Over at 9Marks, there is a helpful discussion on whether/if a church could ever civilly disobey the various quarantine/shelter-in-place orders.
There are several helpful insights in the conversation. Jamieson gives a rough ‘n’ ready nugget when he points out that Acts 5:29 (“we must obey God rather than man”) is a helpful prooftext and “warranted when Government commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands.” Listen (even better, subscribe!) to the whole conversation.
Further, host Jonathan Leeman asks in 9Marks Journal, “When Should Churches Reject Governmental Guidelines on Gathering and Engage in Civil Disobedience?” Helpfully, Leeman gives an answer to the “when” aspect. Two criteria are proposed: the “reasonableness” of the government’s rationale, and the target of the government’s actions (“the government cannot single out religious groups”). How well do those criteria hold up?
“Reasonableness” is certainly in the eye of the beholder, and Leeman concedes the difficulty: “To be sure, determining what’s a reasonable argument or a legitimate basis requires case-by-case judgments, and Christians might disagree,” he admits. Were there some Hebrew hold outs when some Hebrew midwives disobeyed Pharaoh’s orders for Hebrew babies? It will be difficult if Christians are further divided over whether or not governmental commands are sufficiently reasonable. In an age of Trump rage, reason feels like Silmarils – I’ve heard of them and tasted their beauty, but I cannot remember them.
But just because something is difficult, doesn’t exclude (preclude?) its existence. We cannot let a demand for reasonableness erode before the presence of sheer partisan power. It may take further disunity and civil upheaval before the halls of power are ready to listen to humble pleading from pulpits to return to reason, and not govern from power. Scripture portrays government on a spectrum from divinely ordained minister (Romans 13), all the way to murderous Beast (Revelation 11, 13). Clearly only one end of that spectrum would celebrate reason. Unfortunately, it seems to me that it is at the opposite end, the bestial side of government, where Christians will have to think more deeply about civil disobedience. It is easy to submit to a rational minister of state; much less so, to bestial infanticide and deicide.
Given the way coronavirus has been addressed nationally in the last few days, it seems less likely to me that a totalitarian crackdown a la 1984 falls upon us, and more likely that civil freedoms will erode in careful compromises, slowly over time. Wise pastors & elders (the target audience of “Pastors’ Talk” and 9Marks) may want to prayerfully consider where they would draw the line: if things like ________________ happen, then we will encourage civil disobedience.
One church elder just asked me if I thought there was any chance that through conspiracy or political intrigue this was all a hoax to steal our rights. I would argue for vigilance that was opposed to fear mongering. It would never be wrong to obey our Savior to be as cunning as serpents, but innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). We can be watchful, and be on guard against abuse or misuse, even while decrying conspiracy theorists. Being watchful is wise, and even if the pandemic began for unknown reasons, there are always Hamans waiting in the wings to turn political power to their own personal ends. Having a clear communique from a Consistory (session/elder board) that says, “we will submit until these lines are crossed” helps to tamp down the crazy.
Until then, Scripture clearly commands submission to the government. A funny thing about submission – it isn’t very valuable if you only submit to the rules you like. Praise God our Savior didn’t only submit to the ruling authorities – or to His Father’s cup – only when he already agreed with and liked their rule. Consider the words of Guido de Bres:
Or consider Tertullian:
American Christianity would like nothing more than to show the ardor of their faith by rebelling against the powers that be. It would be so rock ‘n’ roll; so american. But it could be that God is calling us to witness to His grace not in a theology of (our!) glory, but in a theology of the cross, where the Church quietly and humbly submits, being an aroma of life even during this coronavirus season of decay and death.