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COVID, Christians, and the Civil Magistrate

Civil Magistrate

It is now a little over four months since various lockdowns and quarantines began in the United States in response to the spread of the coronavirus. I haven’t written anything about it for a couple of reasons. First, I’m neither a medical professional nor an expert in contagious viruses. I do not believe that reading or watching news reports and reading a few Facebook posts qualifies me to speak authoritatively or even competently on the nature of this virus. Second, as with many other topics, discussion of this one has been thoroughly politicized, and it is almost impossible to write on politicized topics without being misread or misunderstood. However, I have received enough questions from my former and current students that it seems it might be worth putting some thoughts down in written form.

I don’t intend to comment directly on the virus, per se. Frankly, I have no idea what to say about it because the information I have been reading and hearing over the last four months has been extraordinarily confusing. What I read in one newspaper contradicts what I read in another, and what I read in both is contradicted by what I read the following day or the following week. Furthermore, I don’t have the expertise to weigh and evaluate the conflicting information, and I can’t gain such expertise overnight. In part, the changing information is understandable, because this is apparently a new virus and research is ongoing. Be that as it may, it is still confusing (at least to me), so I am not going to offer any opinions on the virus itself. I suppose everyone has a right to their opinion, but not everyone’s opinion is right. My opinion on the virus, if I was confident enough to form one, would almost certainly be off in one way or another. And what happens online, stays online . . . forever.

Rather than attempt to speak directly on the virus itself, what I would like to attempt to address is the way in which Christians respond to the ever-changing information and directives, especially those coming from the civil magistrate. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I know church leaders and individual Christians are having to think through everything they read and hear and make decisions for their families, churches, and others based on this information. It’s very difficult, and a lot of different questions have arisen.

Two questions that I’ve seen more than once in recent weeks concern face masks and congregational singing:

  • Should I obey or disobey if the local or state government mandates face masks in public places such as churches?
  • Are the restrictions on certain aspects of corporate worship such as singing an Acts 5 situation worthy of civil disobedience?

These kinds of questions are becoming more and more frequent in some contexts, at least in the United States. I am certain many are going to disagree with my thoughts on these issues. It may be that those who disagree are right and I am wrong.

Either way, it might be worth considering a few “big-picture” principles in the hope that it will at least provide some food for thought as believers wrestle with these things.

Our first principle is that God is our Creator and Redeemer, and His Word is our ultimate authority. As followers of Christ, we are to obey God. This principle is (or should be) non-controversial, so for the sake of space, I am not going to dwell on it at the moment. The problem is not so much the agreed upon concept that we are to obey God. The problem comes in when we start to speak about obeying lesser authorities such as civil magistrates. One text that regularly comes up in such discussions is Acts 5:29 “We must obey God rather than men.” Before discussing this text, we need to dispense with something that seems to be a common misunderstanding of it in some circles. Some seem to have taken “We must obey God rather than men” to mean we must never obey men. That, however, is not what Acts 5 is saying. The statement in Acts 5 is made in a context in which the apostles have been commanded by God to preach the Gospel and commanded by certain Jewish leaders not to preach the Gospel. The command of these human authorities directly contradicted the command of God. In that case, the apostles had to obey God rather than those men. They had to preach the Gospel and suffer whatever consequences this entailed at the hands of wicked men.

I think most Christians understand that God has instituted subordinate authorities in human life. There are relations of authority and submission between husbands and wives, parents and children, elders and church members, etc., and most Christians understand that. The difficulty seems to arise when we talk about civil magistrates. In the United States, there is a strong tradition of civil disobedience, and particularly since the Vietnam era, there has been a high level of distrust and skepticism about the civil magistrate – at least at the federal level. In many segments of the population in the U.S., there is a strong and often hostile anti-government sentiment. In some cases, this results in complete contempt for governmental authority and flouting of civil laws.

The question Christians need to ask is how we as followers of Christ are to think about the civil magistrate. What should our view be? Do we simply choose and baptize one of the world’s many competing political philosophies – philosophies expressing everything from virtual worship of the state to complete contempt for it? That is what many Christians have done. But is that what we should do? I am in agreement with John Calvin in that I do believe that we can learn many things from non-believers about such things as human government (Institutes, II.ii.12–13), but I also think we have to be self-critical when we consider their ideas. We have to make sure we don’t adopt ways of thinking that are contrary to basic biblical principles.