To be a Christian is to belong simultaneously to two different kingdoms. If you are a child of God through faith in Christ then you are a citizen of the here and coming Kingdom of God and you are subject to various lesser but legitimate human authorities.
How does that work out in practice?
What if the demands of the one run contrary to the demands of the other?
Thankfully, the Bible was written in times, and by people, for whom that was a very relevant concern. As we begin to enter a new reality in terms of the relationship between Christianity and western culture, it may be helpful for us to revisit the whole counsel of God on this important matter.
The General Rule:
Romans 13:1-7 represents the most comprehensive teaching in the New Testament with respect to the relationship between the Christian and the state. It was written by the Apostle Paul for Christians living in under Rome under the tyranny of Nero Caesar. He put it this way:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1–7 ESV)
According to the Apostle, submitting to civil authority is an aspect of our submission to God. He tells these Christians to be subject to their governing authorities:
For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1 ESV)
We submit to God’s ultimate authority, in part, by submitting to the lesser authorities that God establishes above us. The magistrate, no less than the minister, is the Lord’s servant for our good (v. 4). Paul goes on to warn believers that if they resist authority they will face the sword of the king (v. 4), the wrath of God (v. 5) and the warnings of conscience (v. 5). Civil authority has a legitimate role to play in the cause of human flourishing and therefore taxes are to be paid, respect is to be given and honour is to be bestowed.
Paul’s teaching here appears to run parallel to that of the Apostle Peter who said:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. (1 Peter 2:13–14 ESV)
The general rule is thus firmly established: Christians are to be subject to their governing authorities. They are to respect the authority of the civil magistrate. They are to pay what taxes are required. They are to show appropriate honour to persons in positions of authority. We do this not because they are good, but because God is good and authority is part of his creation and design.
The Recognized Exception:
As with most general rules in a fallen world, there is a need to articulate reasonable exceptions. The church has long understood that while the principle of authority is righteous and wise, not all who wield that authority do so in harmony with God’s purposes. The church father John Chrysostom in his Homilies on Romans said here:
‘He does not speak about individual rulers but about the principle of authority itself. For that there should be rulers and ruled and that things should not just lapse into anarchy, with the people swaying like waves from one extreme to the other, is the work of God’s wisdom’.
In general, authority is a gift from God. Without it we would descend into chaos. However, from time to time, human authorities attempt to extend their reach beyond the bounds intended for them by God. As such, we need to know in what sorts of circumstances a believer may be justified in defying their civil authorities. In making that determination Christians have generally appealed to Acts 5:27-32.
This incident occurred during a season of spiritual favour and missionary zeal. Acts 5:14 says: “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:14 ESV)
People were abandoning Judaism and pouring into the church in never before seen numbers. The Jewish authorities felt compelled to act. They arrested the apostles and put them in prison. However, an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought the Apostles out and gave them clear instructions: “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” (Acts 5:20 ESV)
The Apostles resumed their preaching, much to the chagrin of the Jewish Sanhedrin. They sent the captain of the guard to arrest them a second time and to bring them physically before the council. The encounter itself is recorded in verses 27-32:
And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:27–32 ESV)
We notice here that Peter; the same Apostle who said: “Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17 ESV).
Here says: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29 ESV).
Thus we have a recognized exception to the general rule:
If the government forbids us to do that which God commands, or requires us to do that which God forbids, we must obey God rather than men.
John Stott says much the same in his commentary on this passage. He says:
“We are to submit right up to the point where obedience to the state would entail disobedience to God. But if the state commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands, then our plain Christian duty is to resist, not to submit, to disobey the state in order to obey God.”
This has been the orthodox position on this matter for most of Christian history. However, given the horrific realities of 20th century history and politics, every Christian exponent of this viewpoint must be prepared to answer a particular objection.
The Standard Objection:
Douglas Moo puts the matter succinctly:
“Almost every interpretation of Romans 13 written since 1945 explicitly brings the situation of Hitler’s Germany into the discussion.”
This whole system of rule and exception strikes many people as too neat by half, particularly given the horrors of Nazi Germany in the 20th century.
What if your government is taken over by tyrants who are hell-bent on the destruction of an entire race of people? Wouldn’t we be obligated in such a situation to passively and actively resist their genocidal program? Doesn’t that historical reality undermine and invalidate the Bible’s basic approach to this complicated issue?
However, the Bible appears to anticipate this objection and to provide some reasonable guidance.
When Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to participate in his intended genocidal program the Bible records their principled resistance. Exodus 1:17 tells us:
The midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. (Exodus 1:17 ESV)
The text goes on to say:
God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. (Exodus 1:20–21 ESV)
Thus it does appear that the Biblical model can handle this particular objection. If the government attempts to recruit us into its attempt to annihilate an entire race of people, we have full biblical permission to resist that plan, actively and passively. We can hide people in the church, we can dig an underground railway, we can even, like the midwives, lie to the authorities so as to protect and safeguard innocent life. (For a full discussion as to when, if ever, it is permissible to lie, see here.)
In summary then, we have a general rule, a recognized exception and a standard objection, anticipated and adequately answered in the pages of Holy Scripture. How then do we apply all of this in a COVID19 world?
The Contemporary Application:
In essence, we are trying to answer the question: Have we reached the Biblical threshold for civil disobedience?
Some evangelicals are saying yes. Afterall, the Bible commands us to gather together for Christian worship. Hebrews 10:24-25 says:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25 ESV)
The Bible commands us to not neglect meeting together – and the civil authorities have forced us to neglect meeting together – so doesn’t this situation trigger the exemption clause in Acts 5:27-32?
Before answering that we must first attempt to understand exactly what the Apostle is saying in Hebrews 10:25. The word translated there as “neglecting” means “(in a bad sense) to desert: — forsake, leave.”
Properly understood this text is rebuking people who undervalue and under attend corporate worship. It is rebuking the cottage owner who neglects corporate worship for 3 months out of every year. It is rebuking the avid golfer or the sports addicted parents who for one reason or another undervalue and under attend the times of gathered worship. It does not appear to apply to situations wherein public worship may be temporarily forbidden by the state for reasons of public health and safety. It was clearly not understood in that sense by Richard Baxter, the old Puritan pastor, in his book A Christian Directory which deals systematically with difficult questions that may arise over the course of the Christian life. He anticipates this concern precisely in question 109:
Question 109: May we omit church-assemblies on the Lord’s day, if the magistrate forbid them?
Answer: 1. It is one thing to forbid them for a time, upon some special cause, (as infection by pestilence, fire, war, etc.) and another to forbid them statedly or profanely.
Baxter distinguishes between a state which forbids worship statedly and profanely and a state which forbids worship temporarily for reasons related to the public good. He mentions specifically the case of infection by pestilence.
That is a useful distinction.
If the state prohibited gathering for worship absolutely – under any circumstances whatsoever – and if that ban were profane in nature, meaning, intended specifically to undermine the life and mission of the Christian church, then yes, it would be appropriate for individual believers to actively defy their civil authorities.
But is that the case now, with respect to COVID19?
Government regulations differ region to region, province to province and country to country, so every church must wrestle with the correct application of these principles to their particular context, but in my experience here in Ontario, Canada, our situation does not appear at present to activate the exception clause of Acts 5:27-32. The government of Ontario has not forbidden us to assemble for corporate worship. There was a temporary ban on large group gatherings that has subsequently been relaxed. What we’re dealing with now is essentially a temporary reduction in our building capacity. We used to be able to host approximately 650 people in our sanctuary – currently we are limited to approximately 238, depending on family size and grouping.
That is inconvenient to be sure but it isn’t persecution and it doesn’t force us into a position of disobedience with respect to the commandments of the Lord. The Bible doesn’t say how often we should meet – it just says that we should not neglect whatever meetings that we have. However, in the interests of public health during a time of infection due to pestilence, we may and we should submit to the government restrictions with respect to gathering size and safety protocols.
If it became clear to us that the government were treating the church with animus or negative bias, we would certainly re-evaluate our position. However, in our case here in Ontario, the church is receiving preferential treatment out of respect for our Charter freedoms. Our church currently hosts the largest permissible gathering in our city. Our protocols are more generous than those permitted to movie theatres, concert halls and bars. Therefore, as a Board of Elders, we have concluded that these current restrictions are neither malicious nor profane. This is just Romans 13 in a broken and fallen world. This is lawful government doing what it believes is in the best interests of public health and safety – thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
This blog is a reworking of a sermon preached by Pastor Paul on this topic at Cornerstone Baptist Church. To listen to that sermon see here.
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here.
Chrysostom as cited by Colin G. Kruse, in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Pillar New Testament Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 494.
John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today. Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove.: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 342.
 Douglas J. Moo, Romans in The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 427.
Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “paragraph 1.