briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Tuesday, March 31, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A Pastor in Tampa Arrested for Holding Church Services: What Are We to Think?

These days, I have often remarked and even more often thought that if we could rewind history just a matter of three or four weeks, we would not understand the present. You have to be in a timeline, a chronological experience to understand what is going on in America these days, but even still, the headlines come stunningly. For example, the headline out of Tampa yesterday that a pastor has been arrested for holding two church services on Sunday. What in the world’s going on here? How does this make sense? Well, indeed it is a big story.

Tony Marrero, reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, tells us, “Mega church pastor Rodney Howard-Brown and the River at Tampa Bay Church had been warned. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office received an anonymous tip that the pastor planned to hold services Sunday in violation of county orders, asking residents to stay home and limit gatherings to slow the coronavirus. Sheriff’s officials said they warned the church lawyers on Friday and Sunday about the dangerous environment they were creating for their members and the community.”

But as the Tampa Bay Times tells us, “Howard-Browne, the self-proclaimed Holy Ghost bartender and COVID-19 conspiracy theorist ignored those warnings. He held two large services on Sunday, and even bused people into the church at 3738 River International Drive.” The church, we are then told, live streamed the morning main event service on his Facebook page, but that very video showed, “Congregants shoulder to shoulder while the church band played.” So yesterday, Hillsborough County sheriff Chad Chronister and the local state attorney Andrew Warren held a press conference to announce that they had issued warrants for the arrest of the pastor.

Later in the day, Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested on misdemeanor charges of unlawful assembly and violating quarantine orders during a public health emergency, that again, according to Sheriff Chronister. He said, “Because of the reckless disregard of public safety, and after repeated requests and warnings, I worked with our state attorney, Andrew Warren, to obtain a warrant for unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency rules, both of which are second degree misdemeanors. Our goal here,” said the sheriff, “is not to stop anyone from worshiping, but the safety and wellbeing of our community must always come first.” When the state attorney who handles such prosecutions for the county got up to speak, he cited the gospel of Mark 12:31, which you will quickly recognize as Jesus revealing the second of the greatest commandments, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The state attorney then said, “Loving your neighbors is protecting them, not jeopardizing their health by exposing them to this deadly virus.”

Well, indeed, that’s the argument we have making for a matter of weeks now. The kind of orders or requests coming from government authorities make sense in the context of the COVID-19, coronavirus crisis. Every single issue like this demands some kind of explanation by context, and that’s why I mentioned rewinding history. If you were to rewind just three or four weeks ago and talk about a pastor, any pastor of any church or religious organization being arrested merely for holding services, it would have made no sense, but at the present time, it does make sense. Sadly, tragically, it does make sense. There are obviously deeper issues at stake here, and as Christians trying to think these things through consistently by a Christian worldview, we need to give some attention to answering these questions.

Would it ever be valid for a pastor to be arrested merely for holding services at his church? The answer is yes, sometimes, but it would have to be extremely rare. Rodney Howard-Browne has argued before his church and the public that this is a religious liberty issue, but it is very important at this point that Christians understand there are real threats to religious liberty and we had better know what is a real threat and what is not a threat.

Now at face value, it would seem that a pastor being arrested for holding church services would be a radical infringement of religious liberty, and furthermore, the further First Amendment guarantee of the freedom of assembly, at least of peaceful assembly. But the problem is the face value is not the only context here. The world is being changed right now, we hope and pray temporarily in these respects, by the challenge of the COVID-19 crisis. There is a very real public health mandate to try to protect the health of people in the United States, in Tampa, in Hillsborough County, and far beyond from the ravages of the coronavirus, which we now know is unusually contagious and deadly.

We have seen all kinds of actions taken in the last several days that we would have anticipated would have been unacceptable, not tolerated by the public, and furthermore ruled unconstitutional in some sense without the context of the coronavirus crisis, but in that context, most Americans have accommodated themselves to the understanding that we are going to have to forgo certain liberties that we would otherwise claim largely unconditionally, because we are now under the threat of a contagion that is genuinely dangerous and deadly.

We also have the experience of over 200 years of American constitutional history, and that history has many different twists and turns, and some of them reveal where the Constitution has been honored, some where the Constitution has been violated and dishonored. Looking back to the period of the Civil War, the then president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, basically suspended the Constitution, at least in some provisions, including the writ of habeas corpus. Most constitutional scholars looking backwards would understand that President Lincoln had acted unquestionably in an unconstitutional manner. There is no way that our constitutional order or our legal system could continue without respect for the right of habeas corpus.

That right, let us remind ourselves, is the right of anyone accused of a crime and detained to speedily face a judge and not to be detained or imprisoned unless there is a lawful charge and cause. As Christians, we also have to remember that we do not believe in the first place that the Constitution of the United States grants any rights. We believe as the founders of the nation asserted, both in the Declaration and in the Constitution and its background, that these are rights that are granted to all people simply by virtue of the fact that they are created, they are endowed by their Creator with these certain inalienable rights. It is the role of the government and this constitutional order to respect those enshrined rights, and also the rights that are most importantly enumerated within the Constitution itself and its first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights.

In the very first of those amendments is the freedom of religion, the free expression of religion as it is described, and also that freedom of peaceful assembly, along with other related rights. But even as President Lincoln is often rightly criticized for the suspension of the principle of habeas corpus, it is also true that throughout American history, the federal government, local, and state governments have taken action that were understood to be infringements of constitutional rights at the time, but were made necessary by the conditions under which the government was operating, and the precedent for this that is most relatable has to do with the flu epidemic, known as the Spanish Flu pandemic, that took place in the United States and elsewhere around the world in the years 1918 and 1919.

In a way that is hauntingly familiar to Americans today, the governments took action back in 1918, continuing into the following year, to suspend assemblies. For example, in the state of Kentucky, all assemblies were outlawed for some period of time, and that included church assemblies, but here we have to return to our question, is the arrest of this pastor in Tampa an infringement of religious liberty? Well, to the extent that the restricted movement orders, the stay at home orders, the other orders that are suppressing certain assemblies and people gathering together, even limitations on business have come down from state, local and other governments—backed up, we should point out, with the support from President Trump and the federal government—what you have is a generally applicable law. That becomes very, very important. When we are considering whether or not this pastor is unconstitutionally arrested, in this case, we have to understand that there is a basic principle that when you have laws that are generally applicable for at least that context, claims of religious liberty appear to be extraordinary.

Let’s put it this way: When the state of Kentucky, two weeks ago, issued its requests coming from governor Andy Beshear that churches not meet, it came in the context of calls by the state government for social distancing, but the governor did single out church assemblies, and that was wrong, ill-timed and unconstitutional. He quickly corrected that, however, when he made the request that churches not meet, he had not made the request that, for example, high school basketball games not be played, but that was corrected within a matter of a day or two. By the time Kentucky’s governor formalized the request, it was generally applicable. It did not single out the forbidding of religious assemblies.

That’s the context of the headline news coming from Tampa. The state of Florida has its orders in place. Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa have their orders in place, and this is a generally applicable restriction. It is not directed to churches specifically or to religious assemblies, it simply includes religious assemblies with all other assemblies. Now consider the fact that there is, in the first amendment, clearly a guaranteed, respected right of religious liberty, but the same thing is true of freedom of assembly, a right of peaceful assembly, and yet we do understand that in this context, those rights are being limited, they are being infringed upon, and we do understand that.

It is lamentable. It requires some sufficient justification and explanation, but at this point, all you have to do is look to Spain or Italy and see plenty of reason for the logic of these orders. Furthermore, it should be rather easy for us to understand the general applicability of these rules. If churches were to be singled out, it would be unconstitutional and Christians should protest, but as it stands right now, and as I have tried to argue comprehensively, theologically and biblically, Christians, given the commandments of love of God and love of neighbor, have ample justification right now to follow the orders, demands, and requests of lawful government not to assemble, along with other assemblies not assembling, until it is safe for us to assemble once again.

Now how does one define safety? There will never be, in this age, in this world, a condition that is absolutely safe, but what we’re looking at right now is a period of unprecedented danger of contagion. That’s quite different than an annual flu season. It’s quite different than just the operational danger that exists in any context. This is a real, specific, understood, identified common enemy. Furthermore, it does not help at this point to try to make arguments that this is an unconstitutional and unlawful infringement upon religious liberty, because we do face very real and genuine challenges to religious liberty. We had better be careful when we make these claims in public that we’re willing to back it up with a comprehensive, consistent argument.

John Inazu, who teaches law at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote an important article on this published at The Atlantic, where he makes the argument that the government is likely to meet any test of its constitutional authority in this respect, even when religious liberty is understood as having the priority that any policy or law infringing on it would have to meet the demands of what is constitutionally defined as strict scrutiny. As Inazu writes, “That’s a very high standard, and one that’s not usually satisfied, but the government is likely to meet it here.” He continues, “The widespread protection of human life is clearly a compelling government interest, and in the specific circumstances of this crisis, given what we know now of the virus, a shutdown order, especially one aimed at gatherings over a certain size, is both narrowly tailored and the least restrictive means.”

Given the LGBTQ revolution and the larger pattern of the secularization of this culture, the hostility of elites, well, you could go down the list, there are very real challenges to and threats to religious liberty. We must be always vigilant, but we do have to define the issues carefully and consistently.

I have seen some people try to press back on these orders, not just for churches, but for individuals and for the larger citizenry, by citing someone like the historic British statesman, William Pitt the younger, who said that, “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants. It is the creed of slaves.”

Well, I understand the poignancy and the power of that kind of quote, but it also has to be put into context. A false claim of necessity should be recognized as illegitimate and condemned as such, but when the necessity is real, well, it becomes, by definition, necessary.

Part II

A Real Threat to Religious Liberty: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio Threatens to Shut Down Religious Buildings Permanently If Churches Do Not Temporarily Close

And it is at this point that we have to recognize both the lawful authority of government and the danger of government, because both are evident, usually in close proximity, sometimes even in time simultaneously. Just consider the fact that last Friday, in a press conference, the mayor of New York City made an ominous threat to churches or synagogues or other religious assemblies that continued to meet. He said on Friday, “I want to say to all those who are preparing for the potential of religious services this weekend, 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.” But then the mayor, a Democrat in New York City, went on to say, “If that does not happen, they will take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”

Now, you might argue well that the mayor was within his authority until those final words. He has no authority to threaten “potentially closing the building permanently.” We should note that that story ricocheted all the way to Jerusalem. Remember that the mayor had cited synagogues along with churches. The headline in the article at the Jerusalem Post: “New York City Mayor to Synagogue: Close for Coronavirus or Be Shut Down Permanently.” Those last words in Mayor de Blasio’s threat do appear to be exactly what William Pitt the younger identified as the argument of a tyrant.

It’s one thing in a generally applicable principle, to say, “You can’t meet because no assembly can meet for some defined time under a necessary and legitimate threat.” It’s quite a different thing to say, “If you violate this order, we will confiscate your building and shut down your services permanently.”

Part III

Laughing Revivals? Multiplying Toilet Paper? Bad Theology is No Laughing Matter

But next, I want clearly to shift the issue of discussion here from the constitutional issues and the question about religious freedom, and the applicability and validity of stay at home orders and similar kinds of principles, to looking to the pastor himself, who was arrested and then released on bail on Monday in Tampa.

The reason I want to make the clear distinction is because religious liberty does not depend upon the orthodoxy or the heretical nature of the preacher or of the assembly. We as Christians must affirm religious liberty, not just for ourselves and those we recognize as being gospel churches, but also for any religious assembly. We have to understand that religious liberty is not determined by the theological content, and we must declare that the federal government is not competent, nor constitutionally qualified to recognize legitimate from illegitimate religion on theological grounds.

This is a very important constitutional principle, but for Christians, even prior to that constitutional principle, is the biblical and theological principle to recognize the gospel of Jesus Christ and its competitors, those false gospels. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians in the very first chapter of that letter, he was disappointed, heartbroken to see how quickly some of them had turned to other gospels. Rodney Howard-Browne is the preacher of another gospel. He does not preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, or even when he might, he brings it into disrepute by his unbiblical teachings and lack of Christian orthodoxy.

Raised in a Pentecostal family in South Africa, he came to the United States and became rather well known in the 1990s when preaching at the Carpenter’s Home Church in Lakeland, Florida, in 1993, he introduced into charismatic and Pentecostal circles what became known as the laughter revivals. Also known as the laughing revivals, he indicated that the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit and transformation in Christ was uncontrollable, unrestricted laughter. To be clear, the New Testament indicates that where the Holy Spirit is found and where Christ is worshiped, there will be joy, but joy is very different than disruptive, ridiculous laughter. A true witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, a true profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, requires words. This is made very, very clear, for example, in a text such as Romans 10, where we are reminded that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.

The evidence for regeneration. The proof of the gospel is not, to say the very least, uncontrollable laughter, it is a life controlled by the lordship of Jesus Christ, and the worship commanded in the New Testament is an orderly joyful worship. It is not the worship that is marked by uncontrollable emotionalism, and for that matter, the kinds of signs and wonders claimed by many that actually turn out to be, in most cases, a substitute for the preaching of the authentic gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather than preaching the gospel that leads to regeneration, it is the preaching of a false gospel that leads to an emotionalism that becomes a discredit to anything that is identified as Christianity.

When I read that statement from the Tampa Bay Times identifying Rodney Howard-Browne, a local pastor, remind yourselves, in Tampa, it pointed out that he has often referred to himself as God’s bartender. That refers to the fact that many people in his congregations have the appearance of being drunk. They would argue being drunk on the Holy Ghost or drunk on the Holy Spirit, but the point is that that is a refutation of proper Christian worship, not the demonstration of it.

But while we’re thinking about discrediting the gospel, recognize that the pastor himself put up on his Twitter feed a clip of himself on video preaching on Sunday, in which he claimed that if you have adequate faith, your toilet paper will never run out in your home. On the video that he himself posted, Rodney Howard-Browne said, “And every day, there will be multiplications. You look at your toilet paper and you think, ‘I’m going to run out of toilet paper,’ but you have another roll where that one was, and you don’t know, ‘How did that even take place?'” He went on to ask, “Are the toilet paper rolls getting together and having families now? What is taking place?’ When you look again,” he said, “There’s still enough. You think that you’re going to run out, but when you look again, there’s still enough. That’s supernatural sustenance.”

No, dear brothers and sisters, that is superhuman arrogance. It is perhaps one of the most ludicrous recent demonstrations of the heresy known as the prosperity gospel, but in this case, prosperity is not being measured in health and wealth and in the size of one’s bank account or stock investments, but rather in the unceasing supply of one’s toilet paper roll. If what you are preaching is supernatural sustenance, you’re not preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. If what you’re preaching is that, “You look at your toilet paper and you think, ‘I’m going to run out of toilet paper,’ but you another roll where that one was and you don’t know, ‘How did that even take place?'”, then what you’re preaching is not only nonsense, it is worse than nonsense.

Let me just state that I do not doubt in the least that if God wanted to make your toilet paper continue ceaselessly, then they would. I just want to make very clear that nowhere in the Scripture does God promise to do so. And don’t worry about what’s wrong with your concordance. Let me just give you a clue—the words “toilet paper rolls” don’t appear in your concordance.

Part IV

A News Article More Than 100 Years Old Seems Like It Was Written Yesterday: Baptist Pastor Arrested in Kentucky

Finally today, as we are thinking about legal precedents, I come back to the state of Kentucky, where on January the 26th, 1919, in violation of the order against assembly in that pandemic a century ago, Harvey Boyce Taylor, the pastor at Murray Baptist Church in Murray, Kentucky, was arrested for defying the ban. He was arrested, it turns out, repeatedly for the same offense, and the conviction was eventually upheld by a jury. He would not pay the fines, and eventually had to spend time in jail, though we are told in the Courier-Journal, the Louisville paper from the time, Taylor experienced, “All modern conveniences in his jail cell in Calloway County, Kentucky, including the fact that some of his own furniture was brought to him in his cell.”

Unsurprisingly, pastor Taylor claimed over a century ago that his religious liberty and the religious liberty of his congregation had been infringed upon, but this was not an argument that was sustained in court. We should also note that Murray Baptist Church later renamed itself The First Baptist Church of Murray, Kentucky, and that church has had a leading role in the Southern Baptist Convention for decades now. And that church, we should note, has complied with the request and is not meeting in its normal services, it’s not assembling together, but is awaiting the time when it would be safe again to do so, out of respect for the government and out of concern for love of neighbor.

As for Harvey Boyce Taylor, he resigned from the church, but was later reinstated for what was defined as an indefinite term, but that indefinite term turned out to be rather definite. In 1931, he was ejected from the pulpit and fired by the congregation for attempting to oust at least eight prominent members of the church on various charges. We don’t know exactly the charges brought against the eight by pastor Taylor, but The Courier-Journal reported at the time, “Among the rules Taylor implemented for his congregation were bans on drunkenness, covetousness, suing a brother, bathing in pools by men and women, dancing, card playing, and many other amusements and sports.”

Oh, brothers and sisters, those were the days.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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