Government and the Church
As a pastor serving in a Christian church during a pandemic and facing orders from our government against meeting together, I am often faced with the question of what power does the law of the land have over Christians, and should we obey the new rules or not? I know I am not alone in this, as many people (pastors and laypeople alike) have come to me and asked the same thing, so I will try and gather my thoughts on this and present a complete answer here.
Romans 13 and Titus 3 teach that Christians should submit to the authority of the government they live under. Romans 13:1 states that God appoints all the world leaders and gives them authority. So, if that is the case, is there any grounds for a Christian to ever disobey the government? Or are we to blindly follow all the government’s orders?
There is both a hard line and, as with all things, there is a gray area where we as Christians will have to pray for wisdom and guidance. Let’s look at both in a holistic approach.
First, we must acknowledge that there are clear lines in which we as Christians cannot waver. Hills to die on, as the colloquial expression goes. Acts 4 gives a clear example of one such time:
So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard." (Acts 4:18-20, ESV)
There are several more stories like this. For example: the tale of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3), also the tale of Daniel and the lions’ den (Daniel 6). In both of those accounts the government overstepped its bounds and demanded people worship the government’s specific religion to the exclusion of all others. In both of those accounts the people mentioned resisted and faced capital punishment for it. In the end it turned out well for them, but in many other similar accounts in Scripture and history that was not the case. In Acts 6 for example, Stephen was brutally killed for taking such a stand.
While discussing this we must remember that when Romans 13 and Titus 3 (the main Scriptures on obeying the government) were written, Rome was in power and first century Rome was far from a Christian government. The emperor had declared himself a god and there were many other things going on that we as Christians would disagree fervently with. So, a simply bad government, or bad laws, are not just cause to rebel.
So where is the line?
I like how Dr. Del Tackett explains it. There are spheres of authority. The government is given certain powers, the family is given some, the church certain others, and God is above all. I would resist a government that said I had to remove the name Jesus from my sermons for example, but if the US government decides to take away the second amendment (the right to bear arms), that is within their God-given authority. As a citizen I could vote against it, but if it passed and the amendment was nullified, then Romans 13 and Titus 3 teach I should turn over my guns. Scripture goes further to say I should turn them over willingly and without complaint.
If the government attempts to interfere with anything that is within the sphere of the church such as telling me I cannot teach all the things Jesus commanded or baptizing new believers (Matthew 28:16–20), then they have overstepped their authority and I should ignore such laws. This of course does not mean I will be free from the earthly consequence of my actions, just that I would be doing the right thing.
Finally, I believe that in general Scripture teaches the principle of non-violence at the individual believer level. That is the idea that you always use the least necessary amount of force to do what needs to be done. So, if I am told “You must preach that all religions lead to heaven,” I would not grab my AR-15 and storm the Whitehouse shooting everyone in sight. Instead I would simply refuse to change what I preach. Obviously, God can, and does, call for more violent means at times, but that is in His authority, not mine. Furthermore, that is normally done at the government level, not the individual level (Romans 13:4).
That is my personal perspective based on my current best understanding of Scripture. It is a hard road to walk sometimes, but Christ did not call His people to the easy life.
To bring this home, we Christians face a tough decision: how do you obey the clear biblical command, “do not forsake the coming together” (Hebrews 10:25) at a time when so many believe it is dangerous and wrong? At a time when the government is telling us, “Do not come together in order to protect lives.”
The church where I serve as a pastor has answered that with splitting into much smaller groups, enhancing our live streaming and continuing to meet in ways that drastically reduce risk and does our best to honor the spirit of the quarantine orders. This is a case I think where we must carefully choose the option that honors Scripture and is still loving to our people.
If we lived in a place where Christians were being killed for meeting, we would break up and meet in small secret groups. We would not have big flashy news-covered gatherings. That decision would be easy. I feel that the quarantine is more like that than not, and as such I think my church is doing the right thing by finding a way to come together and still protect our vulnerable.
Romans 14:1-15:3 speaks directly to this in my opinion. The heart of that section is that the “strong” take on the burden of limiting themselves for the sake of the “weak.” The strong are not called to berate the weak or force the weak to act differently. In fact, the strong are ordered to never do that. They are ordered to limit themselves for the sake of the weak.
I hope this brings some clarity to all my fellow believers on what to do with such mandates as “wear a mask” and “avoid large gatherings.” We must choose the option that most honors God (Deuteronomy 6:4), gives deference to others (Romans 12:10), helps us to live at peace with all (Romans 12:16-18) and to love all people (Luke 10:25-37).