, yet respectful. Note the courage; we will face the consequences of this decision whether God shields us from them or not.

Unnecessary conflict can do more harm than good to the reputation and advancement of the Christian faith. At the same time, unnecessary concession can lead to a forfeiture of rights which cannot be reversed. Aggressors do not respond to concessions by relenting; if you give up a right today that you should've held onto, they will come back for another tomorrow.

Christians operating in secular society don't have to go out of their way to find resistance. We don't have to start trouble. Jesus told us that the world will hate us because it hated him first. Opposition will come. And when it does, we must be uncompromising in our principles, immovable in our convictions, radical in our love for others, and above reproach in our words and demeanor, as Christ himself was in the face of far more extreme persecution.

"I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world" (John 16:33 NLT).

One last thing…
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