A word of caution on Acts 5:29

A word of caution on Acts 5:29

May God help us all during this difficult time. We all are facing difficult decisions and we must rely on God’s grace and patience. First, I want to echo many of the statements that have been made by our brethren: In these trying times we must trust in God, not be quick to judge, rely on the autonomy of local groups to come to their own decisions, and we must strive to find creative ways to address these unusual circumstances. Second, my words are in no way, shape, or form a pronunciation on what a congregation should or should not do. I am neither for nor against canceling services or other spiritual activities, I leave those decisions to be managed by the local congregations.

With those caveats understood, I do want to offer a word of caution in how we are discussing some points of this issue. Specifically, I want to address how some are using or arguing about Acts 5:29 as it pertains to this crisis.

Initially, I saw a few congregations and brethren use Acts 5:29 as justification as to why they should continue to congregate even though the government has placed many restrictions. (I know that the specific government mandates vary from state to state, some allow for religious meetings, others, like here in Puerto Rico, have outlawed all “non-essential” activities and have imposed strong limitations). It is important to note that most of the “Continued Services” brethren that I have spoken with are trying to take precautions and follow the government mandates as closely as possible. Even though we may disagree with their decision, I do not think these brethren were calling for open mutiny or disregard of the government’s health recommendations. It was simply in the area they believed was incongruent to their faith practice.

Yet, many brethren were quick to denounce the use of Acts 5:29 by these brethren in terms of justifying congregating. I have seen numerous preachers and elders arguing that Acts 5:29 did not apply to this situation at all. One brother recently wrote regarding the corona virus issue, “The government is not forbidding us to worship God. Acts 5:29 doesn’t apply here. They are serving the needs of its citizens. Seeking to protect our health and welfare. Once this virus is under control and/or eradicated the meeting house doors will open again.” I understand that a congregation can choose to cancel services due to health concerns and that decision might not be an Acts 5:29 issue. As another brother I talked with said (paraphrased), “We are not canceling services because the government has ordered us to do that. We are canceling due to our judgment for the sake of the health of our members and the community. Our submission to the government’s ordinance is concurrent with our judgment. We are not blindly canceling services because the government said so.” I really appreciate the distinction that this brother was attempting to make.

Yet, the dismissing of Acts 5:29 to this issue has bothered me. In order to fairly analyze the argument, I want to break down the argument into its main contentions. There are two main arguments that have been advanced in this line –

1. Motive of the government and definition of persecution-

a. Brethren have argued that Acts 5:29 doesn’t apply because the government does not have the motive of persecution, rather of public health and welfare.

b. Some have tried to detail out what makes “persecution” and have argued since the restrictions for corona virus are not discriminatory or targeted to Christians, then it’s not persecution and thus does not fall within Acts 5:29.

2. Extent of application and context of Acts 5:29

a. Coupled with the previous points, some brethren have affirmed that in order for Acts 5:29 to be applied we have to be in the same situation as Peter and the apostles.

b. This view does not portray Acts 5:29 as a broader principle, but rather a specific contextual command. Thus, anything outside of persecution could not appeal to Acts 5:29 even though there may be incongruence between God’s law and the government’s law.

These two premises are closely intertwined, and such an interpretation would fit nicely for the justification of why we should cancel services. Even though there may be good intentions with this argument, I think this is a dangerous way of arguing against using Acts 5:29 in the corona virus discussion.

First, the premise that the government’s motive justifies the incongruence seems like a hard pill to swallow. I believe that it is wrong to claim that this corona virus situation is equal to persecution, however, it seems equally mistaken to affirm that the government’s motives are justifiable reasons to wave over a potentially applicable command. While I understand brethren might not be wanting to say this, this argument comes across as: so long as the government’s motives are pure then we can forgo God’s law to follow man’s law.

Second, does a situation have to be labeled “persecution” for Acts 5:29 to apply? No. I do not believe it does. I would affirm that Acts 5:29 is a universal principle and does not have to be specifically relegated to a narrow definition or context of persecution. For example, take the one child policy in China. China actively enforced abortions to any couple that conceived more than 1 child. This demonic policy was not singularly directed toward Christians, it was applied to the entire nation equally. Also, the Chinese government did not have the motive of persecution, rather for the good and welfare of the nation. Should a Christian couple follow such policies in China? No, I believe they should not. How could we justify such civil disobedience? Acts 5:29. Why? Because Acts 5:29 doesn’t just apply to persecution but is a universal principle we live by. It guides us when we are put into incongruent situations between following man’s orders and God’s orders. We should always choose God’s orders.

While I clearly understand there are many good arguments for canceling services, the attempt to rebuff the arguments of Acts 5:29 have led brethren to make poor generic efforts to excuse Acts 5:29 from the discussion. In the broader context of the corona virus issue, we are facing situations where Acts 5:29 is a serious consideration that comes into view. For example, one brother recently noted, “Paul led the young Timothy into dangerous and uncertain situations. Who knows when we will have to expose ourselves to danger for the Lord. What will we do when someone wants to be baptized? When an unbeliever opens his door to a Bible study in these sobering moments? When a brother or sister struggles with sin, doubt, discouragement, loneliness? Or, when a brother or sister gets sick and needs help? Our biggest danger is not the virus, but doubt. May God help us to trust in Him.”

Amen brother! He is absolutely right and raises some difficult challenges we will face. But what do we do if Acts 5:29 doesn’t apply?

I personally have faced this situation this week. Here in Puerto Rico we are not allowed to leave our house unless it is for a government designated purpose. However, yesterday my fellow evangelist and I had the opportunity to have a bible study with an unbeliever in the town we live in. Did we break the law of the land? Yes we did. Why did we do that? Acts 5:29.

The issue of Acts 5:29 as it applies to our situation is more nuanced and complicated that what many have framed it as. By simply waving our hand and saying “It doesn’t apply,” will not make the difficult situations that we are faced with go away. Such attempts to generally wave it away smack more of self-justification than good bible scholarship or helpful wisdom in faith. We need conviction and guidance by faith in these difficult times and we need to consider how these guiding principles will direct future action.

One brother I spoke with said that they canceled services, but not because the government said so. He further said that if the government mandated a cessation of services for all of flu season, he would not follow that order. I think this is an interesting consideration (I know it branches out to other topics), but how far will you follow the government? Do you use the government’s mandate as justification for your actions?

To close, I am not saying everyone should have services. I am not saying that I agree or disagree with the specific decision to have services or not. I am simply saying that we need to make sure we are using the right arguments for why we do what we do. We need to be sure to think about the way the text fits with the entirety of our situation. We must consider how the principles of God’s truth should direct every aspect of our lives during this difficult time. It is in that spirit of caution that I leave you with these thoughts. May God bless you all.