Let My People Gather: What We Can Learn from an Ancient Church-State Debate

statues of ramses in abu simbel temple

1 Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the Risen King, ‘Let my people gather, that they may hear my Word, sing my praise, and remember my sacrifice.’ ” 2 But Pharaoh said, “Who is this Lord, that I should obey his voice and let you gather? I do not know this king, and moreover, I will not let your people gather.” 3 Then they said, “The God who raised the dead has told us, ‘You are to gather every Lord’s Day to proclaim the resurrection and to worship me, lest I bring pestilence or sword on you.’” 4 But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why do you risk the lives of your people and your neighbors? Get back to your homes and love your neighbors.” 5 And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the cases of COVID are now many, and you want to risk the spread of more diseases!” 6 The same day Pharaoh commanded his health officials and tax officers, 7“You shall no longer let these people open their businesses, as in the past, or receive their stimulus checks. Instead, let them go and provide for themselves. 8Moreover, their annual taxes shall by no means be reduced, for they are selfish. Therefore they cry, ‘Let us go worship our God.’ 9 Let heavier work be laid on the men that they may labor at it and pay no regard to lying words.”
Exodus 5:1–9 (A Covid-19 Paraphrase)

Few doctrines are more important for churches today than understanding the relationship between church and state and the proper authority of each. In our church, we have taught from the New Testament what obeying the governor means and doesn’t mean, what love of neighbor entails, and how to walk in freely in society without binding the conscience of another. Yet, as I have been reminded by many other pastors recently (e.g., here, here), we also need to look at the Old Testament to find examples of saints standing up for their faith.

As Paul reminds us on multiple occasions (Rom. 4:25; 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:1–11; 2 Tim. 3:16), the Old Testament is not just for Israel. It was written for new covenant believers, and thus we should consider how men like Moses, David, Elijah and others stood for truth against tyrants like Pharaoh, Saul, and Jezebel—yes, that wicked queen who has been in the news recently.

We need to learn from the faith of the saints, not only because Hebrews 11 tells us too, but because we need courageous models to imitate. As our world continues to press against the church, we need to look beyond the evangelical leaders who tell us to trust that the intentions of government are good, and obey lest we ruin our witness. Instead, we need to look to biblical leaders, who in obedience to God, refused to make decisions based upon some social merit system with the government. Countless Old Testament saints knowingly invited the wrath of the king. Yet, instead of ruining their witness, this became the very means by which God’s power become evident to the redeemed and the unrighteous alike.

Today, we need many lessons in this kind of unqualified obedience to God. And one place where we find great help in this type of obedience is Exodus 5:1–9 and Pharaoh’s refusal to let Israel gather at Sinai. Above I have offered a paraphrase of that passage. Though the whole of the chapter, as well as Exodus 6–7, provides wisdom for walking in our world today. For sake of space, we fill focus on these verses and how they apply to our current world. From them, I will list six ways that the confrontation between Pharaoh and Moses, or really between Pharaoh and Yahweh, instructs us today and why churches cannot simply wait upon the government to reopen the church. We must obey God and gather at our Sinai, the Mountain called Zion (Heb. 12:22–24).

I know that not all will agree with this application, but that’s why I’m writing. I am prayerful that this appeal to Scripture will provide one more biblical argument for gathering, even as governing authorities say not to and many Christian leaders are saying, “Wait. Be Patient. Don’t lose your testimony.” Yet, as our brother in Canada, James Coates, sits in jail for gathering God’s people to worship God, we cannot be silent and pretend that the governing authorities have the best interest of the church in mind. Rather, with eyes fixed on Scripture, it is imperative for Christians to understand what is going on and what has always been going on (John 15:18–25). With this pursuit of applied wisdom in ind, Exodus 5:1–9 helps us to better see the world around us today and how to gather when pressures and politics outside the church hinder the assembly of God’s people.

May the Lord give us the boldness of Moses and Aaron to obey God and stand before our governing authorities and say: Let my people gather![1]

Six Ways Ancient and Modern ‘Pharaohs’ Resist God’s People

1. Pharaoh stands against the command of God.

In Exodus 5, there is a conflict between two rulers—Pharaoh and God—along with their competing demands for Israel. Yahweh commands the worship of the people at Sinai; Pharaoh refuses. For reasons that do not directly oppose Yahweh, Pharaoh is unwilling to permit God’s people to follow their God.

Applied: The Risen Christ deserves and commands the public gathering of his people to bear witness to his death and resurrection until he comes. In the proper ordering of the church includes the right preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the regular practice of the one another’s. These three marks of the church cannot occur in isolation, nor through the Internet. The church is by definition a gathering, the Lord’s Supper occurs when the people come together, and baptism along with church discipline are not matters that can be done remotely. What God has instructed, therefore, and what many earthly governors have instructed are at odds, even if the earthly governor says otherwise or denies that he is targeting the church. Even if the church is not singled out from the rest of society, the church must not be barred from obedience to Christ. An earthly ruler doesn’t have to speak ill against the church in order to oppose the worship of God’s people. And this is what puts God and governors at odds today.

2. Pharaoh questions the word of God because he does not know the Lord or recognize his word.

In Exodus 5 Pharaoh expresses ignorance of and disinterest in Yahweh. This doesn’t change Moses approach. He doesn’t abandon the name or authority of God because Yahweh is not recognized or acceptable in the public square. Instead, he stays the course and speaks with the authority that God has given him. Still, Pharaoh does not care.

Applied: Modern governors base their decisions on the wisdom of science, the protocols of the medical field, the policies of others, and the testimony of the media. Yet, these priests of the secular world are constantly changing their stories and strategies. What remains the same, however, is the fact that the voices leading our world today are built upon a worldview that denies the existence and authoritative revelation of God. When we follow their counsel, we must recognize that their instructions are based upon a secular view of the world that excludes God.

Moreover, the interests of our secular leaders are not the interests of God, and thus their counsel cannot be considered benign. How many COVID protocols are infected with the disease of hubris and humanism? All? Most? The majority? Just as Egypt looked to their pantheon of gods, today’s leaders look to all the things that man can make. A spirit of Babel has taught us to find unceasing hope in a pantheon of vaccines, COVID protocols, and self-preservation. Without denying  the reality of disease and its deadly effects, we must not forget that most of those who are leading the world to shut down do not share a belief that there is a God and that he determines the number of our days (Psalm 139).

3. Pharaoh rejects the conscientious plea of Moses.

Moses appeals to Pharaoh on the basis of what God commands, but Pharaoh will have none of it. He is not interested in Moses conscience, only his own control. For the sake of national safety and security, he ignores religious freedom. Sound familiar?

Applied: Like pharaoh, many governors today are failing to respect the consciences of their citizens and the first amendment right to freely exercise one’s religious convictions in America. (And it is worse in Canada). Without explicitly targeting churches, many governors have assumed emergency authority and implemented executive orders that have trampled the conscience. This kind of overreach is not new; it is actually the norm for most governors and governments. In America, our founders sought to guard against tyranny by instantiating rights in the Constitution.

Today, however, in the name of security and safety, many are willing to forsake personal liberty. And so they permit without quarrel the right for governors to restrict gathered worship, for what is approaching a year now. In response to this, we must remember that with the loss of personal liberty is the loss of freedom of conscience, and the freedom to peaceably assemble. Critically, Exodus teaches us that God’s people do not need permission to gather when God himself calls for public worship. Yet, this is a fact that is not universally advocated from church pulpits today. And it is the reason why we need to learn from Moses as he stood before Pharaoh, obeying God and resisting tyranny.

4. Pharaoh reinterprets Israel’s reason for worship.

Moses says Israel’s three-day journey to Sinai is for the purpose of worshiping God and avoiding judgment (v. 3). In return, Pharaoh says their request is because the people are idle (v. 8) and unwilling to do their work (v. 4). He assigns to Moses spurious and dangerous motives.

Applied: Like Pharaoh, modern governors are also assuming the role of biblical (re)interpreters. In our state, Governor Northam is on record for telling pastors and churches how they can gather. He and others have defined ‘love of neighbor’ as ‘stay away from your neighbor,’ ‘wear a mask,’ and ‘avoid gatherings.’ Instead of encouraging the faith community, in this time of crisis, to come together in prayer, they are urging isolation and social limitation. In this way, they are, without denying the Bible explicitly, reinterpreting the Bible and adding to the canon all manner of new moral standards and judgments! This too takes a page from Pharaoh’s playbook.

5. Pharaoh imposes his morality on Moses and Aaron and accuses them of wrongdoing,

Instead of listening to Moses, he accuses Moses of wrongdoing—idleness and rebellion. This is where Pharaoh redefines good and evil. What God commands is always good, and thus when Pharaoh inserts another violation of God’s law (laziness) to keep Israel from worshiping God, twisting the law to serve his own purposes. And in so doing, he forfeits the right to be obeyed. How? By denying God’s law, Pharaoh invites God’s judgment and frees God’s people to refuse him in this demand. In truth, if Moses and Aaron followed his lead, they would invite God’s judgment too! Thus, in Exodus 5, to obey God requires not obeying Pharaoh.

Applied: Modern governors have made COVID policies the measure of morality and have accused anyone who does not do their part, by keeping the governors orders, that they are selfish. In their rhetoric, they take selfishness, which is a sin, and set it against God’s clear commands—to gather for worship, sing, and testify to Christ’s resurrection. Further, the imperative to love neighbor takes a biblical command and redefines its content. Hence, it imposes a view of morality that does not match God’s law.

We must remember, such a modern morality is built inside a secular view of the world. To most of our governors, the God of the Bible does not exist in any meaningful way, nor does the Word of God have authoritative rule over all areas of life. They may hat tip to Scripture or use biblical language to appeal to a religious population—American politicians have always done this—but this is fundamentally different from crafting policies that respect religious freedom or promote genuine love of neighbor. Our governors have redefined morality and used biblical language to do it. And because so many Christians do not have a fully formed biblical worldview, the inclusion of a few Bible verses is enough to make them go along with Pharaoh’s best interests, instead of bearing his reproach for Christ (Heb. 11:26).

Additionally, such appeal to the best interests of our governors can only work when we ignore the fact that their best interests begin and end in this world, with no respect for the eternal realities of heaven and hell. Hence, their understanding of life and death, essential and non-essential, safety and security are assigned by weights and measures that are fundamentally at odds with Scripture. If we believe that spiritual life and eternal life in Christ are more important than anything else, then we must re-weigh the safety first mantra of our modern secular world. What is true safety? Is it not finding life in Christ? (Mark 8:35)

6. Pharaoh opposes Moses and Aaron by increasing pressure on the people.

The result is that those who are called to follow Moses and Aaron and those who Moses and Aaron are to lead will turn against them, because of Pharaoh’s pressure and argument.

Applied: Modern governors are putting pressure on churches to do ‘the right thing.’ Again, the right thing is defined not as what God says but what they say. And because many of their protocols run against the commands to gather as the body of Christ, the governors coerce (via threat, fine, jail time, or loss of freedom) Christians who might consider gathering.

While no governor admits to targeting churches, many have stirred up fear and moral outrage against any group that would gather—expect in cases of moral necessity like the BLM marches last Spring. As a result, those inside and outside the church are equipped with a new moral code and ready to heap righteous scorn on those leaders who think about gathering, instead of doing what the governor says. We have seen this strategy of public cancellation many times in the last year, and Pharaoh’s example of condemning Moses and Aaron for laziness and leading a rebellion will be greatly effective in turning the people against their God-appointed leaders.

Today, we don’t have a Moses or Aaron who have received a divine revelation from a burning bush. We do have a living Christ who calls his church to assemble. And his Word is our rule. Yet, in many instances, because we have not familiarized ourselves with that word well enough, Christians can be easily swayed by the persuasive arguments of our governors to be safe, stay home, and avoid gatherings. Such wisdom sounds plausible. The problem again is that when such executive orders bar gathered worship for months on end, it opposes God and his command to gather for worship every Lord’s Day.

We could increase our list of applications from Exodus 5, especially if we kept reading chapters 6–7, but I will stop here.

Learning to Gather for Worship When Pharaoh Says ‘No’

Such a reading of Exodus shows the ways in which our current situation is not without historical precedent, nor without biblical parallel. Moreover, when we read Exodus 5 as a word for us, it helps us see how the actions of governors are actually an affront to God and his command to “Let my people go!” And unless we see the opposition between God and Pharaoh, as well as asymmetry of their warfare, we will continue to stumble.

Let me explain as I conclude. In Exodus Pharaoh never denies Israel the chance to worship. Instead, he accuses them of laziness and failure to do their job. He calls Moses and Aaron liars and rebels who are stirring up the people. For him, because he does not know God or care about the Israelites—remember he is the one who implemented a Planned Parenthood policy to kill all the Israelite boys (Exodus 1–2)—he assigns illicit motivations for Moses and Aaron’s request to worship. Such a move has to be near the front of the Enemy’s playbook. For this approach of maligning God’s people with spurious motives is often used by tyrants who manipulate God’s sheep through their sensitive consciences.

The same happens today, as governors imply Christians are doing wrong when they gather for worship. And what is worse, because of a facile reading of Romans 13, many churches are carrying water for the governors and helping the state oppose Christ’s command to gather. To be specific, the charge today is not idleness, but selfishness. Churches who would obey Christ in gathering are labeled foolish, selfish, and unloving towards their neighbors. But such accusations are exactly the kind of sleight of hand that we see from Pharaoh.

God has commanded Israel to gather at Sinai to worship. In response, Pharaoh refuses. Yet he does so from his moral high ground. This high ground is actually the high place of self-worship and maintaining the wicked practices of his pagan nation. So, his motivations are different from our governing leaders. Or, maybe they’re not. There is nothing new under the sun, including the way leaders accuse God’s people of doing wrong when those people are seeking to obey God.

For this reason, Christians living in our COVID-19 world need to learn how to distinguish the signs of the times, and to see that not all opposition to Christ will look like signs that read “We hate your god!” or executive orders that are directed at churches alone. Satan is much too crafty for that, and so are the leaders who run our country. So long as the First Amendment is extant, they will not oppose church directly, but that doesn’t mean that their public policies do not impact churches most severely.

At a time and place when churches were considered essential for the well-being of our country (America would have been such a place before the 1960s), one might think that involving churches in prayer and sharing good news about resurrection life in the face of a pandemic of death would be welcomed. But today that is clearly not the case. Churches can meet on Zoom, or in groups of no more than 25 (or some other arbitrary figure), and hand out care packages through contactless pickup, but God forbid that we meet in-person, without masks, to sing praises to the risen Christ.

To all of this, we must make sure that our governing authorities blindness is not our blindness. And so we must learn from Scripture how to understand the relationship between church and state. And here in Exodus 5, we have a good start.

May God give us boldness to stand and gather, even when the governing authorities try to make us feel bad for doing what Christ has commanded. This Sunday, find a church that is gathering and go worship with them with all the freedom that Christ gives. For indeed, we do not worship because Pharaoh permits it, but because in Christ he has given us an exodus from death to life. And that is worth gathering to declare the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord, whatever it may cost us.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

[1] It could be argued that the analogy between Exodus 5 and the present calls for churches to plead their case before ‘Pharaoh’ until he permits gathered worship. This is how the storyline unfolds in Exodus. The critical different, however, is that under the new covenant, we are not waiting for the exodus. In Christ’s death and resurrection, the exodus has occurred (see Luke 9:31). Hence, our position is not one of waiting for earthly rulers to grant us permission to gather. Instead, followers of Christ are commanded to gather at Mount Zion, which occurs every time the Lord’s saints gather in the name of Christ to worship him (see Heb. 12:18–24).

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