Rethinking Obedience to Government in the Coronavirus Era

“Before thinking through how and when we should submit to governing rulers, we must first take a step back to an even more fundamental question: What is the proper role and scope of government in this world?”

The topic of civil disobedience has been discussed extensively in Christian circles over the past decade. The major impetus has been the shift in Western nations to embrace the doctrines of “LGBTQ”, same-sex marriage in particular.

Christians have had to face up to questions such as “What should a Christian marriage celebrant do if he is required by the State to conduct a homosexual wedding?” and “What should a Christian school teacher do if the curriculum requires her to promote homosexual and transgender ideology to her class?”

In 2009, an ecumenical group of Christians published the Manhattan Declaration. The declaration deals with the moral issues of abortion and homosexual marriage and then finishes with a discussion of religious liberty. In this final section, the issue of civil disobedience is addressed. The declaration states:

“Through the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required.”

It goes on to elaborate:

“Because we honour justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.”

These kinds of civil disobedience battles have well and truly reached Australian shores. There has been much debate about the right of Christian schools to insist on a code of conduct for their staff that disallows homosexual conduct, in the face of “anti-discrimination” laws. Several Australian states have moved to criminalise the giving of support, counsel and even prayer to people who wish to repent of a homosexual or transgender lifestyle. Christians have been prosecuted for praying, protesting or offering information and support near abortion clinics.

But then something surreal happened: the coronavirus pandemic came along, pushed aside (at least for the time being) many of these other issues, and brought to the fore a whole bunch of other civil disobedience-related questions.

Must we comply with mask mandates when they are oppressive or illogical—such as a requirement to place masks on young children or to wear a mask when walking alone outdoors? Is it wrong to take part in an anti-lockdown protest during a lockdown? Must we obey restrictions that prohibit us from visiting family, or from taking our children to a playground?[1] Must churches comply with government orders to close down their corporate worship for months on end?

And, of course, there is the looming titanic confrontation: must churches comply with a “vaccine passport” system that involves restricting access for the unvaccinated?

What does the Bible say?

Many Christians have argued that Christians should comply wholly with all coronavirus related edicts without distinction, citing Romans 13:1 which states: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities”.

Those who take this position will typically acknowledge that Christians are not bound to obey the government when the government requires us to commit sin, or when the government prohibits us from doing that which God explicitly commands. In this, they are in agreement with the Manhattan Declaration:

“As Christians, we take seriously the Biblical admonition to respect and obey those in authority. We believe in law and in the rule of law. We recognize the duty to comply with laws whether we happen to like them or not, unless the laws are gravely unjust or require those subject to them to do something unjust or otherwise immoral.”

Nevertheless, my observation is that there has been a tendency in many quarters to wield Romans 13 like a blunt instrument, in a thought-less, proof-texty approach that fails to exercise discernment, and neglects the whole witness of Scripture.

It is not unlike those who abuse “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) as a proof-text to advocate for an extreme form of Christian pacifism, or that Christians should never act in self-defence, or that we should accede to every demand made of us.

Considering History

There is reason to think that a more thoughtful approach to the issue of civil disobedience is necessary. If “obey unless you are directly ordered to sin” is the strict rule, this would invalidate many courageous, historical acts of civil disobedience that we have come to admire.

It would invalidate the subversive actions of the Solidarity movement in Poland, which worked to undermine the repressive communist regime with the support of Pope John Paul II.

It would invalidate the activities of the French resistance during the years of the Vichy regime.

It would invalidate the civil disobedience of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, and other activists in the American civil rights era.

It would invalidate the actions of the protestors who defied the Chinese Government at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

It would invalidate the actions of left-wing Christians who trespassed in politicians’ offices in nonviolent protest against the Australian Government’s asylum seeker policy.

It would invalidate the aforementioned acts of nonviolent civil disobedience by Graham Preston and Kathleen Clubb in the vicinity of abortion clinics.

All of these people could have refrained from their actions, and submitted wholly to their governing rulers, without committing explicit, direct, personal sin.

Now, it is possible that all our moral compasses have been set wrong this whole time. It’s possible that these people we’ve admired are wrongdoers, not heroes; that they are guilty of violating God’s clear, Romans 13 requirement that we subject ourselves to our governing authorities.

I don’t think this is the case. I believe that a careful examination of the Bible’s teaching leads us to a more balanced and nuanced view of civil disobedience.

A More Careful Look at Romans 13

First of all, we should consider what else Romans 13 teaches. In verses 3 and 4, Paul writes:

“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 … [and] an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”

These verses raise a few questions. What if a government has stopped being an approver of good conduct and a punisher of evil conduct, and has started doing the reverse? If such circumstances were to arise, would it not be reasonable to at very least question whether such a government still possesses legitimate, divinely ordained authority? Could we not question whether such a government is still God’s servant for our good?[2]

I’m not suggesting that this gives us licence to disobey any law which we consider is not quite up to God’s holy standards. But certainly, when a government is perceived to be ruling in ways that significantly promote wrong and suppress good, it ought to open up the possibility—or even the necessity—of resisting rather than submitting to it.[3] Is a government that acts in harsh and oppressive ways—like the Vichy regime, and the communist regimes of Eastern Europe—one to whom respect and honour are due (cf. verse 7)?

Render Unto Caesar

In thinking about the issue of how Christians should relate to civil authority, I believe that the place to start is not Romans 13, but instead the teaching of Christ. The relevant passage is Matthew 22:21, where Jesus declares “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Before thinking through how and when we should submit to governing rulers, we must first take a step back to an even more fundamental question: What is the proper role and scope of government in this world?

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22:21 shows that there is a limit on the authority of government. Everything that lies beyond this limit is “the things that are God’s”. The Manhattan Declaration concludes with this sentence:

“We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.”

There are some matters over which Caesar, the government, simply has no jurisdiction. Caesar might issue an edict pertaining to such matters, and obeying his edict may not require a Christian to commit sin per se, but Caesar’s attempt to rule over such matters is illegitimate. He is demanding obedience from his subjects in a sphere of life that belongs to God alone.

There has been a move in some countries, including New Zealand, to ban corporal punishment in the home. Must parents obey governments in this matter?

Disciplining your child with smacking is not a sin. Not disciplining your child with smacking is not a sin. An anti-smacking law can be obeyed without sinning. However, it is simply not a government’s place to make such a law. Parenting is not the role of government; it is the role of parents, and it is up to parents, not government, to decide whether or not they will employ corporal punishment. This is a clear example of an area where Caesar is demanding obedience in “things that are God’s”.

In the context of coronavirus, governments around the world have prohibited church gatherings for months at a time. This is another clear example of Caesar demanding obedience in a matter that is outside his legitimate authority.

As one Australian writer has rightly argued, when churches remain closed principally because the government has decreed it, this “is to simply concede authority to Caesar where he has none … Caesar has no say over what belongs to Christ”.

Further Considerations

There are other problems with a simplistic framework that says “always obey the government unless they are ordering you to commit a sin”.

We should note that Rosa Parks was not being ordered to commit a sin per se when the law said that she must sit in the “coloured” section of the bus. The protestors at Tiananmen Square were not being ordered to commit a sin per se when the regime told them to disband and go home.

Our view of sin, however, must not be a narrow, legalistic one. There are sins other than directly killing an innocent person or telling lies on behalf of the government. Sin can be something that we participate in through inaction or acquiescence, in addition to active commission.

The Bible commands “you shall not oppress your neighbour” (Leviticus 19:13) and it warns against inaction in the face of human suffering (Deuteronomy 15:7-9). It can therefore be argued that standing by and doing nothing while a government is behaving in an oppressive manner or inflicting suffering on people—especially in the context of a representative democracy, where government is “of and by the people”—is to consent and therefore join oneself to the sin of that government.

As Christians, we have a duty not only to not sin, but also a positive duty to do what is right. There will be times when standing up to an oppressive government, and actively resisting them, is necessary in order to fulfil our positive duty.

Civil Disobedience in the Era of Coronavirus

Returning to the kinds of questions that I listed at the beginning; as Christians, we should be asking ourselves hard questions instead of uncritically assenting to every measure that governments have imposed—ostensibly to protect the community from the threat of coronavirus.

Sure, there is a place for governments to act in the interests of the community when there is a serious threat to health.

But there is a broadening consensus that the actions being taken by governments such as those in Australia (and especially, New South Wales and Victoria) are unreasonable, disproportionate, and severely harmful to people and their health, in a way that significantly outweighs any supposed benefit in terms of shielding us from the consequences of the virus.

Many also consider that government measures have trampled on a whole host of important human rights and safeguards against tyranny, including the right to privacy and freedom of assembly.

There won’t be unanimous agreement among Christians concerning exactly where the line has been crossed, and where civil disobedience is permissible, or appropriate. It is important to recognise the differences of opinion that exist within the church, and importantly, to respect those who have developed sincere and God-honouring convictions about these matters which differ from one’s own—and to not simply write off such people and their views as contrary to Scripture.

Applying the Biblical framework discussed above will lead some Christians to the view that it is outside the jurisdiction of Caesar to rule on who we can and cannot visit, to tell us how long we can spend outside our homes, to deny our children access to parks and community playgrounds, and so forth. Some Christians will validly see these kinds of edicts as instances of Caesar attempting to arrogate to himself things that belong to God.

Some Christians will come to the view that given such intense human suffering is being inflicted by the repeated, prolonged, harsh lockdowns in our cities, the imposition of these lockdowns is a clear instance of government acting in a manner that is unbearably oppressive. They will be convinced that to stand by and do nothing when there is opportunity to take to the streets and march in protest against the oppression, and in favour of the oppressed, would be morally untenable, a dereliction of Christian duty.

Some Christians will be led to the view that the government’s insistence on recording every single location we visit is not only an oppressive, despotic invasion upon our privacy; it is also another clear instance of Caesar requiring something of us that is beyond his jurisdiction to require.

Many Christians will be firmly convinced that segregating our times of corporate worship on the basis of vaccination status is utterly unacceptable, even if governments decree that we must do this.

Christians who develop these kinds of convictions, after reflecting carefully on the Bible’s teaching, may decide that some acts of civil disobedience may be permissible or even necessary—once it has become clear that there is no prospect of bringing about change, and governments are showing no signs of relenting.

Such acts of civil disobedience would not be arbitrary. They would target rules which are genuinely oppressive or injurious, not those which are merely inconvenient. They would be measured and well-circumscribed, and they would not displace an overall posture of subjection to rightful authority in accordance with the Scriptures (we will continue to pay our taxes, drive at the speed limit, keep off private property, and indeed, comply with coronavirus-related rules which are reasonable and proportionate). While committing civil disobedience, Christians would not act recklessly in such ways as to genuinely endanger life.

Moreover, we would remain respectful towards the civil authorities even as we deliberately defy certain, specific decrees of Caesar. This would mean, for example, not resisting arrest, and certainly not behaving discourteously towards members of the police who are carrying out their orders to enforce Caesar’s rules.

There is currently a lot of heat among the Christian community, with respect to all of these issues. The challenge will be for everybody to respect the fact that there are a variety of conscientiously held views, and to refrain from pontificating. Those who feel compelled to commit principled acts of civil disobedience ought not to think less of their brothers who do not, nor to insist that others join them in breaking the rules. Those who feel compelled to keep the rules ought not to judge their brothers who feel they must resist destructive, severely unjust or illegitimate laws; nor should they betray their brothers to the authorities in these circumstances.

May God gain glory for himself through the actions of his people in these challenging times.

[1] As of 3rd September 2021, the Victorian Government has re-opened outdoor playgrounds for children under 12, subject to mandatory QR code check-in; however, supervising adults may not remove their masks to eat or drink at a playground.

[2] Francis Schaeffer wrote in A Christian Manifesto: “The state is to be an agent of justice, to restrain evil by punishing the wrongdoer, and to protect the good in society. When it does the reverse, it has no proper authority. It is then a usurped authority and as such it becomes lawless and is tyranny.”

[3] Commentary about the limits of Romans 13 by Ben Witherington, Douglas Moo, N.T. Wright, Michael Bird, and Frank Thielman, can be found here.

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