One Pastor’s Perspective on Christians and Government

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.

Faith and Fear in a Time of COVID

I think it’s an obvious scriptural truth that even people of faith experience fear. Otherwise, why would Jesus (and other biblical writers) encourage us not to worry so frequently? Surely, if people of faith were never going to worry or find themselves facing fear, the Bible wouldn’t have to address it. Yet it does. All the time. And nowhere is this more true than with the very real, universal human fear of death.

Over the last year, I think COVID has brought many in our culture face to face with the realities of human mortality. And I say face to face for a reason. Because we’re all intellectually aware of death, even our own inevitable death. We know we will not live forever. Loved ones die. Celebrities and public figures we admire and follow die. Whether from accident, crime, or illness–death follows us at every turn. At the same time, we don’t necessarily live like this is true. We sequester suffering and death into nursing homes and hospitals and then only visit infrequently. No sooner do we become more acutely aware of the brevity of human existence then we quickly put it out of our minds. It’s too much to process. It’s too painful. Yet, whereas much of the time we are able to distract ourselves or avoid having to deal with the fact of physical suffering and death, this pandemic has torn away the facade of immortality.

And so, fear.

How else to explain people breaking down in hysterics on TikTok and other social media platforms over the failure of others to abide by all the guidelines and restrictions?

Whatever else we say about COVID, it has revealed what most people fear above all: death.

And so much so that this fear is–in various ways–the controlling factor in the lives of many. Though not only in a time of COVID.

Scripture is pretty clear on this. People are slaves to their fear of death. More importantly, this is the reason why God became flesh in the person of Christ. One biblical writer says it this way:

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

Hebrews 2:14–15

Another translation of the second part of this verse says that people are like slaves all their lives because of their fear of death.

Jesus came into our world to free us from all this. Jesus, after all, calls himself the resurrection and the life.

Which brings us to what for some is an uncomfortable point. Even Christians–people who believe that Jesus has conquered death through his resurrection–can fear death. In some measure, we all do. If I say I have no fear of death, maybe that’s because I’ve never really had to contend with my own mortality except theoretically. Because I’m guessing that in the moment when I am face to face with the very possibilty of my own death, assuming I have the time to contemplate it at all, my knees might shake at least a little. I’m guessing maybe more than a little. And if I don’t, that will only be because of the grace of God. I can’t really know until that time arrives.

But the question we ask as people of faith is probably this: If I experience fear of death, does that mean I lack faith?

My answer might surprise you. Because it’s this: Yes. Because even apart from a fear of death, I lack faith. Even without a devastating health diagnosis, I lack faith. Even when life is all rainbows and happy songs, I lack faith. Even at my spiritual best, I lack faith. Simply put, we do not trust God as we should. We do not love God as much as we should. God is not our hope and peace to the degree he should be.

And that’s the case with anyone who confesses faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Anyone.

You lack faith. I lack faith. The Christian you’ve known and admired for years–maybe decades–lacks faith.

We all lack faith.

Do you get that? Am I making my point?

Otherwise, we’d somehow be spiritually perfect–complete in faith and trust–in this life. And while I have met many incredibly mature, faith-filled, and wise believers, I’ve never yet met a perfect one. Ever.

However, bear in mind that lacking faith or having imperfect faith doesn’t mean we are without faith. It doesn’t mean we are faithless. We need to get that too. We can have faith even when we experience fear. The latter doesn’t completely cancel out the former. Often, on our darkest days the two live in tension.

So when we berate ourselves or feel guilt for experiencing fear, believing that somehow people of faith ought to be immune to fear, we’re making the mistake of thinking our trust in God can somehow be perfect, without fault or lack, on this side of eternity. And like I said, this is not even congruent with biblical teaching. Our guilt feelings also reveal we see God the same way, that we worry or feel he expects us to be fearless in the face of our mortality. “How disappointed he must be,” we think. Not only are we frustrated with our imperfect faith, we conclude God is too.

And if we think God is disappointed in us over our lack of faith, because when we find ourselves staring death in the face we’re afraid, what kind of effect is that going to have on our prayers, our faith, on our relationship with God? How likely are we to approach God in trust if we think our fear frustrates him? What kind of heart posture will we adopt in that moment? Is he our loving Father inviting us closer or our disappointed Father telling us to try harder?

Here’s the thing: God knows our fears. He constantly addresses our tendency to fall prey to it in the Scriptures he has graciously given to us. Do not be afraid. Don’t worry. Do not be anxious. He knows we can be fearful. But you know what? He loves us anyway. And he still chooses to meet us in our brokenness. In his mercy, he seeks to heal us rather than condemn us. In Jesus we meet a God who does not grow weary because our faith is often lacking. He doesn’t tire of us because of our failure to trust him fully. Instead, he invites us deeper in. He literally and figuratively condescends to us.

Recently, well-known pastor and author Tim Keller wrote an article for The Atlantic called “Growing My Faith in the Face of Death.” Having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2020, he writes “as death, the last enemy, became real to my heart, I realized that my beliefs would have to become just as real to my heart, or I wouldn’t be able to get through the day.” Even Keller, a renowned Christian leader, found himself wrestling with doubt and fear in the face of death. In a later interview with Russell Moore on his podcast Signposts, he spoke about his experience and what he has learned through it. You can see that interview here. It’s worth a watch.

But the one thing Keller said in the interview that I want to point out here and now is this: If Jesus was really raised from the dead, then ultimately everything is going to be ok. Keller then commented that there is nothing that could convince him otherwise at this point in his life. If Jesus was raised, then we’re going to be fine. And that on the other side of eternity because there will be no pain and death, there will be nothing at all to fear.

So what do we do? Well, we can ask that God would increase and grow our faith. We can ask that God would help us to trust him more and more. That he would help us to be unafraid when difficult moments come our way. That a vision of who Jesus is–as the one who defeats death–would gradually overtake our fear. Certainly we should read Scripture over and over and over so that more and more of the truth of who God is sinks into our hearts and comes out in our prayers and lives.

And of course we never, ever, do this alone. Jesus calls us to a family of faith. He calls us to shoulder one another’s fears. He calls us to remind each other that he is the resurrection and the life. To say it over and over and over. Until we believe it, and believe it so much that it, and not our fears, becomes the determining force of our lives. Whether in a time of COVID or not. We will all die, but thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, we can also live–and that forever.

On that note, there’s no better way to end than with the apostle Paul’s own words on the matter:

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at his coming, those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be abolished is death.

1 Corinthians 15:21-26

Random Thoughts on Church in a Time of COVID Weariness

In the part of the world where I live we haven’t had an outbreak of COVID. To that extent, in the most serious sense we’ve been unaffected by the pandemic that has brought hardship and sorrow to so many around the globe. And of course this is a reason for thanksgiving. Though it ought to be a humble gratitude. It’s not as though the place where I live is more deserving than any other.

Yet, even though my region has managed to remain COVID free to this point, we haven’t been entirely unaffected. Like most people everywhere else, I think we are suffering from a collective feeling of weariness. The last (nearly) year of lockdowns, restrictions, and a news cycle that continually reminds us of the brokenness of our world has taken a toll on us. If not physically, then mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

You feel it, don’t you? Every time you slap on a mask to go for groceries. Each time you go into a government building. Whenever you turn on CBC, CTV, CNN, or Fox. And in those moments around friends, family members, or neighbours who have very different views and are enthusiastic about sharing them.

Not only that, but you don’t have to watch the news too closely to be aware that churches, especially in North America, have had very different responses to COVID and ways of dealing with the government restrictions put in place to stave off its spread.

As a pastor, it’s been frustrating to see other church leaders make following or ignoring restrictions on gathering a matter of religious freedom, instead of seeing it as a way of loving our neighbors.

Don’t get me started on people who trot out Hebrews 10:24–25 as justification for shoving hundreds or even thousands of people in a church building without social distancing. Here’s the passage in question:

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.

Hebrews 10:24-25

Nothing here indicates that we are commanded by God to meet by the dozens, hundreds, much less thousands in buildings of our design in order to obey Scripture. Indeed, most NT churches met in homes in something very much like contemporary small groups. There are ways to be faithful to Scripture, to encourage one another as believers, that also allow us to live as good citizens. So when pastors and their churches violate government restrictions, I tend to think they are often on thin biblical ground.

But I digress. All I want to say is that this mixed witness of the church and the way COVID has affected ministry and congregational life has led to a weariness among followers of Jesus too.

And of course church people come to socially distanced worship services with masks on already feeling the larger societal weight of all that’s going on.

It makes me wonder. Should churches really be that anxious to get back to normal, to ramp up activities and programs?

Because if our communities are suffering from a weariness and loneliness and brokenness because of COVID, is the best way of being the church to offer events and programs, more things to add to people’s already crammed schedules? Let’s face it, we need less not more in our lives.

So might we as churches instead offer a place of rest, the space to grieve our losses, a refuge from the busyness of spirit that plagues us? Maybe even to provide a break from our screens and devices rather than another reason to have them with us?

Our lives are already full of distractions, digital and otherwise. Do we need church to be busy too? Is the kingdom an alternative to our culture’s way of life or do we mimic it for the sake of appearing relevant?

I really wonder how much we’ve learned about being churches during this time of COVID. Do we see it as simply an unwelcome interruption to our plans or what we think of as God’s plans?

Or could it be that God has wanted us to learn some stuff from these specific circumstances? That maybe church isn’t about our ideas of success? That numbers are not the best measure of faithfulness in ministry? That perhaps having more time for quiet, prayer, and contemplation might just remind us what it means to live in God’s presence as his people?

Maybe there are moments when God removes things from our lives and our churches to get us to reflect and think critically about how we’ve done things and how we ought to do things. What might we gain because of what we’ve lost?

Do I sound a little frustrated? Well, consider that we haven’t been able to have church potlucks in nearly a year! Ours is a Baptist church after all!

Seriously, though, it continues to mean putting some of our ideas on hold until restrictions are lifted. It means limited fellowship opportunities. It means living with an uncertainty about the simplest of things, like whether our church can have Vacation Bible School this summer.

The truth is, we don’t know for sure how long these restrictions will be in place. Even with the vaccines on their way, we could be looking at having to follow current guidelines until the fall of this year.

If that turns out to be the case, how will we handle it?

What we can say is that, thankfully, the ultimate wellbeing of the church doesn’t depend on us. Whatever happens (or doesn’t), God can and will uphold his people.

In any case, I’m not writing as someone who has answers, but someone who has a lot of questions. So forgive the rant. These things make me weary too.