17, November, 2020Posted by :Benjamin Halliburton
As we approach the holidays, we’re all feeling tired. We’ve been wearing masks, social distancing, ZOOMing, and RSVPing for months (but it feels more like years). On top of that, we’re hearing about skyrocketing numbers, overwhelmed hospitals, new city and state restrictions, understaffed schools, and a possible return to – gulp – “virtual church” (if there truly is such a thing to begin with).
After all this time in the gauntlet that is 2020, we may be tempted to just give up. We may ready to throw caution to the wind, be “over” all the safeguards, and simply let the chips fall where they may. We may even start to wonder if some of the – shall we say, unfounded – skepticism about the reality of COVID may be true after all.
However, I’d encourage you not to let your guard down. I don’t have any slick infographics, catchy slogans, or heart-wrenching/fear-mongering personal testimonies to try and convince you to keep taking seriously all the COVID precautions our city and state have passed down. Rather, I’ll appeal to the Bible as I make my case.
In Romans 13:1-7, the Apostle Paul wrote what is now the go-to Scriptural guidance for how Christians relate to civil authorities. Peter wrote similar words in 1 Peter 2:13-17. What do these two passages teach believers in Jesus?
First, they teach us that civil authority (which in Paul and Peter’s world, consisted of unsavory characters like Pilate, Herod, and Nero) is legitimately instituted by God. In his common grace, God has established worldly government to promote humanity’s flourishing. Government can do this by approving good behavior and punishing bad behavior (1 Peter 2:14), encouraging the common good (Romans 13:3-4), and even – yes, even – collecting taxes (Romans 13:6-7). Paul dares to refer to the authorities as “ministers of God” (Romans 13:6).
Second, these passages teach us that Christians are called to “be subject” to these governing authorities (Romans 13:1). Paul and Peter both do not encourage Christians to do this blindly, nor for the sake of “going along to get along” (more on that in a moment). Paul suggests that in obeying the governing authorities, we are – in a roundabout way – obeying God (Romans 13:5, 1 Peter 2:13). Peter especially encourages us to consider our reputation as citizens, and the impression our good conduct might make on those who do not believe in Jesus and oppose us (1 Peter 2:15).
Third – and this point should not be overlooked – these passages give us subtle a reminder that governing authorities will answer to God for how they execute their responsibilities. As we all know, there are countless historical examples of civil authorities marked by corruption, injustice, and evil. These passages remind us that if government structure is put in place by God for mankind’s good, those who use those positions in wicked ways will one day answer to God for what they’ve done.
So what does this have to do with you and me? Of everything I could have chosen to address in this devotion, why did I feel the need to write about this?
As I mentioned above, we’re all tired of COVID precautions. We’re all frustrated that suddenly November is starting to feel a lot like March. And as a result, many of us are starting to outright reject or quietly ignore the restrictions and limitations put down by governing authorities. But if infographics, slogans, and emergency room testimonies can no longer convince you to obey the civil authorities now the way they did in the spring, perhaps I as your pastor – and what I believe God’s Word says – can.
You may not like the governing authorities above you (Paul and Peter may have chosen different leaders if given the chance to vote). You may think mask mandates, social gathering limits, and Health Department guidelines are silly, inconsistent, and even ineffective – and five years from now, maybe we’ll look back and you’ll be proven right. But for now, them’s the rules – and the words of Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 haven’t changed.
Now, with all that being said, is there a time for Christians to refuse to obey governing authorities? Yes.
In the Old Testament, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol in Daniel 3. In the New Testament, the Jewish high priest (a religious authority who also carried some political influence) commanded Peter and the Apostles to stop speaking about Jesus, but in Acts 5:29 they replied, “We must obey God rather than men!”
As John Calvin once wrote, “We are subject to those who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord”. He adds that Christians are to not “yield a slavish obedience to the depraved wishes of men, far less do homage to their impiety”. Finally, Calvin writes: “Our obedience to the magistrates ought to be such, that the obedience which we owe to the King of Kings shall remain entire and unimpaired”. In short: we SUBMIT to governing authorities, but we WORSHIP God alone. So long as obedience to governing authorities does not impede our worship of God, we submit.
So while there are occasions when Christians should refuse to obey governing authorities, in light of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, our bar for appropriate civil disobedience ought to be very high. We Christians don’t get to pick and choose which laws we follow, and which rulers we submit to based on our personal preferences. We disobey when laws or rulers command us to do something directly forbidden by God’s Word. We disobey when laws or rulers expect us to do something which clearly compromises our faithfulness to God. But we can’t be Romans 13/1 Peter 2 people with rules we like, and then instantly become Daniel 3/Acts 5:29 people with rules we don’t.
And I’ll be honest: governing authorities telling you to wear a mask inside a Target to help stop the spread of a virus isn’t exactly the same as Nebuchadnezzar demanding idol worship.
We’re all tired. We’re all frustrated. We’re all burnt out. But please, keep up your efforts to be good citizens. Be cautious, even when you’d prefer to take a gamble. Obey the governing authorities, even if you’ve lost confidence in them. If not for their sake, do it for the reputation of your church, the love of your neighbor, and even “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13).