COVID-19, Romans 13 and civil disobedience

Christians should be good citizens. That is why we should obey the law, as the Apostle Paul instructs us to do in Romans 13. But that obedience is not unlimited, and our highest loyalty is not to the state but to Jesus Christ. If the government orders us to do something forbidden by Scripture or forbids us from doing something required by Scripture, we should submit to the higher authority and disobey the “law.”

But in the age of COVID-19, where we draw that line has become a subject of fierce debate among Christians and has even provoked division and bitterness within churches and against church leadership. Brothers, it should not be this way. During this difficult time, church members should have tolerance for how church leadership reacts to COVID-19 and government regulations surrounding the virus.

Should churches require masks for worship? Sadly, the least intrusive rule is the one that has arguably caused the most division within and between churches. I have seen pastors accused of “statist idolatry” for requiring masks in worship, even when submitting to a government order. Not everyone agrees with whether or not Romans 13 requires us to mandate masks in churches, but we should not be overly judgmental of church leadership when they do – especially since this is such a small thing that does not inhibit worship..

Should churches voluntary close for lockdowns, as thousands of churches across the country did in the spring of 2020? There is historical precedent for temporarily closing churches during a pandemic, such as the 1918 influenza pandemic. It is not “lawless” to submit to a government order to temporarily close in-person worship, following both Romans 13 and our Sixth Commandment obligations to preserve life.

With that said, those orders have been abused and there comes a point where the church must submit to God’s authority and not forsake the gathering of believers. (Hebrews 10.) This means that church leadership must disobey government orders and defend our First Amendment rights. Where that line falls, however, can be murky and different churches will have different convictions on where to draw that line. We should be very careful about judging our churches over this issue.

On a related issue, it is true that streaming a church service is not truly worship. If they could see the world today, I cannot imagine the Apostles or church fathers would have ever thought that streaming is anywhere close to being as valuable as in-person worship. Zoom (or Facebook Live, or another streaming service) is better than nothing at all, so that the congregation can still be fed from the Word while in-person gatherings are temporarily closed. Streaming is a “better than nothing” stopgap.

Ultimately, congregations put godly men in positions of authority as pastors and elders to make decisions. Sometimes we will disagree with those decisions, but we should disagree respectfully. We must understand that there are competing interests at stake and recognize when church leaders are trying to be faithful. Have some churches failed? Have they made the wrong decision? Some have. But we need to be charitable and be very careful about making judgments. Let’s have a little humility and not pretend these are easy decisions. They are not.