Okay so y’all know I love reading these old dead guys called the Puritans. Why because they (for the most part) got it, the very essence of what the bible was saying without the modern trappings of political correctness, self interpretation any other issue hanging on them.
Here in a posts from a guy Andrew J. Spencer I never hear of before, we find that same thing Richard Baxter wrote this nearly 400 years before the current pandemic applies today.
The following is an excerpt from The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, the fifth volume, in his Christian Ecclesiastics, where he details answers to nearly 200 questions dealing with Christians and matters of conscience.
Baxter, an English Puritan, was obviously writing in a different day under a different set of laws, but I think that his response to these two questions is pertinent and helpful at this present time. I disagree with a few of the particulars (e.g., that it might be ok for the government to restrict meetings smaller than ten), but the general intent is, I think, well-considered and generally helpful as we process living under temporary restrictions driven by COVID-19.
Of particular value, I think, is the explanation Baxter offers regarding ceasing to hold services under orders of the magistrate due to “a time of pestilence.” He writes, “If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him.”
As I understand it presently, that is the condition we are under. I do not like the requirement, but I think that, as long as there is a universal ban against large assemblies, we will do well to honor the orders to forebear meeting. This is not a change in position from my earlier post, which called for grace and prudence as congregations decide whether to meet or not, but a reflection of the changed circumstances. The earlier post was written when bans were not in effect and congregations were making decisions based on prudential data.
BAXTER ON MEETING WHEN FORBIDDEN BY THE GOVERNMENT
Question 109: May we omit church assemblies on the Lord’s day if the magistrate forbid them?
Answer 1. It is one thing to forbid them for a time upon some special cause as infection by pestilence fire war &c and another to forbid them statedly or profanely.
2. It is one thing to omit them for a time, and another to do it ordinarily.
3. It is one thing to omit them in formal obedience to the law; and another thing to omit them in prudence, or for necessity, because we cannot keep them.
4. The assembly and the circumstances of the assembly must be distinguished:
(1.) If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him. 1. Because positive duties give place to those great natural duties which are their end: so Christ justified himself and his disciples violation of the external rest of the sabbath. “For the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath.” 2. Because affirmatives bind not ‘ad semper,’ and out-of-season duties become sins. 3. Because one Lord’s day or assembly is not to be preferred before many, which by the omission of that one are like to be obtained.
(2.) If princes profanely forbid holy assemblies and public worship, either statedly, or as a renunciation of Christ and our religion; it is not lawful formally to obey them.
(3.) But it is lawful prudently to do that secretly for the present necessity, which we cannot do publicly, and to do that with smaller numbers, which we cannot do with greater assemblies, yea, and to omit some assemblies for a time, that we may thereby have opportunity for more: which is not formal but only material obedience.
(4.) But if it be only some circumstances of assembling that are forbidden us, that is the next case to be resolved.
Question 110: Must we obey the magistrate if he only forbid us worshipping God in such a place or country or in such numbers or the like?
Answer: We must distinguish between such a determination of circumstances, modes, or accidents, as plainly destroy the worship or the end, and such as do not.
For instance, 1. He that saith, You shall never assemble but once a year, or never but at midnight; or never above six or seven minutes at once, &c. doth but determine the circumstance of time: but he doth it so as to destroy the worship, which cannot so be done, in consistency with its ends. But he that shall say, You shall not meet till nine o’clock nor stay in the night, &c. doth no such thing.
So 2. He that saith, You shall not assemble but at forty miles distance one from another; or you shall meet only in a room that will hold but the twentieth part of the church; or you shall never preach in any city or populous place, but in a wilderness far from the inhabitants, &c. doth but determine the circumstance of place. But he so doth it as tends to destroy or frustrate the work which God commandeth us. But so doth not he that only boundeth churches by parish bounds, or forbiddeth inconvenient places.
3. So he that saith, You shall never meet under a hundred thousand together, or never above five or six, doth but determine the accident of number. But he so doth it as to destroy the work and end. For the first will be impossible and in the second way they must keep church-assemblies without ministers, when there is not so many as for every such little number to have one. But so doth not he that only saith, You shall not meet above ten thousand, nor under ten.
4. So he that saith, You shall not hear a Trinitarian, but an Arian; or you shall hear only one that cannot preach the essentials of religion, or that cries down godliness itself; or you shall hear none but such as were ordained at Jerusalem or Rome, or none but such as subscribe the council of Trent, &c. doth but determine what person we shall hear. But he so doth it as to destroy the work and end. But so doth not he that only saith, You shall hear only this able minister, rather than that.
I need not stand on the application. In the latter case we owe formal obedience. In the former we must suffer, and not obey.
For if it be meet so to obey, it is meet in obedience to give over God’s worship. Christ said, “When they persecute you in one city, flee to another:” but he never said, “If they forbid you preaching in any city, or populous place, obey them. He that said, “Preach the Gospel to every creature, and to all nations, and all the world,” and that “would have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” doth not allow us to forsake the souls of all that dwell in cities and populous places, and preach only to some few cottagers elsewhere: no more than he will allow us to love, pity, and relieve the bodies only of those few, and take none for our neighbours that dwell in cities, but with priest and Levite to pass them by.