The coronavirus pandemic, which has ravaged the world for twenty months, has brought a number of profound theological and ethical issues to the surface. These issues range from the question of the sovereignty of God to ethical questions regarding the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.
An important issue that has arisen in the wake of the pandemic has to do with the relationship between the Church and the State. More specifically, it relates to the authority of the State, the scope of its jurisdiction and legislative power, and the extent to which Christians must submit to its mandates.
In June this year, a group of pastors in the U.S. produced the ‘Warrenton Declaration on Medical Mandates, Biblical Ethics, and Authority’ in an attempt to address some of these issues (https://warrentondeclaration.com/).
The Declaration seeks to ‘provide clarity and coherence on issues of biblical authority and ethics related to medical mandates.’ But the document also aims to address what the authors perceive to be the over-attribution of ‘power and jurisdiction to the State’ by the churches in America. According to the Declaration, this has resulted in pastors becoming ‘mouthpieces for government agencies’, and agents that ‘help carry out their bidding.’
The Warrenton Declaration is divided into two sections. The first section presents 15 affirmations and denials which set out the biblical teaching on the authority of the State. In language that is reminiscent of the Barmen Declaration of 1934, this document seeks to remind the church that ‘all authority, in Heaven and on earth has been bestowed upon God the Son, Christ Jesus.’
In the second section, the Declaration applies the biblical principles it has set out to government mandates such as vaccinations, mask-wearing and lockdowns. The authors are of the view that in imposing these mandates, the government has acted beyond its God-given jurisdiction. Therefore, Christians are not required to obey them.
The Declaration maintains that Christians who argue that in complying with these mandates they are obeying God’s command to love one’s neighbour are in fact ‘twisting the Scripture’. They are ‘effectively subjecting the law of God to the ever-changing and conflicting whims of “public health” agencies, the latest medical study or majority opinion.’ The Declaration claims further that compliant Christians have simply misunderstood and misapplied Romans 13.
Although the Declaration was put together by Protestant pastors, it has received the endorsement of some Catholic scholars. For example, Michael Pakaluk, professor of ethics and social philosophy at the Catholic University of America, said in an interview that:
The declaration is highly important for pointing out that a secular authority has no claim to obedience, not simply when it commands us to do something sinful, but also when it issues a command outside of its proper competence and scope.
It is very welcome indeed that, as the declaration shows, Christians widely are re-evaluating in the sight of God the scope of legitimate secular authority. Faced with an obvious overreach by that authority, they are sensing that an appeal to Scripture and – like our Founders, an intuitive sense, too, of the natural rights we derive from God’s creation – can provide a timely remedy.
Although the Declaration has the appearance of a statement on broad and general biblical principles concerning civil authority, it was obviously created in response to the contemporary situation in the U.S. To fail to read the Declaration contextually is, in my view, to fail to fully understand its outlook and outlook of its architects.
To be sure, much of what the Declaration has to say about the role of the State is uncontroversial. For example, the statement that ‘earthly authorities have been instituted by God as His servants to function as a blessing to those in their jurisdiction’ is firmly grounded in Scripture (Romans 13:1-5; 1 Peter 2:13-14).
In a similar vein, the statement that underscores the fact that civil authorities do not have ‘unlimited jurisdiction’ (Article IV) is also uncontroversial (Colossians 1:15-20; Matthew 28:18). For example, the State does not have the right to prescribe how the Church ought to conduct its worship services or who to appoint as its ministers.
Also unproblematic is the postulation that when Scripture commands Christians to obey civil authorities ‘in everything’, it cannot mean that ‘that obedience is obligatory for all commands regardless of their morality’ (Article V). Christians, therefore, should only obey ‘biblically lawful instructions and commands of earthly authorities to the extent of their proper, God-ordained, role and jurisdiction’ (Article XI).
Christians of every ecclesiastical stripe would have no difficulties whatsoever in agreeing with and endorsing these basic theological propositions made in the Declaration. However, many Christians – including Christians in Singapore – would find what the authors of the Declaration understand to be the logical and indisputable implications of these fundamental truths to be highly problematic.
We will examine these issues by looking at how the authors of the Declaration have answered the following questions, and how most Christian leaders here might respond to those answers.
Question 1: Can the powers of the State be justifiably extended in the wake of a global pandemic, where a deadly virus which has claimed millions of lives continues to spread unabated?
The Declaration answers this question with a categorical ‘No’. ‘WE DENY that civil governments have lawful authority to enact “lockdowns” predicated on protecting “public health” as this is not their jurisdiction’ (Article XX). The Declaration uses this same argument for masking and vaccination mandates as well.
The position taken by church leaders in Singapore is radically different from that of the Declaration.
They agree that mandating lockdowns which make it impossible for Christians to congregate physically for Sunday services clearly goes beyond the jurisdiction of the State. In ordinary times, such a mandate should be contested by the church.
But these are not ordinary times! We are in the midst of a public health crisis and these temporary restrictions are introduced by the government in the interest of public health and safety. In addition, these measures are not specifically targeted at the church, but also apply to many sectors of society, including other faith communities.
Thus, even though in imposing these restrictions which curtail the religious freedom of its citizens the State may have exceeded the scope of their jurisdiction, Christians here have no difficulties with this. They know that these measures, which are temporary, are aimed at the welfare of the population in the wake of a raging global pandemic.
Question 2: Do Christians have an obligation, in the interest of public health and the common good, to comply with government mandates aimed at containing the spread of Covid-19 even though this may require a curtailment of their religious liberties?
The Declaration affirms that ‘individuals are free to restrict their own movement about society … should they deem it wise to do so’ (Article XXI). However, it makes it very clear that no one is obligated to do this. ‘WE DENY that conformity to a given recommended course of medical action is made to be civilly or morally obligatory by appeals to an alleged “majority’ of expert opinion or available medical data’ (Article XXIX).
Most Christian leaders in Singapore would disagree with this.
They would argue that if current medical knowledge about the coronavirus suggests that mask-wearing is an effective way to contain community transmission, then it is socially responsible for Christians to comply. In such a situation, the simple practice of wearing a mask in public becomes an expression of Christian love towards the neighbour because it curbs the spread of the virus. Put differently, most Christians here would regard it as their civil and moral obligation to wear masks in the interest of public health.
Christians here would comply with the government’s lockdown mandates and restrictions imposed on Sunday services for the same reason. Although these measures may be said to limit their religious freedom, they are willing to temporarily forgo their freedom for the wellbeing and safety of society.
Question 3: Have the authors of the Declaration been fair in maintaining that Christians who comply with government’s medical mandates have in fact over-attributed power and jurisdiction to the State? Is it justified in concluding that Christians who have obeyed these mandates have ‘defaulted to almost reflexive acquiescing to whatever the government health agency statements are made and the policy they put in place’ (Preamble)?
I think most Christians in Singapore would not see it that way, and therefore would not agree with these assertions.
As I have explained above, most Christians would be of the view that under the current circumstances, it is proper for the leaders of the nations to take the lead in tackling the pandemic. And in doing so, the government has the right to put in place the measures it deems necessary in order to save lives.
In complying with government mandates, Christians in Singapore have not misread or misapplied Romans 13, as the Declaration appears to suggest. Neither are they guilty of ‘subjecting the law of God to the ever-changing and conflicting whims of “public health” agencies, the latest medical study, or majority opinion’ (Article XXXI).
Christians here would find the suggestion that to comply with government mandates is to deny the absolute and unlimited authority of Jesus Christ (implied in Article III) quite ludicrous and absurd!
CHRONIC TRUST DEFICIT
Why do two groups of Christians who read the same Bible and embrace the same scriptural principles governing Church-State relations have such radically different views on government mandates?
At the beginning of this article, I pointed out that the Declaration must be read with an eye on the American context from which it emerged. I observed that to fail to do this is to fail to understand the intent of the document and the motivation behind it.
What is it, then, in contemporary American culture and society that led to the composition of the Declaration? What are some of the cultural and societal sensibilities that have inspired, provoked and shaped such a document – its outlook, sentiment and tone?
I suggest that one important factor is the deficiency of trust in the government and its institutions that pervades American society today.
For a good number of years, various studies have shown that there is a discernible decline in public trust in the government in the U.S. For example, in 2019, just before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a Pew Research Centre report reveals that 75 percent of Americans believe that public trust in the government has been shrinking. 64 percent opined that this erosion of trust has made it harder for the government to solve national problems.
About two-thirds of Americans (69%) believe that the federal government and the news media are withholding important and useful information from the public. Four-in-ten adults (41%) believe that low public confidence in the government is ‘a very big problem.’ ‘Confidence in the government’, the report states, ‘is roughly on par with problems caused by racism and illegal immigration – and a bit above terrorism and sexism.’
This was 2019, before the pandemic struck. Covid-19 has further eroded public trust in the government.
The Advanced Studies in Cultural Foundation and public opinion consultancy Heart+Mind Strategies has recently conducted a survey involving 1,105 adult Americans. It found that fewer than 1 in 3 Americans express real trust in either the government or the mainstream media.
In an article published at the website of the Ford School, University of Michigan, on June 10, 2021, Rebecca Cohen writes:
Preliminary data from CLOSUP’s latest Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS) shows a significant increase in those who believe there’s a ‘total breakdown of democracy’ at state and federal levels between 2020 and 2021. Local leaders who believe that democracy in the U.S. is in a state of ‘total breakdown’ tripled during this time, and now more than half say it is at or near ‘total breakdown’.
‘This lack of trust’, she adds, ‘whether in government institutions or the system itself, makes finding and implementing solutions to our communities’ greatest challenges – like policing, Covid-19 responses, and vaccine distribution – even harder.’
I believe this serious erosion of public trust in the government and its institutions in the States has subtly influenced the authors of the Declaration and muddled their views on government mandates. This chronic trust deficit is perhaps also the reason why the authors do not appear to have much confidence in ‘expert opinion’ or ‘medical data’ coming from government institutions (See Article XXXI).
Perhaps the authors of the Declaration may not even be consciously aware of just how deep-seated this distrust really is. And this has led them to think that those who affirm the biblical principles they set out must also agree with how they have applied them to government Covid mandates.
Christians in countries where no such deficit of trust in the government exists – such as Singapore – would apply the same biblical principles on the authority of the State very differently. They would have little problem acceding to temporarily enlarging the jurisdiction of the State in the interest of public health and safety.
A survey conducted by Vanessa Lim et al in 2020, when Singapore was in the heat of its battle against Covid-19, yielded the following findings. ‘Most agreed or strongly agreed that information from official government sources (99.1%; 528/533) and Singapore-based news agencies (97.9%; 522/533) was trustworthy.’ The researchers concluded their report thus: ‘Our findings show that trust is the vital commodity when managing an evolving outbreak.’
One need only to compare these figures with the U.S. figures cited above to see the sharp difference in the level of trust in the two countries.
The trust that churches in Singapore have in the government is built over the years. But during this pandemic, that trust is further strengthened by efforts on the part of the government to keep pastors and church leaders abreast of every new development in the Covid situation in Singapore.
Thus, even though there have been many twists and turns and starts and stops in the nation’s fight against Covid, Christians recognise that the government is doing its level best to keep everyone safe.
There is no hermeneutics-of-suspicion at work in the Christian community with reference to the government. There are no misgivings about the intent behind the government’s Covid mandates. And there is no suspicion that the government has some sinister hidden agenda to cripple the church by these mandates or to deprive Christians of their religious freedom.
If Christians in Singapore were to produce a similar document (say, ‘The Temasek Declaration on Medical Mandates’), they would expound the same basic biblical principles found in the Warrenton Declaration. But I would wager that their interpretation and application of those principles would be radically and substantially different from the U.S. document.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.