Rev. Timothy R. Scheuers
The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the lives of ordinary citizens in significant ways. As I write, more than 4.2 million people have contracted this novel virus that has taken the lives of over 287,000 worldwide. For the families affected by long periods of quarantine and the painful grief over lost friends and family members, this virus hardly seems overblown. Nevertheless, the rest of the world has mostly been inconvenienced by stay-at-home orders, social distancing regulations, and those pesky masks. Many people simply wonder how long it will be until their favorite sit-down restaurants re-open for business.
Christians especially crave the day when we can return to our sanctuaries to worship God in the corporate fellowship of his saints; we ache for it! For believers, then, the most pressing question has been whether the local governments’ stay-at-home order should be allowed to keep the church from gathering for corporate worship. Isn’t this a clear example of government overreach and a suppression of the free exercise of religion? Should Christians obey this order, even if they don’t think it makes sense? Is the temporary suspension of corporate worship a capitulation to the spirit of the age?
To what extent should the Christian submit to the civil authorities, even when it hurts?
God answers our questions about civil obedience and disobedience with simple and straightforward instructions: he commands Christians to obey the directions of the governing authorities, unless those directions expressly contradict the instructions he has already given in his Word. Romans 13:1-6 explains our Christian duty to submit to civil authority:
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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment…. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience…. the authorities are ministers of God.
Romans 13:1-6 outlines several key principles:
God commands Christians to be subject to the government, because
God is the one who establishes governments, sovereignly appointing leaders and divesting them with his authority to rule, so that
God’s people will not incur judgment through disobedience, but will submit for the Lord’s sake with a clear conscience.
Likewise, the Apostle Peter, in I Peter 2:13-17, writes:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Similar to the Apostle Paul in Romans 13:1-6, Peter emphasizes these important points:
Christians ought to yield authority and give obedience to the people and institutions that God has placed in power over us.
This obedience should be rendered, not simply for love of country or personal benefit or to avoid the consequences of civil disobedience, but “for the Lord’s sake.”
Christians witness to a watching world—we stop the mouths of ignorant and foolish people (v. 15) who are eager to accuse Christians of misconduct or despise God’s appointed leaders—when we honor those in authority over us, submitting to their rule respectfully.
We ought to submit to our rulers because we are free in Christ. This freedom is not a license to be free-wheeling in our relationship to governing authorities. We are never free to pursue sin or to gratify self or to promote anarchy in society. The freedom of forgiveness and new life with God in Christ produces a holiness that makes us servants of God in all areas of life, including submission to our governments.
Alongside Paul and Peter’s inspired instructions, the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 39, explains our Christian duty to fulfill the fifth commandment:
That I show all honor, love, and fidelity to my father and mother, and to all in authority over me; submit myself with due obedience to their good instruction and correction; and also bear patiently with their weaknesses and shortcomings, since it pleases God to govern us by their hand.
Are our civil leaders fallible? Certainly. Do they often test our patience? To be sure. Do we at times suspect they don’t have our best interests in mind? Perhaps. Nevertheless, the divine rule is unambiguously stated: we must respect them because they rule us at God’s appointment. We should voluntarily submit to them for the Lord’s sake.
But now the question you’ve been waiting for: Are there exceptions to our obedience? The biblical answer is, “Yes.”
Christians are obligated to disobey their government leaders when they instruct us to do something that directly contradicts God’s stated will in Scripture. Christians should disobey their rulers:
If they instruct us personally to commit murder (Ex. 1:15-21; Ex. 20:13).
If they instruct us to worship false gods (Daniel 3).
If they instruct us not to pray to the one true God (Daniel 6).
If they instruct us to stop preaching the gospel (Acts 4:17-20; 5:27-29; 5:40-42).
Under these circumstances, the Christian must obey God rather than men.
But does the current stay-at-home order established by our government to slow the spread of COVID-19 qualify as an act of aggression against the Christian church? Is complying with this regulation an act of bowing to the idols of men? Should Christian churches resist federal and state laws prohibiting large in-person meetings and—come what may—gather for worship anyway?
I believe the answer to each of these questions is, “no.” Here’s why:
First, let’s not forget that this is God’s virus. In his mysterious providence, God has struck his world with a virus that continues to confound medical professionals and pose real health threats in all sectors of our society. His purposes in all this are certainly beyond us. Yet, we know that the same God who ordained this pandemic has also ordained our civil leaders to fulfill their task of protecting as many valuable lives as possible, including the lives of Christians. God is working providentially in equal measure, both by the virus and by our response to it, to fulfill his sovereign will. In establishing the stay-at-home order at the recommendation of health officials, we should be thankful that our leaders—whether or not one aligns with them politically—are doing their God-given jobs at a time when we might expect them instead to panic and foster chaos in the world. Shouldn’t Christians, of all people, consider our rulers’ response to this virus to be God’s providential means for protecting the church and its members, and give thanks?
Second, our civil leaders have made no concerted attempt to single out churches in order to delay their return to public worship. Authorities have been consistent in suspending large corporate gatherings of all kinds, not so as to suppress the ideas of certain groups, but so as to slow the potential spread of the virus for the benefit of all. If officials continue to delay our worship gatherings while allowing other similarly-sized meetings to resume, then the church has a legitimate complaint. But we simply are not there yet.
Third, we must prudently balance all of God’s commands so that we respond to this virus with a spirit of Christian love and generosity toward our neighbors. The stay-at-home order has posed a complex question for believers, to be sure: How do we weigh God’s requirement for Christians to meet corporately for worship (Hebrews 10:24-25) against God’s equally strong call to preserve life and love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 25:40, Mk. 12:31, I Jn. 4:21)? It seems that the best answer to that question—at least under the present circumstances—is that there is wisdom in suspending regular corporate worship (only temporarily) for the sake of protecting as many lives as possible (fulfilling Jesus’ rule of love for neighbor). The impulse to return to full corporate worship as soon as possible may seem pious. But is it really the wisest way to apply ALL of God’s commands, especially since it risks the health not only of one’s own church family but that of the surrounding community as well, potentially bringing disrepute upon the church and ruining its cultural witness?
Finally, we must learn to submit humbly to God’s will. The unusual and complex times in which we live require us to develop patience, flexibility, and the realization that our everyday lives—including normal worship practices—will not necessarily snap back into place according to our timeline, simply because we desire it. This is something anyone who has experienced the mysterious providence of God in their lives should know and embrace.
To be sure, meeting as a corporate body of believers for worship is far and away the best, and in time by God’s grace, Christians all over the world will meet again together to proclaim the excellencies of the Triune God. In the meantime, even as we pray for a swift end to this pandemic, the posture of God’s children must be one of obedience to God’s commands and to God’s appointed authorities. Unless we have biblical reasons for rebelling against the directions of our government, our default position should be to faithfully observe whatever our leaders have directed, even when it hurts and our hearts ache for the courts of the Lord.
 Don’t forget that Paul wrote these inspired directives to the church during the reign of wicked Emperor Nero, a persistent persecutor of Christians. American Christians often complain about the overreach of the U.S. government, but Roman rule was far more dictatorial and corrupt! Roman power and oppression outweighed anything we have experienced or could even imagine. Still, our Lord called the Christians of Asia Minor to submit to human institutions, and we should do the same according to God’s Word.