June 3, 2021

​COVID-19 and the “Worship Crowd”?

Is our freedom to worship threatened?

Brad Thorp

The Viper1 Pub and Lounge is thriving! Loud driving tempo, dancing patrons, with lots of alcohol flowing all around. A few masks and general social distancing. People having fun!

Another View

Occupying a different category are local churches and temples (where people also gather, worship, often eat together, and have great social interaction), many of which are shut down, depending on their locale. Church members are willing to use masks and social distance. One set of locations–pubs and lounges—is legal, government approved, and endorsed! But churches are locked down and prohibited except for the most essential people to baptize an infant or bury the dead!

Why? Where is the logic and consistency in this contradiction? Why is one location healthy and safe, and the other seen by government to be a threat to public health? True, government classifies pubs and bars as “restaurants and places where people get food.” What then of churches and the significant eating and socializing that happens there? Would a place of worship be allowed to open if they gave out a sandwich at the door?

Concern has been expressed by some that these mandates are an inappropriate government intrusion on religious liberty. Some religious organizations have made the news by defying the order to close, believing these orders a violation of the right of religious freedom.

Some speculate the shutdown of churches is a conspiracy; a bold move to undo a fundamental, historic freedom enshrined in the legal codes of many countries. I don’t believe this is true.

We need to differentiate clearly between a genuine threat to religious freedom and fear-based speculation or conspiracy theories.

Rather, it’s important to identify the genuine characteristics of religious freedom and differentiate them from fear-based speculation. At the same time, public health and government leaders need to be as equitable and consistent as possible in the application of isolation and quarantine regulations. Implementations of necessary restrictions should be done, as far as possible, in a manner that doesn’t arouse fear of infringement on fundamental human rights and cultural values.

Seven Considerations

At least seven major factors must be considered when evaluating if these health restrictions intrude on religious liberty.

First: “If.” Should a person worship a god? Atheists claim there is no god. People of faith believe there is a God. I don’t see any direction being given in the current government health restrictions I’m aware of endorsing if there is a God.

Second: “Who?” Hindus believe there are more than 30 million gods. Followers of the great Abrahamic faiths: Jews, Muslims, Christians, believe there is one God. I see no direction being given by government on whom to worship.

Third: “Why?” The reason individuals worship varies with their religion or philosophy. What I’ve seen from government gives no indication that it supports why an individual should worship.

Fourth: “How.” Worship practices vary tremendously. Prayer, preaching, music, icons, images, philanthropy, pilgrimages, ancient writings regarded as sacred . . . : the list is long. Again, I see no direction being given by government in current regulations on how to worship.

Fifth: “What.” Religious beliefs have a wide range. Some beliefs held by individuals or faith groups are the opposite of those held by other individuals or groups. Government has no right to determine what individuals believe. In the current COVID-19 restrictions, there’s no attempt to define or determine what beliefs a person should hold.

Sixth: “When.” Muslims worship on Friday; Jews and some Christians on Saturday; most Christians on Sunday. “Holy days” fill the calendars of some religious organizations. In some jurisdictions gathering at places of worship has been suspended. However, governments have given no mandate on when to worship. Individuals are free to worship when they believe they should.

Seventh: “Where.” Religious freedom includes the right to assemble and meet peacefully to worship.

Almost every religion teaches the ethic that is known in Christianity as the “golden rule”: “Treat others as you‘d like to be treated.” Religious individuals and organizations who ignore health restrictions might possibly reflect on whether their actions genuinely fulfill this ethic of respect for equal treatment and the well-being of others. I suggest that the golden rule encompasses respect for community health needs, too.

From a biblical perspective, there are two key additional concepts. First, civil government that does not intrude on an individual’s moral obligation to obey God is an institution ordained of God. Within a biblical context, civil government has responsibility to maintain law, order, and public safety (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; Acts 5:29). Second, the Bible differentiates between moral law, such as the Ten Commandments, and health laws. In the Bible, in Leviticus 13, we find a strong mandate for isolation and quarantine for certain communicable diseases. Individuals possibly infected by serious skin diseases or leprosy were to be isolated and quarantined. There is clear biblical precedent for public health quarantine restrictions. While other biblical teachings clearly define the principles of religious liberty, the issue today with COVID-19 restrictions, as I see it, isn’t primarily religious liberty. It’s public health and safety.

A Call for Consistency

Religious liberty is enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.2 Many countries have this liberty protected in their constitutions. Tragically, in some countries this freedom doesn’t exist or is severely restricted. We all need to be vigilant to protect and advance religious liberty. Bible prophecy warns that this liberty will someday be taken away. Health laws, ostensibly not violating principles of freedom, can be misused. However, we need to differentiate clearly between a genuine threat to religious freedom and fear-based speculation or conspiracy theories. Generally, I don’t believe current COVID-19 public health restrictions threaten our religious freedom. Our situation today is Leviticus 13, not Revelation 13. However, with all due respect, I believe current restrictions in many jurisdictions pose an unnecessary and unequal burden and are creating confusion in many minds.

The perceived problem is that government is being discriminatory. Is there consistency and equality in allowing pubs and bars to meet, while prohibiting or severely limiting the size of gatherings in houses of worship? I don’t think so. I am not aware of any consistent health rationale for such possible discrimination. Food and support in these unusual times comes from much more than a “bar-restaurant” that serves snacks, liquid carbohydrates and sometimes meals. Why is government favoring those who self-medicate with alcohol or other chemicals to meet in bars, pubs, nightclubs, and vaping lounges; and in contrast, prohibiting houses of worship from meetings with congregants who experience spiritual, mental, and social health benefits? Religions are nonprofit. In general, they exist to serve. Many religious organizations have extensive support networks providing food and help to their members and needy community citizens. Why discriminate against them?

I strongly support public health measures—masking, social distancing, and closing public events, etc. COVID-19 is no joke! Several dear friends of ours have died from COVID-19. We must protect our health-care systems and our brave, hardworking health-care providers. My wish is that gove
rnment leaders be consistent and equitable! If it’s good for the “pub crowd,” it should also be good for the “worship crowd.”

Religious liberty? YES! Public health? YES! Consistent equality and treatment for any to meet, worship and support the community? Hopefully, YES!

  1. Pseudonym. Based on Proverbs 23:32.
  2. https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights

Brad Thorp is retired from the General Conference, where he worked as a field secretary focused on evangelism outreach. Prior to that, he served as president of Hope Channel.