When Going to Church Is Immoral

Religious rights and responsibilities in a pandemic.

Posted Apr 04, 2020

Mike Austin
Source: Mike Austin

“Welcome to another Sunday civil disobedience act…We were told to stay home. Don’t go to church. You might get sick. You might. I ain’t never seen such fear mongering in my life.” These words from a pastor in Sacramento represent the unfortunate beliefs that are leading many to defy government restrictions grounded in public health concerns, and gather for worship. In so doing, they put the lives of many at serious risk.

Another pastor in Louisiana claims that such restrictions are an overreach by the government, because “They are asking us…to stop practicing our freedom of religion. And we have a mandate from God to assemble and to gather together.”

A pastor in Florida has been arrested for holding services. He also refused to close Bible school, because in his words “we are raising up revivalists, not pansies.” The local sheriff, commenting on the case, said that this pastor’s “reckless disregard for human life put hundreds of people in his congregation at risk, as well as put thousands of residents who may interact with them in danger.”

Why would a pastor or church decide to do this? Why defy restrictions that demonstrably save lives, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic?

For some, it is grounded in their religious convictions. For others, it could have to do with ego, a focus on their rights rather than their responsibilities, a bankrupt culture war mindset, or even a silly and misguided view of toughness or grit (e.g. we aren’t raising “pansies”).

What are we to make of this, morally speaking? 

First, let’s answer this question from a general ethical perspective. Then we’ll examine it from a more particular Christian moral point of view.

Much of our moral thought and practice is guided by a belief in the dignity and worth of all human beings. Given this worth, this inherent dignity, we ought to respect other persons. This includes, of course, doing what we can to avoid infecting them with a potentially deadly and contagious disease. This is Ethics 101!

More specifically, one important moral principle that governs our lives together is the harm principle. As it is often put: “The right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” We all have certain rights and liberties, as human beings. But those rights and liberties are limited by harm to others. This is a clear case in which exercising the right to gather for worship can significantly harm others, both in the church that gathers as well as the community. Given this, we ought to refrain from exercising that right, for the good of all.

Another important moral dimension of this has to do with character. It is not virtuous to gather in defiance of these restrictions. Some might think they are doing the courageous thing by gathering for worship. However, given the risk that this poses, such behavior is more emblematic of the vice of rashness or foolhardiness. For example, one-third of the coronavirus cases in the Sacramento church’s county have been linked to gatherings of that church. It’s not about fear, it’s about compassion and care for others.

A Christian ethical perspective includes all of the above considerations, I believe. But it can also draw from more particular theological and religious beliefs.

But before looking at this in more detail, it’s essential to say this: These restrictions are not about a culture war, and they are not about religious liberty. I think the culture war perspective is flawed and should always be avoided. This is especially the case with the current crisis. If Christians were being persecuted for their faith, then I’d be all for defying a government order. But this is not that. This is about practicing our faith in a way that protects both ourselves and others.

Those who think of this as some sort of infringement on their First Amendment rights ought to remember that those rights are not absolute. There are limits to religious practices in our country that are quite consistent with the First Amendment. If my religion says I should sacrifice my neighbor’s dog to the gods, then I’m not allowed to do so. This is a constitutional, and moral, restriction of religion. Given that at this narrow moment in time, gathering in large groups on a Sunday morning will very likely lead to sickness and death, restrictions on physical gatherings in churches are also constitutional and moral.

Those who argue that churches should gather because God mandates this ought to remember the words of Jesus, who makes it clear what the most important mandate of God is for those who are Christians. When asked what the most important commandment, he replied:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

- Matthew 22:37-39 (NRSV)

The application of this is clear. Don’t go to church. You cannot love your neighbor while unnecessarily putting their health and very life at serious risk. And doing so also is a failure of love for God (on this, see 1 John 4:20).

Much of the ministry of the church is still happening. People in their homes can still study the Scriptures, pray, meditate, fast, sing, and encourage one another. They can serve their neighbors in a variety of ways. They can encourage one another via Zoom or a telephone. And they can virtually gather on Sunday morning for worship, teaching, prayer, and growth. 

Are the ways churches gather and minister in the time of COVID-19 inferior to the ways in which they normally function? Yes! Christian theology affirms the value of the physical world, of creation, and the importance for us as human persons to be with one another, in real life. But such sacrifices are morally required of people of faith at this moment. 

Finally, consider also the character of Jesus, whom Christians are to emulate. Christianity teaches that he has the virtues of humility, compassion, mercy, and love. He also has the virtues of patience, kindness, self-control. All of these are relevant for Christians at this unique time. All of us want the pandemic to end now. We want to gather not just at church, but in parks, in each other’s homes, at sporting events, at concerts, and in all of the places we enjoy—even at work! But we must be patient and loving, putting the health and well-being of our community ahead of our own desires. They are good desires, to be sure. But nevertheless, we must set them aside for now.

Given the above, what should we do? Exempting religious gatherings from social distancing restrictions is dangerous during a public health crisis, for the reasons discussed. All of us, regardless of our religious beliefs (or lack thereof), must put the good of the community above our own desires. This is part of what it means to be a morally decent human being. If we embrace this, we can return to life together sooner rather than later. More importantly, more of us will be around to celebrate when that day finally comes.