Open Church, Go to Jail?

By Mark A. Kellner
Posted March 31, 2020

Rodney Howard-Browne, the pastor of a megachurch in Tampa, Florida, turned himself in to sheriffs in Florida on March 30 after charges of “unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency order” were lodged against him, media reports indicate

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister told a news conference that Howard-Browne’s The River at Tampa Bay Church held two services March 29, sending buses out to bring in worshippers, despite having the technology to livestream services online.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the pastor here is hiding behind the First Amendment,” State Attorney Andrew Warren said, referring to the Bill of Rights provision that guarantees the free exercise of religion in the United States. “One, it’s absolutely clear that emergency orders like this are constitutional and valid. Second of all, leaders from our faith-based community across this country have embraced the importance of social distancing.”

In an unusual angle for a public official, Warren referenced Mark 12:31 in an appeal for churches to avoid large gatherings during the epidemic: “There is no more important commandment than to love thy neighbor as thyself. Loving thy neighbors is protecting them, not jeopardizing their health by exposing them to this deadly virus,” he said. Actually, that statement is not entirely accurate, as the Bible tell us that more important is the command to love the Lord (v. 30); for loving our neighbor comes from first loving God (1 John 4:7, 8, 21).

In turn, Howard-Browne’s church defended itself in an online statement: “We expect our police and firefighters to be ready and available to rescue and to help and to keep the peace. The Church is another one of those essential services. It is a place where people turn for help and for comfort in a climate of fear and uncertainty. Therefore, we feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them, at this time, or any time.” 

Certainly, God is essential to life—but is it essential to worship Him in a church building?

“You Have Been Warned”

Meanwhile, the mayor of America’s largest city warned religious leaders of the consequences of persistently violating government orders.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio issued his caution on March 27 in a livestreamed news conference: “If you go to your synagogue, if you go to your church and attempt to hold services after having been told so often not to, our enforcement agents will have no choice but to shut down those services.”

If still resisted, the state plans to enforce further repercussions, with the most drastic measures being fines and the permanent shuttering of facilities. (The mayor has since walked backed this latter threat recently.)

In Chicago, law enforcement has begun to carry out a similar state law. On March 30, police arrived at a gathering of approximately 60 people inside St. Odisho Church on the northwest side of the city in what was an apparent funeral service. No arrests were made and no citations were issued, though police “expedited the completion of the funeral service and dispersed patrons.”

Most religious groups in the United States and Canada, however, are complying with requests to suspend public worship services during the pandemic. Pastor Doug Batchelor’s church streamed its service to a record audience the weekend of March 28, with more than 430,000 online viewers at the Amazing Facts website and on social media platforms. From this perspective, current restrictions have actually helped in furthering the reach of the gospel.

Preview of Future Peril?

While there is a definite distinction between worship of God being forcefully prohibited versus a traditional aspect of worshiping God being temporarily banned, do these recent accounts offer a preview of the persecution the Bible says will fall on all believers during the end times?

In our world today, totalitarian societies have regularly enacted bans on worship and enforced them with threats or direct police action. Chinese authorities have bulldozed churches not conformed to political directives, while the nations of Iran, Pakistan, and others have imprisoned Christians and even executed them for their faith. But the Bible says that this kind of persecution—and worse—is what God’s people the world over will one day experience.

Bible prophecy speaks of an end-time crisis in which a government, influenced by what Scripture calls a “beast” power, will regulate worship down to the day on which it is permitted. As Daniel 7:25 predicts, the beast “shall speak pompous words against the Most High, shall persecute the saints of the Most High, and shall intend to change times and law.”

When this happens, those who do not comply with the religious mandate will consequently have their economic rights, the ability to buy and sell, taken away. Those who do comply with this state-mandated day of worship have what Scripture calls “the mark of the beast” (Revelation 13:16, 17); they are identified by this singularly unique feature of the “beast” power.

Why is this “mark” identified with the “beast” power? Are there “times and law” that have already been changed? What is so important about a certain day of worship? Most of all, what does all of this have to do with your salvation? 

Learn the answers to these vital questions in our free, online Bible Study Guides, a great resource to understand the sweep of biblical history from creation to the new world that will soon appear—as well as the role that the United States has in these last days.

And if you’re homebound, our AFTV online channel delivers a wide range of spiritually uplifting, helpful programs to keep your faith strong during the present crisis!

Mark Kellner
Mark A. Kellner is a staff writer for Amazing Facts International. He is a veteran journalist whose work has been published in Religion News Service, The Washington Times, and numerous computer magazines.
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