Church and State and the Corona Virus

by Canon Mark A. Pearson

The Relationship of Church and State: Two Extremes

The question of the relationship between Church and State has had a checkered history with examples of extremes and attempts at balance.

On the one extreme we can cite the example of Pope Boniface VIII  in 1302.  His “bull” (named after the lead seal — bulla — appended to the end in order to authenticate it) “Unam Sanctam” affirmed the authority of the Pope over all human authorities, spiritual and temporal. Spiritual power, according to the bull, rests with the Church. While temporal power belongs to kings and soldiers, it is to be exercised only as the Church permits.

At the other extreme Revolutionary France of the 1790s closed down churches and seized their buildings for secular purposes, took away from nuns the right to teach children, and subjected to increasing penalties (including death) priests who did not give first allegiance to the Revolution and lay people caught practicing their faith.

The Relationship of Church and State: Attempts at Balance

A moderating position was advanced by Martin Luther during the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.  In his book On Secular Authority, Protestant Reformer Martin Luther wrote: We are to be subject to governmental power and do what it bids, as long as it does not bind our conscience but legislates only concerning outward matters…. But if it invades the spiritual domain and constrains the conscience, over which God only must preside and rule, we should not obey it at all but rather lose our necks. Temporal authority and government extend no further than to matters which are external and corporeal.

Similarly, America’s founders sought something better than either extreme noted above.  Is there a balance?

Many of the founders of the United States knew the dangers of too close an entanglement of the State in matters of religious belief and practice.  They saw the negative effects of a country having a particular denomination established as the State Church.

At the same time they reacted with horror to the venomous hostility of the French Revolution towards the Church.

Our founders and framers sought a middle way in matters of Church and State.

While the phrase, “separation of Church and State” occurs nowhere in the founding documents of the American nation (it is not in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 or in the Constitution, ratified 1788), its sentiments expressed were in the hearts and minds of our founders.

Almost immediately after the adoption of the Constitution, ten amendments were added — “The Bill of Rights.”  The First Amendment contains two clauses regarding religion.

The Establishment Clause — Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion — states there shall be no official State Church.  It does not mean, as modern atheists and agnostics want it to say, that the state cannot give any positive help to religious groups.

The Free Exercise Clauseor prohibiting the free exercise thereof — says that government cannot dictate how a religious group worships or what a religious group believes and teaches.

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to a Baptist association in Danbury, Connecticut on this subject.  Almost immediately it was printed in a Massachusetts newspaper.  He wrote:   Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ““make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.


The Relationship of Church and State:  Jesus Statement to the Pharisees

In one of their attempts to trap Jesus, some Pharisees wanted Jesus’ answer on whether a good Jew was obligated to pay taxes to the occupying Roman government.  Jesus took a coin, showed them whose likeness was on it and said,

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25). Jesus’ answer suggests that there are two legitimate governments with authority over Christians: Church and State.

In His “High Priestly Prayer,” Jesus describes the disciples as being “not of the world [system].”   And yet, He adds, “I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (John 17:14-15).

Unless one is specifically called to a monastic life, a Jesus follower is not to leave civilization for a closed community in the wilderness but remain in the civic community with all its ways of doing things, as long as one is not in conformity to things that are sinful.

In today’s situation, a Christian is to stop at stop signs, pay taxes, and wear a mask when told to, but you are not to conform  when your employer (or the government) asks you — to give a few examples — to affirm that all religions are equally true, or to lie, cheat, or assist in an abortion.

The Relationship of Church and State:  The Apostles Paul and Peter

Paul said, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities…. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1).

Peter wrote, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him…” (1 Peter 2:13-14).

The government of which they are speaking, please remember, is not a modern two party democracy, but the Roman Empire.

The Relationship of Church and State:  When Christians Must Disobey

While noting what Jesus and two apostles said about conforming to the State, the authority of the State over the Christian disciple is not absolute.

The authorities reprimanded early Church leaders, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in [Jesus’] name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching….” But Peter and the other apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men”  (Acts 5:28).

What We Have Done at Trinity Church

When Trinity Church built our new building, we came under the authority of the town for various codes, permits and inspections.  I am glad we did.  I have seen new buildings collapse in third world countries because blue prints were not reviewed, building codes were not followed, and inspections were not conducted.

During the crisis, we followed all the best practices health codes of washing/ sanitizing hands upon arrival, wearing masks, keeping six foot social distance, using one-use liturgy-and-music handouts and the like.  When the initial protocols called for services with a maximum of ten people present, we multiplied the number of services and signed people up for one.

However, had either the town or the State attempted to dictate how we worship or what we teach and preach, we would have politely but firmly refused.

As it turned out, I, as both the pastor of a church and a state legislator sitting on the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee, was one of the three who developed the recommendations that went to the Governor and New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services for further opening up church services. Our proposal acknowledged both our rights as people of faith and our responsibilities as socially caring citizens.

Those Old Extremes Never Die Out

I mentioned earlier the extremes of the Medieval Church and of the second phase of The French Revolution. When it comes to the relationship between Church and State these extremes are ever lurking in the shadows in our day, waiting for a time to express themselves anew.

We have seen nationally examples of what a friend of mine calls “Patriot Pastors,” those who believe the state has no authority over their church in anything, including health codes. Misapplying Peter’s statement in Acts 5:28, and ignoring the two Epistle quotes, they state, “I don’t listen to man.  I listen only to God.”

Whenever someone makes that kind of statement, I usually respond, “Well, then listen to Him!  Scripture says the State does have some (but limited) God-given authority over both you and your congregation.”

On the other hand, in some states interventions of the courts were necessary so that restrictions would not be applied unfairly to churches.  We are probably accurate in concluding that some political leaders have been deliberately discriminating against the Church because of statements they previously made about religion and religious groups.

Trinity Church receives favor from the people and government officials of our area because we regularly demonstrate that we love them by such things as raising vegetables on our property to help the local food pantries, and, during the pandemic, following the various health protocols.

We do not know when the COVID-19 crisis will be over nor do we know when its successor will arrive. In the meantime brush up on the rights and responsibilities of both Church and State. Share these with local “Patriot Pastors” — if they’ll listen.   Clergy, preach a sermon or two on this subject and discuss with your lay leaders. And, if your State government has demonstrated it will use a crisis to try to harm the church, shout out and maybe run for political office.  +

Although the Second Coming of Christ is a basic teaching of Scripture and the Church, many people don’t know much about it, or else rely on extreme fringe groups for their information.  Canon Mark wrote about this topic in a well received article. 


Use the phrase, “The Second Coming,” in conversation and many will smirk or roll their eyes.  I understand that response.  Some who have spoken on The Second Coming have made foolish and erroneous statements.  How?

MISHANDLING THE TRUTH —  First, some people are vulnerable to dazzling teachers who espouse aberrant teachings regarding Jesus’ return.  These vulnerable people do not do their homework.  They do not read what Scripture actually says nor do they study what solid, widely-approved teachers say on the subject.  But they are dazzled by a particular teacher and adopt his or her teachings uncritically.

As a result, when they talk on the subject, they appear foolish to their listeners and thereby discredit the subject.

Second, some people presume to predict the date of Jesus’ return.  Let’s look at just a few examples.

*There were flurries of predictions around the year 1000 and around the year 2000 because they look like millennial anniversaries of Jesus’ birth.

But when the current Christian calendar was adopted there was a mistake.  The system for working out a.d. and b.c. was invented by Dionysius Exiguus in about a.d. 525.  He was off by several years.

Jesus was born somewhere between 4 and 7 b.c. according to his calendar.  So, if Jesus were to come back on a millennial anniversary of His birth, it would have been around 993-6 a.d. or 1993-6 a.d.

*William Miller, the leader of a movement often called the “Millerites,” predicted the return of Jesus to be October 22, 1844.  On this day, tens of thousands of people expected the world to come to an end.  Many Millerites sold all their possessions to prepare for the day when Christ would return to earth.   They climbed to the tops of their local mountains to await The Second Coming.

When He did not come, many turned away from Miller.  Sadly, others turned away from any belief in The Second Coming.  Much worse, some turned away from Christ and the church.

*More recently Edgar Whisenant wrote a book 88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will be in 1988. Of course, it didn’t happen.

*Well known general manager of “Family Radio,” Harold Camping, claimed Christ would return September 6, 1994.  When this did not occur he “recalculated” and published an article claiming the “rapture of the Church” would occur on May 21, 2011 followed by the end of the world on October 21, 2011.

*Mark Biltz recently taught that Christ’s return would correspond with the September 28, 2015, lunar eclipse. His teaching was given the name the “Blood Moon Prophecy.”  In the months previous there were three additional lunar eclipses.  Because of  the scattering of light in the atmosphere the moon appears red.

Although this phenomenon appears periodically, Biltz concluded this particular occasion of four lunar eclipses fulfilled a prophecy:  The sun will turn into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  —Joel 2:31

And yet, Scripture clearly tells us not to presume the date of Jesus’ return:  No one knows the day or hour … not even the angels in heaven or the Son Himself.  Only the Father knows.  —Mark 13:32

Jesus replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know.  —Acts 1:7

Again and again, people look foolish when they announce the date of the Lord’s return and He doesn’t come back.

Third, certain people make the Second Coming their chief spiritual interest.  They spend an inordinate amount of time going to “prophecy conferences.”  They repeatedly tell others about Jesus’ return to the neglect of other Christian subjects.

Some who focus too much on Jesus’ return neglect the day-to-day of people around them.  One person even told me he hoped poverty, crime and environmental degradation would actually increase “because then Jesus would have to come back sooner.” People who are genuinely and biblically concerned for those around them are sometimes not just turned off to such a wrong understanding of The Second Coming, some of them are also turned off to Christianity entirely.

Fourth, there are dogmatisms of The Second Coming held by people who insist that their particular understanding the subject — including on minor aspects of it — is the only correct view.  Such people’s majoring on minor points and their arrogance in which they proclaim their beliefs turn people off to the doctrine of The Second Coming.

Thank God for the balance of the Nicene Creed.  It has five essential points to believe about the Second Coming.  This teaching has been the consensus belief of the Church for centuries.  It is not the pop  teaching of some present-day media star.  It is not the only point of the Creed.  And it does not major on minors.  It is “Basic Christianity.”  It is (to recall C. S. Lewis’ book title) “Mere Christianity.”

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom will have no end.

1.  He.

The Second Coming of Christ is the second coming of Christ, nothing else and no one else.

*The Church of the New Jerusalem says that whenever the book of the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg is opened at the beginning of a worship service, The Second Coming has occurred.

*Some “progressive” church members believe that The Second Coming of Christ is society becoming a place of increasing health, income, tolerance, racial harmony and the like, accomplished by our efforts.

*Korean evangelist Sung Myung Moon, founder of The Unification Church, declared himself to be The Second Coming of Christ  (1920-2012).

It is Jesus Himself Who will return at The Second Coming.  The Bible says:

This Jesus … will come in the same way you saw Him go.  —Acts 1:11b

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven.  —1 Thessalonians 4:16

Every eye shall see Him.  —Revelation 1:7

No committee will have to be established to discern whether this or that is The Second Coming.  Everyone will immediately know.  They will all see Jesus return.

2.  Will Come Again.  The doctrine of the Second Coming is a major biblical theme.  It’s mentioned in all but four books of the New Testament and three of these are the shortest ones.

There are 318 references to the Second Coming in the new Testament, one out of every 315 verses.

The Second Coming is part of the hymnody of the Church, including church denominations of all types.

In the Eucharistic (Communion) prayer, many churches say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

Many Eucharistic prayers reference 1 Corinthians 11:23-26: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes [again].”

I was once accosted by a long-time member of one of the “Main Line” denominations who told me that The Second Coming was something believed by “those fundamentalist whackos” and not by her denomination.

I showed her in her denomination’s hymnal, worship book and  official statement of faith how frequently The Second Coming was mentioned.  She was appalled!

3.  In glory.  The first time Jesus came to earth it was in humility.  He was born in a cattle shed, rejected, mocked, spat upon and crucified.

The second time He will come in glory, with trumpets and myriads of holy angels.

For the Lord … shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God. — 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

For the Son of Man will come in His Father’s glory with His angels. —Matthew 16:27.

Jesus, Who came as The Babe in the Manger will return as Christ the King.

4.  To Judge the living and the dead.  Christianity does not teach the progressive betterment of society with God and His grace less and less needed and with fewer and fewer people doing evil things.

Yes, there are improvements.  Life expectancy is up.  Poverty is on the decline.  Overt acts of racism are significantly lower than one hundred years ago.

But terrorism is growing.  Religious persecution (especially against Christians) is on the rise.  Hate is still prevalent.  Abandonment of children by their fathers and sexually transmitted diseases have both significantly increased.

In many ways society is “slouching towards Gomorrah.”  (The phrase comes from a 1996 non-fiction book by Justice Robert H. Bork.)

Whenever Jesus returns, there will be plenty of people who need to be judged by Him.

Some people recoil at this notion, arguing they “believe in a God of love.”  And yet, it is anything but loving not to mete out justice.  Such a neglect makes a mockery of God’s standards and gives divine approval to the law of the jungle.

If there is no guarantee of justice, people will instead seek revenge.   If the Scripture, “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ says the Lord,” is false — if there is no divine meting out of justice — then we are to repay (Romans 12:19 quoting Deuteronomy 32:35) .  We won’t do it well.

It’s not that Jesus has two sides to Him — a permissive, loving side and a mean, punishing side.  Jesus love is not permissive; his justice is not hateful.  He is, in every occasion,  compassionate and fair.

Part of Jesus’ judgment is the eternal separation of those who will be saved from those who will not be.  We learn of God’s final judgment not so much from an Old Testament prophet or a New Testament epistle writer but from Jesus Himself.  It is His frequent, clear teaching.

He spoke of the sheep eternally separated from the goats (Matthew 25:31-33);  the wise virgins entering the marriage chamber while the foolish ones were permanently shut out (Matthew 25:1-13); and the wheat being harvested into the granary while the weeds were burned (Matthew 13:30).  These are but three of Jesus’ numerous analogies of the final, irreversible judgment He will bring.

The bishop who ordained me a deacon in 1974 told the story of three members of the clergy answering people’s questions (and objections) to Jesus’ teaching.  Each clergyman was being interviewed by the search committee for the job of rector (senior pastor) of St. John’s Church.  Each was asked the question, “Will there be people lost for all eternity?”

The first candidate said, “No.  All will be saved.”  He was correctly rejected for the position of rector because his answer contradicted Jesus’ repeated teaching.

The second candidate said, “Yes.  Lots of people will deserve eternal lostness.”  He, too, was rejected because, while his answer was technically correct, there did not seem to be any concern for the lost.

The third candidate said, “Yes, I’m sorry to say.  And if I become your rector I want to encourage you to help me win people to Jesus so they can be saved.”  He was offered the position because he did not presume to contradict Jesus’ teaching and he desired to emulate Jesus’ concern for the lost.  Do you?

5.  And His Kingdom Will Have No End.  When Jesus returns there will be the end of history as we know it.  There will be a new heaven and a new earth.

Nothing in Jesus’ teaching agrees with those who believe life will forever continue as we now know it.  Neither will there be a perpetual alternation of yin and yang, of equally powerful forces of good and evil.  Jesus will return and everything will be made new and become perfect — forever.

Therefore, since we do not know the day or hour of Jesus return (see Mark 13:32 and Acts 1:7) we should always be spiritually ready.  We should be growing closer to God, we should be telling others how to be saved in Jesus, and we should be abounding in good works to individuals and society.  We should be doing these things anyway, but especially we want to be about our Father’s business when the Lord returns. +