Christian ministers and theologians commonly note that our obligation to obey the magistrate ends whenever morality is concerned. That is, while the Christian is to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1), this is limited by the necessity to “obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
But recently I’ve been considering whether there are other exceptions to the Christian’s requirement to obey the magistrate. One such exception regards whether the magistrate is properly functioning as such. In a 1750 sermon Jonathan Mayhew notes regarding Romans 13,
“And if we attend to the nature of the argument with which the apostle here enforces the duty of submission to the higher powers, we shall find it to be such a one as concludes not in favor of submission to all who bear the title of rulers in common, but only to those who actually perform the duty of rulers by exercising a reasonable and just authority of human society. … Thus it is said that they are not ‘a terror to good works, but to the evil.’ … It is manifest that this character and description of rulers agrees only to such as are rulers in fact as well as in name: to such as govern well and act agreeably to their office.” (“Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Power” by Jonathan Mayhew in Sermons that Shaped America, ed. William S. Barker and Samuel T. Logan, 2003, p. 162)
Charles Hodge argues similarly,
“The general principles on which the question in regard to any given case is to be decided are sufficiently plain. No command to do any thing morally wrong can be binding; nor can any which transcends the rightful authority of the power whence it emanates. What that rightful authority is, must be determined by the institutions and laws of the land, or from prescription and usage, or from the nature and design of the office which the magistrate is invested. The right of deciding on all these points, and determining where the obligation to obedience ceases, and the duty of resistance begins, must, from the nature of the case, rest with the subject, and not with the ruler. The apostles and early Christians decided this point for themselves, and did not leave the decision with the Jewish or Roman authorities. Like all other questions of duty, it is to be decided on our responsibility to God and our fellow men.” (Charles Hodge, Commentary on Romans, 1864, p. 533)
Let us then consider our present circumstances and the response of the churches to the governments regarding coronavirus pandemic restrictions to our gathering and activities.
The question of whether we should gather together as a church and so disobey any government restrictions against either meeting at all (during times of lockdown) or restrictions in the number of people to gather at any one time, is answered under both the argument to morality and the argument to the proper functioning of the magistrate.
First we must recognize, in regards to morality, that there are not only sins of commission, but also sins of omission. Christians easily agree that we are called to disobey when commanded to do something that we should not do. But we must realize that they are times for disobedience when we are commanded NOT to do something that we in fact must do. James 4:17 says “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
We are commanded in the Scripture to “not neglect meeting together.” (Hebrews 10:25) Therefore, despite any government restrictions, we are to obey God and not men. In this case it would be immoral to obey the government.
Regarding the gathering of the saints, it is also the case that such restrictions imposed by the government are outside of its proper role. In our nation the first amendment disallows the congress to make any law “respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” Through the incorporation doctrine of the fourteenth amendment, the Bill of Rights (including the above mentioned first amendment) is made applicable to the states. Neither the Federal Government nor the States have any right to restrict church gatherings. And certainly the governors of the states, acting apart from the legislatures do not have that right.
Questions regarding the activities of the church may at first seem more difficult to answer.
The question of singing; that is whether the government can restrict singing in the church so as supposedly to prevent the spread of a virus, is so absurd that it scarcely demands an answer. Not only is this beyond the role of the government to make such restrictions, but we have clear Scriptural warrant to sing praises to God. And during such a time as a pandemic, it is all the more important that we sing for the benefit of God’s people and for the amplification of His glory.
The question of mask wearing is more difficult in that it is not mentioned specifically in the Scriptures, nor clearly a moral issue. If it were a question merely of morality, then the Christian and the churches should obey the government and wear masks when ordered to. But such government pronouncements requiring mask wearing are entirely outside the proper role of the magistrate.
III. A Terror Unto Good Works
Paul’s argument in Romans 13 is that the government is functioning properly when it is a terror unto evil.
But in our present world, it is good conduct that is being terrorized.
Governments restrict the number that may gather in a church meeting.
Governments demand that parishioners wear masks.
Governments demand that congregants not sing.
But these things are not evil conduct. Meeting together, face to face, and singing praise have never in Christian thinking been considered anything but good works.
And for these things we are terrorized. Rules change rapidly. Churches struggle to keep up with the ever-changing laws. But we need not struggle. These restrictions have been entirely beyond the authority of the magistrate. The magistrate has not been a terror unto evil works, but a terror unto good works. As such, we may safely ignore the magistrate.