When the state goes too far

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The Knox County, Tennessee, Health Department recently issued orders to churches that should be ignored. Holy Communion and even the bringing of Bibles to church services was banned.

According to a May 2, 2020 report by WND News Service, the order came from Knox County Health Department Regional Hospital Coordinator Charity Menefee, who announced that Communion is not part of “core worship.” Menefee is wrong, of course, and the state has absolutely no authority to rule over the sacraments of the Church.

In the vast majority of churches worldwide Holy Communion, or Holy Eucharist, is observed in the services of the church every single Sunday. It is understandable that, if Menefee attends many of the church services in the South why she would think that “the Lord’s Supper,” as it is often called, is optional. Many Protestant, evangelical, or Pentecostal/charismatic churches have Holy Communion rarely, if at all. Historically and currently, however, this sacrament is mandated in most of the Christian world.

Even if it were not, the state has no authority, whatever the excuse, to either mandate or prohibit church practices. Not only should this order be ignored, in the diocese I serve, which includes Tennessee, it WILL be ignored. Christians have been warning for several years that a chipping away of religious rights has been occurring. Those concerns have been mocked by a good number of people, most of whom could not care less if churches disappeared altogether.

However, the pandemic has exposed a number of would-be tyrants and tin-horn dictators who have attempted to restrict the rights of Americans to worship and to peaceably gather. One respondent to a newspaper article said that “people were free to worship at home,” and that people didn’t need to gather to worship. Such an attitude would be welcomed by the leaders of Cuba or China but, in America, the idea is foolish and dangerous. It is also anti-biblical.

One definition of the word “church” is “those who are called out (of the world) to gather together.” In Christianity, there is no such thing as a solitary Christian.

One writer stated: “Although ‘church’ has come to mean a building or organization, the original Greek ekklesia meant ‘a gathering, assembly’ and is the basis for our word ‘congregation.’ And that is what God designed the church to be — a group of people.” Not just a group of people, but a group of people “gathered.”

In some circles, misguided believers proclaim that all they need is “me, my Bible, and Jesus.” Even if that were the biblical teaching, which it is not, the Knox County Health Department would take even the Bible away.

But this is not simply a biblical, or even a Christian, issue. It is also a constitutional issue. The first amendment to the United States Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” Note: “… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” That means the government must not, cannot, and will not interfere with the “free exercise thereof.”

In other words, they don’t get to decide how or when the sacraments are served, when we will gather together, who we will or will not marry, or just about any other religious issue.

The Supreme Court has said the federal government may limit religious freedom – but only when it has a “compelling interest” to do so in order to protect the common good and limit people’s ability to harm others. Normally, this argument has been used when children are being sexually abused or some other horrendous incident has occurred. It has nothing to do with the normal operation of churches.

Some American citizens have adopted the attitude of the old Soviet government and see churches and religious workers as “parasites.” This attitude eventually resulted in the closing of nearly every church in the USSR and the state-sponsored murder of between 12 and 20 million Christian believers.

“Parasites?” It is true that, generally speaking, churches, like all non-profits, do not pay property taxes or taxes on the income that comes from donations. It is not true that the clergy and other church staff do not pay income taxes, as some believe.

According to the Heritage Foundation, an estimated 350,000 religious congregations in America operate schools, pregnancy resource centers, soup kitchens, drug addiction programs, homeless shelters, and adoption agencies. These efforts serve 70 million Americans each year and the value of their services are estimated at over a trillion dollars annually.

This doesn’t include the recreational programs, counseling services, and congregational educational programs. It also doesn’t include the 2,300 members of the International Conference of Police Chaplains or the 1,481 members of the Federation of Fire Chaplains, almost all of whom are unpaid volunteers, who serve some of America’s most stressed first responders.

The overwhelming number of churches in the United States have willingly complied with the federal, state, and local guidelines during the pandemic. That cooperation is given because the church and its leaders are good citizens and care about the well being of people.

Many, perhaps most, churches are financially suffering right along with the rest of the country. It is likely that some cooperating churches will not survive or will lose their property and have to start over when all is said and done. The church knows something about sacrifice and even embraces it.

What the church will not embrace is some minor, or even major, official interfering in the sacraments or in other aspects of religious life. The state, constitutionally, has the obligation to insure and promote religious freedom, not attempt to restrict it.

At some point, if pressed, the church will choose to “obey God rather than man,” as did the Church in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Frankly, I expect that, by the time this article is posted, Knox County will have backed off their ridiculous position. If not, then it’s time to go to court and time to continue to be the church.

The Church knows something about sacrifice but the Church also knows something about survival. It has survived the purges of the Roman Empire and every empire that has come along since. It survived Nazism, Stalinism, atheism, and every other “ism.” It will survive petty officials seeking to extend their power and influence, as well.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the crisis, the church is live streaming at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays at http://www.facebook.com/cctksharpsburg/ He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]

1 COMMENT

  1. I fully concur; many Christians see Holy Communion as a core worship activity and protected by the Constitution. Mrs. Menefee obviously exceeded her legal capacity. I hope it was only the burden of her job that befuddled her brain. Not all people think clearly in emergency situations.