This may be a good time for us to remember who holds the keys to the church in the UK.
The church doesn’t belong to you or to me. It doesn’t belong to the church members, or trustees, or the denomination. It doesn’t belong to the Charity Commission. It doesn’t belong to the UK government. It belongs to the risen and ruling, Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus said: “I will build my church” (Matt 16:18). He has supernaturally rescued a people from their sins and called us into his church. The only head of that church is Jesus Christ (Eph 5:23); he runs the show and gathers us in.
This isn’t true of our shops, and businesses, sports clubs, or social groups, including Christian organisations. They belong to their legal owners or trustees, who are free to open and shut them in whatever ways they wish, subject to UK law. God has given significant authority to the state to rule the UK; he’s even handed Boris Johnson a “sword” (Rom 13:4), with which he can punish and fine lawbreakers. Boris has divinely-given jurisdiction over the United Kingdom.
But Jesus Christ has not handed the keys of his church to the Prime Minister. Christ has cut his church a set of keys (Matt 16:19; 18:18), which open and shut his church; these keys admit and expel people from the gathering. In church history, there’s been disagreement over who precisely holds the keys – is it the congregation? Is it the elders? But Reformed churches have been very clear that Jesus didn’t hand them to the state.
So, Boris does not have the authority to shut the doors to the church of Christ. Yes, God has given Boris his sword, and we should pray for him to wield it well. That sword could hurt us. That sword could take away our (earthly) assets. But Jesus Christ did not give Boris, or SAGE advisors, the keys to his church. And as the church, we must not hand those keys over.
The church can be asked to close her doors for the sake of public health. In an emergency, there can be good grounds for suspending a gathering (Matt 24:20). I concede that if a particular meeting immediately endangered life, the state could justly order it to close e.g. the building was unsafe. But the decision whether to open or close the church of Christ in this land does not lie with the British government. They can ask, and strongly advise us to close (and we may well agree), but it is for the church to carefully weigh and decide when to use the keys. It’s my observation that, during this challenging crisis, Christians have paid far more attention to the sword of the state, than the keys of the church. We mustn’t let the Prime Minister’s God-given, weighty sword blind-side the church into giving away Christ’s keys.
Brothers and sisters, this is a difficult time, when hard decisions need to be made by both the UK government and church elders. But, let’s keep crystal clear in our minds the crown rights of King Jesus over his church.