What kind of example should Christians set when it comes to following government instructions on measures to control the transmission of coronavirus?
Over the last three months we have seen a wide range of responses from on the one hand, strict compliance to the letter of the law by those who trust that only such actions will keep them safe, to extreme disregard on the other, in the belief that Christians are immune to Covid-19 if their faith is strong enough. (Many of these people subsequently fell ill with the virus, or even died.)
Between those positions, some people feel there is a lack of clarity about the instructions; is this public health advice, a guideline or a rule enshrined in law? The message from the government has changed at different stages; as lockdown was imposed, it was the unambiguous ‘Stay at home’, but since the first easing of restrictions it has become ‘Stay alert’. How do we know what that means and what does it look like in practice?
In truth, the government has been issuing both rules and guidelines all along, as well as encouraging people to use their common sense, and do what is ‘right’. So in the context of the pandemic, what is the difference between a rule, a guideline and conscience?
A rule has a legal basis, because it has been set out in law. If you break it the police can demand your compliance, and there are legal sanctions if you persist. A guideline on the other hand isn’t just a kind of weak rule that can be broken – it has a social basis. It is an ought, not a must, and exists primarily for the good of others, as well as yourself. You can’t be forced to stick to a guideline, but there will be a degree of social pressure to conform as others may be affected. Conscience, on the other hand, has a moral basis – something in you that is a guide as to whether an action is right or wrong.
Two things are worth noting about rules. Echoing what Paul wrote in 1 Tim 1:9, the law is intended mainly for the minority of people who are less concerned for the wellbeing of others and likely to ignore any guidelines. As neither their own conscience nor social pressure produce compliance, laws must be put into place to enforce the behaviour changes required.
Secondly, rules are not ultimate – they are penultimate. The purpose of both guidelines and rules around social distancing, for example, is to limit the spread of coronavirus. That is the ultimate goal, rather than the rule itself.
When working out what to do in practice, we should be guided by the principle of responsibility. The more rules there are, set by government and enforced by police, the more people think they can leave it to the state to protect them. But when the rules are eased and the emphasis is placed on 'Stay alert’ and other guidelines, it means people have to step up and take more responsibility for their own health and preventing transmission of the virus.
Conscience also comes into play here. Conscientious people are more likely to comply with both rules and guidelines, for their own wellbeing and that of others. They don’t really need the rules because the guidelines make sense to them, and since they understand the ultimate purpose they can usually weigh up any risks and sort out any conflicts that might arise.
The final element is the importance of public leaders in setting the example. Since there are many people who pay more attention to the actions of leaders than their words, those leaders must be seen to follow the rules closely – even if their conscience allows them in some cases to act contrary to the rules. This is why Dominic Cummings' trip to Durham under lockdown was seen as so unacceptable.
For Christians readjusting to life emerging from lockdown, we should be seeking the common good by respecting the law and following any guidelines, which makes us both good neighbours and good citizens.