In this time of crisis, our governing authorities have suddenly found themselves able to work harmoniously in order to rapidly establish new rules and protocols dictating to us what we can and cannot do. These rules presume to protect us from the threat of the virus and to minimize the risk of death, even at great cost to our education, our economy, and our normal routines. As Christians, we must determine how we should respond to our governing authorities: do we instinctively comply, or do we instinctively resist, or something in between?
Romans 13:1 provides a very clear directive for us: 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. All authority belongs to God alone, who created the heavens and the earth, and any authority belonging to our human overlords is ultimately derived authority. They only have authority because God has entrusted some measure of authority to them. Therefore, if we are going to live in submission to the authority of God, then we must also live in submission to those rulers who have been entrusted by God with authority. Thus the command that all Christians ought to be subject to governing authorities.
The apostle Paul wrote this command in Romans 13:1 to Christians living in the city of Rome in the first century. Their governing authorities included a Roman emperor and various other Roman rulers who were not followers of Christ, neither in their personal lives (so far as we know) nor in how they ruled, and they were often very hostile to Christians. If these Christians were commanded to obey their governing authorities, then the same command surely applies to Christians today.
When we obey our governing authorities, we obey God. When we disobey our governing authorities, we disobey God.
As Christians, we are not anti-authoritarian or anti-government, and it should not be our instinctive nature to resist or to rebel against our governing authorities (see Rom 13:2). Some of us respond to any public order with immediate mutiny – if they tell me to go left, I will go right; if they tell me to sit, I will stand. Such an attitude is not Christian, and if we have such a spirit, let us repent and be changed in Christ.
But neither is it Christian to blindly obey whatever directives come from governing authorities, for God has entrusted authority to them in order that they might be “God’s servant for your good” (Rom 13:3). They are supposed to use their power to establish and to enforce moral order in our world by rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior.
Christians ought to use sober judgment in order to determine when governing authorities have gone astray and are no longer promoting what is good. We must remember that God has entrusted all authority to Jesus, who has been exalted as Lord of all, and we must therefore submit to the Lord Jesus as our highest authority, for he demands our undivided loyalty and obedience (Rom 1:4-6; cf. Matt 28:18; Acts 2:36; 10:36).
Simply stated, we must discern if and when obeying our governing authorities would require us to disobey the Lord Jesus, and in such situations, we must obey the Lord Jesus rather than governing authorities and be prepared to endure the consequences. The Bible abounds with stories of God’s people exercising such judgment, including the famous story of Daniel enduring the lions’ den because he prayed to the Lord God of Israel in violation of the king’s edict that prayers be offered only to the king (Daniel 6).
If we apply this theological vision to our current situation, we can affirm that Christians ought to lead the way in obeying many of the orders our governing authorities have issued regarding the coronavirus, for they do not conflict with our obedience to the Lord Jesus. We can wash our hands, sanitize, practice social distancing, and the like, especially when such simple practices can slow the spread of the pandemic. We can even honor the more painful directives, where we might wonder if the harm of the cure outweighs its benefit, such as shutting down schools and businesses, and cutting people off from their support networks (e.g. counseling centers, social workers, AA meetings, etc.).
However, other directives ought to give pause for Christians and compel us to exercise discernment, especially some governing authorities’ treatment of the church as non-essential. We must carefully consider in what way the church is essential for us as Christians and for our community, and we must exercise sober judgment in determining at what point, if any, we should resist the restrictions being placed upon the church.
For Christians, the church is anything but non-essential. The Bible teaches that we have been created for worship, and throughout the Bible, worship is normally (and almost always) conducted in a corporate gathering rather than a private setting. The people of Israel gathered in the tabernacle or the temple for worship, and Christians gathered in homes and public places for worship. In fact, the church is a gathering by its very definition, for the Greek word translated “church” (ekklesia) means “assembly” or “gathering,” and Christians are commanded to gather together as the body of Christ (Hebrews 10:25).
And when we gather as Christians, we gather for the sole purpose of discharging those duties we have been commanded to undertake together by the Lord Jesus, and many of these duties can only be done corporately as the body of Christ, not as individual Christians. These include publicly reading Scripture, preaching the gospel, praying together, baptizing, observing the Lord’s Supper, sharing meals and fellowship, submitting to our leaders, sharing our spiritual gifts with one another, and on and on. Very little of the New Testament can be accomplished alone at home; gathering is essential for Christians.
We can (and should) temporarily suspend public gatherings in this season of global pandemic, especially when trustworthy medical professionals agree that such gatherings could spread a disease and harm our congregations and communities. But at the same time, it is alarming to realize that our governing authorities regard church as little more than a form of entertainment akin to a movie theater, so that even as shutting down a theater can be replaced by streaming a movie at home, so also shutting down a church can be replaced by streaming a worship service at home. And it is alarming how many churches have jumped on board as if they agree! Is not our gathering as a church far more substantial than a one-hour production of two-bit worship-tainment?
Further, and most importantly, if our community regards our churches as non-essential, perhaps we ought to use this season of cancellation to self-evaluate what we have been doing as churches. Our commission to love our neighbors ought to make the church the most essential organization in our community, for the church does far more than gather for worship. The church also feeds the poor and the food-insecure. The church comes to the aid of at-risk kids living in unstable homes. The church protects the abused. The church advocates for the marginalized. The church supports the unemployed. The church encourages the depressed. The church cares for the sick. The church watches over widows. The church takes in orphans. The church comforts the grieving. When there is a crisis, the church springs into action. Pity the community that does not have an active church during a pandemic.
In this time of global suffering, our governing authorities ought to view the church as an essential resource of comfort, shelter, and aid. If allowances can be made for many essential businesses to remain open so long as they follow safety protocols, should not churches be afforded the same allowances so they can serve those who are hurting in their own communities? But sadly, and to the detriment of us all, some governing authorities see no such value in the church.
Therefore, as Christians, let’s work together to make the church essential again. In the present time, we still have an essential command from the Lord Jesus to love our neighbors, regardless of whatever restrictions might be placed upon us by governing authorities. Let’s consider carefully at what point and in what ways it might be appropriate and safe for Christians to respectfully push back against those restrictions in order to continue serving our communities. Let’s also think especially about what we will do after this pandemic has subsided and restrictions have been lifted, and let’s commit together that we will undertake our mission as a church in such a way that when the next pandemic rolls around, the church will be regarded as essential.
We serve the Lord Jesus above all, and this means we willingly submit to governing authorities as much as possible, and we also look to the Lord Jesus as our ultimate and final authority, and we serve him, even in the midst of pandemic and panic.