How Can We Simultaneously “Submit to Every Ordinance of Man” and “Obey God Rather Than Men”?

"...it seems necessary to amend the statement, 'We must obey the government unless the government explicitly tells us to disobey God,' to something like this: 'We must obey the government (1) unless the government explicitly tells us to disobey God, or (2) unless the government exceeds its jurisdiction so as to speak authoritatively into a sphere regulated by another, God-instituted authority.'" - Snoeberger

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Aaron Blumer's picture

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First, I appreciate that Snoeberger is asking the right questions in this and taking it on rationally. More light than heat. It's definitely the most persuasive piece I've seen so far leaning toward "defy and resist" vs. "comply and resist."

And the hypothetical "What if Trump commands all pastors to preach on 1 Peter 2 this Sunday?" Is Sunday. Many would say "We need to support our President" and do it without hesitation. I have no doubt. But if it were Obama, the same men would be screaming "separation of church and state!!!"

But that's really not relevant.

What would be biblical in that situation? Is Snoeberger right that complying with such an order would not be disobedient to a command from God? I'm not so sure, though one doesn't come immediately to mind. Isn't there NT teaching about how "what to preach" is supposed to be decided? ... well, it's not exactly spelled out.

But what if we weren't in America, and this order was coming from the King of England? We tend to feel differently, because, at gut level, we feel deeply that this is just not how things are done in the USA.

What I'm prepared to say at this moment is that (a) it's not obvious to me that we need/ought ot have a second exception to Rom 13/1 Pet 2, and (b) if we admit this second exception, how do we define its boundaries? There is some language about that in Snoeberger's post. I don't think it solves the problem, though. (It's a fact that in many locations the government has long told churches, along with other entities, exactly how many people they can't have in their building at one time. Reason? Public health/safety. Does that fit exception #2? Why or why not?)

If the government can't tell a church to refrain from using its building during a pandemic, it's hard to see what it would be allowed to do in reference to public health. The fact that this disrupts life considerably for large congregations in difficult climates isn't exactly the government's fault.

But I recognize there are some huge complications in all this...

a). The political climate... everybody is in a battle rage, and every single government act seems fraught with hyperpolitical concerns. Some of that is only perception. A lot of it isn't. 

b) "Just how actually bad is this pandemic?" is one of the questions complicating the church vs. state debate, and the hyperpoliticizing of that question has made it much harder to meaningfully/persuasively answer. But would we be having this conversation (about the authority of government to say 'no indoor meetings, including churches') if, say, to use an extreme example, we had a plague that was killing 1 out of every 2 people who gather in any way outside their homes?  I think not. So what's the debate really about, then?

c)  Duration. There's little room for doubt that churches can't refrain from meeting inside their buildings forever. So how long is too long? As this pandemic continues to stretch on and on, when does the survival of a local church become directly threatened by a ban on indoor meetings? I get that. But I also have to ask, has God promised that all local churches in a nation will survive plagues? I'm not trying to make an argument with that. I'm just asking a question that seems pretty relevant.

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.

dgszweda's picture

Aaron, I think you hit two nails on the head.  The first, is the disparity between conservatives (who make up most of the members of our church) and the liberal's view on the severity of the crisis.  If this had a death rate of 50%, it would be a no brainer.  Many of the people feel it is overblown (which it is to a degree) and they discount the real effect it is having, and many don't know someone who died from it.  Those who are more cautious or have known someone who has died from it are very much more cautious.  This is what I am seeing so much in the church today.  That is why people at churches like MacArthur's are not social distancing, not wearing masks.... until there is a big outbreak in their church.

Second, is the inconsistency of government.  They are allowing some assemblies but not others.  I think these are really the two big issues.  If this was more deadly, or more real to the church and there was a firm consistency of government there wouldn't be much leg to stand on here.  So that is really the argument.

I think as a side not here also, is that most churches are stubborn in their practices.  They don't want to change what they are doing today, and so they view the afront of their practices, the same as an afront to their church.  There are many churches in California that are meeting just fine.  But MacArthur doesn't want to change the venue or the type of service, so that is an afront to church for him.  I have heard the argument from some churches that they don't have room to social distance, while at the same time the church down the street has gone to two services to social distance.  We have gotten soft in the US as to what is expected and at some point we need to get more used to the fact that our grand model today will not last forever.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Just finished watching a webinar with Carl Trueman about his forthcoming book about the psychologizing of the self as a prism for identity. He was asked a question about persecution, and the questioner mentioned Solzhenitsyn. Trueman downplayed "persecution" in the US, and said that in comparison with true persecution Americans are basically whining about how we're not getting the breaks we've been used to. He referenced Eastern Europe, and said that if you were still a Christian under Soviet communism, you were a very tough person. He implied Western Christians were basically wimps who are whining a lot, and needed to become tough rather quickly. To be fair, he put himself in this category, too.

I think Trueman is right.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

JDen's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
And the hypothetical "What if Trump commands all pastors to preach on 1 Peter 2 this Sunday?" Is Sunday. Many would say "We need to support our President" and do it without hesitation. I have no doubt. But if it were Obama, the same men would be screaming "separation of church and state!!!"

I wish more pastors were preaching 1 Peter 2...

But seriously, I think that Christians should obey the President in such a scenario if it were a one-time event. If it were such a frequent occurrence that it forced preachers to always preach on one topic, I would think we should start disobeying so that we can preach the whole counsel of God. Now, if the government told us to preach something other than God's Word, we must disobey.

Mike Harding's picture

I believe Mark handled this issue correctly and wisely.  In Idaho yesterday several believers were arrested for singing outside without a mask--Outside without a mask in an organized worship service.  That's where we are today.

Pastor Mike Harding

JDen's picture

Dr. Snoeberger presents two issues which I believe should be separated.

First, the government should not regulate spiritual matters.

Mark Snoeberger wrote:
[Civil authorities] cannot, however, regulate ecclesiastical activities, because civil authorities are neither qualified nor authorized to assess what is essential/non-essential to spiritual life and safety.

Dr. Snoeberger asserts that the proper role of government does not include regulating ecclesiastical activities. His argument here is from the American Constitution, legal precedent, and the nature of the New Testament church as a spiritual entity. I agree with Dr. Snoeberger on this point.

Dr. Snoeberger, however, makes a second argument: Christians are free to disobey civil authorities who regulate spiritual matters.

Mark Snoeberger wrote:
“We must obey the government (1) unless the government explicitly tells us to disobey God, or (2) unless the government exceeds its jurisdiction so as to speak authoritatively into a sphere regulated by another, God-instituted authority.”

I agree with Dr. Snoeberger's first exception. I disagree, however, that simple infringement on the church's sphere of authority warrants the freedom to disobey. Where do we derive this sphere of authority, the idea that the church has authority of its own apart from what God has commanded?

Certainly, in those things that God has commanded in His Word (such as Dr. Snoeberger's examples of gathering together, singing, and observing the Lord's Supper), we must obey regardless of what the government says.

But we are not obligated to disobey the government in matters that are not clearly revealed (such Dr. Snoeberger's examples of the entire assembly gathering together or the particular text preached on an individual Sunday). And Dr. Snoeberger would agree.

Mark Snoeberger wrote:
It does not mean that we must disobey or that it is prudent to disobey, only that we may disobey.

So then, if it is not obligatory on Christians to disobey the government if obedience to Christ isn't at stake, why would we disobey? Apart from consideration of the command to obey civil authorities, are we willing to risk arrest for our applications of Scripture? For our traditions?

Robert Byers's picture

We do not have a Caesar in America.  We have a Constitution.  That is the higher power in the United States.  Each state also has a Constitution.  That is the higher power within that state, but only to the extent that it offers greater freedoms than the federal one--it cannot restrict or lessen them.  Every law and every government official is bound (though of course not always in practice) to what the Constitution says.  The fact that a person holds a position as an unelected and unaccountable bureaucrat does NOT make him a higher power.  At best he might be a lesser power, but such power is always limited and restricted, not unbounded.  When he goes beyond those bounds, he is the one who is defying God-ordained authority.

A pastor like JMac who refuses to obey one of these would-be tyrants illegally issuing orders which he has NO legitimate authorization to make is not resisting the power.  That government official is the one who is resisting the power.  Refusing to go along with such edicts is an honorable and necessary thing, both as an American, and more importantly as a Christian.  JMac is obeying the real and actual power, not resisting it, because he is acting within the authority of the federal and state constitutions, unlike those who are threatening him and trying to control his church. 

Jesus told us to render to Caesar what belongs to him.  Again in the republican form of government established for America, our “Caesar” is not a president, a governor, a mayor or a health department bureaucrat. The Constitution is the authority. We are meant to be a nation not of men, but of laws—settled, written, consistent and consistently applied laws. It is true that the Constitution establishes certain offices and authorities, but they are all meant to be subject to it, and they are only legitimate to the extent that they are subject to it.  

Those entering the military swear to “support and defend...against all enemies foreign and domestic,” not a national, state or local official, but the Constitution. And their commitment to obedience to orders, from the president all the way down their chain of command is also restricted rather than complete and unbounded.  They owe it to themselves and to their country to refuse to follow illegal orders.  

We are not rendering unto our "Caesar" what we owe him when we comply with the orders of those who are resisting him, even if they happen to be government officials.  Instead we owe disobedience to such orders both to God and to our nation, in that order.

 

Mark_Smith's picture

Robert Byers wrote:

We do not have a Caesar in America.  We have a Constitution.  That is the higher power in the United States.  Each state also has a Constitution.  That is the higher power within that state, but only to the extent that it offers greater freedoms than the federal one--it cannot restrict or lessen them.  Every law and every government official is bound (though of course not always in practice) to what the Constitution says.  The fact that a person holds a position as an unelected and unaccountable bureaucrat does NOT make him a higher power.  At best he might be a lesser power, but such power is always limited and restricted, not unbounded.  When he goes beyond those bounds, he is the one who is defying God-ordained authority.

A pastor like JMac who refuses to obey one of these would-be tyrants illegally issuing orders which he has NO legitimate authorization to make is not resisting the power.  That government official is the one who is resisting the power.  Refusing to go along with such edicts is an honorable and necessary thing, both as an American, and more importantly as a Christian.  JMac is obeying the real and actual power, not resisting it, because he is acting within the authority of the federal and state constitutions, unlike those who are threatening him and trying to control his church. 

Jesus told us to render to Caesar what belongs to him.  Again in the republican form of government established for America, our “Caesar” is not a president, a governor, a mayor or a health department bureaucrat. The Constitution is the authority. We are meant to be a nation not of men, but of laws—settled, written, consistent and consistently applied laws. It is true that the Constitution establishes certain offices and authorities, but they are all meant to be subject to it, and they are only legitimate to the extent that they are subject to it.  

Those entering the military swear to “support and defend...against all enemies foreign and domestic,” not a national, state or local official, but the Constitution. And their commitment to obedience to orders, from the president all the way down their chain of command is also restricted rather than complete and unbounded.  They owe it to themselves and to their country to refuse to follow illegal orders.  

We are not rendering unto our "Caesar" what we owe him when we comply with the orders of those who are resisting him, even if they happen to be government officials.  Instead we owe disobedience to such orders both to God and to our nation, in that order.

 

Yes sir!

Bert Perry's picture

#2 really is a rephrasing of #1, in my view.  If, for example, the government takes it upon itself (as most European nations did and many still do) to tell people how to do church, or decides to discipline my children instead of me in non-criminal matters, the church and I are being told to abdicate their God-given roles.  That's sin.  There is, to be sure, sometimes some ambiguity about the matter, but really, it all comes down to obeying human government until the point it tells us to sin.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dan Miller's picture

And the hypothetical "What if Trump commands all pastors to preach on 1 Peter 2 this Sunday?" Is Sunday. Many would say "We need to support our President" and do it without hesitation. I have no doubt. 

I disagree with this. I think it's REALLY weird that you think this. I think that even those of us who think that our Christian duty this year is to vote republican (Trump), would never want to select a passage for a sermon based on what any president said. No - wouldn't dream of it. I doubt ANY SI member will think that. 

G. N. Barkman's picture

I certainly wouldn't allow President Trump to dictate which text I preach from.  (Nor any President.)  Who would do that?  Why would anyone think that any serious minded Biblical preacher would do that?

G. N. Barkman

Jim's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

I certainly wouldn't allow President Trump to dictate which text I preach from.  (Nor any President.)  Who would do that?  Why would anyone think that any serious minded Biblical preacher would do that?

"Give me a 3 point alliterated outline and ... and I would go for it" (says the slacker pastor who did not labor in the Word this week)

JD Miller's picture

And the hypothetical "What if Trump commands all pastors to preach on 1 Peter 2 this Sunday?" Is Sunday. Many would say "We need to support our President" and do it without hesitation. I have no doubt. 

I disagree with this. I think it's REALLY weird that you think this. I think that even those of us who think that our Christian duty this year is to vote republican (Trump), would never want to select a passage for a sermon based on what any president said. No - wouldn't dream of it. I doubt ANY SI member will think that. 

Thank you for expressing this Dan.  That is where I am at as well and I am troubled on how Aaron keeps falsely representing those of us who plan to vote for our current president.   I expect better from a brother.

I am also thankful for the great civics lesson from Robert Byers above.  

TylerR's picture

Editor

Aaron wrote:

And the hypothetical "What if Trump commands all pastors to preach on 1 Peter 2 this Sunday?" Is Sunday. Many would say "We need to support our President" and do it without hesitation. I have no doubt. But if it were Obama, the same men would be screaming "separation of church and state!!!"

I think some would. Others wouldn't. There is a noticable difference in how conservative Christians think about GOP vs. Democratic presidents; even if GOP presidents have done little to address evangelicalism's core issues. I do suspect the blind sycophantism from Christians is stronger with this President than with any other GOP President in living memory.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

TylerR wrote:

I do suspect the blind sycophantism from Christians is stronger with this President than with any other GOP President in living memory.

That must be because you are young(er).  I both voted for and supported President Reagan to a much greater extent than our current president, and I think Reagan got more "blind sycophantism" than Trump (though only God is worthy to be followed that strongly, of course, and he wants our faith to be genuine, not blind).

What fundamental Christians of my generation unfortunately failed to do was to root out the "God and Country" form of church (and sadly, also conflating the "Moral Majority" with the church) that has led to Christians somehow aligning the GOP with Christianity, rather than realizing that while one party's platform might be closer to Christian beliefs, it's still an organization of the world, and is not in any way a Christian organization any more than America is a "Christian" country (despite the founding documents allowing Christianity to flourish).

Dave Barnhart

TylerR's picture

Editor

dbcii wrote:

That must be because you are young(er).  I both voted for and supported President Reagan to a much greater extent than our current president, and I think Reagan got more "blind sycophantism" than Trump (though only God is worthy to be followed that strongly, of course, and he wants our faith to be genuine, not blind).

You may be right. Of course, it isn't important if I am right; we can likely all agree the "GOP President is amazing!!" dogma lives loudly within many conservative Christians in this age. However, at minimum I suspect social media and media culture in general have made this sycophantism easier to show and observe.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

TylerR wrote:

You may be right. Of course, it isn't important if I am right; we can likely all agree the "GOP President is amazing!!" dogma lives loudly within many conservative Christians in this age. However, at minimum I suspect social media and media culture in general have made this sycophantism easier to show and observe.

I wasn't really objecting to your point -- just the "in living memory" part.  We'd agree that Christians put too much hope in the GOP, and you are probably right that social media has made this "hero worship" easier to observe, and that it's even encouraged by our "Muhummand Ali"-style (i.e. "I'm the greatest") president.

My point was that if the "God and Country" thinking had not been tolerated and encouraged as much as it was, maybe we'd see less of "The GOP is our savior!" type thinking today, and maybe it would have been noticeably less than during the Reagan years, though that may just be wishful thinking on my part.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

I have also at times gotten really uneasy at the veneration given Reagan--it is hard business to have a government of laws and not men, and while it's gotten more difficult with Trump, it's nothing that new.  For that matter, the veneration granted our government as a whole as demonstrated by playing the national anthem before sportsball games and saying the pledge of allegiance at many events.  Why?  If we have such a great system, this is the way to prove it?  Really?

Don't get me wrong; I liked Reagan and Trump's governance is growing on me, but some of the hagiographies afforded out there just creep me out.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.