Unprecedented. Extraordinary. Challenging. Difficult. Frustrating. Infuriating. These are all words Americans have used to describe government’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The vague and confusing nature of some guidelines has not helped. Although some states are beginning to see restrictions eased or lifted, others are maintaining their position.
The prolonged shut-down combined with the confusing nature of executive orders and guidelines has led to fears that basic Constitutional rights are being suppressed. Chief among those has been the rights of assembly and the free exercise of religion. The resistance to prohibitions of assembling as a church has been growing for sometime (see here and here).
Whether state guidelines are ambiguous or not, one thing is clear: churches that assemble may be exercising their Constitutional (and God-given) right, but they may also be violating executive orders which have the force of law. That’s not a judgmental statement; it’s just a fact.
What does the Bible have to say about human government and the Christian’s response to it?
(1) God commands His people to submit to the laws of human government.
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers [authorities]. For there is no power [authority] but of God: the powers [authorities] that be are ordained of God.”Romans 13:1
“Submit yourselves to every ordinance [law] of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;First Peter 2:13-14a
Or unto governors…”
These passages make crystal clear God’s command to His people to submit to human governmental authority. These texts were not written in a time when the government was considerably “friendly” toward Christianity or to the rights of individuals generally. These were written by Christian ministers (Paul and Peter, respectively) under governmental rule of the Roman Empire.
Paul would later be incarcerated and ultimately beheaded by that very same government for preaching the Gospel. Peter would also be imprisoned and martyred for his faith. Yet both men record the command of God to His people that they should submit to human governmental authority.
Human governmental authority is “ordained” by God, and our submitting to it should be carried out as if submitting to Him. An understanding of this truth may be why God’s people through the centuries have found more ways to live under tyrannical rule than they have sought ways to overthrow it.
(2) God works through the agency of human government.
The reason for submitting to human governmental authority is because it is established (or, “ordained”) by God and He carries out His purposes through it. Notice how both passages continue:
“Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.Romans 13:2-4
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
“[Submit yourselves to the king or governors] as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.”First Peter 2:14b
By resisting human governmental authority, we are resisting God’s authority (Romans 13:2). God’s purpose for human government is to reward well-doing and punish wrongdoing (13:3-4; also First Peter 2:14b). Though government officials are carrying out the praise and punishment, God is acting through them: they are His servants.
God is frequently seen acting through human legal channels. Boaz’s legal dealings with the unnamed kinsmen (Ruth 4), the laws of the Medes and Persians (Esther 8), and Cyrus’s decree for Jewish captives to return to Palestine (Ezra 1:1-4) are all examples of God’s working through governmental authority to accomplish His purposes. In the New Testament, the census decreed by Caesar Augustus brought the prophesied Messiah to his prophesied place of birth, Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Luke 2:1-5).
On the surface these look like everyday, run-of-the-mill legal issues. Yet standing behind them all was a sovereign God who overrules in the affairs of men. God commands His people to submit to human government because He is working through human government.
But what if human government goes bad….? Which government listed above would you consider to be “good”? Israel (in the time of the judges)? Rome? Persia? God used all of them and had His people living in submission under them. (See Isaiah 10:5ff to see God’s use of Assyria to punish His people and His punishment of Assyria for the king’s pride and idolatry.)
In all of these situations, the attitude of God’s people had to be one of faith. Faith that by their doing right under human authority, God would do right by them.
(3) Even when human government acts contrary to God’s revealed will, Christians can still submit.
The classic text used to support civil disobedience among Christians is Acts 5:29–
“Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.”Acts 5:29
Sadly, this text is misconstrued as “Christian rebellion.” The point and context of the statement is often overlooked. First, the context is a response to the demands of a quasi-politico-religious body, the Sanhedrin Counsel, that the apostles stop teaching about Jesus in their jurisdiction. However,
“Its jurisdiction was limited to Judea [the region in which Jerusalem was located]… It made final decisions in cases relating to the interpretation of the [Mosaic] law, and acted in criminal cases, subject to the approval of the Roman governor.”Merrill C. Tenney, “Sanhedrin” in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, p. 472
Secondly, the point is more about obedience to God than it is disobedience to human authority. This is not a fist-shaking, red-faced challenge to the right of the counsel to make such demands. It was an admission that they were going to maintain obedience to God rather than submit to an order to disobey Him.
But notice that even in their obedience to God they submitted to human authority. They did not resist arrest. They did not make plans to escape imprisonment (God actually sprang them out). They did not fight back against the beating they received. When they could not submit to the authority’s order they submitted to the consequences.
The apostles were not the only ones who took this route. Daniel’s three friends faced a similar predicament. Ordered by the government to bow down and worship a golden image, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego could not do so according to their religious beliefs. The consequence for refusing to bow was death in the fiery furnace.
Nebuchandnezzar was wrong to require worship of a golden statue, but Nebuchadnezzar stood in the position of human governmental authority. Therefore, he was to be obeyed. Notice the response the three Hebrew men gave to Nebuchadnezzar the king:
“Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter.Daniel 3:16-18
If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.
But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”
“But if not” indicates that they were refusing to submit to the order, choosing rather to submit to the consequences and trusting God with the results. This wasn’t rebellion; it was submission; submission both to God and to human government.
The concern of every church that is considering in-person meetings in opposition to governmental guidance should be submission, not rebellion. Not submission to God instead of human government, but submission to God and to human government. God doesn’t smile on acts of rebellion, but He acts on the behalf of those who live in submission.
Throughout the stay-at-home and safer-at-home orders, churches have been incredibly patient and deferential to the government’s guidelines. They have voluntarily suspended in-person meetings “for the greater good” of public health. Even now, most of those weighing whether to reopen are planning how to do that in the safest manner, most consistent with the guidelines they have. The government should now, in turn, recognize churches’ Constitutional right to assemble and allow them to do so, trusting them to use common sense and caution as they do it. (There seems to be some light that that will be the case.)
In the meantime, pastors are certainly free to lead their churches in submission to God’s command to assemble and in agreement with the First Amendment. The caution for each church, however, must be that they be prepared to submit to the consequences when their submission to God defies government’s ongoing requirements.