May civil authorities exercise authority over churches

New Warhorn Media post by Tim Bayly:


Something occured to me today thinking about all this that I think worthwhile to share. I agree in principle that the civil magistrate may take extraordinary measures to protect public health in an emergency, including the temporary suspension of constitutional rights. Even so, when we get into the specifics of what is going on right now, there’s a lot that is unclear and foggy.

The government deserves our allegiance and obedience by virtue of its existence over us. But governments can undermine their own credibility by acting in absurd ways, passing laws impossible to enforce, or even refusing to enforce certain laws, thereby sending the signal that you can break the law and get away with it. Governments can begin to lose the confidence and trust of the people. In order to govern effectively, rulers must have the trust of the people, “soft capital” if you like. This has been true at all times and places, even under kings and oligarchs of the past. Every government is democratic at least in some small sense.

Somewhat early in the crisis, I read one of the executive orders of Andy Beshear, the governor of Kentucky. His order was an extensive ban on public gatherings above a set number of persons. At the end of his order, the governor said that his order would not be enforced. Though it was an order, and had the force of law, the governor assured the citizens that rumors of martial law were unfounded, and to prove it he would not be enforcing his decrees.

Think about that.

There are two ways a citizen can react to an order like this. A citizen with a more tender conscience may strive to obey the order to the letter, although he gains little by doing so since other citizens with fewer scruples will carry on with life with as little inconvenience as possible. Those other people will seek to find loopholes. When they self-enforce, they will be sparing and allow many exceptions. They will take “essential” trips to buy flowers and mulch at Home Depot and play golf.

Since these orders are frequently written in a hurry, they contain lots of ambiguous language that is open to interpretation. “Essential,” “non-essential,” “social distancing,” and the like. Then you have the exceptions and exemptions, which are also open to interpretation. You can see the folly of trying to centrally plan a whole complex society on the fly.

Is it obvious what a Christian should do in this situation? As a practical matter, the United States is a huge country spanning a continent. Enforcing a sweeping lockdown is very difficult. Necessarily, individual citizens must add their own interpretations to these orders. Some will interpret loosely and others strictly. Who’s right?

This whole problem is caused by civil magistrates being ambiguous and giving orders they know they can’t enforce properly. The ambiguity could be solved by giving more specific orders, such as quarantining specific groups of people who are at risk. That would be practical, but that isn’t what is being done. Although civil magistrates wield the sword, in most cases they are being very sparing in how they use it or not using it at all, which undermines their own credibility. The power of the “civil use” of the law rests on the magistrate’s ability to credibly act to crack down on evil doers. When the state for whatever reason chooses to undermine its own credibility so that evildoers no longer fear its decrees, the civil magistrate is at fault. Civil order or disorder is their exclusive responsibility.

Of course the next thing that must be mentioned is that, while giving the initial impression that enforcement of these orders would be light and that one could treat them as more like suggestions or guidelines, as time as gone on more enforcement has been taking place. A small black church of about 15 or 20 people is planning on holding Easter services in Louisville, and Gov. Beshear has specifically threatened that he will take action. Turns out he will be enforcing his decrees after all.

While Gov. Beshear ponders whether to commit political suicide or not, what do you do if you are the black pastor? The implicit social contract between you and Gov. Beshear is that he has given a decree with certain statements, you have interpreted those statements, and Gov. Beshear has promised he won’t act to force you to interpret his statement one way or other. But now Beshear is breaking his end of the bargain. Do you yield to him in this game of chicken or do you hold your ground? Are you a rebel if you don’t? It is far from obvious what the right answer is.

The rules being laid down are arbitrary. Because legislatures contain more than 10 people, many state legislatures are shut down. Law is being made on the fly by governors and their staffs acting alone. The enforcement of these arbitrary rules is inconsistent and capricious. Churches must be closed, but the crowded New York City subway is still open. My town has closed all playgrounds for children, but the abortion clinic in Louisville is still open. Abortion is an “essential” service; child’s play is not. Tough luck.

Why are the laws here so open to interpretation? Why is the enforcement so capricious? I believe it is on purpose. The ambiguity is intentional. If you’re not sure where the line is, it is much easier to to declare you guilty if the state needs you to be guilty. It’s Pharisaism on steroids. But even the Pharisees would be scandalized by the vast powers modern governments possess.

The relationship between citizen and government is complex. It is mediated by cultural norms. In many nations around the world, bribery is the way government business is done. The rule of law comes at a price. Here in the U.S. we’ve been blessed with a more consistent system. Respect here for the rule of law is higher. But what holds it all together? Part of it is our people. We have a tradition of rough-and-tumble Scots Irish and Anglo Saxon Presbyterians who did not care to be governed by the whims of a distant King and Parliament. Part of what made our system work the way it did was that the governing authorities knew that if they tried any funny business, the rascally Presbyterian citizens wouldn’t have it. They would resist. There was an implicit fear of the people that kept things in check.

Now Pastor Bayly has written about this subject on the blog. For him, the independent spirit of the frontier is the problem right now. We need to straighten up and fly right. But once you take that frontier spirit away, you lose something of the essence of what America is about. American individualism has its problems, but getting rid of it is as foolish as taking down Chesterton’s fence. Once you take it down, you will discover why it was there, and you will miss it.

The relationship of government and citizen is command and obey to some extent, but it also involves some push and pull, like any other hierarchical relationship. Especially in our system, for the citizen to automatically yield to arbitrary and capricious decrees from his governor or mayor or sheriff encourages bad behavior in the magistrates. It’s a signal of weakness; a signal to keep expanding power. In order for our system to still work like it is supposed to, there does need to be some implicit fear of the people by the magistrate, that there are real limits to what the magistrate can get away with. This is part of how you preserve a constitutional republic.

This has been very lengthy. But what is the point? Point is there aren’t easy answers here. This really is a case where that weasel word, “nuance,” is called for, along with another weasel word, “charity.”

Ben, you’re poisoning the well at the very beginning. “Suspension of constitutional rights?” Is this what you say to the law enforcement officer when he pulls you over? “Alright, I’ll agree to your taking the extraordinary measure of temporarily suspending my constitutional rights?”

When he goes the added distance of asking you to get your hands where he can see them, do you add to your multiplicity of words directed towards him? What on earth do you say when he requests your license and registration? And I can’t even imagine the words that you would say when you get to the TSA looking at your body parts when you fly.

Then you write:

Now Pastor Bayly has written about this subject on the blog. For him, the independent spirit of the frontier is the problem right now. We need to straighten up and fly right. But once you take that frontier spirit away, you lose something of the essence of what America is about. American individualism has its problems, but getting rid of it is as foolish as taking down Chesterton’s fence. Once you take it down, you will discover why it was there, and you will miss it.

So apparently I, lover of Sobran and Chesterton, was calling for the repeal of the frontier spirit?

I’m getting tired of men twisting my words beyond recognition. To warn about frontier individualism is not to trash it.

Ben, the civil authority has the duty of protecting the lives of his citizens, and quarantines are how he’s always done it. They are legal. We have tons of precedent of godly men obeying those quarantines.


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Pastor Tim,

It’s clear from your response I’ve made you angry. Your writing on this has also made me angry. We are no longer arguing, but quarrelling, so I’ll leave it be. With time, I think all of us we see more clearly.


Dear Ben,

Fine. But if you want to respond to my arguments, feel free to do so. My points are, first, that to speak of it as “suspension of constitutional rights” is overblown, and thus poisons the well. And second, that I am not advocating “taking the frontier spirit away.” Being aware and on guard about it is not to recommend taking it away. As I said, I like the frontier spirit. It simply needs to be disciplined. Those are arguments, not quarrels. Love,

Dear Tim,

Having now spoken with you directly, I’ll resume the argument.

  1. When I referred to constitutional rights, I meant the freedom to worship, the freedom to run a business and have a livelihood (private property), and the freedom of association. Those have been temporarily suspended.

  2. I withdraw the charge that you are for taking the frontier spirit away.

2a) Earlier, I accused you of wanting to silence dissent. You said my charge was unfair. I still think that was the drift of what you were saying, but instead of disagreeing with you, as I did before, I now agree with you. It is clear to me now that if you are the sort of person who has been strongly dissenting from the official line on the virus, then the likelihood is very high that you will also tolerate, wink at or encourage rebellion against the virus lockdown. Part of why it is clear to me is that I am now that person.

From now on, if a Christian church, or a shuttered business, chooses to continue to meet in person, rather than obey state guidelines, I will no longer criticize that church or business. Instead, I will defend them. At this point, it is now obvious that the data used to justify shutting down the country was wrong. The absurd numbers of projected deaths have been revised downwards. The incompetence and mismanagement of the authorities is now exposed. It is therefore necessary to peacefully nudge them to do the right thing, and if that includes defying their decrees, I’m not opposed to it. Frankly, we could use a lot more defiance than we have seen in many years. Maybe we could start nullifying some Supreme Court decisions next?

You disagree with me. You think it’s too soon to do this, and that Reformed homeschoolers are proud and need to be rebuked. But, dear brother, Reformed homeschoolers are not shutting down the national economy, causing millions to be unemployed with the very real potential of mass poverty and even violence. If you allow the precedent of mass shutdowns to be set, all the worst fears of the most rebellious homeschoolers will be confirmed. Restore the checks and balances. Restore some healthy fear of the people to the magistrates, and preserve liberty and order. Doing nothing risks more chaos, and even worse results.

Yes, I know. My point was that civil rights are temporarily suspended regularly in our lives, and when the civil authority believes social distancing is required to save lives, it’s another temporary suspension of civil rights. Everyone knows it. The civil authority knew it and that’s why he pleaded with us to obey his decree. So when guys like you yap about suspension of civil rights, it’s merely a rhetorical move to fire up the troops into high dudgeon. The rest of us already knew and submitted to it.

Next, I wasn’t trying to “silence dissent.” I was trying to exhort God’s people toward willing and cheerful submission. Can you imagine every time a teenage son argued with his mother that he shouldn’t have to obey her specific command and the father told him to obey and be quiet, the son started yelling about his father “silencing dissent?” Or his command “drifting” towards silencing dissent. But this is our world, isn’t it?

“State guidelines?” Really, this is the entire problem. Everything is a guideline. Fourth command, Fifth command. Social distancing command. “Look, authority, I know what you’re trying to do, but I have a better way of doing it.”

“Plus you’re stupid, and why should anyone obey stupid authorities?”

Reformed homeschoolers despise authority and need to learn to submit. Anywhere. To any authority.

it’s pretty hopeless to argue for submission at this point. The mob is angry and will justify their mobness and the civil authority will give in, teaching the mob to get angry more quickly next time so that the civil authority will give in more quickly next time.

Thing is, I don’t trust mobs and I don’t appreciate Christians encouraging them even if they’re right in the particular. I notice which men teach and exercise and encourage submission and which men foment rebellion. Love,


So your position is that disobeying an authority is justified if the authority is wrong in the eyes of the subordinate.

That’s a pretty big step away from interposition or disobedience being required when he commands something immoral or disobedience being allowed if he oversteps his authority.

Rebellion is as the sin of divination, and this is a perfect example of one of the reasons why.

You think you know what the future holds and whether or not the command is actually necessary.


I can imagine a scenario where if the authority is right an otherwise unlawful command would be lawful but if they were wrong it would be unlawful. I think we are getting near that scenario.

I’m so confused about one thing. Why does anyone that is so sure that it was unnecessary to shut the country down not acknowledge the fact that the numbers being so low might be because the country is shut down? :thinking: Or just be thankful that the numbers are so low and acknowledge that no one knew when all of the decisions started to be made?


I think it is essentially because now that they do “know” it was unnecessary, they are seeing the damage from the “wrong” decision keep on mounting. So the fact that it isn’t being ended right now is infuriating.

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I agree with Joseph, and I’ll add that the models projecting x-hundred thousand dead were already assuming lockdowns and social distancing. So the people doing the modeling clearly didn’t cover themselves in glory. Add that to all the transparent lies like, “masks don’t work so save them for health care workers” and it’s easy to see how frustrations can rise.

I’ll also say that in general, nobody likes it when his ox is gored. One’s perspective on the shutdown is likely different if one is a Main Street business owner in a small Arizona town versus being a 60 year old New Yorker who has to ride the subway every day.

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One of the things I’ve not been happy with here is seeing the high level of discussion of data with little parallel discussion of the nature and limitations and challenges of leadership. I’ve read a good bit of the data discussion and think it’s been good, but lacked the human context. (And I add that responding to Heather by saying the distancing measures were wrong and the civil authority knew/knows that is way beyond what I think is warranted.)

But to take one example of the leadership issues, face masks have long been obvious, and so much so that I ordered a bunch in the first days of this crisis and have given them out to other who are older. I’d read quite a bit on facemasks and even put up a link on various methods of making them and noting how helpful this fabric was as opposed to that fabric. Mary Lee made some a couple weeks ago which we’ve been using, and it was pretty simple.

So why did our civil authorities discourage them for so long?

Every pastor and elder should know why. Sheep are stupid and need to be led in the conglomerate and without finesse.

But that’s precisely what smartypants Reformed men like us are impatient with and rant against, We demand to be in on the decision-making process. We demand to have access to all the data. We demand to know who knew what and when, all to the end that we may use our large brain to judge our civil authorities. Not that we want to be rebellious—we just want to be independent from other stupid sheep gathered and milling about in the flock waiting to be told what to do. Impatient with such sheepness, we call it “statism” or an “idol for destruction.”

Talking with our elder who’s a physician about facemasks the past couple weeks, we remembered a time some years ago when I set out to find out what the difference is between risk from chew and smoking. After some research, I found the risks are categorically different if the category is risk. Chew is much less dangerous. Much much less dangerous than smoking.

But what if the public health officers are trying to stop smoking and don’t trust the sheep’s ability to distinguish between uber-harmful use of tobacco and harmful use of tobacco?

Well, then the category switches from risk to tobacco because public health has to be a blunt work. Thus it is that MLB has outlawed chew and places of business have signs out front barring all “tobacco.”

Our civil authorities can’t stick to leading smartypants Reformed men. They must lead herds of sheep, and for several weeks now it’s been my conviction they are downplaying the helpfulness of facemasks at least partly to keep facemasks readily available for healthcare workers. Other reasons, yes; but I’m guessing that was the main one. Is that wrong?

In the final analysis, I think not, and wish all of us would please be less judgmental and censorious and angry at the civil authorities right now. From the Church especially, it strikes me as unseemly.

I don’t mean to debate this, but simply to toss in a pastoral exhortation. Love,


There we go again, painting with a paint sprayer (forget the broad brush). :wink:

Have you done extensive research, studying of curricula and interviews to come to this conclusion? Anecdotal evidence and personal experience are poor companions for such a conclusion. My experience brings me to a totally different place.

Those kind of statements don’t befit you Tim. You’re a man who ponders and thinks. Such statements only diminish the weight things you are trying to say.

Jeff, you’ve had eight days to comment on that, so why resurrect it now directly under a post that said nothing of the sort? Love,

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7 posts were split to a new topic: Homeschooling and homeschoolers

My apologies for not replying under the proper post. And since I’m in violation of proper etiquette of posting to a aging comment, my apologies for that as well.

I saw there was a new comment on this thread and was reading through to get the gist of of conversation.

Just to be clear, I wasn’t trying to say that. I was attempting to explain what the people who are so upset are thinking, and I don’t think I’m misrepresenting them or putting words in their mouth.

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Missed that. Sorry. Love,

It seems to me, there are a couple factors that shape and mold Americans’ rebellious tendencies. The first is a misunderstanding of what it means to be a nation of laws. People seem to think that because we are a nation of laws that there is no ruling authority. This is the high ideal for most Americans. A nation of the people, by the people and for the people, as they say. If there is a ruling authority, it is not a person but a paper, and it’s meaning and it’s authority is up to interpretation.

When I consider the founders’ struggles to form a new government, one that the people would submit too, I see a lot of appeasement and ambiguity built in to this new system. So much silence on the nature of the executive and especially on the roll of the Supreme Court. But they had to build something, and they needed it soon. Sadly I believe, where they were likely tabling certain discussions to be worked out at a later date, they fostered an environment of individual interpretation. This can be seen nowhere clearer than in the dispute between Jefferson and Adams over court appointments and what resulted in the Marbury v Madison Supreme Court Decision.

On the one hand, I think the majority opinion written by the Chief Justice reflected a subjective interpretation that is purely man centered, there is no doubt that subjectivity by the masses would be more destructive to the family and social fabric than subjectivity manifested in the legitimate office of a magistrate, like the Supreme Court. So we must suffer the arbitrary notions of newly appointed legal scholars, because our founders felt legal battles would be the best guard against a top heavy centralized government. Never did they imagine that the people on all corners of the nation would be so virtually connected and vested in every decision, every executive order, every piece of legislation. They wanted to guard against high democratic tendencies, the executive office was not filled by popular vote, the Supreme Court wasn’t filled by popular vote and neither was the Senate. But our rebellion is so strong, we rejected such notions and amended the constitution to increase our whining grasp on the Senate. We’ve made it no different than the house. And though the electoral college is still just barely a thing, no one in America thinks they are delegating their vote to some electoral college appointee to choose the next president. We want our government like we want our whoppers. Our way, right away.