Public worship is the physical gathering of the body of Christ

Today in Auckland you can drink with more than 10 people in a bar, you can dine with more than 10 people in a restaurant, or shop in a large supermarket. But you can't attend a church service with more than 10 people in a single room. Even if it is a very large room. Of those four activities, drinking, dining, shopping or attending a church service, only one is specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights. The 1990 Bill of Rights gives NZers rights which were intended to be rights governments could not suppress. NZers assumed these were rights beyond government control. We have them, by virtue of our history, and by virtue of being a citizen of this country. One of those rights is freedom of religion. It’s in section 15:

Every person has the right to manifest that person's religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private.

Every NZ Christian has an explicit right to worship in community with others. That’s what the law says. For us as Christians worshipping God with others is not optional, it is the very essence of being a church. The word church comes from the Greek word "ekklēsia", which means “gathering.” An individual Christian is not a church, just like a few isolated sheep are not a flock.

Our God explicitly says he prefers public worship above all others, Psalm 87:2: "The LORD loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob." Zion is where God was publicly worshipped. The Bible explicitly commands Christians to come together, Hebrews 10:24-25: "And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching." When we meet, we as a church are not just individuals, but really one body, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13: “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body.”

So a government forbidding Christians to worship takes away an explicit right, and makes the Christian life impossible. That's not the case with other forms of public gatherings (such as restaurants and bars). And for what reason? Is it impossible to maintain the freedom of communal worship while also achieving health targets? No! Here are some examples of what public health officials could have asked churches to do, while achieving similar public health outcomes as we have now, or better:

  • It could take room size into account. A large room could easily have more people, just like a restaurant.
  • It could ask churches to seat bubbles at a particular distance, like restaurants.
  • It could work with churches to erect partitioning that is considered effective to stop spread of the virus beyond groups of 10.
  • It could ask to install high grade air conditioning filters.
  • It could ask that a certain percentage of members get a Covid-19 test every week.
  • It could ask that churches pay for these tests themselves.
  • It could ask that a church has an emergency alert system that can alert those who have attended the services very quickly. For example when a member tests positive, all members attending the same service would be alerted by test, and promise to go into isolation immediately.

The government is making special rules for film crews. It is making special rules for rugby teams. It has announced special rules for critical skills. We are sure the government can come up with some workable rules for Christians.

Churches are not unwilling to help the government. We explicitly recognise that governments and churches have distincts spheres of influence. As our Lord Jesus has said: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” A government that forbids public worship, forbids Christians to render unto God what is due to God. That is not a claim a government may make, and the Bill of Rights has recognised that.

As Christians we recognise that the government has legitimate concerns, and a legitimate duty with regards to vulnerable people. But when has the government worked with churches to see what can be done so they can exercise their freedom to worship God as part of being a community? Has the Director of Health ever attempted to talk to any churches? When has he published guidelines for churches?

We believe that churches are also allies in the government's Covid-19 efforts. We are not passive observers. God asks us to pray for our governments, 1 Timothy 2:1-2: “exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” We believe God hears our prayers. If we can pray for our government, for our public health director, for our public health officials, for our doctors and nurses, we are making a difference. A government that forbids Christians to publicly ask petitions of God is not helping itself.

We call on our political leaders, our Minister of Health, our Prime Minister, our Director of Health, to take the Bill of Rights seriously and allow Christians to meet as they should. We are willing to take all reasonable precautions health officials think are necessary, as long as they do not overstep the bounds of proscribing how we worship our God. See us as an ally, not as groups whose activities need to be monitored and suppressed during the Covid-19 plague.