Government Shutdowns: Submission or Civil Disobedience
Government Shutdowns: Submission or Civil Disobedience?
In the wake of a second round of government shutdowns and temporary closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is obvious that people are fatigued and frustrated. Business owners, parents of school aged children (and the children themselves), teachers, administrators, pastors, and everyone else feel the weight of the age of restriction we are living in. As well, health care workers working with COVID patients feel the strain in these seasons and deserve our thanks for their care and sacrifice. Everyone has been affected in some way – for some, this has been inconvenient because of various temporary restrictions put in place. For others, it has been devastating due to the loss of life, health, income, or even the toll it has taken on their emotional and mental health. For all, we look forward to a future beyond this moment.
During this second round of closures, I have heard a few discussions among pastors – and certainly more prominently among believers generally – as to whether this would be a time to resist the Governor’s orders to temporarily halt in-person religious gatherings of more than 10-25 people. I can understand where those questions come from as these restrictions feel burdensome. What I would like to do in the following paragraphs is to work from the foundation of the Word of God to shed some light on why The Chapel is choosing a certain course as opposed to another. It is important, in our desire to get to a decision that is wise and consistent with the Word of God, that we don’t just generate “heat” through overly emotional or fundamentally political arguments for our decisions; instead, we need more “light” through the revelation of the Word of God and our willing obedience to it. It is imperative that believers (and certainly spiritual leaders) begin with the default position of wanting to submit to the authority of God Himself, and to His Word to us. That being our desire, I would have us turn our attention to the teaching of the Apostles Peter and Paul since both have words of instruction for us in the season we are in.
Biblical and Theological Reflections:
“Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” 1 Peter 2:17
If Peter were writing today, that passage would say “honor the President” or “honor the Governor”. I’m guessing that whatever your political affiliation, for a Jewish Christian (such as Peter) to honor a Roman Emperor would be even more challenging than you or I honoring a President or Governor with whom we disagree. Yet, that’s exactly what Peter instructs. In the preceding verses of that text (which I encourage you to read), you find the nature of Peter’s instruction about governmental authority and why it is right to honor the emperor/governmental authority:
Because it honors God – 1 Peter 2:13a (notice Peter says this is for “the Lord’s sake”)
Because of their purpose – 1 Peter 2:13-14
Because it quiets the opponents of Christianity – 1 Peter 2:15
Because we are free people – 1 Peter 2:16 (as people who are loyal to King Jesus, we are free to submit to earthly leaders)
Because God judges justly – 1 Peter 2:23 (as Jesus entrusted himself to the Father, so too can we)
We will return to this passage momentarily, but let’s allow Paul’s instruction to the believers in Rome – at the heart of the Roman Empire - to enter the conversation as well. Romans 13 must be read in context of Romans 12. Paul is instructing Jewish and Gentile Christians how to relate to God and to one another and mentions that they are to love, to bless and not curse, to not repay evil for evil, to not take revenge but leave room for the wrath of God, to be patient in affliction, to live at peace with everyone as far as it depends on them, among many other exhortations. So, when Paul begins Romans 13 it is within this flow of thought. Surely some of the believers struggled with government overreach, and in particular were concerned about paying taxes (just like those in the time of Jesus were concerned about it some 20-25 years earlier).
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Romans 13:1-7
In this somewhat lengthy passage, a few principles emerge for us to embrace:
All governing authorities have been established by God – Romans 13:1, 4, 6. Paul isn’t the first to describe this, and he isn’t only describing “good” leaders being established by God. In the Old Testament we could read of the Egyptian Pharaoh being established by God, King Nebuchadnezzar being established by God, and even some ungodly kings of Israel being established by God. And in John’s gospel in the New Testament, we hear the words of Jesus to Pilate when he says “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). Even Jesus affirms Pilate’s authority, but notes that it is a derived authority - it comes from God.
Because all governing authorities have been established by God, believers are generally to live in submission to them – Romans 13:1, 5. Specifically, Paul gives two reasons for this submission: a. Because of the governmental authorities’ right to punish wrongdoing, and b. Because of conscience (since this is God’s authority).
Rebellion against governmental authority is rebellion against what God instituted – Romans 13:2
In light of the teaching of both Peter and Paul, it should be clear that the first impulse of a believer is that because we honor God as our King, we will honor the authority that He established. We should be quick to answer the question: “Am I prepared to disobey what God has clearly stated in light of a particular circumstance?” And for spiritual leaders, we must ask “Am I prepared to stand before God and give an account for leading the people in my care toward disobedience to God’s duly established authority?” These are sobering questions, and should be treated with the gravity they deserve. To sow the seed of rebellion in the lives of believers is dangerous and destructive, and is an impulse that we should resist in order to honor God.
But we must also pay careful attention because the Scripture is equally clear that there are times when the governing authorities are working in ways that are clearly opposed to the way and will of God and thus should be resisted out of submission to God. There are examples from the text of Scripture that we can call upon to understand the motivation of when resistance or disobedience is proper and acceptable.
In Exodus 1:15-21, two Hebrew midwives disobeyed the edict of the Pharaoh to kill the Hebrew boys at birth because they knew that this dishonored God and they feared God. In Daniel 3:16-18, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not obey King Nebuchadnezzar in worshipping the golden image because they knew it violated the command of God. In Daniel 6:6-10, Daniel did not obey the edict from King Darius about praying to any other god but him. And in Acts 4:18-20 and Acts 5:27-29, we see Peter, John, and the other apostles disobeying the authorities because they told them they could not preach in Jesus’ name. As Peter noted in the first passage we discussed, fearing God precedes honoring the emperor, and, in serious cases, we must obey the True Authority instead of the earthly one. There can be times where a believer must resist who God has appointed in order to do what God has commanded.
What we find common to all of these instances of disobedience to the governing authorities is that either the governing authorities try to prohibit believers from doing what God commands or the governing authorities give a command that the Bible prohibits. In either case, disobedience is proper and right, and a believer or a leader must be prepared for the consequences of such a decision. But as Charles Colson noted, civil disobedience should demonstrate submission to God instead of simple rebellion against the governing authorities. If our motive is out of political animus or just to feed our general rebellion against authority, then we are not on solid Biblical decision making ground. But if we align our decision making with God’s own authority and Word, and our motivation for civil disobedience is out of submission to God more than rebellion against authorities, then the action is justifiable if the above criteria are demonstrably present.
With this brief (and non-exhaustive) survey of the Scripture in view, how do we approach the situation we are in presently? Well, a series of questions based on the Word of God is proper:
Is the government causing us to sin?
Is the government prohibiting what God has commanded?
Is the government commanding something God has prohibited?
Is the government singling out and discriminating against churches/believers?
To all of the above questions, we are answering “No.” A temporary shutdown order of religious gatherings does not, in my view, force us to sin, and it is within the right of a government to do so if premised upon reasonable motivations (such as public health). We are not being singled out as a church or churches, as all large gatherings have been temporarily banned. As well, businesses, schools, concerts, sports events and the like are faced with restrictions as well. Whether or not we agree with the imposition of these restrictions, they are not out of nowhere and are based upon a premise of public health; thus, we can fairly call them reasonably justified (even if we disagree with the manner, motive, or application of the restrictions). It is fair, here, to note the exhortations of Hebrews 10:24-25:
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
It is my view that WE are not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, nor are WE giving up the habit of so doing. We gathered before COVID, during COVID, and we will gather again in person. We have gathered in large groups and small groups before and during this pandemic. This passage isn’t specifically speaking to the structure of gathering (nor to timing), but is concerned with the heart attitude that would detach itself from life-giving Christian community and worship. So, while not abandoning our hearts for gathering, we are being asked to participate in the public health of our region through a governmental restriction that temporarily halts in person worship gatherings. Of course, we still have an online platform and can worship in this way temporarily, and we are not being asked to halt the preaching of the gospel or the ministry of the Word to people. Might we, at some point, be forced into a position as either leaders or believers where we must obey God rather than governmental authorities? Yes. And by God’s grace, we pray we are all prepared to do so – leader and believer alike. But this is not that time.
Though much more could be said, it is upon this foundation that we have made the decision to willingly comply with the governmental authorities around this temporary shutdown. Do I like being shut down? Of course not. Do I agree with it? I do not (though my opinion is immaterial). What I can appreciate is how difficult these decisions are for leaders to make. Are some of the decisions motivated by politics? Of course they are, at least in part. Churches in WNY have not been demonstrated as the problem related to the spread of the virus, and our church (and most of the ones I know) have been judicious in honoring measures intended to promote public safety and health. The same could be said of schools and many businesses. But while I do not personally think that general lockdowns (as opposed to specifically targeted ones aimed at protecting the most vulnerable) have proven to solve the issue with the spread of the virus, I do understand that the Governor has a very difficult task and that no decision is easy or without consequence. As well, I understand it is not my decision to make, it is the decision of the Governor who has been duly established by God. What I am convinced of, however, is that God has called upon me and every believer to pray for those in authority – an authority He established (1 Timothy 2:1-4). Please join me in praying for Governor Cuomo and Lt. Governor Hochul as they lead our state, as well as praying for President Trump and Vice-President Pence as they oversee efforts at the national level and for the apparent incoming administration of President-Elect Biden and Vice-President Elect Harris. These leaders need the wisdom of God, and the people of God need His grace and mercy to walk gratefully before Him and not lose sight of our high calling to be worthy witnesses of Jesus Christ.