The current pandemic of COVID-19 has forced many Christians out of their armchairs to consider the real-life implications of how to be a Christian and a citizen. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that on the whole it’s relatively easy to be a Christian and a law-abiding citizen of the United States. But now we’re being pushed a little beyond our comfort zone, and many Christians are struggling to know how to self-consciously live out God’s command: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1).
When I say it’s easy to be a Christian and a citizen I don’t mean that our government is perfect. We have passed and upheld laws that give permission for sin. Tragically, I don’t think everyone is treated fairly under the rule of law. Additionally, I’m suspicious that there’s legislation that violates the Constitution, or creates loopholes to existent laws. Admittedly, there’s also regulations and ordinances that inconvenience my life. But in nearly four decades of living I’ve never had a law forced upon me requiring that I choose between God and man. For that I’m tremendously thankful!
Yet, in the midst of this pandemic many Christians are wondering if we’re living in such a time that may require us to be faithful to God at the expense of obeying the law — we’re living in a time where Christians are examining the subject of civil disobedience. That’s because many state governments have put restrictions on public worship, and have enforced those restrictions through the threat of civil punishment. What Christians did with ease only weeks ago is now being discouraged through the laws of the land.
Now, I know that this depends in part on context. That’s because many of the restrictions being imposed are dependent on state governments — not every Christian is under the same mandates. For instance, until this last week in the state of Kansas the church was exempted from every executive order prohibiting or limiting public gatherings. In a personal correspondence with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment I was assured that religious assemblies were not only legal but essential.
Last week this took a dramatic turn when the Governor issued an executive order that prohibited religious gatherings of more than ten people. The next day this order was revoked by a legislative committee and the Governor filed a suit with the Kansas Supreme Court. This suit — admitted by all parties and the court — wasn’t about religious liberty but whether or not a legislative committee could overrule an executive order. It was, for all intents and purposes, a power struggle between branches of government. A week ago the Supreme Court heard that case and late Saturday night delivered their verdict in favor of the Governor.
The consequence of the court’s ruling was that the previous executive order was reinstated and enforceable on Sunday morning when churches gathered to worship. In less than a week churches went from having no restrictions to being complicit in criminal activity if more than ten people were present. This has, of course, caused a crisis for many Christians. Echoing through many minds and conversations is the question: can the government lawfully do this?
That’s a massively important question and one we need to be very careful in answering. We need to be careful because if what the government is doing is lawful then to resist them is to resist God: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1-2). Yes, God is that serious about respecting and submitting to our governing authorities. On the other hand, if what the government is doing isn’t lawful then as Christians we have no choice: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
So, climbing out of the ivory tower and putting our feet firmly on the ground, what should Christians do? Do we obey our governing authorities, or do we disobey? I am not going to offer a “Yes” or “No” answer. Some may think that’s unhelpful. But an answer to that question is going to depend on the biblically informed consciences of individuals. What I do want to offer are some thoughts on how we should be thinking through this question.
First, we need to be careful in respecting the limits of church power and authority. Biblically speaking, church and state are distinct but equal and cooperating authorities under the Lord Jesus Christ — the state is not over the church and the church is not over the state. We need to respect that distinction. It’s a point that’s been confused by American civil-religion but the church isn’t a political party, policy maker, lobbyist organization, or an institution of checks-and-balances for the civil government. I’ve often been reminded of Jesus’ question to the man who wanted him to settle a legal conflict: “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator of you?” (Luke 12:14). With perfect knowledge Jesus could have decided the dispute better than any civil court. But he deferred to the lawful authorities appointed to make such decisions.
Second, we need to be careful in defining “lawful.” We’re a nation and states that are governed within the parameters of a constitution. It could be that the restrictions on public gatherings as applied to religious assemblies is unconstitutional. Personally, I expect challenges to be made in the judicial courts which is the appropriate place for those challenges to be made (see Acts 25:10-12) — not the court of public opinion. But the unconstitutionality of a law is not the same thing as an unbiblical law. In asking questions about civil disobedience we cannot conflate these two. Civil disobedience is not “We must obey the constitution rather than men,” it is “We must obey God rather than men.” As Christians we can submit to laws that are unconstitutional but we cannot submit to laws that are unbiblical. This requires that we be absolutely biblically persuaded of our duty.
Third, we need to be careful in understanding the legislation. This is a time when narratives are being spun and misinformation spread like wildfire — sensational headlines are so much more exciting than fact! But as Christians we must be concerned about the truth. For instance, I have heard over and over again that the Kansas governor has forbidden Christian worship. Actually, the Governor has only restricted the number of people who can be present in a public facility. That’s an important distinction. In Kansas we’re not being prohibited from preaching the gospel, reading the Bible, praying together, or singing. We’re not even prohibited from having a public gathering. We are only restricted in how many can be present in our church building. I admit that limiting makes for a pastoral head and heartache since our whole congregation cannot legally gather in one place. But my point is simply that as those who serve the Truth we need to avoid sensational and misleading narratives.
Fourth, we need to be careful in remembering what does not delegitimize a government’s authority. In Kansas last week’s showdown wasn’t only between branches of government but it quickly (as is most of our government’s response) turned political. Political ideologies aren’t wrong — I even have my fair share! However, a government’s lawful authority doesn’t depend on their sharing my political views. The Apostle Peter is able to write with little qualification: “Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17). The Roman emperor — even if he is the wicked and persecuting Nero — is still to be honored by Christians. Further, inconsistency doesn’t delegitimize a government’s authority. I’ll admit, inconsistency in the application of executive orders is really frustrating. Yesterday, our Governor gave a qualified A-Z list (literally) of who is exempted from her restrictions — the church is not one of those exceptions. But simply because not everyone on the road is ticketed doesn't mean I can now lawfully speed. Our submission to the government doesn't depend on their political commitments, moral character, or consistency. Rather, we submit to all that isn't contrary to the Bible as the free children of God (see Matthew 17:26).
Fifth, we need to carefully have a heart-check. There are times when as Christians we need to disobey our governing authorities (see Acts 5:29). But it is only when they require us to be disobedient to God — when the only way we can obey them is to be unfaithful to God. For the Christian, civil disobedience doesn’t arise out of patriotic flag waving while holding the Bill of Rights; it doesn’t arise out of anti-government sentiment or political leanings; it doesn’t arise because we’re inconvenienced by the law or draconian measures; it doesn’t arise out of some macho sense of being able to stick it to the man. For the Christian the only motivation for civil disobedience is a deep biblical conviction that obedience to man would be disobedience to God. And when an informed conscience demands such disobedience we must also receive the consequences counting our loss to be our gain: “When they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:40-41).
A couple months ago I had the privilege to be guided on a tour of Scotland. There I saw memorials to civil disobedience — the places where Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart were tied to the stake and burned alive, where Margaret Wilson and Margaret Lachlan were drowned in the rising tide, and where the Covenanters were hanged in the Grassmarket. Admittedly, those memorials struck a nostalgic feeling. They were men and women of whom this world was not worthy. But when you stand beside the graves there’s also a sobriety that shatters the romanticism. They didn’t die because they thought their disobedience was exciting or adventurous. Rather, they went to their deaths persuaded that they had to obey God rather than man. It made me extremely thankful for the ease with which I can live as both a Christian and a law abiding citizen. But, if the time comes when Christians in the United States must pick up the cross of civil disobedience it will be heavy, it will be burdensome, and it will be painful. But then our lot will be to carry that cross humbly, to carry it well, and to carry it in the strength of the Holy Spirit.