Pastor R. and I are seeking your Biblical Counsel regarding the relationship to government authority and this COVID 19 pandemic. This relates to Romans 13 regarding "Let every should be subject to the governing authorities". We live in the state of Illinois and as most states, we have been under social distancing, using Zoom for prayer meetings, messages are recorded etc. We have a group in the church that have begun to meet for prayer in spite of the "stay at home order" because they say the Bible states to not to forsake the assembling of the church (Hebrews 10:25).
As Pastors we are concerned because they are not following our advice that we obey the ruling authority in this case, because there has been no prejudice towards Christians at this point, since all businesses (except food related) as well must stay at home. Our guidance would be that civil disobedience to the ruling authority would only take place if all businesses were to open up, yet Christians were singled out to still not meet. Also, we are not forsaking the assembling, because we are still assembling using Zoom.
Appreciate your feedback.
Pastors J & R
Hi J. and R.,
Thanks for writing. I cannot speak authoritatively on this question, since it does not fit neatly into any one biblical category. I can share some thoughts, but you will need to follow the Spirit's guidance in your own church situation.
1) The command to obey government officials obviously is not absolute, just like the command to wives to submit to their husbands is not absolute—that is, a wife should not sin, even if her husband commands her to do so. The government is authorized to serve God (as Paul says, in Romans 13) in maintaining criminal justice—which means keeping innocent people safe from criminal predators, and such.
2) Governments often overreach their divinely-appointed sphere of authority. Even when they do so, it may be wise to submit to them, rather than to stage a revolt. On the other hand, we do not have to recognize a mandate from God for the government to do anything more than to maintain societal justice, and to levy taxes in the support of that goal. Where the government gives orders that are beyond these boundaries assigned to them by God, they have no divine sanction. In such cases, we need not obey as a matter of conscience, though we may do so out of convenience or wisdom.
3) One obvious case in which we should not only recognize the lack of divine sanction, but should also resist or disobey the government, is when the authority of the state sets itself against the commands of Christ—in which case, "we must obey God rather than men." We sin if we disobey God, no matter what other "authority" we may be obeying in doing so. We know of numerous Biblical and post-biblical examples, from the Hebrew midwives in Exodus 1, to the three Hebrew young men defying Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel defying Darius, the apostles defying the Sanhedrin, etc.
4) The question of the government's authority to issue "shelter in place" orders is very questionable. Conservative legal scholars have said that there is no constitutional authority for the government to forbid free assembly, or free exercise of religion, without demonstrably compelling reasons. Do they have such reasons at present?
One may argue that the government is doing this to protect the innocent, but from what? It was once thought that the coronavirus was 100 times more deadly than it has proven to be. This suggested that it posed a public danger greater than the seasonal flu by a huge margin. It is now known that the fatality rate among the few (less than 15% of the population) who actually become infected is probably less than .1%. This means that, if I go out among the infected people, I have one chance in six or seven of becoming infected myself—which is similar to the odds in playing Russian roulette. However, the danger is much less than in Russian roulette. In the latter, if you lose your bet, you die, whereas if I become infected by coronavirus, there still remains only 1 chance in a thousand that I will die. That is, I have a 99.9% chance of survival. This, frankly, is a risk that most rational people are willing to take, rather than to put their whole lives on hold indefinitely. The chances of dying from a non-coronavirus cause may be greater than that. Even if they are not, I know that something will eventually kill me, and there are worse things to die of than this virus.
A nanny-state treats all adults as children. A growing number of ostensible adults (like 40-year-olds supported by, and living at home with, their parents) do not seem to object to this dehumanizing infantilization. Historically, adults have been allowed to take their own risks with their health. I do not know why today should be different. People, without thinking, argue, "But even if you are willing to take your own chances, you might bring the virus home and infect family members." True. I might also bring a gun home and shoot my family members. Does the government really have to protect my family from me? If all self-quarantining were left to be voluntary, then the at-risk family members could freely and voluntarily quarantine themselves from their bolder kin. Can't grown-ups make grown-up decisions for themselves? Seriously!
Those who have been designated "essential service providers" have not been required to shelter at home. They wear masks, gloves, have sneeze-guards between themselves and those they serve, etc. I don't know if the fatality rate among these essential workers is much above the rate for the general public, who are not permitted to take these risks. I have not heard the statistics on this, but my suspicion is that the overwhelming majority of these people are surviving. The lock-down advocates should explain why it is, if essential service providers can safely do their jobs, that those in other businesses, taking the same precautions, would not be equally safe in doing theirs.
The question then becomes two-fold:
1) If the government is denying our right to free assembly and public worship, thus protecting me against my will from dying of the coronavirus, how many other constitutional rights will they feel they should deny me in order to protect me from every other danger in life—e.g., auto accident, cancer, criminal assault, nuclear attack from N. Korea, falling off a ladder or out of a tree, etc.? It seems to me that they do not have a special mandate to shred the Constitution in order to save us all from a one-in-a-thousand danger of fatality from a disease. If they do, then, upon the same principles, they can lock us all down (meaning, putting non-criminals under house arrest for an extended indefinite sentence) every year to protect from the flu, or take our cars away to protect us from pollution and possible accidents, or take our guns, in order to protect us from accidentally shooting ourselves...ad nauseam. The government keeps moving the goal posts, stretching out the public internment, for seemingly no real cause. It is not hard to theorize what their real motives are for doing this, but the question is, do they have the legal authority to violate constitutional freedoms for seemingly trivial causes?
2) Does the lock-down really prevent my fulfilling any Christian duties? If so, then I should violate the government order, even if they were acting within their constitutional authority. I am not sure that any Christian duty is really compromised by my staying indoors—though Christians may have discomfort in observing a trend which may soon lead to the government infringing upon our unambiguous Christian responsibilities. Already, some have been forbidden to visit aged parents dying in care facilities. Is the duty to visit the sick and the prisoners (Mat.25:31ff) now temporarily suspended? Personal, face-to-face evangelism is currently definitely curtailed, though I don't know how many Christians do any of these things, even when conditions are normal.
3) Is meeting by Zoom really able to meet all the same spiritual needs of the body of Christ as face-to-face, tactile fellowship is able to do? Probably not, but again, I am not sure how many Christians practice biblical fellowship under normal conditions, as opposed to sitting in the Sunday morning theater-seating to hear music and a message. Zoom gatherings probably meet as many of the needs of some people as would ordinarily be met in Sunday gatherings. However, fellowship is supposed to involve more than mere listening to the same music and sermon together (both of which can be done on Zoom). The Christian community, ideally, should be interacting helpfully with each other on a daily basis. For those who generally practice such community interaction, I think there are limits to what can be done online.
Everyone must follow his or her own conscience on this matter. In the first week or two of the shut-down, there seemed to be some valid basis for rigid, possibly mandatory, distancing. In the weeks following, so much new information has been learned about the virus that it seems gratuitous to maintain anything but voluntary sheltering in place. Pastors may advise their people to voluntarily comply with the widely-publicized safety protocols, but I do not think we can charge people with sin if they voluntarily wish to take their chances with others, who also voluntarily wish to take the same chances, in order to meet and pray. Daniel, in praying to Yahweh was certainly risking his life, and was defying a government order as well. It might be suggested that he could have been more secretive about his praying, but one gets the impression that Daniel defied the order in order to make a specific statement of defiance. Should we? I do not think I can make that decision for anyone else (nor do I see how a governor, who has no interest or stake in prayer meetings, should be able to make that decision for anyone else either).
Well, Brothers, you obviously got me started. You do not need to make any decisions based upon my thoughts, since they are simply my thoughts. I share all of this for your consideration, because you asked. You may have to take factors into consideration, in your state and your church, that do not apply to my case in California. Let us pray that these hard decisions do not have to be made for much longer.