Church, state, and social distancing

A plea for good faith

April 11, 2020

This Holy Week, Christians are tangibly experiencing this extraordinary moment in American history. To combat the spread of COVID-19, our nation has taken dramatic steps to alter our normal rhythms of life. And as we’ve all now experienced, the necessity of social distancing has affected nearly every sector of our society. Things that were commonplace only a few weeks ago are either absent entirely or significantly altered. Restaurant dining rooms are closed. Remote work is mandatory. Americans are staying home. And in most cases, America’s churches have closed their doors.

Few of us could have imagined such a scenario mere months ago. There is no playbook for navigating life during a pandemic. And it is no stretch to say that all of us are finding our way through this moment at least partially in the dark. As an organization, we’ve said from the beginning that churches and Christian leaders are critical at this time. And we’ve encouraged Christians, especially pastors and Christian leaders, to take a posture of cooperation toward government and public health officials. We’ve urged the churches we serve to make every effort to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. 

Across the country, churches have willingly taken the steps suggested by the CDC and public officials, as well as our own organization, despite the very real difficulties and financial hardships such compliance has entailed. This does not include every church in every locality to be sure. Considering the overwhelming spirit of cooperation displayed by the vast majority of churches, it is nonetheless disheartening to see so much media attention and scrutiny directed toward the situations where cooperation has broken down. If anything, the actions taken by the vast majority of churches are commendable.

At the same time, we’ve also warned that government officials, in order to be effective in their duties, must be careful to avoid even the appearance of overreach. The separation of church and state requires a delicate balance of authority between the two institutions. In almost every case, government officials have acted cautiously to protect that balance. In others, the ERLC has successfully advocated for state and local officials to consider amending policies to better accommodate churches. Even so, it is apparent that in a very few places, there are officials who are not exercising the right amount of care in maintaining this cooperation.

Several weeks ago, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio threatened to fine and even “permanently” close churches and other religious organizations who failed to observe social distancing guidance. And while the mayor’s words drew the attention of some, many dismissed them as bluster in a high-pressure moment. As Russell Moore commented concerning DeBlasio’s threats, “He doesn’t have the authority to shut down churches and synagogues and he’s not going to do that.” Still, in recent days there have been concerning reports about elected officials who, in seeking our common goal of stopping the transmission of the virus, are acting and communicating in ways that can be counter-productive.

In response to the social distancing guidelines, churches in many places have tried creative ways to worship together and in limited ways to gather for Easter services. In most places, these alternatives are happening without controversy because local officials are working closely with religious leaders.

But in others, these alternatives are being opposed by local officials, raising questions about whether houses of worship are being treated in the same way as other businesses or activities. The government has a clear public health interest in restricting public gatherings. But even in times of emergency, officials must be sensitive to fundamental freedoms and tailor public health restrictions narrowly. We are therefore concerned about certain instances of aggressive action that both violate the spirit of cooperation these moments call for and erode trust in the capacity of local leaders to rise to the occasion. 

As Christians, we recognize that the scriptures call us to submit to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1) and to live as good citizens (1 Tim. 2:2; Tit. 3:1). At the same time, the scriptures are more than clear that Caesar is not God, and our ultimate allegiance belongs not to any state but to a King and kingdom. 

Each county and city will approach this moment in different ways, with its own measures, restrictions, and requirements. And right now local leaders are working to take the appropriate steps to protect the people they were elected to serve. Governors, county commissioners, and mayors hold enhanced authority to protect their communities in times of emergency. They are also closer relationally and personally to those communities. 

Ideally, our system allows those closest to the problem to tailor their response to best fit the situation. And depending on the severity and nature of the threat, officials in different places will choose to respond differently to meet the needs of their communities. The benefit of pushing those decisions down to the lowest authority capable of taking the appropriate action is that it allows for more precise and calibrated decisionmaking than would be possible at the state or national level.

But of course, flattening the curve requires robust, good faith action on the part of citizens as well. Churches are a critical part of this. As Christians, we recognize that the scriptures call us to submit to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1) and to live as good citizens (1 Tim. 2:2; Tit. 3:1). At the same time, the scriptures are more than clear that Caesar is not God, and our ultimate allegiance belongs not to any state but to a King and kingdom. 

We recognize that public officials are forced to make difficult decisions at this time. Every community’s risk profile is different with respect to COVID-19. But public officials must recognize the substantial power they wield and do all that they can to preserve the ability of churches to safely and uniquely minister in their communities. We encourage local officials to take the time to hear the concerns of pastors in their communities in order to offer guidance, and when possible to make reasonable accommodations. 

It has never been more important for pastors to support our government’s efforts to save lives by stopping the spread of COVID-19. And at the same time, the ability of Americans to worship strengthens our communities and sustains individuals through these difficult times. What is needed most right now is cooperation and good faith. We’ve already seen that the majority of churches are willing to do their part. It is essential that government officials view pastors and churches as allies, and not antagonists, in this collective effort and support their abilities to minister effectively to the greatest extent possible.

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Travis Wussow

Travis Wussow serves as the Vice President for Public Policy and General Counsel. Travis led the ERLC’s first international office located in the Middle East prior to joining the Washington DC office. He received a B.B.A. in Finance from The University of Texas at Austin and a J.D. from The … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24