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The Covid-19 pandemic has been disastrous for many people, especially those who have lost their lives, loved ones, or their jobs. Added to these tangible losses, friends, neighbours, families, and even churches have been divided over the measures various governments have taken to deal with the virus’ spread.

Masks are certainly an annoyance. For those who have health problems or those who are required to work for long hours with one on their face, they are worse.

Social distancing measures can also be difficult and are especially hard during holidays. This will be the first Christmas in my entire life that I won’t get to spend with family as border restrictions won’t allow me to come back to Canada without quarantining for two weeks. As I have a short window of time before I need to return to Colorado, it wouldn’t be worth it. This is very upsetting to me and my family.

In light of all of this, what has given me cause for concern is to see how many solid, evangelical churches are responding to government mandates on limiting worship gatherings. To be sure, I agree with the sentiment that “church is essential” and that God wants his people to gather each Lord’s Day to worship him. There is no doubt that God cares deeply about public worship (Exodus 4:23). So I appreciate pastors who are struggling through the issue of whether to close their church doors under a government mandate.

The temptation for civil disobedience is both understandable and strong.

Nevertheless, in our current context, I do not believe civil disobedience is warranted. I do so for a number of reasons. But at the forefront is that Christians have a duty laid out in scripture to obey the civil magistrate, even when we disagree with them, and even when it hurts us.

Civil obedience according to Scripture

With such strong admonitions in scripture to be subject to the government, why do Reformed Protestants so quickly decide to engage in civil disobedience?

In familiar words, the apostle Paul makes clear our need to submit to the governing authorities in Romans 13:1-7, which we must not pay mere lip-service to. Paul certainly didn’t. The Roman Christians, whose emperor was likely Nero,[1] were told in verse 1: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”

In Ephesians 5:24 he uses the same word for “be subject to” (hypotasso) to speak of the church’s submission to Christ. There is an obvious hierarchy laid out by God and the Roman Christians are to obey the pagan governing authorities who had been set above them by God himself.

Peter makes the same point, with the same word for “subjection,” when he says: “Submit [hypotasso] yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority:

whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:13-17).

Immediately after this Peter tells the churches in Asia Minor that slaves are to be subject (same word) to their masters, even when the masters are harsh.

With such strong admonitions in scripture to be subject to the government, why do Reformed Protestants so quickly decide to engage in civil disobedience?[2]

Persecution in historical context

Wearing masks and lockdowns do not amount to religious persecution. We are not living under the persecutions of a new Clarendon Code that restricted Nonconformist worship in seventeenth-century England. Churches and Christians are not being singled out; these measures are impacting everyone across the globe regardless of religious belief.

However, there are inconsistencies of application and abuses of the restrictions from various governments. For example, California’s governor has infamously abused his governmental powers during the pandemic – but does this give Christians grounds to disobey? Even though Governor Newsom is not following his own directives, this does not mean that Christians get to disobey. We should not act like a child who sees another eating cookies without permission and thinks that they now have the right to do it too.

Wearing masks and lockdowns do not amount to religious persecution.

Even some Reformed Christians who prize their theological heritage have decided to resist civil authorities. That is surprising because the Reformed tradition is replete with statements indicating almost absolute subjection to ruling authorities, whether they are good for bad.

That said, Reformed theology has a “resistance theory” to follow when governments expect Christians to directly contravene God’s law – for instance, if we were being forced to pay spiritual worship to the state as in the Roman Empire. As Peter said in Acts 5:29, we are to “obey [peitharcheo] God rather than humans.” But this is the same Peter who also told us to honour the Emperor.[3]

Many Reformed Christians who are faced with the potential closures of churches (for a time) focus on how our Protestant forebears resisted tyranny. But they should also consider how the Reformers told us to submit to ruling authorities, even ones who are awful, in accordance with Scripture.

Reformed teaching on obedience to authority

In the following, I have collected a series of quotes to illustrate the Reformed notion of obedience to the civil magistrate. Such quotes might be surprising to some readers, but this is standard fare for the Reformed tradition – the civil magistrate has God-given authority, even over the church and has the right to close church doors for the common good during times like a plague or a pandemic.

I have selected sources from well-known theologians like Calvin, and obscure ones like a Bremen physician. I have also chosen from confessional documents, which are especially relevant for denominations who are bound to obey them.[4]

I know that these quotes are selective, but they are also representative. Together, they show a remarkable consistency on views of the civil government.[5] I have tried to give further resources in footnotes to help readers dig more deeply into this issue. All of this is to illustrate the point that if we take our Reformed heritage seriously, we need to take it seriously on the question of obedience to the government. This is what it means to care for our flocks; this is what it means to love our neighbours.

John Calvin: “Whether Deserving or Not”

John Calvin had a clear and uncompromising understanding of obedience to the civil magistrate. Calvin was well-acquainted with government persecution. Recall that he had to flee France for Geneva when the French authorities cracked down on the fledgling Protestant movement. Calvin was also pastor to French refugees who had to leave their homeland due to religious persecution. Book 4 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion lays out Calvin’s thought on the civil magistrate in detail and it merits a more detailed examination that I cannot provide here.

There he makes statements like: “Wherefore no man can doubt that civil authority is, in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life” (4.20.4). As such, Christians must pay honour to the governing authorities. I’m sure many would be surprised that he would place the magistrate in such high regard! Earlier in the Institutes, he, like many of the Reformers, argued that the injunction of the Fifth Commandment, to honour your father and mother, equally applied to rulers.

The following quote applies this both to just and unjust rulers: “The Lord here lays down this universal rule — viz. that knowing how every individual is set over us by his appointment, we should pay him reverence, gratitude, obedience, and every duty in our power. And it makes no difference whether those on whom the honour is conferred are deserving or not” (2.8.35-36).

Do we think of our Prime Minister or President like a parent? Note that last line as well, Calvin is saying that there are some rulers who deserve to be honoured because they themselves are honourable. Yet, there are others who are not and though they do not deserve to be honoured, we are to give it to them nevertheless. How often do we see Christians take to social media to run rulers into the ground? Calvin tells us that we need to do better.

French Confession: “Honor … Them in All Reverence”

The French Confession of Faith[6] was written in 1559 for the newly planted church in Paris. The French Protestants had been experiencing persecution and many fled to Geneva to be ministered to by Calvin. From there he trained ministers and sent them back to France as missionaries. As part of this mission, Calvin helped the French Protestants in the framing of this Confession. In less than 20 years they would undergo brutal persecution in 1572 at the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

In speaking of the civil magistrate, this confession reflects Calvin’s thought in Book 4 of the Institutes. It is a remarkable section because it is written by persecuted Christians who were nonetheless expressing their fidelity to civil government:

“And as he has established kingdoms, republics, and all sorts of principalities, either hereditary or otherwise, and all that belongs to a just government, and wishes to be considered as their Author, so he has put the sword into the hands of magistrates to suppress crimes against the first as well as against the second table of the Commandments of God. We must therefore, on his account, not only submit to them as superiors, but honor and hold them in all reverence as his lieutenants and officers, whom he has commissioned to exercise a legitimate and holy authority” (Art. 39).

It goes on to say, “We hold, then, that we must obey their laws and statutes, pay customs, taxes, and other dues, and bear the yoke of subjection with a good and free will, even if they are unbelievers, provided that the sovereign empire of God remain intact. Therefore we detest all those who would like to reject authority, to establish community and confusion of property, and overthrow the order of justice” (Art. 40).

Peter Martyr Vermigli: “The Charge of Religion Belongeth unto Princes”

Peter Martyr Vergmili was an Italian Reformed theologian who was arguably as important as Calvin to the Reformed tradition, at least he was recognised as such in his day. Before coming to Protestant convictions, Vermigli occupied a high place as a Roman Catholic leader in Italy. He too knew what civil and ecclesiastical abuse looked like, from the inside.

Like Calvin and the rest of the Reformed, Vermigli had a surprisingly high view of the role of the civil magistrate. In a work called Civil and Ecclesiastical Power (1561) Vermigli argues that the king is the guardian of both tables of the Law: “He is ordained as the guardian not only of the first table of the law, but also of the second. He who offends according to either table attacks the regal power. While a king can remove useless or harmful bishops, a bishop cannot cast down a king who has sinned. John [the Baptist] criticises Herod, but does not reject him as king.”[7]

Vermigli argues in his commentary on Romans 13 that “the office of magistrate is either to punish or to remove ministers if they behave themselves badly in the execution of their office, if they corrupt the truth, or if they minister the sacraments falsely. They [ministers] may bind and loose, that is, they may confirm by the word and by preaching who are loosed and who are bound. Let them not therefore on this account exempt themselves from obedience to the civil magistrate. For just as a king, however great he may be in excellence and dignity, ought for all that to obey the Word of God pronounced by the ministers of the Church: so also an ecclesiastic, though he be placed in a distinguished office, is not exempt from obedience and subjection to the magistrate.”[8]

What would we do today if a provincial premiere or a state governor decided that a pastor should be removed due to a “corruption of the truth” or “minister the sacraments falsely”? At the very least, this indicates that the magistrate has the power to require us to wear masks and likely to require a halt of indoor worship services, no?

Westminster Confession of Faith: “That Unity…Be Preserved”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) is a fairly representative Reformed confession that treats the authority of the civil magistrate in such a way as to include its jurisdiction over the church. The Confession was first published in 1646 by leading theologians in England during the English Civil War, and the framers were personally acquainted with the tyrannical Stuart monarchy. The Confession was ratified by the Scots in 1647 who also had their fair share of persecution. When the Confession was adopted in America in 1788/1789 aspects of it were changed, including Chapter 23, Article 3—the American version was rewritten to reflect their view of the separation of church and state.

I would argue that a contributing factor to this change was the Enlightenment notions of religious toleration that lay behind the American Founding. Be that as it may, note what the original British editions of the Confession says:

“The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God” (23.3).

The theologians behind the Confession recognised that the civil government did not have the rights to the office of the minister nor the powers of the keys. Nevertheless, they have authority over the church and have the responsibility to preserve theology and order and to promote unity amongst Christians.

Zacharias Ursinus: “Obedience…Constitutes Divine Worship”

Of all of the quotes I provide in this post, this one is the most interesting and relevant. It comes from Zacharias Ursinus, the German Reformed theologian responsible for framing the famous Heidelberg Catechism (1563) who also published an important commentary on it. It is from the commentary that the following quote comes. In it, Ursinus speaks about how the civil magistrate can bind the conscience such that their ordinances require obedience, which he describes as an act of worship to God. (It’s interesting that he uses the example of bearing arms.)

What Ursinus is saying here is that even if we disobey civil authorities and don’t get caught nor create any harm, we sin against God. Our obedience to the magistrate in this regard is actually an act of worship. He explains that the act itself may not constitute worship (i.e. bearing arms), but the obedience rendered concerning that act is:

“But yet these civil ordinances prescribed by magistrates and others, bind the conscience; that is, they must necessarily be complied with, and cannot be disregarded without offence to God, even though it might be done without being connected with any public scandal, if we would keep our obedience pure, and unsullied. So to bear, or not to bear arms, is not the worship of God; but when the magistrate commands, or prohibits it, the obedience which is then rendered constitutes divine worship: and he who acts contrary to this command, or prohibition, sins against God, even though he might so conceal it, as to offend no man; because the general, viz. obedience to the magistrate, which is the worship of God, is then violated. Yet these actions do not in themselves, constitute the worship of God; it is only by accident, on account of the command of the magistrate. If this were not to intervene, obedience would not be violated.”

This is very relevant to the mask mandate, as many churches say it hinders worship. Would Ursinus say that by wearing a mask we are worshiping?[9]

Second Helvetic Confession: “Care of Religion Belongs … to the Holy Magistrate”

The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) was drafted by the Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger and was the official confession of faith for the Swiss churches. This confession was later adopted by churches in Scotland, Hungary, France, and elsewhere. Bullinger was the successor to Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich. Zwingli was an important Reformed theologian in his own right and famously died in battle with sword in hand.

The Reformed tradition proper really begins with Bullinger in his alliance with Calvin. Like his Genevan colleague, Bullinger articulates a view of the civil magistrate that affords it a significant amount of authority over the church. This might be surprising when one considers the militarism of a Zwingli. Nevertheless, the Second Helvetic Confession states:

“The chief duty of the magistrate is to secure and preserve peace and public tranquility. Doubtless he will never do this more successfully than when he is truly God-fearing and religious; that is to say, when, according to the example of the most holy kings and princes of the people of the Lord, he promotes the preaching of the truth and sincere faith, roots out lies and all superstition, together with all impiety and idolatry, and defends the Church of God. We certainly teach that the care of religion belongs especially to the holy magistrate.” (Ch. 30)

The ideal is that the magistrate be a Christian and rule in a godly manner, no doubt. Yet note how the Confession gives the magistrate powers that we would normally associate with a Christian minister in the church – the magistrate is tasked with maintaining religion and the defense of the church.

Bremen Physician and Social Distancing

Of direct relevance to the closing of churches during a plague or pandemic is the following quote. It comes from Johannes von Ewich (1525-1588) who is not a well-known name in church history, indeed I only just discovered him. Von Ewich was a Reformed Christian who was trained in law and medicine and was the chief physician of the Protestant city of Bremen. The city had early adopted Protestantism (1522) but oscillated between the Lutherans and the Reformed.

Von Ewich was tasked by the city with preparing directions for what to do during a plague. He published these directions in a work entitled, “The Duty of a Faithful and Wise Magistrate, in Preserving and Delivering of the Commonwealth from infection, in the time of the plague or pestilence” (translated into English in 1583 by John Stockwood, who also translated Theodore Beza’s work on the plague).

He starts the work by calling for public confession of sin during a plague; he also discusses how churches should respond to a plague and addresses whether a Christian can flee during plague times. In the work, he says this of the role of the civil magistrate over the church: “There must also an order be set down [by the magistrates] among the citizens, to avoid public assemblies, games, feasts, drinkings, marriages, dancings, fairs, schools, churches, and public baths; for… there is also no small danger of getting and scattering the infection. Wherefore, wise men give counsel that at such times we should very seldom come into great companies of men.”

Note that he advises against public assemblies, including church, so as not to spread the disease. And this is the task of the civil government to enact and enforce.[10]

Conclusion

What are we to make of all of this? If we say that we are Reformed, and if the Reformed tradition that we so revere holds the civil magistrate in such high regard, should we not also? Should our first response to another lockdown be towards obedience rather than disobedience?

We should worship God without impediment, and if we take someone like Ursinus seriously, our willingness to be subject to the civil government is itself an act of worship pleasing to God.

At the very least, let us consider why they believed what they did. We owe them at least that. From what I conclude, the Reformed tradition maintained a much higher view of the civil magistrate than we are accustomed to today. They argue that the magistrate can bind the conscience of Christians, should guard both tables of the Decalogue, have the right to depose ministers, and during times of plague can take extreme measures over the church to contain disease and death.

If we worship a Saviour who is the supreme King over all, and he was willing to lay down his rights for the greater good of his friends and neighbours, why on earth wouldn’t we? Christ could command a legion of angels to rescue him from death and didn’t, why are Christians unwilling to sacrifice what we perceive to be our rights for the sake of those who could be drastically impacted by contracting a disease that has the capability to kill in large numbers and leave others with long-term health problems?

We should worship God without impediment, and if we take someone like Ursinus seriously, our willingness to be subject to the civil government is itself an act of worship pleasing to God.

 


[1] Scholars date the writing of Romans between AD 55 and 58, which would place it during Nero’s rule (AD 54-68).

[2] For a discussion of how Reformed political theology can be brought to bear on issues of church lockdowns see Brad Littlejohn’s response to John MacArthur and Grace Community Church’s attempts at civil disobedience.

[3] For a helpful source on Protestant resistance theory see Andrew Fulford’s two-part series at Political Theology (here and here).

[4] For other confessional statements demonstrating a high view of the civil magistrate, see this collection of quotes from Steven Wedgeworth. Whatever your tradition, you should consult your confessional documents on the civil magistrate.

[5] Simon Kennedy has an excellent piece on the Reformers and the problem of submission to civil authority.

[6] Sometimes called The Gallic Confession or the Confession of La Rochelle.

[7] The full text is available in Torrance Kirby, The Zurich Connection and Tudor Political Theology.

[8] The full text is available here: Peter Martyr Vermigli, “The Civil Magistrate,” from his Romans 12 Commentary (1558), trans. Torrance Kirby, “The Peter Martyr Reader,” 229.

[9] For more see on Ursinus, worship, and law see this by Steven Wedgeworth.

[10] For the full text see here.

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