Covid blurred the separation of Church and State

We need an honest assessment on how well our institutions have served us as a bulwark against state overreach into our lives.

The following is a letter I sent to the head of major church organisation and is a brief response to the last three years.

Christian institutions have survived enormous challenges for over 2,000 years and hence are a valuable source of information on the effects of a major crisis. I also acknowledge the dedicated work of the church leaders who wrestled with what has taken place and their desire to do the best for their congregations and the wider community.

In March 2020 we faced the news of a potentially cataclysmic event coming our way. It was believed that a virus would spread through the community, but that we should close international borders and enter a short lockdown to give time to prepare our health systems. It may be argued that it was reasonable to demonstrate grace and comply but at the same time we should have been cautious and concerned about the truth. Apocalyptic scenarios were unlikely to play out. We knew that from scripture, from history (see our pandemic plan), and very quickly from statistics.

By April 2020, Epidemiologist Dr Jay Bhattacharya reported an estimated fatality rate of around 0.2 per cent – a figure in line with the experience of the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Governments at the time were reporting 3-4 per cent, similar to figures used for swine flu, so we had cause for scepticism. We also had the Ruby Princess cruise ship, with passengers being interviewed with descriptions of varying degrees of illness from mild to significant. NSW Health must have traced the progress of each of the passengers so we should have been sceptical when this information was not published.

The NSW government enacted a lockdown again on June 26, 2021 ordering the closure of churches but not businesses it considered essential. Many reformed Christian churches internationally had already been open for a year with no unexpected increase in fatalities being reported. Yet we did not offer public critique of the health orders or a balanced Christian perspective.

On May 31, a Christian pastor in Victoria was arrested for ‘threatening to open for worship’. An example of thought crime that should have shocked everyone and jolted us into the realism of what was happening.

On August 23, police entered and issued ‘31 fines to people who attended an illegal Sunday night church service’ with the Police Minister remarking ‘churches are there to profess the message of hope and love and to have those people endanger communities’.

Politicians have no biblical jurisdiction on the running of churches, yet the government had, in their mind, replaced God as the head of the church to determine when, and how, Christians could meet. God had warned us this would happen in 1 Samuel 8:10-22.

Giving further perspective was the capitulation of the State of California in its case against Grace to You church in August 2021, admitting it had no justification for ordering churches closed and paying a substantial settlement. The theologian John MacArthur argued the government was attempting to impede the ‘free exercise of religion by criminalising activity directly required by our faith’. The difference in jurisdiction should not have prevented incorporating this information into a public response to give our congregations a counterbalance to the prevailing government message.

On August 25 at a press conference, NSW police implied they were monitoring churches sparking Senator Canavan to respond:

‘Sounds like NSW Police are “monitoring” livestreamed Church services. How is it okay for the media to congregate at these press conferences but apparently online Church is a massive risk? Enough is enough. End the hypocrisy. End the lockdowns. Give us our freedom back!’

Government had overstepped its ordained authority from God and had become a tyranny.

Senator Rennick in his speech to Senate on 21/11/2021:

‘The government overreach of the state premiers in destroying our civil liberties has gone too far. This is no longer about health but is rather about politicians wielding power for the sake of power instead of doing what they should be doing and protecting the people.’

One of the reasons cited for our capitulation was the first few verses of Romans 13:

‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.’

More than a superficial read of these verses reveal several important considerations:

  • The verses are predicated on the precondition that the authorities, being ordained by God, carry out His will. Failure to act consistent with God’s own words either negates actioning these verses or creates a contradiction which is inconsistent with an omniscient God.
  • The Bible outlines the outcomes of leadership. 1 Tim 2:1-5 ‘That we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.’ Contrast this with the government’s autocratic and divisive actions on society including locking certain people out of free life (see also Christ’s action with the leper in Matthew 8:1-3).
  • The Bible outlines the attributes which are consistent with leadership. 1 Timothy 3 ‘Temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.’ Contrast this with Premier Berejiklian’s inflammatory words and actions that she wouldn’t want to be in the same room as unvaccinated people.
  • Allowing the government to redefine Hebrew 10:25 ‘Not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’ Acceptance of health orders locking churches from the public makes Christianity subservient to the government and gives precedence to redefine whatever it pleases. Contrast this with Daniel’s actions in Daniel 6 where he would not change God’s ordained method of worship for even 30 days even when faced with certain death – not a chance of survival of over 99.9 per cent.
  • Paul, the author of these verses, repeatedly disobeyed the authorities and was arrested for it. So, if he advocated for unconstrained obedience in Romans, he is a liar and not to be trusted. Of course, this is not what he is referring to. He wanted default obedience except when authorities act contrary to God’s will.
  • A superficial interpretation denies that leaders are prone to corruption and ungodly actions as God says in 1 Samuel 8:10-22 and require accountability as in 1 Samuel 13:13,14.
  • Absolute obedience provides no limiting principle. Churches were ordered to close, and they closed. What if police, military, the public or Christians were ordered to do more extreme actions? History informs us that this happens, and we only need to look at the analysis in ‘Ordinary Men’ to discover how disturbingly quickly this can occur. If there is no limiting principle, then should we hand people back who have escaped North Korea, clearly breaking their government laws?

Even when churches were ‘allowed’ to open government influence remained. Communion was replaced with ceremonial hand washing. Mandatory face masks generated fear of an invisible enemy when the focus should have been on the hope of the omnipresent God. The cross of Christ was outflanked by NSW Health insignia and QR codes. Perhaps most pernicious of all was allowing the fear of the omnipotent God, Proverbs 1:1-7, to be replaced with the fear of a fragile virus. In doing so we facilitated the mental recalibration of health bureaucrats and premiers as saviours from an existential threat rather than Jesus Christ as the eternal saviour. GK Chesterton warned us of this: ‘Once abolish the God and government becomes the God.’

When Covid vaccines became available we failed to provide support to many Christians who had legitimate ethical concerns about the way the different vaccinations were developed. Many jurisdictions had granted religious exemptions demonstrating this was more than a fringe issue.

Christian churches have been subjected to authoritarian governments yet shamed by the speeches of some in politics. Former Victorian Leader Michael Kroger recently commented that the most important task for Peter Dutton as leader of the Liberal party:

‘Never again will people be stopped practising their religion under a liberal government pandemic or no pandemic … people will never again be arrested for practising their religion … because we believe in freedom of religion freedom of association as the cornerstones of what the Liberal party stands for … this will remind everybody what a party of liberty is all about. … to remind everybody why we are here and that’s why we are here.’

This is an important admission on behalf of the churches about the wrongs which have been perpetrated and a promise that it should never happen again, yet there has been silence from churches on the topic. Our silence can be construed as complicity and fails to give hope and encouragement to those in authority who have defended the churches.

We have an opportunity to be a tremendous source of light and hope in the world but in order to do so we need to be an alternative to the fear and imbalance which has been injected into our wonderful country.