Perhaps you’ve seen it on Facebook. Perhaps you’ve heard it on the blogosphere. People are getting antsy under quarantine, no surprise there. Our worst fears about the Coronavirus have not been realized, praise the Lord there! But all of this raises several difficult questions. How long can they do this? How long can governors keep our economy shut down? How long can churches legitimately be told they can’t meet in person? How do we respond to violations of the constitution? And most importantly how do we as Christians think about being Americans?
As I see it, there are two distinct issues at play here. The first issue is whether governors have the right to shut everything under a genuine plague killing at an unprecedented rate. In other words, if COVID-19 had twice the spread rate it already does (and it does seem to spread quickly as people are asymptomatic initially), and half of everyone who got it died, whether young or old, sick or healthy, would it still be unconstitutional for a governor to shut everything down in the face of such an emergency? Do such emergency powers violate the constitution? The second issue is whether COVID-19 is bad enough that it warrants the actions the governor has taken.
Do They Have the Right?
Speaking to the first issue, let me begin by saying I’m not a constitutional scholar, so I don’t have any authority to speak to the constitutionality of the question. I will note that these shutdowns have been carried out all across America, by both Democratic and Republican governors, with differing levels of strictness; they have been encouraged by a Republican President; and strong conservatives that I look to for guidance (such as Ted Cruz or David French) have stated that what is happening is constitutional so long as it is applied equally to all gatherings. If they start opening up movie theaters and ball games but continue telling churches they can’t meet, that is where the actions become unconstitutional, or so I’m told.
Can We Resist?
But that leads us to the second question - what if the government is wrong about this disease? Here is where Scripture comes in. What do I do if I think an authority is wrong? Well, the message of the Bible is overwhelmingly one of submission to authority, starting all the way at the top. Christ submits to the Father (1 Corinthians 10:3; John 8:29; Matthew 26:39). Slaves are told to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5). Jews are told to submit to the teaching of the Pharisees and the scribes (Matthew 23:2-3). Children are told to submit to their parents (Ephesians 6:1-3). Wives are told to submit to their husbands (Colossians 3:18). And yes, Christians are told to submit to the government (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). Our general attitude as we approach this question ought to be one of submission. That’s tough, because that cuts against our natural tendency.
We don’t like submission, we like to rule. This was the first sin - a desire to be as gods and determine what is right and wrong on our own - and it continues to be the source of all our sin. We do not want this man, that man, or any man for that matter, to rule over us (Luke 19:14). For this reason, we should be very slow as Christians to reject our human authorities, realizing the deceptiveness and the bent of our own flesh.
Why Should I Obey the Government?
As for governments specifically, we are given two reasons why we should listen to, obey, and honor our rulers. The first reason is that our governments are put over us by God. This is true generically (the idea of government was God’s idea), and specifically (God put our leaders over us). We need to take seriously strong language like we find in Romans 13:2: “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” So for me, as a resident of Indiana, my governor is Eric Holcomb. For me to resist Eric Holcomb is to resist God.
But there is a second reason given: an attitude of submission towards the government is a critical part of a Christian’s testimony. 1 Peter deals a lot with a believer’s witness to a watching world, and in the middle of Peter’s discussion on submitting to and honoring our government, Peter makes this point. “For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men:” (2:15). God wants us to submit, because that is how he wants us to represent him to the world.
If the governors do have the right to declare a quarantine in an emergency (and again, conservatives in the know say they do), then I think it would be dangerous for us to decide, “Well, I disagree, this isn’t really an emergency.” We might be right. They might be wrong. But we put ourselves in a dangerous position when we decide we only have to follow our authority if we agree with them. We wouldn’t want our children to act that way toward us, so are we ready to be consistent?
When Does It Go Too Far?
But this answer will no doubt raise two objections. First, what if the government asks me to violate God’s Word? Specifically, is quarantining a violation of Hebrews 10:25, “Not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together”? Second, what if governors cross constitutional boundaries? Do we just roll over and play dead in such cases?
First, it is true that when the government tells us to violate God’s Word or our conscience, we are to continue obeying the higher authority. Acts 4:19-20 and Hebrews 11:23 clearly teach that there may be a point when that happens, specifically in regard to protecting human life and fulfilling our religious obligations. And yes, that will mean respectfully disobeying our government at that point.
But is that what is happening now? Are we being asked to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together.” I don’t think so. The word “forsake” is a strong Greek word that means “to forsake, abandon, desert.” That word has everything to do with the heart of the one forsaking, and isn’t addressing unusual or extreme circumstances. Shut-ins are not violating God’s command to gather because they can’t get out of bed. As my pastor has pointed out, lepers weren’t violating God’s command to gather three times for feasts in Jerusalem because they were supposed to be quarantined. As long as a government is uniformly applying these quarantining laws to, as best as they know how save lives, we are not in sin to comply.
So what if they do start targeting churches? What if everything else is opened up but the churches aren’t? That’s a different story. At that point, we would again want to look to Scripture. What did Daniel do when asked to eat food that he knew he could not eat? He graciously appealed by offering a solution. His first response was not simply to resist. He didn’t throw the food at the prince of the eunuchs and say “I’m not eating this trash.” He was kind, gracious, and offered a solution. Is there a way that churches can work with governments to find a compromise that works? If it were me, and I were a head pastor, I’d probably try to set up home groups so we were meeting 15-25 at a time, rather than 150 or more. What if the government said, “Nope, you can’t do that, you can go to theaters but you can’t meet in homes.” At that point, I would probably quietly set up meetings for my church anyway ready for the consequences that came my way. Thankfully, we aren’t at that point in America yet.
To the second question - what if we don’t like what our governors are doing, and what if they are acting wrongly or even unconstitutionally. What about instances where governors have gone overboard and perhaps even are targeting religious institutions? Well, thankfully we have a country with checks and balances for such occasions. We have a court system to address overreach on the part of the executive branch. We have elections and the ability to protest peacefully and to communicate with our elected officials. If what you are seeing in your state bothers you, reach out to your senator or congressperson. If you feel like you personally have been unfairly targeted, take that to the courts. That is the system our government has set up to address these issues. It’s not wrong to use them. Our freedoms are a wonderful gift given to us by God, and we ought to be thankful for them and exercise the responsibility that goes with them. Just remember that how you do it matters to God.
And let’s not forget what else the Bible says about government - we are to pray for our elected leaders. Let’s pray for the leaders we like and especially for the ones we don’t. Let’s seek to be as much a support as we can be to those who rule over us, realizing they are flawed and will make mistakes. Let’s all pray for one another and for our country. Let’s use this as an opportunity to band together as we prepare to climb out of the economic hole this disease will leave us in. And let’s trust our sovereign God to bring good out this bizarre season of our lives as we seek to be wise in submitting to the government he has placed over us.
Note: I recently did a podcast where I interviewed my head pastor, Pastor Phelps, on this very issue. While this post reflects my own views, I would be lying if I didn’t say that his perspective on this issue has helped to sharpen and clarify my own. If you would like to listen to the episode, you can find it here, or just search Colonial Hills Podcast on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify and find the episode.
Ben Hicks went to Bob Jones University for college and stayed on for grad work, recently graduating with his Master of Divinity. Ben is the Young Adults Pastor and oversees the Single Focus ministry at Colonial Hills Baptist Church. Follow him on Twitter @HicksBen
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