The problem with Christian Exceptionalism and the distinction between submit and support

From this Sunday, church buildings in England will be closed again for public worship due to a second lockdown.  I expect that most church leaders will comply with this, all with a heavy heart.  Some will do this quietly. Others will have raised objections through blog posts, letters to MPs, petitions and possibly a legal challenge.  Personally, I have raised objections and would support a challenge even though I understand that the chance of success is slim.

However, I understand that a few churches will take the protest as far as refusing to comply with the regulations. Their argument is rooted in something called Christian Exceptionalism. This is the belief that churches have a specific right to meet because the whole purpose of everything within this world is to enable the gathering of God’s people. This is eschatological, we look forward to the day when we will all gather before the throne of Christ and so we experience a foretaste of it now. The argument then is that churches would have a unique right to meet even when other businesses, charities and religious groups do not.  If that’s the underpinning the approach then it is also being justified on the basis that churches are an essential place of education and education remains permitted.

I want to explain a little about why I disagree with that approach and why we will not be taking it.  The approach is really rooted in a particularly theological position, post-millennialism. This eschatological view sees the church as being victorious in the world before Christ’s return so that in effect Christian government will be established and the world will follow God’s laws. At its most extreme in the States, it is associated with Theonomism and with the Federal Vision approach of people like Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart. 

Without this theological approach (and most of us would not subscribe to Post Millennialism), the whole premise falls away. This is not to say that post-millennialism therefore  wrong but it does mean that the Christian exceptionalist argument relies on presuppositions not shared by those they are trying to convince.

Now, do I believe that we exist to worship God and that therefore, one of  the most important things we can do is gather to do that as a foretaste of the future in-gathering? Yes I most certainly do. However, I would want to argue a few things here.

  1. That the future gathering of God’s people from every time and place will be so great that we cannot assume the imagery is meant to reflect an exact physical event in one place. There will be millions of us in the New Creation. I would suggest that theologically we will look forward to a day when we will be both gathered and spread out. There will be a spiritual togetherness and connectedness but we will be filling all of God’s New Creation. So the gathered church on Sunday is only one element of the picture pointing to that great day.
  2. Therefore, whilst gathering is one of the most important things we can do it isn’t necessarily the most important thing. There may be a number of other things we are doing
  3. The Government’s role in making and enforcing law is a common grace provision. Therefore, it is there to serve everyone. It is not a special grace provision for the church only.

It is for those reasons that I cannot agree with those people arguing for an exceptionalist approach.  I will go into more detail on point 2 in a separate post.  However, I want to explain a little more of my general concerns with point 3 here.

If we believe that the Government is there as part of God’s common grace provision for all people, then our engagement with what they do should be out of concern not just for ourselves but for wider society. 

My concern therefore with the Government’s COVID-19 measures is not that they are the right ones but that Christians should be given a free pass on them. My concern is that the measures are themselves wrong. Now I want to be clear at this stage that I am assuming good faith on the part of Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock. Some of us may find that hard on past political evidence. However, I do think we’ve seen a genuine attempt to respond to a difficult, no win situation.  Boris is not instinctively authoritarian. Nor does the narrative that he is some blood thirsty murderer willing to sacrifice the elderly on the COVID altar of economics fit the evidence.  I believe they are genuinely seeking to save lives. I just happen to believe they have got things wrong on this occasion.

This means that my concern is not just for churches. My argument is not that because church is a good thing to the point where God will magically protect us if we show up, or that it is the one most important thing and therefore attending a building is so crucial that we should ask people to be willing to get sick and die for this.  Rather, my argument is that churches have worked hard to make sure that they are COVID secure. But that means that so have lots of businesses and venues. I’m therefore not asking for churches to be given an exception. I’m asking for the rules to recognise that much of society is already functioning in a way that recognises the new normal.

This is important because what we are saying at this point is that we are willing to stand with and suffer with our local communities. I am not asking for something for me that I would not ask for my neighbour. If we benefit from a change here, then we want our neighbours to benefit too. If our neighbours (local businesses) don’t benefit, they we will not enjoy some privileges on our own but will endure this lockdown with them.

My basis for this is that first of all, I believe that whilst getting people together in one physical place is for many reasons the best and most ideal way of gathering for worship, I still think that using technology such as Zoom counts as a genuine obedience to Scripture’s command to gather. 

Secondly and finally,  whilst worship is important and central, so is witness. We will turn to that in our next article tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “The problem with Christian Exceptionalism and the distinction between submit and support

  1. Whilst clearly this is one perspective I do not think that all those who want to rebel against the lockdown rules as regards church gatherings hold that theological view. It is equally possible to construct an argument from a pre- or a-millennial perspective that says that Christians gathering together is a command of God and that no human law may override the Christian’s obligation of conscience to do so. That’s not an argument I agree with but it’s certainly a view that many hold.

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    1. That’s certainly a possible argument. However I’m responding here not to whether or not the lockdown should be contested (I think it should) or Christians should engage in civil disobedience (I think they should not on this). I’m specifically dealing with Christian exceptionalism and the post millenialist arguments that have been explicitly put forward by them. Theoretically other arguments could be made but I’m responding to the specific arguments I am hearing

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