Cancel Church? A Puritan Reflection

Richard Baxter was a puritan pastor and theologian in England in the seventeenth century. He lived through the Great Ejection by the Church of England where the state abusively expelled about 2500 ministers across England who refused to conform to the new Anglican liturgical orders. Baxter was forced out of his pulpit against his own (and his congregation’s) wishes. Needless to say, Baxter was well acquainted with governmental overreach in the local church.

Baxter, however, also lived through the Great Plague of 1665 in London. Baxter watched in horror as close to 25% of the population of London died within 18 months as the bubonic plague ravaged the cramped metropolis. Governmental abuse aside, Baxter was also tragically acquainted with the worst effects of a contagious disease.

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Towards the end of his life, Baxter compiled a handbook of sorts on Christian living called A Christian Directory. In it, he addresses the issue of what a Christian should do if the government forbids Christians from gathering for corporate worship. Obviously, in our current circumstances, Baxter’s insights prove to be a helpful guide. Baxter’s answers, likely coming from his experiences of both the Great Ejection and Plague, are helpfully balanced:

(I will do my best to explain some of Baxter’s thinking in my italicized commentary)

Question 109:  May we omit Church-assemblies on the Lord’s day, if the [government] 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: 
    a. 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. 
        - Because Affirmatives bind not ad semper, and out of season du­ties become sins.
        - Because one Lords day or Assembly is not to be preferred before many which by the omission of that one are like to be obtained.
 

In other words, Baxter is saying that if we gather during a time of pestilence it will likely lead to the spread of more pestilence, thus eventually causing more absences from corporate worship down the road. Thus, Baxter’s position is that if there are legitimate extenuating circumstances for a temporary prohibition on public worship, it is our duty to obey. However, he goes on to warn:

b. 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. 

c. 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. 

What is Baxter saying here? If the government is unjustly prohibiting public worship, then Christians should continue to gather, but if need requires, they should meet secretly or in smaller groups. Baxter acknowledges that this is not “formal” obedience to the law but “material” obedience. In other words, it is a kind of “technical” obedience (we aren’t meeting in the church building!), even if it is violating the spirit of the government’s law (we are meeting in someone’s field).

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.

Baxter is not using “accidents” the way we use that word today, but to refer to the specific contextual circumstances of the Christian gathering.

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. 

Baxter realizes that even if a government formally agrees that you can gather together for corporate worship, but does so in such a way that “destroys the worship” and prevents the assembly from being “done in consistency with its ends,” it then steps into the category of a “profane” use of governmental overreach. But, he helpfully points out:

2. But he that shall say, ‘You shall not meet till nine a clock, nor stay in the night, etc. does no such thing.  

A church meeting after nine in the morning does not burden the church or prevent it from worshipping Christ corporately. So Baxter has a category for submitting to the government’s requests to alter our worship-assemblies  (in extenuating circumstances, like pestilence) when it does not prevent the purpose of corporate worship from being achieved. Baxter continues on this same stream of thought for answers 2-4 in regards to the government’s request for the location of services, the number of people attending, and who the preachers is–demonstrating what abuse looks like (prohibiting more than six or seven persons to attend) and what is permissible (prohibiting more than ten thousand gathering at once). He concludes with this:

I need not [persist] 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.  Christ said, when they persecute you in one city, flee to another (Mt. 10:13; 16:15[?]): But He never said, ‘If they forbid you preaching in any city, or populous place, obey them.’  He that said, ‘Preach the Gospel to every creature, and to all nati­ons, and all the world, and that would have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,’ (Mt. 28:19; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Tim. 2:25-26; 4:1-3) does not allow us to forsake the souls of all that dwell in cities and populous places, and preach only to some few cottingers elsewhere: No more than he will allow us to love, pity and relieve the bodies only of those few, and take none for our neighbors that dwell in cities, but with priest and Levite, to pass them by.

Notice, Baxter does not leave any room for Christians to wiggle around this: earlier he repeatedly states that if the government has legitimate grounds to cease or alter your worship (without destroying it), you are obligated to obey. BUT, he also says that if the government’s edicts regarding corporate worship are “profane” and discriminatory, then Christians are required to continue to meet out of obedience to Christ, and suffer the consequences. In Baxter’s day, during sickness the wealthy would often leave the city for the country side. Sometimes, ministers would likewise follow. Baxter challenges us to not neglect those who are left behind, but to remain and minister to them–even if the government is commanding you otherwise.

Finally, Baxter asks what individuals should do when those in authority over them forbid them from attending corporate worship:

Question 111.  Must subjects or servants forbear weekly lectures, reading or such helps, above the Lord’s days worship, if princes or masters do command it?

Baxter gives a lengthy explanation of the various responsibilities that employees, servants, the poor, parents, etc. have to provide for their families. If the only means they have to feed their children is by working on the Lord’s Day, Baxter sees them to not be in any fault and believes that their submission to those in authority over them is important to maintain. However, when that isn’t the case he explains:

A prince, or tutor, or schoolmaster, who is not a proprietor of the person, but only a governor, is not to be obeyed formally and for conscience sakeif he forbid his subjects or scholars such daily or weekly helps for their salvation as they have great need of, and have no necessity to forbear; such as are hearing or assembling with the Church on the week days at convenient time, reading the Scriptures daily, or good books, accompanying with men fearing God, praying, etc. Because God has commanded these when we can perform them.” (A Christian Directory, or a Sum of Practical Theology…  (London, 1673), pp. 870-872)

So, where does this leave us? I think Baxter’s mixture of courage and willingness to submit is instructive for us all, especially for those of us in leadership positions in a church. If there are legitimate extenuating circumstances that provide a credible reason for government to request churches to suspend or alter their normal worship gathering, Baxter seems to think that churches ought to obey that edict, PROVIDED THAT: (1) it is a temporary measure, and (2) the alterations to the worship-assembly do not destroy the very purpose and function of the worship gathering.

Here is what is difficult:

  1. Richard Baxter lived in a time where the common consensus was that the Church was very, very important to the society, so there was a much higher priority placed on it than there is today. In Nevada today, casinos, movie theaters, and bowling alleys are permitted to operate at a 50% occupancy capacity while churches–regardless of their size–are limited to 50 persons for worship-gatherings. That would have been unthinkable in Baxter’s day. So, we ought to be a little more skeptical that our government is going to feel as motivated to permit churches to gather again as the government did in Baxter’s day.
  2. The plague that Baxter experienced was the bubonic plague, the “Black Death,” the grand-pooba of all plagues. Covid-19 has nowhere near the mortality nor infection rate of the plague London experienced in 1665-66. If 25% of our city were dropping dead, churches would likely be more compliant with stay-at-home orders.
  3. It is unclear just how long our “temporary” measures of restrictions on churches will last.
  4. Of course, Baxter didn’t live in the digital age where pastors could make recordings of sermons and send them out to their congregations. While, of course, you cannot meet for church online, one wonders what Baxter would have thought about this medium were it available to him in such extreme circumstances. My guess is that he would have used it as a temporary crutch till the church could gather again.
  5. We live in a cultural moment that is radically politically polarized. Everything is political now, even a virus. Many people’s responses to the virus fall along party lines, with conservatives being more cavalier and liberals more cautious. This is dangerous though because that kind of identity-politics spring loads us to respond according to our group’s biases, not according to the objective data. Our media sources similarly follow this same kind of tribal thinking, providing alternative narratives for us to follow along with that reinforce our previously held assumptions. This means that church leaders who lean more one way than another politically might be inclined to respond to this virus more out of desire to signal virtue to the tribe than out of an objective, thoughtful, loving response.
  6. Different states have different quarantine measures, so we should be cautious about speaking in sweeping terms. Some churches are free to gather and worship, some are restricted pretty severely. But Christian leaders should be cautious about creating a cookie-cutter approach that all churches, regardless of where they live, should adhere to.

At our church, our elders have sought to pursue Baxter’s balance of willingness to submit in this extraordinary time of Covid we are all in, with a very serious skepticism that the government is going to be prioritizing local church gatherings as it should. So, we are continuing to abide by the requirements of our state, following Baxter’s lead, because we do not see their requests of us at this moment to be “destroying the worship” or preventing us from fulfilling the purpose and function of our worship-gathering. This means we are meeting outside and asking those who come to wear masks and to practice social distancing. We are not policing our congregation strictly on masking and social distancing requirements, but simply asking them to comply out of a love for neighbor.

However, we are prepared, if need be, to disobey. If the state were to prohibit us from gathering together at all, we would continue to gather. Or if the state were to say we could gather, but only do so outside, and the cold of winter comes along, we would understand that to be similar to the “profane” abuse of government laid out by Baxter in question 110. So, we would then move inside and continue to practice mask wearing and social distancing.

Given the relatively low mortality rate of Covid-19, we have deemed the importance of corporate worship to be significant enough to be worth the mediated risk of continuing to gather in person. However, given the seriousness of the infectious rate of Covid-19 and our desire to love our neighbor as ourselves, we will continue to do so safely by altering how we worship through social distancing and mask wearing. And, of course, if the mortality rate were to spike up, we would then consider another temporary moratorium on gathering altogether.

We don’t want anyone to think we are just lobbing another grenade in the culture war, or capitulating to outside pressure. We don’t want anyone to confuse the gospel of the Kingdom of God for the “gospel” of American politics. We are simply wanting to be obedient to Christ. We want to highlight for the watching world what it looks like to demonstrate courage, boldness, and fearlessness with a love of neighbor, humility, and selfless sacrifice. We want to lift up the radiant jewel of Christian worship for what it is: something priceless that shouldn’t be cast aside carelessly. And we want to lift up the servant-like heart of Christ who prioritized the needs of others over His own (Phil 2:3-11). That means that we will likely wind up choosing a path that won’t ellicit any hoops and hollers from the right or the left–we might even be step on some toes. We won’t be doing anything headline worthy that will set the social media world abuzz, but will just pursue simple, humble obedience to Christ, even if it puzzles, frustrates, and bores the partisans and internet warriors. But that’s okay. We follow the guy who said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”

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