I said in a post last week that we can fulfill Hebrews 10:25 through online church (also called “remote church” and “internet church”. I will use these terms interchangeably here at The Essential Church). Internet church is an excellent solution to the dilemma many Christians face in how to meet without meeting in-person.
And yet, despite this clever solution, there are many who will still respond in a critical manner with the words, “where is it in Scripture?” The Pharisaical types not only want to force their view on everyone; they also want to resort to a biblical fight whenever something is suggested that seems to be a new solution to a current problem.
Now, the words “internet church,” “online church,” or “remote church” are not found in Scripture. Any attempt to debate a modern-day Pharisee critical of internet technologies in light of the coronavirus pandemic will be futile, in vain, empty, devoid of substance. There’s little use in debating someone who wants to resort to this line of debate. They already know before they ask you that those words are not in Scripture. And yet, while those words are not in Scripture, the concepts of “obeying the government” and “obeying Christ” are. And online church does both: it obeys both government and Christ.
Back in the Bible days, there was debate regarding what it meant to be Christian. Did a Christian have to obey the State or government in order to be right with God? Could a Christian love the Lord, live for Jesus, and not pay taxes? Paying taxes to Caesar and paying tithes to the Church (and ultimately, Christ) were two actions that some viewed in opposition to each other.
And today, some believe that to obey God in the face of coronavirus means to meet in person, despite the Federal Government’s command not to meet. The same goes for Christians in other countries. Some Christians of other governments believe they should meet despite the prohibition against doing so.
And yet, Scripture challenges us once again to love the authorities that be and the Christ that made them. Let’s dive into Scripture.
Matthew 22:15-22 and Romans 13:1-7
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. 16 And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. 17 Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the tax money.”
So they brought Him a denarius.
20 And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”
21 They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”
And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way. (Matthew 22:15-22, NKJV)
Here in the above example, we see the Pharisees doing their usual: trying to catch Jesus in something wrong so as to build their opposition against Him. And, as usual, Jesus shows them who He is.
They now ask a question that fits in with Matthew’s theme, a question about money. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” they ask (Matthew 22:17). The law told them to pay taxes, but they wanted to see if Jesus’ spiritual claims and His emphasis on Heaven was designed to isolate Christians from their earthly duties and responsibilities.
His response shows the Pharisees that, while there are obligations to Christ, there are also obligations to Caesar. To obey Caesar is to obey Christ. No one can say “I follow Jesus” yet doesn’t obey the commands of his or her earthly government (whether local, state, or national). Jesus says, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” a reminder that obeying Christ doesn’t mean one can just disobey and disregard Ceasar’s commands. Living in the world as Christians means that we do not live to break the law, nor do we live to disregard it and openly rebel against it either. We are to obey it because state authorities are in place because God put them there.
This is what Paul goes on to say when he discusses the subject of taxation:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:1-7, NKJV)
Paul’s words in Romans 13 are very much in-step with the words of our Lord and Savior in Matthew 22. He doesn’t say anything different than Jesus says. He is more descriptive about it, but Paul agrees with Jesus. In Romans 13:1 he tells the Romans that “the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” In verse 2, he says that “whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God.”
In verse 6, Paul says that our subjection to the authorities are the reason “you also pay taxes.” The “for because of this” in verse 6 refers to the “you must be subject” or verse 5 and the “God’s minister” statement of verse 4. Since the authorities that exist are God’s ministers and we are subject to them, we pay taxes. We don’t pay taxes for any other reason than that. We pay taxes because we are subject to the authorities, they command it, and we are to obey the law.
Matthew 22.15-22 and Romans 13.1-7: The Coronavirus Crisis Connection
Now that we’ve examined both passages rather quickly, we are able to apply them to the current topic at hand: that is, the coronavirus crisis, or the COVID-19 global pandemic.
How do Jesus’ words on obeying Caesar and Christ, and Paul’s words on the same, apply to the coronavirus crisis? Well, in this time, the order from national governments worldwide is “stay indoors, don’t gather in large crowds,” stay at home and work from home as much as possible. #StayAtHome is becoming a trending hashtag on social media to encourage people to follow the presidential and universal mandate.
Now, American counties and states are issuing Stay-At-Home orders to close down barbershops, sweepstakes parlors, hair and nail salons, and the like, in greater efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. Even Facebook has a #Quaranteam profile pic filter that allows people to show their respect for self-quarantining. At this time, staying away from large crowds is an excellent way to prevent large spikes in confirmed cases and the death toll.
Jesus says it plainly: we are to obey both Caesar and Christ. Obeying Christ doesn’t mean we disobey Caesar, or disregard “Caesar’s” laws. Our Caesar today is not the head of an empire but rather, the head of a country. In my case, my “Caesar” is President Donald Trump. And, despite what I think about his economic policies, or how little of a fan I am of Republican Presidents (I have nothing but the utmost respect for Ronald Reagan), I am still to abide by the presidential mandate. The President’s order is for my good. And the President’s order is for your good, too.
A disease that had only killed a few hundred now has created a death toll of 2000 persons in the United States alone. The US has now surpassed China and Italy in the number of confirmed cases, with 120,000 infections to date. The US death toll rose from 1,000 to 2,000 in just 48 hours. At that rate, the death count could reach at least 18,000 people in a matter of 30 days.
In this situation, the presidential mandate is to socially distance ourselves. Practice “social distancing,” a concept that demands people stay at least 6 feet away from one another when talking, cover their mouths when they cough, not touch their faces, mouths, noses, or eyes, etc., and to avoid shaking hands and physical touches with others.
Social distancing does what paying taxes does: it honors both “Caesar” and Christ.
How social distancing honors Caesar
Jesus and Paul tell us to give honor to whom honor is due, and to honor Caesar means to obey Caesar’s commands. It’s no different than honoring your parents. You can’t say you’re honoring your parents, yet fail to obey them. It’s no different with your local, state, federal, and national governments. To honor them is to obey them.
Social distancing, then, honors “Caesar” because it obeys Caesar’s command. Christians honoring Caesar obey and do what they’re told to do. They don’t try to find ways to defy the order because they can. If the President says stay home and live as remotely online as possible, then that’s what Christians do.
Social distancing involves staying away from large crowds, but it doesn’t mean we can’t be “social” in distancing. We can still get online, video chat with family, friends, church members, coworkers, and so on. We can still talk over the phone or on audio apps. There are still other ways to communicate that don’t involve us breathing on one another. And, with COVID-19 being a silent infecter, you can pass the disease to someone yet show no symptoms yourself. That’s what makes it deadly: not all carriers of the disease show symptoms. It’s worse than influenza (the flu).
Caesar is not telling us to practice social distancing to break up our fun, or to stop Christians from gathering, or to strip US citizens of their fun. In fact, the President is a huge champion of Christians and their rights to gather. Though some call President Trump “America’s King Cyrus” (a label I believe is too extreme), the President is in favor of Christian congregating. The order, then, goes against what he normally prefers so that people can stay alive and we can save as many lives as possible. The goal is to stay home and save lives.
So, we obey Caesar by practicing social distancing.
How social distancing honors Christ
Now that we’ve seen how social distancing honors Caesar, we must look at how social distancing honors Christ.
First, by honoring Caesar, we honor Christ. To obey Caesar is to obey the God that put “Caesar” in place. Whatever one thinks about Donald Trump, God’s permission has allowed him to be the 45th President of the United States. He is the man sitting in the highest office in the land. Whether or not he should be there is a matter of continuous debate, but he is the man in the office.
But practicing social distance also honors Christ because it shows that we love ourselves and we love our neighbor. We return to Matthew 22 to see this in Scripture:
34 But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40, NKJV)
Jesus says that there are two commandments in the Law on which all the Law hang: 1) love the Lord with all you’ve got, Matthew 22:37, and 2) love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39). To love the Lord involves loving your neighbor as yourself. The reason? Because it is a divine commandment that we love our neighbor as ourselves.
No one can love his or her neighbor unless he or she first loves himself or herself. You can’t follow “love your neighbor as yourself” if loving yourself isn’t the reference point. “As yourself” is how we are to love our neighbor. What does it mean? It means that, if you wouldn’t starve yourself, you don’t starve your neighbor. You don’t see your neighbor in need and yet send them away hungry. James says that the person who does this has no faith, for faith without works is dead (see James 2:14-26).
In the same way, if you don’t willingly or intentionally catch a disease to get sick, you don’t spread disease to your neighbor intentionally without concern. And that’s what happens when Christians congregate in person, despite the presidential mandate. Those who do so are putting themselves above their neighbor. To be honest, they aren’t even caring for themselves because they’re putting themselves at risk for coronavirus. But that’s another subject for another day.
Paul uses the idea of love of self to encourage love of neighbor. He does this with the Ephesians when he tells husbands not to physically abuse their wives:
28 So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. (Ephesians 5:28-29, NKJV)
Paul says in Ephesians 5:28 that “he who loves his wife loves himself.” In the same way, “the Christian who loves his or her neighbor loves himself or herself.” To love your neighbor is to love yourself. So, to not love your neighbor and to put your neighbor at risk of a deadly disease for the sake of meeting is to neither love yourself nor your neighbor. It’s a sad thing when someone doesn’t love or care for themselves.
Paul says in Ephesians 5:29 that no person “hates their flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it.” The same is true for Christians today in light of the coronavirus pandemic. No person hates their bodies. To love yourself is to want the best for yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and so on. To love yourself is to want the best for yourself. If you want the best for yourself, you should want the best for your neighbor. Scientists don’t expose the public to disease for the “fun of it” without dire consequences. The same goes for Christians who continue to meet publicly without obeying the presidential mandate.
In loving self and neighbor, we should find ways to honor Caesar and Christ, and protect ourselves and our neighbor while still fulfilling Hebrews 10:25. We can do all these things through online church/internet church/remote worship.
This post is about obeying Caesar and Christ and how online church and social distancing allow Christians to do that. Christians should “render unto Caesar” and “render unto Christ,” and we do both when we obey the mandate and practice social distancing. Online church keeps Christians in their homes while still allowing them to gather in Christ’s name and worship their Lord and Savior.
One cannot be a Christian and only obey half the Lord’s order. We must obey Christ, but we must also obey Caesar — in this case, our global leaders. They are the authorities God has put in place. We cannot honor God and disobey His ministers. Romans 13 says that global leaders are “His ministers,” whether we like particular persons in authority or not. God didn’t ask us to like them; He commands us to obey them because, by doing so, we obey Him.
And we can obey them, and thus Christ, by practicing social distance. And we can practice social distancing while having online church. In other words, online church allows us to obey Caesar and Christ and love both self and neighbor. If it checks all the boxes of godliness, then we should do it in obedience to Caesar and Christ.
The only question that remains is whether or not we will obey. I can’t answer that one for you.