What should churches do if the government requires them to turn people away that do not have the correct documentation?
It is a divine principle that we are to “Pay what is Caesar’s to Caesar, and what is God’s to God” (Mark 12: 17). The believer is therefore to be “subject to the authorities that are above [him]” (Rom. 13: 1). However, it needs to be remembered that subjection does not imply slavish obedience to whatever the government decides—“proclaim the word” (2 Tim. 4: 2), for example, can never be over-ruled (compare Acts 5: 28). The authority of the government is not absolute, for “it is God’s minister” (Rom. 13: 4) and there are areas of life in which it has no authority and where we are to render “what is God’s to God” (Mark 12: 17). The government, has, for example, no right to tell God’s people who they are to receive and who they are not to receive. Indeed, it is astonishing to think that Christians can even countenance acquiescing with secular authorities on this matter, for the general principle of Rom. 14: 3 applies: “for God has received him” (my emphasis). He is “the King of those that reign, and Lord of those that exercise lordship” (1 Tim. 6: 15)!
If government documentation is insisted on before entry to a building where a ‘communion service’ is being held, then those papers are effectively being made a condition of fellowship. It is a flagrant example of the authorities intruding into an area in which they have no rights—in essence, they are insisting on a secular “commendatory letter” (2 Cor. 3: 1). It is God who decides who is fit for fellowship and who is not. Now the Government may well be ignorant of the limitations of its remit, but the same does not apply to God’s people. Where Christians acquiesce with such intrusion, then they are effectively adding to Scripture, because the Word of God has already laid out who is to be received and who is not.
Such an approach ought to be called by its real name: sectarianism. We are called “into [the] fellowship” of God’s “Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1: 9), not some lesser communion, and certainly not an arrangement which prohibits persons even entering the building in which we meet. Let there be no mistake, sectarianism is iniquitous, and to excuse it on grounds of obedience to the government is to “practise evil things, that good ones may come” (Rom. 3: 8). The Greek word for sect is hairesis, the plural of which is translated in Gal. 5: 20 as “schools of opinion”—a work of the flesh (see v19). It is barely credible that a believer can think that secular papers have any force whatsoever in the spiritual realm. The Assembly is God’s house, and it is God alone who dictates the rules of that house. To accede to laws that tell us who may be received and who should not is anathema to any Christian who is mindful of the rights of God. In such circumstances “God must be obeyed rather than men” (Acts 5: 29), and it ought to be possible to remain respectful and subject to the authorities, while declining to observe demands that conflict with the Scriptures. If the result is that godly men and women are labelled ‘transgressors’ then so be it: all must one day answer to a higher judgment seat.
There is another problem with this kind of government directive and it significantly impacts on the truth of the Gospel. In John 3: 16 we have that well-known verse: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him may not perish, but have life eternal” (my emphasis). The sense is very plain: salvation is open to all. It inevitably follows that we cannot ever turn certain sorts of people away from Gospel meetings because the government has instructed us to do so. Those who acquiesce in this way with the authorities need to remember that the Lord whom they profess to serve is not in the business of repelling people. When the disciples would prevent children being brought to Him, the Lord rebuked them saying, “Do not hinder them from coming to me” (Matt. 19: 14). Only when all hope is gone do He utter those awful words “depart from me” (Matt. 7: 23). It really is of no consequence whether the aims of the government are laudable: a higher authority has decreed “preach the glad tidings to all the creation” (Mark 16: 15, my emphasis).
It may seem innocuous for believers to go along with such seemingly simple demands from secular authorities but, as always, we need to think before we act. The act is trivial, but the effect is momentous. To fall in with such government requirements is to undermine the two basic truths of Christianity: the truth of the Gospel and the truth of the Assembly (see Col. 1: 23; 25). From our side, we may well believe that it is all a ‘fuss about nothing’. It is far from being such: we are giving up what is both fundamental and foundational.