As I write this, a faithful pastor is in prison in this nation for simply conducting public worship and being unwilling to turn anyone away. Our Provincial Government mandates required the closing of all churches (among other things) in the province for 3 months. Many Christians and even pastors have fully agreed that the civil government is right to exercise authority in this way. By far the most common argument has been to quote from Romans 13.
First, a caveat, I will be speaking in broad terms to respond to what I believe to be the majority position. I recognize that there are Christians who take nuanced positions who truly believe they are being faithful to God and acting according to their consciences. Please don’t take this post as a sweeping condemnation of everyone who takes a different view. It is not my intention to burn bridges, as I believe that when (or if) this COVID situation is passed, we will need one another as we face down other challenges coming against the Church.
With that qualification, I do believe that there has been a lot of misapplication of Romans 13, which can be addressed by a few observations from and about the text. Let’s dive in:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
Well there you have it, right? God says we need to submit to the government, so when the government gives any order at all, we obey right? Seems pretty straightforward? Not so fast. We need to remember a few points:
The man who wrote these words was executed by the state for refusing to submit to governing authorities.
The Apostle Paul was arrested, imprisoned, beaten and ultimately executed for his disobedience to civil authorities.
If we think Romans 13 means unlimited submission to whatever civil government says,we turn the Apostle Paul into a hypocrite, who refused to follow his own instructions. This should be our first clue that something else is going on.
Romans 13 outlines the responsibilities of civil government.
If we keep reading instead of stopping at verse 2, we begin to get a fuller picture.
“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
This is what Civil Government should be. The God-appointed role of civil magistrates is to punish evil-doers. Those who do what is right should have no fear of civil authorities. Civil Government has been given a specific assignment from God.
But what do we do when the Civil Government flips their role upside down? What if they begin to punish the righteous for doing what is righteous?
Romans 13 doesn’t address this question. For this, we need to go elsewhere in Scripture. We’ll come back to this point.
God alone is Supreme, therefore, all earthly authority has limits.
Notice what scripture says government is. It is a God-appointed sphere. Civil governments have a God-appointed task to punish evil-doers. This emphatically does not give Civil Government unlimited authority. The authority that the government has, is authority given to them by God. This means that God is a higher authority.
A civil government cannot legitimately use their God-given authority to override God’s authority.
Nobody has the authority to command what God forbids or to forbid what God commands.
This places limits on civil authority. Since God alone is supreme, no earthly authority is unlimited. In all of the spheres that God grants authority, the authority is always limited. Hebrews 13 commands Christians to be in submission to their Church Elders. Ephesians 5 commands wives to be in submission to their husbands, and Romans 13 commands citizens to be in submission to civil authorities. Since all of this authority is given by God, it is therefore under Him, and therefore is limited.
“Nobody has the authority to command what God forbids or to forbid what God commands.”
The various governments that God has established all have distinctive roles. The State is assigned by God as the Minister of Justice. The Church is assigned by God as the Minister of Word and Sacrament, and the Family is assigned by God as the Minister of health, welfare and education. I may expand on these points in a later post. The point I want to make here is that each of these spheres has limits. Having authority in one sphere does not give authority in another sphere.
The fact that Pastors have authority in the Church does not grant them civil authority. As a pastor, I can’t pull you over and give you a speeding ticket. Similarly, A civil magistrate does not have authority within the Church. A policeman cannot enter the church and place someone under church discipline; that is outside his jurisdiction. Similarly, the civil government cannot (rightly) declare to your wife what she is to make for dinner, that is outside the sphere that God has assigned to them.
The fact that God commands submission to various authorities (Church, State and Family) does not mean that those authorities can claim absolute authority.
If a Pastor claimed absolute authority over every area of the life of their congregants, we would recognize this as an abuse of authority, this is overstepping their God-appointed jurisdiction, and we would not hold people to obey their authority.
So then why do we assume that civil governments have the right to do this? Using Romans 13 to justify blind submission to a totalitarian state would be like using Ephesians 5 to justify submission to an abusive husband, or to use Hebrews 13 to justify submission to abusive Church Elders. When we see people overstepping the bounds of their God-appointed authority in those other spheres, we rightly acknowledge the limits on those authorities. The same must apply to the state.
The reason of course is that God has claims on the lives of His people. All people belong to Him, He alone has absolute authority, and He alone may rightly require absolute submission.
If God has commanded something, no husband, pastor or civil authority can rightly forbid obedience to it. Nor can they rightly command something God forbids.
What do we do?
So what do we do when the civil magistrate flips their role upside down and begins to punish the righteous? What do we do when they forbid what God commands?
The Apostles (Paul included) faced this exact question. Romans 13 doesn’t address this question, we must look elsewhere. Acts 5:29 records the response of Peter and the other Apostles when they were commanded to stop preaching.
“We must obey God rather than men.”
Although this particular event occurred prior to Paul’s conversion, we know from his ministry (and his death) that he took the same approach. When an unrighteous civil authority, (or husband, or pastor) commands something that God forbids or forbids something that God commands, the faithful Christian response is to say with the apostles, ‘we must obey God rather than men.’
The Present Distress
This of course brings us to our present crisis. We just came through a 3 month period where the civil government completely banned the gathering of the Church. Many (if not most) of the Churches in Manitoba capitulated entirely. The reasoning I heard was something along these lines: ‘the government is not persecuting the Church, this is all for public safety, therefore they have the legitimate authority to close the Church.”
This argument assumes that the government does have the authority to forbid what God commands if it is done in the name of safety, and doesn’t appear to be targeting the Church. This position functionally gives a blank cheque to civil government as long as they say that what they are doing is for the purpose of public safety.
If Christians are not free to evaluate the legitimacy of such orders, we will be left at the mercy of any tyrannical government who exercises their tyranny in the name of public good or safety. One of the major problems of course is that tyrannies always exercise their tyranny in the name of public good/safety. The Pastors arrested in Communist China are never arrested for preaching the gospel, they are arrested for a “subversion of state power.” The Pastor in Germany was not charged for preaching the gospel to the LGBT community he was charged with “sedition.” The point being, we need to be able evaluate the legitimacy of any orders we receive, rather than simply capitulating any time the government does something in the name of safety/public good.
The pastors in the majority of churches across our nation, appear to have conceded to the idea that civil government has authority over the Church, as though it were legitimate for the state to tell us how we may worship, what we wear, which of the sacraments we have permission to partake in, how many people can worship together and how we may interact with one another when we’re gathered.
The Church needs to stand together, and declare to the civil government: Christ is the head of the Church and He has appointed elders and deacons, not civil magistrates to govern the affairs of the Church. The authority God has given to Civil governments is not absolute, but like all earthly authority, is limited. When earthly authorities overstep their bounds, and forbid what God commands or command what God forbids, civil disobedience becomes a Christian duty.
So this is my call to my fellow pastors; March 7 is back to church day. Stand up with me. Open your Churches, worship the Lord as He commands. Preach the Word, proclaim the Gospel, shepherd the flock entrusted to your care. Do not neglect to meet together. Partake in the body and blood of Christ together as a body in communion. Pray for one another, fellowship together. Be strong and courageous, do not be discouraged, do not be dismayed. Obey God, not men. The civil government has forbidden what God has commanded, and so we must resist.
Soli Deo Gloria
Scripture taken from the English Standard Version
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About the Author
Riley Toews serves as a pastor at
Grace Covenant Church in Altona.