When is the Church Permitted to Stop Meeting?

What if the government makes a law with a civil penalty for meetings over 100 people? Do you comply? My answer is yes! Honor the king. God appointed him. But when the government makes a suggestion to restrict meetings to 10, with no civil penalty, do you follow the suggestion? This is one of the challenging questions pastors are grappling with. How we should respond to government suggestions and laws. My view is that if the government makes a law, the church is obligated to obey it unless she must disobey God to obey the civil law. If the government makes a suggestion, the church should proceed in a spirit of honor and humility and carefully consider the matter and, depending on the situation, not automatically take it as persecution. Saints of old have had to answer these questions. So, if the civil government calls for restrictions on the church what should she do?

Below is the position of Richard Baxter on the different facets of this problem,

Question 109: May we omit Church-assemblies on the Lord’s day, if the Magistrate for­bid them?

Answer: 1. It is one thing to forbid them for a time, upon some special cause (as infection by pestilence, fire, war, etc.), and another thing to forbid them statedly or profanely.

2. It is one thing to omit them for a time, and another to do it ordinarily.

3. It is one thing to omit them in formal obedience to the Law; and another thing to omit them in prudence or for necessity, because we cannot keep them.

4. The Assembly and the circumstances of the Assembly must be distinguished:

1. If the Magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety) forbid Church Assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him. Because positive duties give place to those great natural duties which are their end: so Christ justified himself and his disciples violation of the external rest of the Sabbath. For the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.

2. Because Affirmatives bind not ad semper, and out of season du­ties become sins.

3. Because one Lord's day or Assembly is not to be preferred before Many which by the omission of that one are like to be obtained.

2. If princes profanely forbid holy assemblies and public worship, either statedly, or as a renuncia­tion of Christ and our religion; it is not lawful formally to obey them.

3. But it is lawful prudently to do that secretly for the present necessity, which we cannot do publicly, and to do that with smaller numbers, which we cannot do with greater assemblies, yea and to omit some assemblies for a time that we may thereby have opportunity for more: which is not formal but only material obedience.

4. But if it be only some circumstances of assembling that are forbidden us, that is the next case to be resolved.

Question 110. Must we obey the Magistrate if he only forbid us worshiping God, in such a place, or country, or in such numbers, or the like?

Answer: We must distinguish between such a determination of circumstances, modes or accidents. What if we be forbidden only place, num­bers, etc. as plainly destroy the worship or the end, and such as do not. For instance:

1. He that saith, ‘You shall never assemble but once a year, or never but at midnight; or never above six or seven minutes at once, etc.,’ doth but determine the circumstance of time: But he doth it so as to destroy the worship, which cannot so be done in consistency with its ends. But he that shall say, ‘You shall not meet till nine a clock, nor stay in the night, etc. does no such thing. . . .

2. I need not stand on the application. In the latter case we owe formal obedience. In the former we must suffer, and not obey. For if it be meet so to obey, it is meet in obedience to give over God’s worship. . . .

(A Christian Directory, or a Sum of Practical Theology… (London, 1673), pp. 870-872.)

Reformed Books Online has a treasure trove of historical information with quotes on social distancing and the adaptation of the Church in a time of spreading disease.

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