“What ever disunites man from God, also disunites man from man.” – Edmund Burke
Walking down the dark tree-lined path, I could see the illuminated porch light and the silhouettes of my wife and three children as they approached the old country home. Before my family could reach the front door, it swung open, and our hosts greeted them with warm embraces. We entered their home, settled in to begin supper, and said grace. Five minutes into the beautiful meal, the conversation turned to the topic of church. I mentioned how grateful I was for our elders’ decision not to enforce the government’s mandates surrounding COVID-19: Choosing instead to empower individuals to determine what was best for them. I was, however, completely unaware that one of our hosts opposed our church’s position. Within minutes, we found ourselves navigating through our opposing views, all the while trying our best to remain gracious. But my apprehension grew tenfold once we were told our church should just simply “obey.”
Many are calling life within the COVID-19 environment unprecedented. The imposed restrictions have aroused new tensions within the population, and naturally, those feelings extend to the church. This quill will explore Christian views regarding the appropriate degree to which the church should practice civil obedience. There will be frequent references to the bible as it contains the teachings committed Christians refer to when shaping their worldview. I will present the better-known passages used to support the Christian requirement for total civil obedience and accompany them with brief counterpoints for reflection. Subsequently, I will present several verses which bring into question the inherent goodness of our governing authorities before concluding with a call for church unity.
The Case For Obedience
To our dear friend’s credit, the call to civil obedience is indeed consistent with several passages of scripture and it would be disingenuous for anyone familiar with the bible to claim the absence of such instructions. One of the best-known passages comes from the Apostle Paul in Romans 13. Only seven verses long, this passage has had a lasting impact on the church’s view of our governing authorities. Romans 13:1-7 ESV reads:
“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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 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.”
As a stand-alone text, I admit this passage seems to provide clear and concise instructions pertaining to our discussion here. But therein lies the problem. These seven verses do not present a stand-alone text, though they are often treated as such. The books of the bible were not organized by chapter until roughly the 12th century. Let’s imagine no chapter break exists and refer back to Romans 12 to see what Paul has to say, leading up to chapter 13:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12.1-2)
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” (Rom. 12.9-13)
Do these instructions complement the idea of total submission to worldly authorities or give us reason to consider the degree to which we should submit? It’s worthy of contemplation.
Another passage often employed when addressing this topic is found in 1 Peter 2. However, unlike Romans 13, 1 Peter 2 contains the calls to holiness and submission within the same chapter, providing a backdrop. The passage reads:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Pet. 2.9-17)
The requirement to be set apart from the world (v. 9-11) followed by instructions regarding submission to the authorities (v. 12-17) should stoke in us a curiosity to examine the relationship between them. Verse 12 explains why Christians should be upright participants in this world: To bear witness to the glory of God. If we begin reading at verse 13, we receive the commands without the knowledge of why we are instructed to do so. These reasons are important as they reveal God’s desire for our lives. As we know God, we can apply His character to the entirety of scripture, which further enriches our biblical studies.
The Case For Study
Another critical element to understanding scripture is identifying when there may be a requirement to apply historical or cultural context. To adopt a strictly literal interpretation of all scriptures is a mistake and considerable damage has been caused at the hands of misguided believers throughout history. At present, is the church carrying out Paul’s instructions found in 1 Corinthians 14:34 and forbidding women to speak in church? Mine certainly isn’t – context is important. Numerous studies exist which address Romans 13 and provide additional context and insights not found simply by reading the text. Additionally, both Paul and Peter’s writings fail to mention the degree of submission required when living under corrupt or immoral authorities, and both merely affirm that God has instituted those over us to punish evil and praise the good.
Arguably, governing authorities seldom function in accordance with God’s desire, which has prompted numerous believers to create additional resources on this topic for anyone who may be interested. The Libertarian Christian Institute, an organization I credit with having introduced me to libertarianism, has an entire resource page devoted to the study of Romans 13. AnarchoChristian, another website that greatly impacted my political reformation, also has numerous articles and podcasts related to this discussion.
The Case Against
Based on their overall reluctance to oppose government mandates, we can assume most modern churches lean on the preceding passages when forming their views on this topic. But do instructions and warnings regarding the authorities exist anywhere else in the remaining thirty-one thousand biblical scriptures? Of course they do. Let us look at a handful:
“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Ps. 146.3)
“Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression,”
“The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” (Ps. 2.2-4)
“So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.”
(1 Sam. 8.10-17)
The Christian faith claims that scripture is written by man but inspired by God. The preceding verses demonstrate God’s reservations about the governing authorities and his repeated warnings surrounding them. Is it possible when Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 call for Christian submission, it is generally when those authorities act in accordance with God’s will: to praise good and punish evil? My personal views on the matter must by now, be abundantly clear. I am growing increasingly skeptical of modern-day governments. They reject God and illegitimately reach into many areas of our lives. So, in light of everything we have seen, how do we reconcile the church’s differing views considering that both sides draw their conclusions from the same holy text? Simple – we must choose to focus on something of far greater importance: Church unity.
The Call to Unity
The Apostle Paul has this to say about unification:
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1.10-13)
Later, while under house arrest in Rome, Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians:
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” (Eph. 4.1-5)
The church must remain unified. Naturally, that doesn’t mean it will agree on everything, but it must not fail to remember that Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ. Opinions surrounding current COVID-19 mandates have nothing to do with eternal salvation. Disagreements over the required degrees of submission to authorities must not present a stumbling block. Forgiveness and grace should abound when we are unified and fully submitted to Christ. Our hope should be in our eternal home, not in the outcome of some struggle to create heaven here on earth. Politics do play a role. They have direct implications on our existence as well as our ability to share the gospel. But the political sphere is imperfect because flawed human beings wield the instruments of government power. The state does not offer real hope.
Let us now travel back to that memorable evening with our dear friends. Desiring not to let the conversation spoil our time of fellowship, my wife and I surrendered our pride and redirected our energies towards remaining gracious. In the end, we had to agree to disagree. Our hosts witnessed our initial displeasure with being told we should obey. However, they also saw our desire to move away from those negative feelings. We were able to lay our differences to rest and enjoyed what ended up being a lovely evening. The following morning at church, in true humility, our friend approached my wife to assure us they had meant no harm by their comment and hoped they were still in good standing. Of course they were. In closing – searching the scriptures to determine if Christians should obey mask mandates won’t bring conclusiveness, but it will reveal a far greater truth; That Jesus died for us, He rose again, and those who believe in Him will gain everlasting life. Surely the church can unite around that.