Dear friends,

I wanted to offer you some wise advice from Puritan pastor Richard Baxter, author of the classic work of Christian counsel, A Christian Directory. Baxter shows that the need to temporary cancel church services during a pandemic is not a new problem.

Question

May we cancel church services on the Lord’s day, if government officials prohibit them?

AnswerS

  1. It is one thing for the governing authorities to prohibit services for a temporary period, for some special reason such as epidemic, fire, or war. It is another for them prohibit services frequently, or to prohibit them for openly anti-Christian reasons.
  2. It is one thing for the government to prohibit church services for a brief period, and another to do it as a matter of regular practice.
  3. It is one thing for a church to cancel services in formal obedience to the law, and another thing to cancel them out of prudence, or for necessity, because we cannot keep them.
  4. We must make a distinction between the assembly and the circumstances of the assembly.

a. If the authorities prohibit church assemblies for a greater good, such as the common safety in a time of epidemic, war, or fire, it is our duty to obey them.

  • This is because positive duties must be subordinated to those great natural duties (like the maintenance of human life) which are their very purpose. Christ justified himself and his disciples’ violation of the external rest of the sabbath making this very argument: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.”
  • Because these prohibitions will not always be present, and doing the right duty at the wrong time is a sin.
  • Because one Lord’s day or church service is not worth the many future services that will be lost if church people lose their lives in an epidemic, war, or fire.

b. If the government prohibits public worship either frequently, or as a direct renunciation of Christ and Christianity, it is not lawful to obey them.

c. But it is lawful and prudent to meet secretly for the time being, even when we cannot do so publicly—and to meet with smaller numbers when we cannot have greater ones.

Translation from Elizabethan to contemporary English by Mark Ward