Burial, COVID, and the limits of submission to government

by Jesse Johnson, The Cripplegate

A few years ago, Clint Archer and I were able to minister in a closed country. It was a nation that claims to have religious freedom—you can be any religion you want! All of them are totally legal!—but with one big exception: you can’t be part of a religion that buries the dead.

The result is that Christians there are severely persecuted. It is almost a rite of passage there to be beaten for your faith, and a basic component of pastoral ministry is visiting believers in the hospital. Churches are forced underground. They meet in buildings with covered windows. Believers arrive in staggered time slots so as to avoid government detection, and they leave in shifts, taking different roads to disguise what was going on inside. Evangelism is difficult, because if a believer gets identified, he would face retribution from the government.

When Clint and I first arrived there, we had the same basic response: “Why not simply do cremation, and be done with all this hiding and sneaking around stuff?” After all, beatings seemed a severe price to pay for something that many Western believers would consider an ethical gray area anyway.

But by the end of our time there, we learned to appreciate their conviction. They understood that burial of the dead was only the presenting issue. The real issue was that the government rejected Christ, rejected his gospel, and was determined to reject believers. Plus, as many of them reminded us, isn’t being persecuted a blessing anyway? (Matthew 5:11-12).

For believers there, burial was a matter of conviction, and it was not right for the government to tell them otherwise. It speaks of the hope of the resurrection—which of course their nation’s religion denies—and so burying the dead is one of the loudest declarations that Christians are different because Jesus was resurrected.

The government backs their ban on burials with appeals to the public good. They claim bodies in the ground would pollute the water and contaminate the earth. They claim their land is sacred in their own Buddhist religion, and so to allow burials would defile it. Christians have responded by doing burials in secret, and in return their churches likewise have to be secret.

That experience has shaped my own view of submission to government. Of course I agree with Paul when he commands believers to “be in subjection” to government authorities (Romans 13:3-7).  I agree with Peter when he tells us we must “be subject to every human institution whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors” (1 Peter 2:13-14). Our goal is to lead a quiet life (1 Thessalonians 4:11) and we pray for our government leaders to allow us to do just that (1 Timothy 2:2).

Yet like many of the principles taught in the Bible, they are not absolute. There is a balancing principle at play as well, namely that while the government is owed submission out of love (Romans 13:8), God is the only one owed ultimate submission. When the government says “don’t jaywalk,” we honor that. We pay our taxes. We serve in the military when called upon. We do those things.

But when government tells believers that they may not worship Jesus in light of the resurrection, then “we must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29).

Acts 5:29 is where the call to submit to government is balanced by the higher call to submit to God. Basically every commentary on Acts 5:29 all say the same thing: if the government commands you to sin, then they have gone too far, and must be disregarded.

But how do you know if an issue is an Acts 5:29 situation or a 1 Peter 2:13-14 situation? We would all agree that if the government banned evangelism, it is right to obey God and not man. Likewise, if the government bans wearing plaid (or something silly like the spelling of Catsup), it is good to obey government, even if their reasoning doesn’t make sense to us.

Where many Christians are weak is in the middle of those two. Honestly, we don’t really do a good job of understanding Acts 5:29 if the situation is anywhere other than an extreme. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that most of life is lived not in the black/white moral dynamics, but in gray areas. A decision is hard precisely because it is not obvious which category of ethics it belongs to.

So for our first example: consider a government that bans burial. Christians might say, “well, the Bible doesn’t command burial, and the government says it is for public health reasons, so let’s resort to cremation like the rest of the nation.” But they could also say, “God made the body to glorify Himself, and it is designed to do so in both life and death. Jesus took on a real body, which was then physically buried before his resurrection. The New Testament refers to burying the body as the ‘seed of the resurrection,’ so we honor the Lord most when we too bury the dead in hope of the physical resurrection.”

How do you know which answer is best? Well, you look to the elders in the country—those who are familiar with the culture, those who are mature in the Lord, and you follow their lead. If you are one of those elders, how do you know if burial is an issue of obeying God vs. submitting to man? Well, you can look at the how the issue affects worship, and you can look at the government’s reasons for prohibiting it.  

Certainly most reasonable people would agree that the government’s stated objections to burial don’t pass the smell test. There are ways to bury the dead that do not contaminate the drinking water, and moreover Christians categorically reject the notion that their land is sacred and that burial of the dead would defile it. So in addition to the biblical arguments in favor of burial, there is also the simple fact that the arguments against it just don’t hold up. Moreover, this is not just some random nonsensical law, but it touches on the very nature of Christian identity in how it intersects with the resurrection.

Now a second example: consider the recent lockdowns of churches. When COVID first started to spread, governors and leaders didn’t really know what they were dealing with. Models predicted mass casualties, and children were thought to be super-spreaders. This was a going to be like the Spanish Flu of 1918, and so the government shut everything down.

That initial shutdown made sense, given what was known about the disease. It was fitting for government leaders to exercise their authority for the common good, and limiting gatherings was presumably an effective way to do that. This kind of use of government authority has been generally attested to (and submitted to) throughout church history. It was inconvenient, but not as inconvenient as 700,000 people dying.  

So when the government ordered churches closed, they nearly all submitted. Christian leaders, elders, and influential pastors universally suspended mass gatherings. Mark Dever cited his own church’s submission to government in 1918 as backing for his decision to cancel church, and most Baptist churches followed suit. John MacArthur encouraged churches to honor the government’s request as long as it was in the interest of public health and was short-term.

But things have changed since then. As time has gone by, the justification for closing churches has started to erode. As more has been learned about COVID, it obviously is not like the Spanish Flu (praise God). The severity of COVID hits the elderly, the immunocompromised, and those with other health issues. It devastated nursing homes, not colleges.

Meanwhile many of the same government leaders who initially closed churches endorsed massive public protests. Then the medical community, and in many cases the same groups who advocated for shutting down churches in the first place, said that mass gatherings were ok, provided they were about something important to society.

It was at this point that I argue that the government reached its limit in barring churches from meeting. Most government leaders realized this and quickly allowed churches to reopen.

But some areas of the US doubled down on church closures. After the initial wave of protests, in California the government added singing to their list of activities prohibited at church.

So how do Christians navigate this? I agree that generally speaking, we are to be submissive to the government. We honor our leaders, and in particular our governors.

At the same time, the Bible commands us to sing (Ephesians 5:19). The Bible commands us to meet together (1 Corinthians 14:26; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Hebrews 10:24-25). Scripture does not tell us what songs to sing, or what instruments to use, but it does tell us to sing. Likewise, it does not tell us how many people can gather at once, or if that a gathering should be inside or outside, in a central location or in houses. But it does tell us to gather.

Those commands are not inflexible. If there were a public health emergency that justified the suspensions of gatherings, then churches would honor that—as was plainly demonstrated in April, May, and June. But we have reached the point now where it should be up to the elders in churches how to best keep their congregation safe while continuing to worship.

In Virginia, churches are allowed to open, and we are allowed to sing, so this is easy for me to write. Our government restrictions are straightforward, and most churches are following them. Moreover, elders world-wide would be wise if they continued to encourage those particularly susceptible to COVID to stay home, and worship on-line.

But in a place like California, where gathering is effectively prohibited, singing is banned, and the justification for doing so is muddled, churches are very much in a position for their elders to decide “we must obey God rather than man.”

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