The Biblical principle of submitting to authority

As I have watched Christian pastors try to teach this principle on social media, it has become obvious how much modern conservative Christians do not take the Apostle Paul’s urging to obey the civil magistrate in Romans 13 seriously. This is especially prominent among conservative Christians on social media, where they consistently deny the government has any authority over churches. Pastors who have tried to teach this doctrine have been repeatedly attacked and called names. This should not be how we act as Christians.

Obviously the state has the right to prohibit large gatherings during a viral pandemic. This is a law that applies generally to protect public health, not specifically against churches. It applies to a party, to a convention and to a church gathering. Some of the radical libertarians railing against this on social media need to get a sense of proportion. There is a difference between being a libertarian and being an anarchist.

Are the policies in place to “flatten the curve” the best policy at this time? Is there a different way we can approach fighting the virus to also limit the economic harm, and eventual “deaths of despair” that shutting down the economy will bring? That is not the point. Public policy is not the issue here. The theological issue is Christians’ refusal to submit to lawful orders by the civil magistrate, even though Romans 13 states that the government has been given authority by God.

The pastors trying to teach this are addressing Biblical doctrine, not public policy. The fact that we all bristle a bit we see social media posts about submission to our governing authorities is telling of our rebellious nature. Note I said “we” and “our” here – I am just as guilty as anyone else.

As to the legal issue, this is not something that is unusual. Churches have to obey all kinds of laws that everyone else in secular society must obey. Churches have to follow building codes, fire safety codes, health codes and regulations on planning and zoning. Limiting large gatherings during a viral pandemic is not voiding and nullifying the First Amendment. These are temporary measures in place to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed while we work on defeating the virus.

Are the “stay at home” orders and closing “non-essential” businesses the best policies we could pursue at this time? Maybe they are and maybe not, but once again that is not the point. The point is that Christians must obey the lawful orders of the government. Of course we can and should let our elected officials know what we think and exercise our free speech rights, but we are also required to obey the law.

Of course there is a point where we would say that we have to obey God rather than men. If the government said a church must close permanently, of course that order should be disobeyed. If the government tried to police the content of sermons, of course that order should be disobeyed. And we recognize that there are precedents being set now that will be abused in the future. We must have discernment.

But that is the point that many of these pastors are making when arguing that both individual Christians and churches must obey the law. They are making a spiritual point and teaching Biblical principles, not arguing public policy. Obeying the governing authorities God has set before us does not prohibit us from trying to influence public policy in a constitutional republic.

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