Diplomatic Notes

The church and state: pandemic issues

Recently, I was asked by a local news team what my thoughts were on church services being restricted to one hour – the discussion later involved the interaction of church and state and what were the appropriate boundaries for state involvement in church activities. These are interesting questions and as we delved into it, I was able to offer what I felt was a reasoned and seasoned approach to the subject.

We are certainly in a pandemic, and we are certainly in another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemics can be times of great peril and the duly elected government of the day for each country is tasked with protecting its citizens while advancing the good of the nation. This is no easy task and there are minefields no matter what direction a government takes. For example, when we had a total lockdown, we could be saving lives but possibly also losing lives trying to save lives. If people are kept inside, they may stay alive, but some may commit suicide, some may be physically or sexually abused, some may not be able to access health care resulting in their death from something other than the pandemic at hand.

How do these decisions affect the church and what is the role of the church in the process?

I will deal with the specific question that was asked before going into detail on other issues. My opinion is that before an edict was issued on the length of church services the process should have begun with a consultation. The governing authorities should discuss the present environment, the need for time curtailment and come to an agreement with church leaders on what an appropriate time would be. I see the problem at the moment as a lack of consultation and partnership. It should also be explained with the appropriate data on why this was being considered. There was an agreement reached and consultation took place on the size of meetings and social distancing necessary, but it appears the service time was not a part of the process. The other question is who is qualified on the government’s side to make such a decision and what premise they are using? If this information were readily available, the current debate could have been avoided.

Transparency is important for any government if it desires the partnership and cooperation of its citizens. The government and the church have come together and consulted on many occasions – and at the end of the day, the government has made their decisions after the consultation. If there is something that church leaders need to be made aware of, then it should be tabled and discussion ensued. The church certainly is not in a position to dictate to the government what it can or cannot do in a democracy – and by the same token the government should not seek an adversarial and non-consultative approach on something as basic as the ability to worship effectively during a pandemic.

In moving forward, I feel there can be a balance between the need to bring COVID-19 in control and the accommodation of church services. In speaking with health professionals, I was informed that church services were not one of the main contributors to the rise in cases.

Funerals, social events, parties, clubs and weddings have been identified as some of the main offenders; and I was also informed that decisions were made based upon data gathered. In the case of funerals, a decision was taken that no funerals were to be held in churches and that there would only be graveside services with a maximum of 30 persons. I was informed by health professionals that the reason for limiting funerals is because of the emotional nature of funerals and the tendency for persons to get too close in consoling relatives. It would be good for the authorities to state exactly the rationale and data behind the church service time decision.

Going forward, I believe it is important for the government to maintain a consultative approach with the church and partner with the church to bring about the desired goals. We are admonished in the book of Romans chapter 13 to obey the governing authorities in the country unless they violate or require us to violate the laws of God in an egregious manner. Here is the excerpt: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

The church has a duty to respect duly elected officials, but the duly elected officials also have a duty to respectfully interact and consult with the church, especially in The Bahamas where our forefathers thought it prudent to put into statute that there be a body such as the Christian Council to partner with the government as the conscience of the nation to ensure that we pursue the most righteous agenda. Power should be tempered by conscience and spiritual guidance otherwise domination and malfeasance toward citizens could be the result.

I cannot speak for the rest of the church, but I can say that I have no objection to partnering with the duly elected government of the day in achieving the best outcome for the people of The Bahamas. Our motto is “Forward, Upward, Onward, Together” – so that should mean that we work together to move forward effectively.

• Pastor Dave Burrows is senior pastor at Bahamas Faith Ministries International. Feel free to email comments, whether you agree or disagree, to pastordaveburrows@hotmail.com. I appreciate your input and dialogue. We become better when we discuss, examine and exchange.    

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