So, does Scripture give us any guidance on this question? Are there any biblical principles regarding the way Christians should relate to civil magistrates? Yes, there are. There are numerous relevant texts, but I want to look at three important New Testament passages: Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; and 1 Peter 2:13-17.
In Romans 13, Paul writes, “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” (vv. 1–2). What is most interesting about this statement is that Paul is writing at a time when the governing authorities are all pagans and not the least bit sympathetic to Christianity. The emperor and the governing authorities under him are persecuting the church. And yet, God’s word says that “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
Christians today need to consider these verses very seriously. We need to ask whether our actions, or the actions we are encouraging by our words and/or deeds, is inviting God’s judgment. God does not pit obedience to Himself against obedience to civil magistrates here. We are most certainly to obey God, but as Romans 13 indicates, one of the ways we obey God is to obey those God Himself has sovereignly and providentially put in authority over us. This includes civil magistrates. Even those we don’t like. Even pagan Roman emperors. Elsewhere, Paul tells Titus: “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient” (Titus 3:1). Do we need to remind ourselves of this as well? Have we forgotten these words of God, or are we conveniently ignoring them? If so, do we really have a high view of Scripture?
A third significant passage is found in 1 Peter:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor (1 Pet. 2:13–17).
Note that he says we are to be subject to human authorities for the Lord’s sake, and these human authorities include the emperor and the governors under him. He tells us to honor the emperor, who at that time was a persecutor of the church. Do we honor the contemporary equivalents of the emperor and his governors by mocking them whenever we do not agree with them?
Passages such as these provide us with a very clear general principle regarding our position as Christians in regard to the civil magistrates. God Himself has sovereignly and providentially put the civil magistrates in that position of authority over us, so resisting them is resisting Him. Because of sin, there will be exceptions, such as we see in places like Daniel 3, but the exceptions are exceptions, not the rule. Our general attitude as Christians toward the civil magistrate, according to Scripture, should be one of honor, respect, and submission for the Lord’s sake. God placed them in these positions of authority.
How does this apply when, during a pandemic, the civil magistrate is putting certain restrictions on Christian worship gatherings – such as requiring face masks and prohibiting singing in close quarters? The first thing I would ask my brothers and sisters in the United States to consider is that Christians throughout history and around the world today have figured out ways to corporately worship God in far more difficult circumstances than these and with far more prohibitive restrictions than these. Those of us who are Christians living in the United States are not suffering persecution by being required to wear a face mask. We are suffering inconveniences. If we think we are suffering persecution by being required to wear a face mask for an hour while indoors in a public place, we need to talk to Christians who have lived or do live in places where real persecution occurs.
Second, as Christians we certainly do have a biblical call by God to gather together for corporate worship. Out of love for God, we are to obey that call. I think almost all Christians basically agree here, so I don’t think I need to belabor the point. However, we also have a corresponding call to love our neighbor as ourselves, and we cannot say we love God if we do not love our neighbor (1 John 4:20). Christians today sometimes seem to have difficulties in understanding how to apply this principle, especially in our current context. Many people commenting on this topic pit these two against each other as if emphasizing both biblical imperatives is somehow unbiblical.
I think it is abundantly clear that one element of loving our neighbor is not to do anything that unnecessarily endangers his life. My church uses the Westminster standards as its confession of faith. The Westminster Larger Catechism has two questions on the sixth commandment that directly address the principle of preserving the life of our neighbor:
Question 135: What are the duties required in the sixth commandment?
Answer: The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by resisting all thoughts and purposes, subduing all passions, and avoiding all occasions, temptations, and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by just defense thereof against violence, patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; a sober use of meat, drink, physic, sleep, labor, and recreations; by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.
Question 136: What are the sins forbidden in the sixth commandment?
Answer: The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves, or of others, except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense; the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life; sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations; provoking words, oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding, and: Whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.