Note: I’m sure there will be Christians who disagree with this post. I would be grateful if this were part of a larger conversation rather than a monologue. If you have a different, and biblical, way of thinking through this issue, I’d be grateful to hear from you. Or if you want clarification on something I’ve said, I’d welcome that too.
Over the last year churches have had to deal with restrictions on gathering because of COVID. Depending on where in the world you live, your church has been unable to meet in person for long stretches of time or only if those attending adhere to certain guidelines. Where I live in Nova Scotia, Canada, we’ve been able to meet in person since last July if we socially distance. Though due to a significant rise in COVID cases in our province, we are currently on a two-week shutdown.
Am I going to insist, despite our provincial government’s policy, that our church gather in person anyway? I am not. And even if I were inclined not to follow our government’s mandate, there’s a very good chance that I’d be alone in church on Sunday. My congregation, perhaps because they are largely older, are particularly cautious.
But we are already aware that there are churches who have refused to follow any of the guidelines. The claim is that doing so would be a violation of not only their specific convictions but actual biblical teaching. Furthermore, restrictions on faith gatherings are sometimes being characterized by those who refuse to abide by them as discrimination or even persecution.
The question is whether or not this a fair assessment of the situation. Or to put it another way: when and on what basis can people of faith legitimately engage in the refusal to abide by such government mandates?
And before I get to what my understanding of this is according to Scripture, let me underscore the fact that I am not an expert of any sort when it comes to the issue of church and state, what the Bible says about governing authorities, and when believers and other citizens can and should responsibly engage in civil disobedience. What I am about to say is based on my current best reading of Scripture. To that end, I am open to being corrected if I am misinterpreting Scripture or misapplying it. However, anyone who seeks to correct me would need to convince me of their interpretation of Scripture and not simply assert that their position is more sound than mine.
One passage we need to consider is written by the apostle Peter:
Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves. Honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor.1 Peter 2:13-17
Perhaps the first point to make concerns the form of governmental authority which was in place at the time Peter wrote these words. That is, we’re not talking about a democratic government system to which we are accustomed. People in Peter’s day didn’t vote for their emperors or governors. Not only that, but the authority in question here is Emperor Nero, a corrupt and violent leader who, according to the ancient historian Tacitus, burned Christians alive.
This makes it all the more curious and perhaps alarming that Peter uses the word submit. The word means to “place ourselves under” or in this case to live according to the governing authorities. As one commentator notes, “there could be few rulers indeed whose claims on loyalty would be sustained by less personal merit” than Nero. Why, then, would Peter exhort his readers to submit not only to the authorities generally, but Nero specifically?
For Peter to tell believers to honor an emperor such as Nero, the standard for civil disobedience must be especially high for those who claim allegiance to Christ. Indeed, the exhortations in 1 Peter are meant to emphasize that Christians are also called to be law-abiding citizens and that their compliance with the governing authorities is one component of their witness to the gospel.
Peter is not the only New Testament writer who writes of the relationship between believers and the governing authorities. Quite possibly the pre-eminent passage on this matter is written by another apostle, a contemporary of Peter’s:
Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the one in authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor. Romans 13:1-7
Much like Peter, Paul emphasizes the duty of Christians to be good citizens. But Paul goes further here than Peter by saying governing authorities are instituted by God. He refers to the state as “God’s servant.” Those who resist governing authorities are “opposing God’s command.”
Whatever else we say about the relationship between Christians and governing authorities, we have to contend with what both Peter and Paul are telling us. If a Christian holds the conviction that they need to disobey a particular law or mandate of the government, they need to have an especially compelling reason to do so.
Perhaps we can put it this way: The most fundamentally compelling reason is if Christians are being forced to choose between obeying God and obeying the governing authorities. In such cases, Christians are obliged to disregard the governing authorities.
In Acts 4:19-20, Peter and John were told under threat not to tell people about Jesus anymore. While these were religious and not governing authorities, how Peter and John responded is instructive and important. This is what they say: “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. The authorities were asking Peter and John to stop telling others about Jesus. Peter, John, and other followers of Jesus were compelled to share this good news with anyone who would listen. Not only that, they were expressly commissioned by Jesus prior to his glorious ascension to do precisely that. So even if the governing authorities of the time had made such an act illegal, the disciples of Jesus would have been compelled and even obligated to proclaim Jesus anyway.
In any case, Christians, I think, can engage in civil disobedience or be non-compliant with a mandate or law that would either (1) contradict what we are clearly taught in Scripture and/or (2) prevent us from sharing the good news of Jesus with others. So, for instance, a governing authority cannot force a believer who is a medical doctor to perform abortions. Abortion, being murder, violates the clear teaching of Scripture. The government also cannot reasonably expect Christians to obey a law that would prevent them from telling others about Jesus. Jesus commands us to tell other people about him.
For our part, those of us who are followers of Jesus have to be willing to accept the consequences of our decisions. What was true of the early disciples, like Peter and John, and is also true, say, of Christians in China today, also has to be so with us. If obeying God and following Jesus means being arrested, so be it. Let’s not forget that the apostle Paul wrote a number of his letters while imprisoned. John had his vision recorded in the Book of Revelation on Patmos, an island to which he had been exiled.
Now, as far as I can reasonably tell, none of the current COVID restrictions prevent me from obeying what Scripture clearly teaches or from telling others about Jesus. In other words, I can very easily live out my life as a follower of Jesus even while abiding by the current guidelines put in place.
Now, whether the guidelines are reasonable in themselves, or absolutely necessary, is beside the point. Rather, if a Christian or a church chooses to ignore them, they need to look outside Scripture for their reasons.
But what might someone say in response to this? For instance, what Scriptural support might one give for violating the restrictions on gathering in person?
Here is an example to which some may point. In Hebrew 10:23–25 we read this: Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.
The author of Hebrews recognizes that believers need spiritual support and encouragement to persevere in their faith. Living as a follower of Jesus requires community. Those who neglect Christian community are at risk of being much more spiritually vulnerable. And so the author exhorts readers to continue meeting in order to encourage one another.
However, let us be clear on this. Nowhere does this passage describe in detail how such meeting together should take place. Prominent pastors who have ignored gathering restrictions on the basis of this passage (but surely not only this passage?) seem to be interpeting it through the lens of how people in their particular cultural setting expect the church to gather.
However, the writer of Hebrews wasn’t speaking about Christians gathering by the hundreds, much less thousands, in a modern church facility. Indeed, the early church met in one another’s homes. Pastors and others who conclude that they can gather their people in such large numbers in violation of government authority in our current situation cannot do so based on what we read in Hebrews. Put simply, we can apply this passage in Hebrews without having to gather together in large numbers in our modern church buildings.
Of course, I’m sure it’s possible someone can make a case as to why churches ought to be able to meet in large numbers despite COVID. My main point here is that it’s very difficult to do so on the basis of Scripture, from a specifically Christian perspective.
At least as far as I can see, taking into account what the New Testament says of our relationship to government as instituted by God, alongside the apostolic example, means that, generally speaking, Christians can in good conscience abide by the COVID guidelines without the fear that they are disobeying God and his word. I think the burden of proof lies with those who posit otherwise.
What I want to say, too, is that I think those of us who are Christians need to be able to distinguish between obeying God even if it means disobeying a given law and fighting for religious freedom so that laws which put us in that position do not exist. We may or may not be able to change an existing law or how the governing authorities act towards people and communities of faith, but we should not conflate obeying God with the exercise of political power for the purpose of protecting religious freedom.
It’s not that we shouldn’t work to ensure that citizens, whether Christian or otherwise, have the freedom to worship and live according to their beliefs and conscience. We certainly ought to do so. However, in an increasingly post-Christian culture we need to be prepared to follow Christ whatever law our government puts in place. While having religious freedom is always ideal, it’s never a guarantee. Plenty of Christians around the world know this all too well.
These are strange, challenging, and often confusing times. Christians in good faith are reaching different conclusions about how to follow Christ and the dictates of their consciences. Each of us is responsible for applying the teaching of Scripture to our everyday lives—including in our relationship to governing authorities. May we all exercise due diligence in this process, because though we are all called by God to live as responsible citizens, we are all also accountable to him for the manner in which we do so.