When governments place burdensome regulations on churches, what are their options?
I’ve argued that when these regulations are plausibly unconstitutional, or seriously hinder a church’s ability to function as a church—but don’t require disobedience to God—defiance is not the New Testament response. Rather, following the example of Paul’s use of the Roman legal system in his defense, a better option is to obey the authorities God has ordained but to also seek relief through legal means. For convenience, I’ve termed this strategy “comply and resist.”
I’m personally aware of four responses various congregations have chosen:
- Quietly comply: adapt church practices to fit the requirements, and refrain from taking legal action. Example: Harvest Christian Fellowship.
- Comply and resist: adapt church practices to fit the requirements but also pursue legal means for relaxing or reversing the regulations. Example: Capitol Hill Baptist Church. (See also Washington Post. As far as I can tell at this moment, CHBC is continuing to comply while suing D.C. for better alternatives.)
- Quietly disobey: disregard some portions of the health orders without drawing attention to it or seeking legal action. Example: Multiple congregations I’m aware of, but which should remain anonymous.
- Defy and resist: openly disregard the order and take legal action to have it relaxed or reversed. Example: Grace Community Church (GCC) in L.A. County, California.
Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 clearly identify option A as the starting point. Option B might be warranted when the government requirements at issue are unconstitutional, illegal in some other way, unjust, or impossible to comply with for an extended period of time—or all of the above. Options C and D come into play when it isn’t possible to obey both God and man (Acts 5:29).
Those who favor a response of defiance along with legal action have offered a variety of objections to comply-and-resist. I’ll address most of them here, in no particular order.
Objection: This pandemic is overblown. The death rate in (locality) is very low.
The question of the pandemic’s true severity isn’t really related to what the NT requires in reference to “the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1). The instruction of Romans 13, and 1 Peter 2 is not “be subject … unless the government is overreacting to something that’s really no big deal.”
Objection: These orders are targeting worship. We’re being commanded not to worship.
In every case, the orders have applied to far more non-religious entities than religious ones. Still, some church leaders have chosen repeatedly to characterize the orders as if they were specifically aimed at churches. I don’t know their hearts, but those who keep framing the situation in this language give the impression they were already itching for a fight. Is this the spirit of Rom. 12:18 and James 3:17 or more like the spirit of Robert Conrad?
Objection: We’re supposed to have courage and not be pushovers!
Courageous in what form? Pushovers in what sense? Yes, Christians are called to “stand” and “fight,” but what does Scripture reveal to be the location, nature, and strategy of our “fight”? See 2 Corinthians 10:4 and Ephesians 6:12.
Maybe this attitude is fueled partly by culture-war fog of war, but it’s clearly based in part on some bad theology. “The world” Jesus said would hate us (John 15:18-25) is not “the Left,” and the “you” Jesus referred to in that passage is not “the Right.”
Neither the Left nor the Right embody the Christian mind, or Christian social ethics, or Christian political philosophy—certainly not in 2020!
Objection: It’s a matter of conscience and nobody should “tell you and your church what you ought to be doing.”
It’s interesting when people who regularly engage in public debate about all sorts of questions of ministry and practice suddenly want matters of conscience to be off-limits from criticism. But as a concept, it doesn’t cohere.
- Matters of conscience are not “matters nobody is allowed to evaluate or object to.”
- Telling someone (or a church) that what they’re doing is wrong is actually an appeal to their conscience. We honor one another’s conscience by giving each other reasons to rethink a question. This is not “passing judgment” or “despising” them (Rom. 14:10).
In short, evaluation, instruction, and persuasion are not violations of conscience.
Perhaps the real objection is that critics of the defiant response are expressing too much certainty on the topic. But that’s what reasoning is for: when we explain our reasons for a belief, we empower people to consider those reasons and see if our level of certainty is inappropriate—or if we’re just plain wrong—and offer their own reasons why.
“You’re too dogmatic” is not a counter-argument. As far as reasoning goes, it contributes nothing more than “I don’t agree”—which is perfectly fine, but it’s only self-description. I don’t agree with these people about beets. So what?
Objection: Orders from governors, county health officials, and mayors aren’t really law.
The answer to this comes from junior high Civics class. Here’s how it works in America:
- The Constitution recognizes that powers that aren’t assign to the federal government belong to the states or the citizens. The Constitution is law.
- States have their own constitutions, ratified by citizens. Those constitutions are law.
- The state constitutions establish elected legislatures with the authority to enact laws.
- In most states, a combination of constitutional provisions and duly-enacted laws empowers governors, county officials, mayors, and others to make lawfully binding orders. Those orders are in fact law.
A governor’s order is “law” just as much as a police officer’s word is “law” when he says, “I’ll need to see your driver’s license and registration, please.”
Further, for those who want to split hairs about obeying “law” vs. obeying lawfully appointed authorities, it’s worth noting that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 direct us to yield to people, not “laws.”
Objection: The Constitution is the higher law and nullifies the orders of these overreaching governors and mayors.
Imagine your neighbor joins a weird cult. His faith teaches that he must steal property from people of your faith. He steals your car, your dog, your bird bath, your weird shiny sphere thing. When the police arrive, he declares that the Constitution guarantees his right to practice his religion without local government interference.
Fortunately, the police have a better understanding of how the Constitution works than many evangelicals apparently do! They know your neighbor isn’t “standing up for the Constitution.”
Citizens are not authorized to decide—in terms of action—what is constitutional, and that’s for the best.
We have the right to form opinions about what’s constitutional. We don’t get to act on those, though, because the law is the law until the appropriate authorities, through due process, make it non-law. It’s what the judicial branch—established by the Constitution—is for, though legislatures can also reverse laws—again, authorized by the Constitution.
The Constitution does not empower any citizen to declare law to be non-law. We have a word for any system that works that way: anarchy. “Every man a judge of what is really law” is the reasoning of Antifa and looters.
What about unlawful orders, which we’re supposed to disobey? These have some distinguishing features: the illegality is clear; the order is high-consequence morally or ethically; the decision to obey or not obey must be made on the spot. In these situations, a citizen may have no opportunity to seek counsel, report the matter to a higher authority, or sue.
Normally, though, the approach that honors law is to take the matter to court. We don’t honor the rule of law by disobeying law. We follow due process.
Objection: It comes down to what the definition of a church is.
I may not understand this one. Is the argument that a church is no longer a church if it’s forced to meet in smaller groups outdoors rather than all at once under one roof? What definition of a church would lead to that conclusion?
Believers meeting in this way are either one church meeting in separate groups or they’re multiple smaller churches. Either way, they can be obedient to what the Scripture’s teach. Who’s to say that the actions of the authorities aren’t God’s way of providentially turning a megachurch into several smaller ones?
Perhaps the argument is that accepting direction from a government entity about where to meet or in what numbers amounts to replacing Christ as head, which makes the group no longer a church. On this, see below.
Objection: Government has no authority to regulate church life.
I think I mostly addressed this one in Part 2. In short, this concept is stated too broadly, and it’s not clear at all that temporary suspension of indoor meeting properly belongs in a sphere where the governor is “not the boss of us!”
We ought to take Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 seriously enough to work through questions like, “Why do we normally let building codes tell us how many people can occupy our building but we can’t let the state or city tell us that number is zero during a pandemic?”
If a building code doesn’t erase the headship of Christ over a group, how does a public health order?
Objection: Where do you draw the line?
This one is also unclear to me.
The NT has already drawn “the line” between when we must obey the authorities and when we must “obey God rather than men.” When various interlocutors have continued the press me on this, they seem to want some kind of quantitative limit on how far the government can go. But there is only a qualitative limit. The powers that be cannot command us to disobey God.
In the U.S., we have additional legal protections to help us keep the government out of our business, and we should pursue those when applicable, but these are not biblical mandates.
Mark Snoeberger recently delved into this topic. In a piece well worth reading, he offers a hypothetical order from President Trump that all pastors much preach from 1 Peter this Sunday. Technically, pastors could do this without disobeying God. Does the NT require them to? Does it forbid them to?
The “this is outside the government’s sphere of authority” argument can work here, but I don’t think we need it. The principle that Christ is head of the church amounts to a command that churches follow His design for how such decisions are made. Pastors could not obediently let the President (or the King, as the case may be in other locales) tell them what to preach on every Sunday. Could we obediently allow that kind of control even once?
But once again, it’s not clear that the principle of Christ’s headship means the local authorities have no say in where and how we meet when this is believed to impact the health and safety of the community.
Objection: Outdoor meetings risk the health and safety of elderly and disabled members.
This can certainly be the case. At hotter latitudes, heat can be a safety risk. In many other locations, as winter approaches, outdoor meetings would have to be very short indeed. We sometimes see -35 Fahrenheit with high winds here in west Wisconsin. You don’t stand around and sing in that. (You definitely wear a mask—pandemic or not!).
This is where I want to suggest a few—no doubt unsatisfactory—alternatives to meeting indoors in defiance of government health orders. These can, and have been, mixed and matched in various ways by churches across the country as well as in other countries.
- Multisite: Where smaller numbers are permitted to gather indoors, churches might form smaller groups and take turns using the main facility while others join by video from other locations, or from home.
- Video meetings: Alternatives to physical presence are often characterized as “watching it on Youtube,” but video meetings need not be so passive. Using Zoom, and similar technologies, many people can participate actively in a meeting: not only hearing the primary speaker, but one another. Only so many people can interact at once in this way, but this is also true of large physical gatherings. There’s never been a Sunday when every one of GCC’s 8,000 attendees talked with every other individual in the building. Even in churches of 40 or so, only the pastor and maybe a deacon or two manage to talk to all 40. Small groups can certainly have genuine fellowship with one other over Zoom and the like. For a while, I participated in such groups every Sunday.
- Many do not see a video gathering as a biblical gathering at all. There’s no question that it’s not “the same” as being physically together. But in an interactive video meeting, human beings are connected both mentally and physically: they use their physical senses to see one another, hear one other, and speak to one another. What’s missing is physical proximity and the senses of taste, smell, and touch. This makes it a non-gathering? I’m not convinced… partly because I work as a part of several teams that get quite a bit done every single week over Zoom and Microsoft Teams. It seems absurd to say those meetings are not meetings, but I’m open minded: tell me what they are.
- Tents and rented space: Greg Laurie’s church has used a combination of video meetings and tents to comply with regulations in his area.
- Travel: For many weeks, Capitol Baptist Church members have traveled outside of Washington D.C. to legally meet outdoors in space belonging to another church.
Nobody is saying it’s easy, but where is easy in Luke 14:25-33 or 1 Corinthians 4:9-13?
The NT calls to “be subject” are strong and clear and were first taught in the context of a government we moderns would consider oppressive. Though obedience may sometimes be extremely difficult, churches are not free to disregard what they see as foolish, intrusive, or even motivated by hostility to the faith. If we’re going to justify open defiance, we have to establish that obedience to God requires that response.
We have biblical precedent for seeking legal relief when government mandates are legally dubious, but while we pursue our legal rights, we “must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Rom. 13:5, ESV).
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 content manager for a law-enforcement digital library service.