The first amendment versus the Greatest Commandment

Which is more important to Christians?  The first amendment versus the Greatest Commandment?  Let me rephrase that.  Which should be more important?  It’s the Greatest Commandment, isn’t it?  Or did I miss something?

The first amendment versus the Greatest CommandmentI’m asking because of something that’s happening now.  Just one example is in a recent CBS News headline:

Pastor holds services despite virus ban, citing 1st Amendment

Seriously.  And he’s not the only one.  But that headline really grabbed my attention.  

Here’s a part of what’s going on, from the article.

“I want to let people know that we as a church, we love people, we understand that the virus is a serious issue,” Pastor Duncan said. “We do believe this right to meet is upheld by the First Amendment.”

The pastor told Lodi police of his plans to stay open. Officers entered a church service last Sunday explaining the state orders to close.

“It was chilling on free speech at that point because it was clear that we were going to have to do something different and or face the consequences,” Duncan said.

It’s shocking.  As a Christian, it’s also very disappointing.  I get it – churches want to meet.  But what happened to the Greatest Commandment?

I feel blessed that the church I attend, although relatively small, just recently added some new video equipment in the sanctuary.  When the stay-at-home order came out here in the L A California area, we quickly made a few more upgrades – faster internet connection and a streaming device – and we’re able to live-stream our services.

Yeah – there are fewer than 10 people there, so the worship music isn’t amazing.  But you know what?  it’s not the size of the group and what instruments they play.  I’m sure God is just as pleased – maybe even more so – with the trio we have now.  David used to play a harp by himself.  And God was pleased with that.

And no – there aren’t any other people there besides the pastors and someone to run the sound / video stuff.  But it’s still a worship service.  We don’t get to see each other, but aren’t we really there for God?  If our main goal is to shake hands, hug people and talk about the week with friends – aren’t we missing out on the real reason for “church services”?  If you need an answer – YES – if those things are true, we’re there for the wrong reasons.

And if someone’s church isn’t streaming their service – just check out YouTube.  Plenty are.  Maybe even another one in your neighborhood.  And maybe your neighbor goes there.  Just because it’s a different denomination doesn’t mean they don’t believe in the same core Christian values.  I hope.  If the core values aren’t Christian – then neither is that church!

Anyway – this insistence on meeting is just wrong on so many levels.  Let’s look at a few of them.  Get some background for this apparent battle between the first amendment and the Greatest Commandment.

Who is our authority?  The government?  Or God?

You may remember something Paul wrote.  Or maybe not.  It’s in Romans, so maybe some of you skipped it, because it’s too hard?  Hope not.

Submission to the Authorities

Ro 13:1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities.  Isn’t that clear enough?  Everyone?  And yes, that includes Christian Pastors.  Actually, it especially includes Christian Pastors.  You are supposed to be our leaders – and you do not understand that passage?

You may not like what the government rulers are doing.  But still, the Bible tells us they are established by God.  The issue is often a question of why God established them.  Did God raise them up to lead us towards Him?  Or did God allow someone to come to power because He wants to give us a wake-up call?  The Bible has examples of both.  And yet, either way, we’re told in this passage to submit to them. 

2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

Just in case the first verse wasn’t clear enough – how about this one?  he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.  I’m no fan of our current President – Trump.  I don’t believe someone who acts in a manner that’s so far from what Jesus calls His followers to do can possibly be a leader God has chosen for any reason other than to wake us up.

But still, there’s just no getting around this passage.  And no matter what we may think of any of our leaders, none of them are anything close to the Roman leaders in Jesus’ time.  Yes, we need to be aware that our true allegiance is to God.  But we cannot ignore what Paul wrote here.

3 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 he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

This is interesting.  And seemingly wrong.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.  How is that possible?  People are punished all the time for doing the right things.

It comes down to a question of what does “wrong” mean?  Unfortunately, the word we read as “wrong” in our English Bibles doesn’t always give the same meaning as the Greek word in the original texts.  

Ro 13:6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

What does Submit to the Authorities really mean?

It’s interesting that Paul wrote: But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  I say that because Paul was beheaded.  Talk about using the sword!  What we don’t really read in the English translations is that right and wrong also have something to do with good and evil.  What we end up with then, is a fine line between obeying and not obeying.  But there wasn’t any first amendment right for Paul, even as a Roman citizen.

Remember the stoning of Stephen in Acts?

The Stoning of Stephen

Ac 7:54 When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

Ac 7:57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Ac 7:59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
Ac 8:1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.

Things get messy, don’t they?  Stephen did what God wanted – what was right in the eye of The Lord.  But he still died at the hands of the Jewish authorities.  No first amendment rights for Stephen either.  Just the Greatest Commandment.

So, as Christians, who is our authority?

Here’s something to think about.

13:2 And yet it still holds that anyone who disobeys or rebels against the government is disobeying and rebelling against what God has ordained. Whoever resists lawful authority earns and deserves punishment.

There is an exception, of course. A Christian is not required to obey if the government orders him to sin or to compromise his loyalty to Jesus Christ (Acts 5:29). No government has a right to command a person’s conscience. So there are times when a believer must, by obeying God, incur the wrath of man. In such cases he must be prepared to pay the penalty without undue complaint. Under no circumstances should he rebel against the government or join in an attempt to overthrow it.

13:3 As a rule, people who do what is right need not fear the authorities. It is only those who break the law who have to fear punishment. So if anyone wants to enjoy a life free from tickets, fines, trials, and imprisonments, the thing to do is to be a law-abiding citizen. Then he will win the approval of the authorities, not their censure.  [1]MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1732). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Sometimes there’s a price to pay for following God’s law.  Basically, it comes down to a pretty simple question.  Do we want to pay the price from civil authorities, or would we rather pay the price from God?  Is our first amendment right greater than fulfilling the Greatest Commandment?

Or, as Jesus put it when He sent out the twelve disciples:

Jesus Sends Out the Twelve

10:2-4 pp — Mk 3:16-19; Lk 6:14-16; Ac 1:13
10:9-15 pp — Mk 6:8-11; Lk 9:3-5; 10:4-12
10:19-22 pp — Mk 13:11-13; Lk 21:12-17
10:26-33 pp — Lk 12:2-9
10:34, 35 pp — Lk 12:51-53

Mt 10:11 “Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave. 12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. 15 I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. 16 I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

Mt 10:17 “Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

Mt 10:21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. 23 When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

Mt 10:24 “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25 It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!

Mt 10:26 “So do not be afraid of them. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Mt 10:32 “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.

If you’d like to double-check your answer as to whose authority you’d rather ignore, let me repeat one line from the passage.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

As for me, I’d rather do what God says is right, and pay the price from the authorities here on earth.  Interestingly, what we’re going to find out is that the apparent conflict between “stay at home” type rules and Christianity isn’t what some make it out to be.

The first amendment versus the Greatest Commandment

So with all that in mind, let’s get to the big question.  If you believe there’s a conflict between the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution and one of God’s laws, which will you follow?  For purposes of this discussion, I’ve chosen one of the things Jesus said as the commandment to use in that comparision.

If you’re not familiar with the first amendment or the Greatest Commandment, here they are.

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Whether any given person wants to argue this over establishment of religion, free exercise of that religion, freedom of speech, right to peaceably assemble – it really doesn’t matter.  Take your pick.  Choose them all if you’d like.

I still challenge you to argue any of those points against what Jesus said.

The Greatest Commandment – Matthew

22:34-40 pp — Mk 12:28-31

Mt 22:34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Mt 22:37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Love God and Love your neighbor.  That’s pretty direct.  

Now, let’s say you argue every one of the points from the first amendment, and try to claim the government is preventing you from doing any of them. 

The Coronavirus, Covid-19, is extremely contagious.  While some people will catch it and display few, if any symptoms, anyone who has the virus is a carrier.  Even without symptoms, someone with the virus can still pass it on to someone else.  And that person will pass it on to others.  Eventually, one of those people is going to end up in the hospital, severely sick.  Some of them will die.  

Tell me – honestly – how loving is that?  

The first amendment versus the Greatest Commandment – point by point

So let’s go through the points, one by one.  We’ll see how those first amendment rights stack up against the Greatest Commandment.

establishment of religion  

Placing restrictions on meeting sizes does not establish a religion.  Nor does it prevent one from being established.  Finally, it doesn’t force any established Christian religion to violate any of God’s commandments.

free exercise of that religion

Whether or not the free exercise of Christian religion is prohibited is questionable.

In this day and age, there are many ways to meet virtually.  All sorts of things in secular society are done that way.  Since I worked in the tech industry, we were having video meetings many years ago.  It’s not new technology.

There are some people who are actually afraid of using technology, especially seniors.  I get that.  But here’s a question.  What about having someone help them?  Even to the point of meeting face to face to view an online service with them?  The prohibition in most places in this country is at most ten or more people.  If appropriate care is taken – face masks, gloves, healthy people, meet in groups of even three or four – isn’t it possible to have people who don’t want to learn the technology still be able to view the service?  Like one person takes an iPad and they watch together.

In the early church, house meetings were common.  Sometimes out of fear of the authorities, who would take them out and stone them.  That even goes on in the world today, like in China and North Korea.  Who are we, in this country or any other so-called developed country that we can’t meet in small groups that wouldn’t even violate the social distancing rules?

Aren’t things like that better than putting entire congregations at risk?  When there are alternatives, isn’t it more loving to use them?  After all, Jesus told us:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

We have minds that God gave us.  Let’s use them!  And be more loving in the process.

freedom of speech

If we use the alternative approaches available, whose free speech is being inhibited?  No ones.  The same things can be said in a video broadcast and in a live service.  No one is making us say anything different from a service with a live audience.

right to peaceably assemble

This one’s interesting.  Let me ask you, what do you think “peaceably” means?  Is it just that we don’t have a riot?

Or is it more?  Should it be more?  Like, since we’re Christians, shouldn’t we go beyond the secular definition of peace, and move to God’s definition of peace?  

As someone who is over 60 and has cancer, with this virus going around I’m much more at peace with a video service than with going to a large room full of a lot of people, some of whom may very well have the virus.  I would feel awful – truly awful – if I unknowingly had the virus, went to church, and gave it to other people.

I can’t imagine anyone who actually wants to catch the virus.  So that’s part of how we love ourselves – try not to catch it.  But Jesus tells us to love others the same way we love ourselves.  That would be to not have them catch the virus either.  Along with that, we should love them enough to not want to give the virus to them.

And when we get to what Jesus really said – we should love everyone, even people outside our congregation, that we don’t want to be the ones to give the virus to anyone else.  That’s showing God’s kind of peace – and giving that peace to others through our concern and out of love for them.

Conclusion – The first amendment versus the Greatest Commandment

In light of everything we just considered, I believe the only way to peaceably assembly and worship God is something along the lines of what I outlined above.

How can we possibly worship God, love God, love each other, when we know full well that there’s a good likelihood someone in this service, which we insisted must be in person, is going to get sick?  And what do we say to the family of someone who dies because we insisted we had to worship God while all in the same confined space?  

And if that’s still not enough – what are we going to say to God when our insistence on having our first amendment rights takes precedence over God Greatest Commandment – and one or more of His people dies because of that?


Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay


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