Churches are closed but restaurants and casinos aren’t: Are churches being unduly targeted?
This week on Monday night (28 December 2020) the State President, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, declared new “adjusted alert level 3” restrictions which included, amongst many other restrictions that, “All indoor and outdoor gatherings will be prohibited for 14 days from the date hereof, except for funerals and other limited exceptions as detailed in the regulations, such as restaurants, museums, gyms and casinos.” This was clarified in the Government Gazette issued the next day; “All social gatherings, including faith-based gatherings are prohibited for two weeks, after which this provision will be reviewed” (84.3).
The distinction between the closure of churches on the one hand and the continued operations (albeit with operating hours restrictions) of restaurants and casinos has rankled not a few church members. This seems, on the face of it, deliberately intentioned. Is it?
Note, firstly, that gatherings of all faith-based groups are thus restricted. This includes all mosques, synagogues and temples not just churches. Its not the churches being targeted!
Secondly, note that all social gatherings of all groups are prevented not just faith-based groups. Its not even faith groups that are being targeted!
And, we all do it. We all listen to the announcement and read the restriction asking the same self-concerned question, “How am I going to be affected?” But this isn’t about churches. At least, its not just about churches.
Let’s come to the rationale then, shall we? There is no doubt that South Africa is facing a precarious balancing act between the attempt to resuscitate our economy versus the attempt to keep the numbers of infected citizens under the level with which the hospitals can cope (and our hospitals are not coping)! After a five stage lockdown that first began on 27 March (the dates and consequences for our churches are listed here) the reason for this new increase in restrictions was explained by Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa in his Monday night address; “In effect, the adjusted Level 3 regulations will keep the economy open while strengthening measures to reduce transmission” and “social gatherings substantially increase the risk of transmission.” That, it seems to me, is the heart of the distinction between restaurants, casinos and churches.
Moreover, for Christians, God’s instruction to the church pertaining to the government as recorded and kept for us by the Holy Spirit in Romans 13:1-7 and His companion clarifying passages in 1 Pet 2:13-17 and Tit 3:1 are plain. Christians, above all, are to be subject to the governing authorities who are described as “ministers of God” no less (Rom 13:6). Further still there are accompanying benefits that accrue to those who adhere to God’s Word; a benefit from doing good, an aversion of punishment and the wrath of God and, quite simply, for the sake of conscience. Thus, while we chafe and become frustrated at times, we remember that God knows better than us and that every government is “God’s servant for your good” (Rom 13:4).
In addition to this, I do believe that there is wisdom behind the government’s heightened restrictions:
Firstly, consider how family gatherings have proceeded over this Christmas time. We meet and greet, cautiously at first, and then we drink and eat with masks off (necessarily) and our caution dissipates in what appears to be a ‘safe environment.’ The same is true of churches who consider themselves as a family (as they rightly should). We meet and greet, tentatively initially, but as time goes, our cautions do too. This is natural human behaviour.
Secondly, consider too that while some churches have been exceptionally rigorous in their adherence to the law and even beyond this in terms of wisdom, some have not. Some have either flagrantly disregarded the law or are ignorant of it. This fact is indisputable as many churches have shared their lack of adherence on social media!
Thirdly, as the President has said, “venues are often poorly ventilated and their permitted capacity is being exceeded.” He’s right!
Lastly, consider for a moment the great scope and methods of God’s eternal plan to rescue a people for Himself.
Is it possible that by our adherence to the law, our numbers are greatly preserved to continue to preach the gospel in a day on the other side of this? Or do you also, like so many, live only for today?
Is it possible that by our preachers resorting back full-force to on-line preaching and You-Tube evangelisation, that the gospel will continue to reach beyond our four walls as it already has this year?
Is it possible, that by the seeming unreasonable closure of churches, the Holy Spirit may prick the consciences of those who must yet be saved through curiosity about the meaning and message of the church?
Is it possible, that “this is the will of God, that by doing good [we] may put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Pet 2:15).
Is it possible, that Jesus may say of us, even through and after this curious COVID time, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
Lastly, out of pastoral concern, being aware that the risk of the closure of some of our churches is real and that many of our pastors will have to tighten their belt financially yet further is likely, let me encourage all of you, if you still have both your job and your health, praise God for that and honour Him in your giving to your local church, praying for those who have lost one or the other or both. If you still have your health but have lost your job, praise God for your health and continue to seek employment or start a small business of your own. If you have deteriorating health but gainful employment, honour God with your income as a sacrifice to God. Lastly, if you have neither your health nor your job, praise God for His intentions in your being here on earth is not over yet and the saints must yet be prayed for and the workers yet sent out. For all of His people, remember that, “this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:17-18)