One of the things I have found interesting during the COVID-19 pandemic is the willingness of secular government officials to look Christians in the eye and, without blinking, tell them they no longer can practice their religion as they’ve been called by God to practice it.
These restrictions come in a variety of forms, from how many members of the church family can gather at one time to how close those members can sit or stand in relation to one another. Government officials also dictate what a person should wear to his or her worship gatherings – a mask, of course – and they sometimes dictate the form that worship can take. For instance, some jurisdictions say worshippers may not sing when they gather. You know all of this already, of course.
And Pharaoh said to Moses, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?” The request was that the people could be free to go worship God in the wilderness. And Pharaoh declined the request. Pharaoh viewed himself as the final authority on such matters. “Get back to your burdens,” he said.
In other words, what really mattered was that the people served the Pharaoh and his government. What really mattered was that they served the greater society with more and more bricks. The Israelites’ obligation to Pharaoh and his government was more important than their duty to God. Or so Pharaoh thought.
Of course, Pharaoh was an idol-worshipper. It is idolatry to worship anything but the one true God. Our own secular government officials, many of them I suppose, are idolaters. And they dictate to the church how true religion ought to be practiced. In their minds, our duty to the government is more important than our duty to God. “Get back to your burdens.”
Some Christians, of course, will argue that it is our religious duty to obey the government, and it is our religious duty to love our neighbors by not worshiping the way we normally would. These Christians make good points. But surely they would agree we aren’t to submit to our governing authorities in every circumstance. Sometimes, the government can stand in the way of the gospel. And we don’t have to be complete anarchists and rabble-rousers to politely decline to obey the government’s directives about our worship.
I would agree it is our religious duty to love our one another and to possibly do so by not worshipping corporately for a time. But it is not the government’s job to enforce our religious duties.
And so I saw some parallels between Exodus 5 and our current circumstances. Many of our secular governing authorities, like Pharaoh, are ignorant about true religion, and they can be arrogant about their right to regulate it.
We ought to understand that our secular governing authorities are in error about the most important things in life. To the government, the most important thing is physical life – to protect physical human life and physical human flourishing. Pharaoh was concerned chiefly with the welfare of his kingdom (Exodus 1:9-10). And so the government’s edicts are aimed in that direction. Nothing is of higher value than physical human life. And people will be shamed if they don’t see things in the same light.
But Christians don’t see things in the same light. The ultimate good is not physical human life in the here and now – although we do value physical human life because it was created by God and inhabited by Christ. Our physical bodies are highly valuable to us and to God, but the human soul someday will inhabit a resurrected body (immune to COVID-19). And that is where Christians are trained by the gospel to set our sights.
And so the secular government is in error about the most important thing in life. And in the government’s pride, it sometimes tries to impose its error upon the church. Government regulation tries to take our eyes off what is most important – the human soul someday living in a resurrected body – and shift our eyes to what the government thinks is important, our physical lives in the here and now.
There’s a lot of nuance in this discussion, of course. We do desire people to stay alive long enough to hear the gospel. And our disregard for the government’s mandates can lead to our own attitudes of superiority and rebellion. So we must be careful.
But the Pharaoh’s attitude seems to be the same as the attitude of so many government officials in our day: “Who is the Lord? … Get back to your burdens.”
Prayerfully consider these things today. I’d love to hear your thoughts.