How to Think Christianly About Government Restrictions on Churches Due to COVID-19

Over the past several weeks, many of us have experienced restrictions heretofore unheard of in our lifetimes.  COVID-19 has brought about restrictions that would have been hard to imagine a short time ago.  Many people find these restrictions increasingly frustrating.  Others have found comfort in these restrictions, fearing that not having them may cause the situation to worsen.  These restrictions have deeply impacted churches and some of these restrictions have been specifically aimed at churches.  Some churches have defied the government mandates, and others have stated their intention to defy the government in the future.  How should Christians respond in the face of these sorts of restrictions?

The Bible is Clear

The Bible is clear in Romans 13:

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. (Rom 13:1-2)

Douglas Moo, a biblical scholar specializing in Romans, comments that the history of interpreting this passage “is the history of attempts to avoid what seems to be its plain meaning.”1Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse et al., Second Edition., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 823.  As Christians, we need to come underneath the authority of Scripture, not seek to avoid what it says.  This passage makes a few things clear:  First, Christians are to submit to governmental authorities.  Second, the reason we are to submit to the governing authorities is because they are instituted by God.  In other words, the authority of the government is, in some sense, an extension of God’s authority in governing this world.

What About an Unjust Government?

One might object to this that the government is being unjust.  But the government Paul was dealing with was far more unjust than the government of the United States.  Just a few years prior to the letter to the Romans being written, Christians in Rome had experienced severe disruption in their lives.  Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome in AD 49, because there was rioting centered around Christ (Acts 18:2)—this included Jews who rejected Jesus and Jews who believed in Jesus.  So think about that:  Christians who were testifying to the truth of Jesus were forcibly removed from their homes, from their friends, from their livelihoods, and were not allowed to return until Claudius died a few years later.  Claudius’s reign gave way to Nero, whose early reign was relatively peaceful. However, in AD 58, a year or 2 after Paul wrote Romans, there was a revolt against Rome over taxes, and in AD 66-70 there was a violent insurrection against Rome in Israel—which Rome quelled with devastating force.  Nero eventually would light his garden with impaled Christians being burnt alive.  He was responsible for the execution of Paul, and the crucifixion of Peter.  So, these instructions were given to people who had experienced unjust treatment by non-Christian (or anti-Christian) rulers.  Our government is certainly more just than theirs was. 

What Does It Mean to Submit?

To really understand this verse, we need to consider the word translated “be subject” or “submit.”  Douglas Moo says this about this word:

Paul calls on believers to “submit” to governing authorities rather than to “obey” them; and Paul’s choice of words may be important to our interpretation and application of Paul’s exhortation. To submit is to recognize one’s subordinate place in a hierarchy, to acknowledge as a general rule that certain people or institutions have authority over us.2Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse et al., Second Edition., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 814.

This word means “to come underneath the arrangement or order established.”  We are called to “be subject to the governing authorities,” not have strict and universal obedience to them.  This means that we recognize their God-ordained role in maintaining order and justice in society, and we come underneath them in that role.  But we also recognize that our true allegiance is to Jesus, and our allegiance to Jesus always trumps our allegiance to government authority.  When the authorities told the apostles not to teach about Jesus, they rightly replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). 

The word used for “submit” is the same word used when wives are told to “submit” to their husbands, and this analogy might help us make sense of this.  Wives do not check their brains at the door of marriage, and they are not called to merely obey their husband’s every whim.  They are still partners with their husbands, and should seek to influence their husbands, even as they submit to their husband’s right role of leadership.  And they are called to submit to their husband’s leadership even when their husbands lead poorly, recognizing that God is their first allegiance.  And in doing so, they demonstrate deep trust in God, not necessarily their husbands.  Now there may come a time that a wife could not follow her husband’s leadership because it would lead her to disobey God’s commands.  In the same way, some forms of government step so far outside of God’s laws that it becomes necessary for Christians to disobey that government (and even possibly seek to overthrow it!) if they are to maintain allegiance to Jesus (e.g. Nazi Germany).  And in the same way, as Christians submit to governing authorities, they do so because they trust in God, not because they trust the government.

So we must obey Jesus command form Mark 12:17:  “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  God has determined that human governments have a valid role to play, and we are to submit to them in that role—but we are to submit ourselves first and foremost to God.  Submission to Caesar is always secondary to submission to God.

Who Is the Governing Authority?

Another issue that complicates understanding how to apply this passage in our modern context is that we need to ask, “Who is the authority I am called to submit to?”3Fitzmeyer makes this helpful comment:  “Paul recommends submission in earthly matters as an expression of the Christian’s relation to God and his order of things…. Such submission is clearly measured by the form of human government in which one resides; it would carry nuances depending on the form of monarchic, democratic, or republican state.  Joseph A. Fitzmyer S.J., Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 33, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 665.  We live in a democratic constitutional republic—which means that the primary authority in our government is the people and their elected representatives who function under the Constitution.  It also means that our elected representatives only have power insofar as they abide by the Constitution.  So, we are not compelled by Scripture to obey a government law or authority in violation of the Constitution.  That is true at the federal level, but also at the state level; some powers are delegated to the federal government, and other powers are accorded to the state government.  And each state government has its own constitution which sets limits and boundaries on state government powers.  In particular, the California state constitution says, “Free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference are guaranteed. This liberty of conscience does not excuse acts that are licentious or inconsistent with the peace or safety of the State. The Legislature shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” 

Now we need to be careful about making overly simplistic determinations about what the Constitution means.  Our Constitution has a built-in mechanism for determining what it means in a particular situation, and that mechanism is the judicial branch of the government.  In Jacobson v. Massachusetts 197 U.S. 11 (1905), the U.S. Supreme Court found that the “police power” of the state embraces “reasonable regulations …as will protect the public health and safety.”  This means that in a state of emergency, the government can restrain and regulate certain rights and liberties for the greater good as part of their police powers described in the Constitution.  These police powers are given to the government in the Constitution and must be balanced with the liberties given to individuals in the Constitution.  The courts have found that balancing these means that actions taken that restrict liberties must be reasonable and use the least restrictive means.  Liberties also cannot be restricted in a discriminatory way.

Can Churches Be Singled Out?

So, for example, the government cannot single out churches and command them not to meet, while allowing other gatherings of a similar size and nature.  An official who did so would be violating the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”  So if churches are singled out and not allowed to meet that would be unconstitutional.  If instead meetings of less than 50 people are not allowed for a limited time, that seems reasonable because it does not single out churches and I expect that that would be held to be lawful and constitutional.  However, when we’re in doubt, the constitutional mechanism for determining how to balance the rights of the first amendment and the rights of the state to police people is the courts.  So, we should allow the courts to adjudicate these issues when there are questions or doubt.

Are Christians Commanded to Meet Together Physically?

Some may say that we should not submit to government rules that restrict churches from meeting together physically because God’s Word commands us to meet, and therefore “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).  So, we need to think through whether Christians commanded to meet together physically.  In considering whether Christians ought to meet together physically, probably the most relevant passage to this issue is Hebrews 10:24-25: 

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 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. (Heb 10:24-25)

The word translated “to meet together” refers to the formal gathering of the local church.  It is related to the Greek word for “synagogue,” which was the formal gathering place of Jews at the time.  The main verbal command of the sentence is “let us consider how to stir up one another,” and verse 25 provides two ways we can do this:  not neglecting to meet together, and encouraging one another.  And so this passage admonishes Christians to value mutual encouragement, not neglecting the formal gathering of the church body. 

Does this entail that the church body must gather physically?  In the first century, people would have had no concept of gathering together virtually, so this is a difficult question to answer.  We know that there were times when Paul was unable to be physically present with people due to imprisonment or other circumstances.  Here is some of the language he uses in those instances:

For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. (1 Cor 5:3)

For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. (Col 2:5)

We also know that at times Paul and other apostles maintained their relationship with churches through extensive letter writing, prayer (Col 2:1-2; 2 Tim 1:3; Col 4:12), and sending personal emissaries (Col 1:7-8; Eph 6:21-22; Phil 2:19, 25-30; 1 Cor 16:17; 1 Thes 3:6).  However, these temporary measures were never seen as a replacement for being in one another’s physical presence.  In the Bible, our bodies are not merely incidental to our existence.  We were created to be embodied, and while we can exist in a disembodied state (see 2 Cor 5:1-4), that is an unnatural way for us to exist.  One day we will have a new, permanent body that will allow us to relate to God and each other perfectly (Phil 3:21, 1 Jn 3:2, 1 Cor 15:12-57).  And so what we see in the New Testament is that for a temporary period due to circumstances or crisis, relationships can be maintained in non-physically present ways, but the long-term, normative practice of Christians ought to be having physical meetings with one another:

But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, (1 Thess 2:17)

…as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? (1 Thess 3:10)

Given the above, it seems that meeting together virtually may be acceptable for a temporary season due to circumstances or a crisis, but the normative practice for Christians should be meeting together physically.  However, we are not in a period of normative practice; we are in a period of temporary crisis.  And so it would be a mistake to interpret Hebrews 10:24-25 so rigidly as to require physical gatherings at all times no matter the circumstances.  That certainly goes beyond what the author meant, given the example of Paul in the New Testament.  Gathering in person should be cherished, longed for, and sought, but we may fellowship through other means during certain exceptional times.  During this time, through the use of technology, we can meet together virtually and offer mutual encouragement—and in doing so we can continue to prioritize personal relationships and seek to stir one another up towards love and good deeds, pointing one another towards Christ.  But as we do so we ought to eagerly anticipate the day when we can meet together again face-to-face.

So What Should Christians Do?

So, the question remains, how should Christians live out their obligation to “submit to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1)?  One passage that may be helpful in this regard is 1 Peter 2.  During a season of active persecution of Christians by the Roman Emperor Nero, Peter wrote these words: 

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.  15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.  16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.  17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Pet. 2:13-17)

Verse 17 is especially instructive to us.  Peter says, we are to “honor everyone”—we should be courteous and respectful to all people as those created in God’s image.  But then stepping up to a higher obligation, we are to “Love the brotherhood.”  Then we move to a still higher obligation:  “Fear God.”  Our reverent fear of God is the pinnacle of these commands.  Finally, Peter returns to the “honor”—the same word that he began this verse with:  “Honor the emperor.”  The theologian, Wayne Grudem says this:  “In what is apparently mild irony Peter has put the emperor on the same level as ‘all people’. The progression seems to be as follows:

Fear God.

Love the brotherhood.

Honour all people. Honour the emperor.”4Wayne A. Grudem, 1 Peter: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 17, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 130–131.

This is an easy guideline for us to remember.  Our highest obligation is to God—we must live for Him in reverent fear.  Second, we must love our brothers and sisters in Christ.  And finally, we ought to honor all people, including our governing authorities.  Let’s consider how each of these obligations relate to our current situation in reverse order:

Honor the Emperor

Christians ought to seek to submit to the governing authorities to the best of our ability.  The command to submit to governing authorities in Romans 13 falls on the heels of Romans 12, which says this:

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”  21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:18-21)

We ought to not rebel unless the governing authorities are asking us to compromise our obedience or allegiance to God.  We are to live peaceably with all, as far as it depends on us, and we are to overcome evil with good. 

Love the Brotherhood

Christians ought to be governed by love for others.  Throughout the Bible, we see that love is the fulfillment of God’s commands:  “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:14).  Indeed, in describing the virtues that flow out of lives connected to the Spirit of God, we see Paul tell us:  “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Gal 5:22-23, emphasis added).  After the passage on submitting to governing authorities, Paul makes a similar point:

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.  8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:7-10)

Jesus and His disciples picked grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-27), David ate consecrated bread (Mark 2:25-26), Jesus healed on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-13), and He explained that any fair-minded person would certainly rescue a sheep from a ditch on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:11).  Why did Jesus do these things?  Because love trumps the strict rules of the governing law.  One example of this is pastors I know who are counseling people dealing with severe anxiety and depression through in-person counseling.  While the mandates given by the state would prohibit such face-to-face contact, on an individual level, the higher law of love mandates that we care for those dealing with these issues.  Imagine you were driving down the street wearing no mask and you see an elderly person—also wearing no mask—stumble and fall on the sidewalk.  Would you violate social distancing rules to help that man?  I hope you would!  In that case, our obligation to love one another trumps the law of the governing authorities.  So Christians who violate state commandments out of a desire to offer genuine love to those in need are justified in doing so.  However, we must be careful not to allow this to slide into being an excuse to rebel against the governing authorities—God knows our hearts, and He knows if we’re acting out of genuine love or rebellion.  He knows whether the need is real or superficial. You need to be honest about your motives.

Fear God

Christians must remember that our primary allegiance is God and His priorities.  As such, our priority ought to be the advance of the gospel of Jesus.  It’s easy to get focused on asserting our rights and liberties during a time like this, but far more important than asserting our rights is whether we’re serving as a witness of Jesus and His character to a watching world.  We serve a Savior who set His rights aside and became a servant,

…who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:6-8). 

This is the humble King we are called to represent—and so the question is, how can I represent Jesus well?  That should be our primary concern in deciding how to respond to this crisis.  Peter reminds us of the character of our Savior and how He is our example:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.  22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.  23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.  24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.  (1 Pet 2:21-24)

Representing Jesus well doesn’t mean we never assert our rights.  Indeed, Paul asserted his rights as a Roman citizen when it served the gospel (Acts 22:25-23:27).  However, it does mean that we need to be more concerned about the advance of the gospel than we are about our own individual rights, comforts, or freedoms.  The gospel should be our first priority.  Period.  Full stop.

In our culture, at this moment, I find it unlikely that Christians who ignore or defy government mandates will serve as effective witnesses for Christ.  This may change if churches are singled out, so that people are allowed to do things like go to the movies but not allowed to go to church.  But our primary concern must be advancing the gospel of Christ.  We live in a world that is overflowing with fear and frustration.  May we be people who fear only our King.  “Do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread.  13 But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isa. 8:12-13 ESV).  We can help a world wrapped up in fear and frustration by remembering that worry is not our friend, and panic is not our way.  We serve a King who has “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18).  He can easily overcome government restrictions or mandates.  So our hope must be in Him.  May we be a people who are ruled not by fear or frustration but by faith in our Great God—and may that faith spill out of us in love.  “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12).

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