Church vs. Public Health Orders: A Case for Complying and Resisting

Much of the debate over whether churches should submit to COVID-related rules in California has been inaccurately framed. “We must obey God rather than man,” they say (drawing from Acts). Using phrases like “ban on indoor worship” or even “ban on worship,” they represent the options as totaling two: We can (1) obey God by continuing to meet, disobey the manmade rules, and stand up for our rights or we can (2) disobey God by not meeting at all, comply with oppressive orders, and watch our liberties be slowly stripped away.

But these aren’t really the choices anywhere in California.

It’s true that some counties are more restricted than others, and, at the moment, Los Angeles County (where John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church meets) has a broad ban on indoor gatherings. Orange County (where Greg Laurie pastors Harvest Christian Fellowship) is under a very similar ban. These bans do apply to churches—along with bars, restaurants, parties at people’s homes, and a variety of other venues.

Another Option

The only-two-options talk in these cases is like saying, “Either the traffic light is green or you have to stop.” That really isn’t quite how it is, as all drivers know. Maybe the light is yellow. Maybe you’re well into the intersection already. Maybe the light just turned yellow.

In the case of the indoor-gathering bans in LA County and Orange County—and really any situation where governments place burdensome, disruptive, and possibly unconstitutional requirements on churches—we often don’t have to choose between complying or resisting. We can comply and resist.

I’m persuaded that this is often the only response that is fully obedient to the clear teaching of the New Testament.

Key Principles

These principles should be old and familiar ground to most readers. Probably only Principle 3 is controversial, and that only very recently (at least in Bible-believing, Baptist heritage circles). I continue to hope that, to most, it’s not controversial at all. Either way, a review of these principles might be helpful.

Principle 1: Submission is a defining characteristic of the Christian way of life.

Those who are Christ’s call Him “Lord” (2 Cor 4:5, Col 2:6, 1 Pet 3:15, Rom 10:9). As much as the language of “believing,” and being “born again,” this language of submission expresses the believer’s profound change of heart and mind toward Christ. He or she has changed from one who is against God, to one who knows and loves Him as a dear Father (Rom 8:15).

In our natural condition, we were all “alienated and hostile in mind” toward God (Col 1:21). We were “sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2), choosing our “own way” (Is 53:6), rebels against God who “suppress the truth,” reject what is “plain” about God, and choose gods of our own making (Rom 1:18-23).

Our history as rebels against God means there’s a lying voice within all of us—Christians included—that tells us defiance, disobedience, and distrust are strong, courageous, and wise. Sometimes defiance, etc., is strong, etc.

But not usually.

The Scriptures challenge us to believe that meekness, submission, and trust are usually the courageous, strong, and wise course. (On meekness alone, see Matt 5:4-5, 2 Cor 10:1, Col 3:12, Eph 4:1-2, James 3:13, and 1 Pet 3:15. On submission, see 1 Cor 16:16; Eph 5:21; 1 Tim 2:11; 1 Pet 2:13, 18; 1 Pet 3:1, 5; 1 Pet 5:5).

Principle 2: Normally, obedience to governing authorities is obedience to God.

Romans 13:1-2 are clearer than crystal on this point.

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (NASB)

Sobering.

By default, the instructions of “the governing authorities” (or possibly the persons themselves) are “the ordinance of God.” It’s embarrassing that sometimes we struggle to find the faith to believe this in 21st Century USA. Imagine being the original audience of these instructions—under Rome, where large numbers of people were slaves or other sorts of non-citizens. “Rights” as we think of them, were a thing under Rome, but only for some. (See John MacArthur on this point, about three paragraphs down.)

Peter repeats the point and expands on it in some different directions.

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. (1 Pet 2:13–15, ESV)

Note here that:

  • Being subject is “for the Lord’s sake.”
  • Both higher and lower authorities are included.
  • Submission is intended to be one way we silence our critics.

How we relate to authority is not a small thing for the church.

Principle 3: Disobedience is permitted only when human authorities command disobedience to God.

If we’ve let Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 sink in, the question that comes to mind is, can it ever be right disobey the authorities? As John MacArthur put it (not in 2020), “That’s the principle. It’s unqualified, unlimited, and unconditional.” In the immediate context, there are no exceptions whatsoever.

We do find some positive examples of disobedience elsewhere in Scripture, though, and in these we see the one exception to the principle in Romans and 1 Peter.

Josiah Dennis has written ably on this topic recently and notes what these examples have in common:

With the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:17); the parents of Moses (Hebrews 11:23); Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3:13-18); Daniel (Daniel 6:10), and the apostles (Acts 4:18-20, 5:27-29), we must “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). These individuals refused to kill the innocent or to worship idols. They refused to submit when governing authorities commanded them to cease praying to the Lord or preaching in the name of Christ.

The exception is simply this: when the commands of any human authority are such that we cannot obey both them and God, we must obey God and disobey man.

My purpose in quoting John MacArthur again on this point isn’t to be snide. He really has articulated these matters clearly, forcefully, and accurately in the past—and many Christians give his teaching a lot of weight, as they should. He’s earned that, and I’m hoping his current take on these matters is a temporary aberration.

From The Christian and Government:

The one time we have a right to disobey the government is when it commands us not to do something God has commanded us to do, or when it commands us to do something God has commanded us not to do.

Principle 4: Lawful pursuit of rights for the purpose of service is permitted.

In Scripture, when God’s people disobeyed the authorities in order to obey God, they were pretty quiet about it. They may have been defiant, but they weren’t belligerent. They weren’t even confrontational.

We do find an interesting example of protest against government in Acts, though. The apostle Paul experienced a violation of his rights as a Roman citizen. He did not engage in any acts of disobedience, but he did confront the injustice and demand his rights.

But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25)

In a later incident, Paul isn’t protesting, per se, but uses his legal rights to end a protracted and unwarranted imprisonment (Acts 25:11-12).

In general, Christians should aim to “lead a peaceful and quiet life” in relation to “kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim 2:3). Still, Paul’s resistance shows us that law matters, too. Christians are commanded to obey the authorities, but not necessarily to do so in an entirely passive way.

Summing Up

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that including churches in bans on indoor gatherings is unduly burdensome, unjust, and unconstitutional. It’s not clear to me that this is the case, but for now, let’s stipulate that it is.

With that as a given, the principles above show that the proper Christian response is to comply and resist. Though it’s difficult under the rules, churches can still meet in obedience to Scripture. But while they meet in a legal way, they can also resist by legal means.

In a future post, I hope to look at some alternatives available to churches under these kinds of bans, consider John MacArthur and GCC’s defense of their decision to disobey, and respond to objections to the comply and resist response I’ve advocated here.

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There are 6 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

Well done.  A lot of our convictions are fine on paper, but when they are put to the test, sometimes we find it easy to fudge.

Many Americans have a consistency fetish, and it needs to be trashed.  For example, protests where people are in one another's faces are allowed, but church gatherings in some places, not.  That is inconsistent. The way to fix it is to address the protests. 

If something is done wisely and another thing foolishly, that is better than both being done foolishly.  That is a hard sell.  Many people would rather have both done foolishly.  Grrrr....

 

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It is funny how the 'appeal to consistency' argument gets used... very inconsistently! Biggrin

OK, so sometimes I forget to pick my clothes up off the floor... therefore I should leave them there all the time?

Some people get away with tax fraud... so everybody should be allowed to cheat all they want?

Some groups got away with not wearing masks... so we should also be allowed to not wear them?

Lots of protesters got away with looting and burning... so we should decriminalize looting and burning for everyone?

But sometimes the appeal to consistency argument doesn't even reference actual consistency... Large numbers of protesters got to gather outdoors all crowded together without masks... So we should be allowed to crowd together indoors in any numbers we like!

(Scratches head.) OK... if you say so.

It reminds me of when my siblings and I were little kids: "He hit me first!" is basically an appeal to consistency: "If he got to me, I should be allowed to hit him. It's only fair if we all get to hit... all the time... as much as we want!"

Maybe it's more of an "appeal to fairness." But it still doesn't really make sense. Right and wrong don't work that way. Wisdom and foolishness don't work that way. Safe and unsafe don't work that way. Helpful and unhelpful don't work that way. ... etc, etc.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

JDen's picture

I appreciate the balance here between complying and resisting. In the present situation, if believers think that churches are being unfairly targeted, they can seek legal redress. But I agree with you that there seems to be no cogent biblical reason to disobey the government restrictions as they currently stand.

I actually think that COVID-19 is irrelevant to our obedience of government authorities. Even if COVID-19 were a total hoax, political propaganda, and a means to persecute Christ's church, I still don't have biblical reason to disobey the restrictions. However, if the government restricts churches from meeting altogether (as they did early on in the pandemic, apart from virtual and drive-in options), I think that we have more biblical reason to disobey. But restricting the number of people in a gathering or requiring them to meet outdoors is possible for believers to do in most instances while still obeying Scripture. In those rare instances when weather is dangerously unbearable, we can temporarily suspend gathering together. Many churches would do so anyway if a tornado was forecast, etc., etc. Believers in Soviet Russia certainly met outside in all types of weather for the cause of Christ, and we should be willing to follow their example.

It is critical that we recognize that obeying the government, not just gathering together, is for the cause of Christ. Only when the mandates of government and God clearly conflict do we obey the higher Authority. But we should be as willing to suffer persecution or hardship for obeying the government as for gathering together. Both are essentials for believers.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Even if COVID-19 were a total hoax, political propaganda, and a means to persecute Christ's church, I still don't have biblical reason to disobey the restrictions. 

Solid point. Rom 13 and 1 Pet 2 don't say "be subject... except when leaders are being stupid or panicking or political."

The two most common pushbacks I get are:

a) The US Constitution is a higher law and we have to obey that instead of governors who are out of line, and

b) The whole COVID thing is overblown.

I have a followup article posting tomorrow... in which I still don't get around to answering these objections. But I'm hoping to get to them, and others, in part 3.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

JDen's picture

I will give my thoughts on the two common pushbacks that you mentioned.

Pushback #1

Aaron Blumer wrote:
a) The US Constitution is a higher law and we have to obey that instead of governors who are out of line

The answer to this question could vary from state to state and from legal perspective to legal perspective. I can't answer it from a legal standpoint, but my view is that the Bible doesn't clearly give us this exception. Kevin Bauder, however, in Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order, sees this exception as legitimate.

Kevin Bauder wrote:
Besides obedience to God rather than humans, the Bible also teaches a second rationale for civil disobedience. This rationale is less obvious, but equally legitimate. It can be inferred from the Jews' appeal to Darius in Ezra 5. The Jews in Jerusalem had begun to rebuild the temple, an act that violated a decree in which Darius commanded that work on the temple should cease. In other words, the Jews were engaged in civil disobedience. When challenged, however, they did not appeal to God's command (though they were obeying God). Instead they appealed to Persian law. They claimed that they had been granted legal authority for their work by an earlier decree in which Cyrus had commanded the rebuilding of the temple. Under the law of the Medes and the Persians, the later emperor Darius had no authority to annul the decree of Cyrus. In other words, the decree of Darius was actually illegal. By resuming their work of rebuilding the temple, the Jews were obeying the earlier decree that had come from Cyrus. Eventually, Darius himself agreed that they were correct and that building the temple was their duty.

A similar circumstance can be found in Acts 16. In this chapter, the civil authorities of Philippi acted illegally by throwing Paul and Silas into jail without respecting their legal rights as Roman citizens. Later, the authorities issued orders that the two missionaries were to leave town quietly. Paul refused, using terms that were blunt to the point of defiance (v. 37). He insisted that the authorities themselves had violated the law. Furthermore, he demanded at least a token restitution. When the rulers of Philippi learned that they themselves were the ones who had broken Roman law, they hurriedly made amends. Since Philippi was a Roman colony, their miscarriage of justice could have landed them in serious trouble.

In both of the above circumstances, the civil authorities were forced to bow to the rule of law--the notion that ultimate authority does not rest personally in the rulers of a society, but in that society's laws. The rulers themselves were subject to the law of the land. When they act contrary to the highest laws, issuing decrees and making laws that conflict with them, they may rightly be disobeyed. In fact, they can be forced to obey the laws of the land.

This understanding of civil disobedience is sometimes captured in the expression Lex, Rei, "the law is king." Over every civil order exists some legal code, the maintenance of which is equally obligatory for both those who govern and those who are governed. If the rulers seek to overturn this code, those who are ruled may rightly reject their authority in favor of the authority of the law. In such instances, the rulers, and not the ruled, are the rebels, because the rulers are the ones who despise the just authority of the law.

The principle of "rule of law" still holds true. Civil governors do not have the moral prerogative to act contrary to law. If they do, then the governed may rightly reject their demands and take whatever measures are necessary to restore the rule of law. These measures may even include the toppling of lawless rulers. Christians have no moral obligation to obey officials whose demands violate the law. They have no responsibility to obey lower laws that violate higher ones. They need no obey any decree, directive, order, or legislation that conflicts with the highest law of the land.

I appreciate Bauder's analysis. He wrote this in 2012, long before the current issues. I'm not convinced, however, that these examples of civil disobedience are as clear as Bauder thinks that they are. Ezra 4-5 is especially unclear. The Jews certainly appealed to the decree of Cyrus, but there is no clear indication that any Persian ruler has explicitly forbidden them to build the temple. Artaxerxes did command that the building of the city cease (Ezra 4:21), but many commentators place this event later chronologically. So, at best, this passage is unclear.

Bauder also uses Acts 16 as support for his position. It is true that the prison keeper had commanded Paul and Silas to leave the prison and that Paul bluntly refused without the presence of the magistrates. But Paul was appealing to laws presently in place. The officials had not placed new laws in effect that violated other, higher laws. These officials merely did not know that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. Once they knew, they quickly remedied the situation as Paul requested.

It is also worth noting that Rome formerly was a republic. Israel formerly was a nation governed solely by God and His law. Rome was the oppressor in Israel as well as in Asia Minor (those to whom Peter wrote). But both Paul and Peter urged submission, not social disobedience.

In short, I don't find Bauder's biblical support to be compelling. He uses that data to build a case for civil disobedience. But I would be remiss to not include another conclusion of his, in speaking of the limits of civil disobedience.

Kevin Bauder wrote:
The first principle is that Christians have no Biblical obligation to halt all immoral practices in their societies. The New Testament never charges Christ's church with the duty of establishing righteousness through legislation, let alone through civil disobedience....

The second Biblical principle pertinent to civil disobedience in the contemporary moral climate is that Christians must submit to all just laws. This is the clear message of Romans 13:1-7. Believers owe this duty to the civil authority, for the authority stands as a minister of God for good. If under any circumstances Christians subvert just laws, they are subverting the very possibility of the kind of ordered society within which Christian can exist peacefully.

Too often, civil disobedience is employed not to avoid evil but as a form of protest and a way of making political statements. It has become an assertion of power against power, a means of demanding recognition without the trouble of gaining reasoned consent....

Thus, I consider this to be an unclear exception to submitting to government. If it is a legitimate exception, a person must (a) provide biblical justification and (b) provide legal perspective as to how the laws in question violate higher laws ("It violates my rights" is simply not sufficient. This legal perspective, from a U.S. standpoint, should include constitutional law as well as judicial precedent. If no court agrees that said law violates the Constitution, the argument may be lacking.).

Pushback #2

Aaron Blumer wrote:
b) The whole COVID thing is overblown.

What can I say? If I lack in legal experience, my experience in studying disease is less than zero. Smile I frankly cannot speak to the extent of the virus. But if this is considered a justification for biblically disobeying the government, it fails. I can think of no verse to indicate that government incompetence or deception are causes for disobedience. Perhaps the government is wrong. Perhaps the media is wrong. Perhaps everyone is wrong except for me. But being wrong again isn't a biblical exception to submitting to the government.

JDen's picture

Aaron, here are a couple other pushbacks that I have heard:

#3 - The government isn't enforcing or cannot enforce a particular law (e.g. a county government that isn't enforcing the state mandates), so we don't have to follow it.

#4 - It is impossible to meet outside in some conditions (e.g. extremely poor air quality due to smoke is a major concern in CA right now).

I addressed pushback #3 in my article.

Pastor Don Johnson provided a practical and historical look defending aspects of pushback #4.

I agree with Pastor Johnson that we need to be wise in deciding whether we meet outdoors in dangerous weather. But I don't think that I've reached a complete answer on this one yet. I'm hoping that you'll address it in one of your upcoming articles.

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