David Closson is Director of Christian Ethics and Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty on December 2, 2020.
In response to an upward surge in COVID-19 cases this fall, state and local governments are issuing new mandates intended to mitigate the spread of the virus. However, some of these well-intentioned mandates unfairly target houses of worship and infringe on the religious liberty of millions of Americans. Because some state and local governments have treated churches and other houses of worship unequally during the pandemic, it begs the question:
Is civil disobedience ever an option for the Church?
Biblically, do governments have the authority to tell churches to cease holding worship services? Should pastors always comply with directives from the government, even if the orders are manifestly unfair? As the pandemic drags on and local leaders continue to impose restrictions on churches, these questions deserve careful reflection.
The Bible teaches that government is necessary in our fallen world. According to Romans 13, government is instituted and ordained by God. Therefore, it is not surprising that passages such as 1 Timothy 2:1-4, 1 Peter 2:13-14, and Titus 3:1-2 teach Christians to submit to governing authorities and pray for their leaders, out of deference to the highest authority: God.
Government has been established by God, thus rebelling against government is, by proxy, rebelling against God. But is this biblical command to respect government unconditionally or are there exceptions to this rule?
What about laws or governments that are unjust?
To answer these questions, it is important to revisit Pauls’ teaching on submission to civil authorities. In Romans 13, Paul explains that government is ordained by God to promote good and restrain evil. According to Paul, God delegates authority to civil rulers to administer justice. Thus, rather than bristle at those exercising legitimate authority, the posture of Christians toward those in government should be one of gratitude and general compliance; Christians recognize that by obeying the government they are honoring and obeying God.
But how should Christians respond when God-ordained rulers appear to step outside their prescribed roles?
While the Bible does not speak exhaustively about civil disobedience, it is clear that we must disobey the governing authorities if they command something contrary to what God, our highest authority, has commanded. In Acts 5, the Sanhedrin commanded Peter and the other apostles to stop preaching the Gospel. However, because Jesus had commanded them to preach the Gospel (Matt. 28:19-20), they continued to preach, explaining to the Sanhedrin that they “must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
How should this qualified principle of obedience to government influence how Christians and churches respond to pandemic restrictions?
In many states, Christians are justified in disobeying some of their state government’s restrictions. For instance, the Bible is clear that the church or body of believers should continue meeting together to build each other up in the faith (Heb.10:24-25). Because of this clear biblical teaching, there may be circumstances in which it would not be inappropriate or sinful for a church to defy orders prohibiting worship services. However, in doing so, congregations should be careful to protect the health and safety of worshippers, the public witness of the church, and the spiritual and physical needs of church members.
Moreover, church leaders who decide they must defy a government ordinance should be prepared to accept the consequences of breaking the law. However, given the clear teaching of God’s Word about the importance of gathering for worship, there may be instances where this type of civil disobedience would be permissible.
In addition to God’s authority, there is a lesser but nevertheless important authority that ought to be considered as part of the conversation on civil disobedience: the U.S. Constitution.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, some states have allowed places of business to open while keeping churches closed or under stricter guidelines. For example, in Nevada, churches could open but had to follow stricter capacity rules than casinos. If the state is discriminating against churches by placing harsher restrictions on them than on other sectors of society, the church may have constitutional justification in taking legal action and disobeying the government’s order.
In fact, the unfair treatment of churches is what prompted the Supreme Court to side with Catholic and Jewish congregations before Thanksgiving in New York against Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo had been holding churches to a different standard than businesses and other organizations in the same vicinity, which the court deemed unfair.
Thus, although there may be circumstances that justify civil disobedience, churches and Christians should try to obey government COVID-19 guidelines whenever possible, regardless of whether they agree with or like them. For example, many Christians disagree about whether they should be required to wear masks or not. However, states that require masks to be worn in places of worship typically require masks to be worn in all public spaces. In these cases, the mask mandate does not target Christians or places of worship and does not contradict biblical principles.
Abiding by a mask mandate does not cause us to disobey any of God’s commands. Therefore, notwithstanding concerns about civil liberties and the broad authority given to executives during the pandemic, a mask mandate alone does not constitute a biblically justified reason to disobey a government rule. If we think a law or government is unjust or unwise, we should seek to change it through the proper channels available to us. However, if the law does not require disobedience to God or go against biblical principles, we should obey it in the meantime.
The New Testament was written within the context of the Roman Empire, an oppressive government with laws that were unjust, unwise, and unpopular. Nevertheless, Paul still commanded the church to obey laws if doing so didn’t involve disobeying God. This command is equally applicable to Christians today, and we should seek to live at peace with God and with man whenever possible (Rom. 12:18). However, when we must choose between the two, our allegiance as Christ-followers must be to God alone, no matter the repercussions.