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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is Information Coordinator for a law-enforcement digital library service.