Now, this doesn’t mean you should run out and eat chicken with a fork—that’s where the rest of Romans 13 comes in. There are two more reasons you might want to use your fingers. First, you don’t want to go to jail—hey, if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime (just ask this 91-year old woman arrested for breaking this chicken law!). Second, because your conscience might convict you if you were to eat fried chicken with a fork—although it shouldn’t since these laws in reality should hold no sway on a believer’s conscience (again, see Calvin’s Institutes, IV, 10.5—there Calvin says that if a law does not promote society’s good then “it should not bind the conscience” and it is not owed submission).
Under this view of Romans 13, even non-Christian governments are capable of checking evil and promoting good. When they do so, they should be obeyed. Even when they pass laws that are of little moral value, they still should generally be obeyed for the sake of conscience and your freedom.
The strength of this view is that church has a role to play in society by encouraging moral conduct, and speaking truth to power in the government. Á la John the Baptist, government leaders should know if they are failing to check evil or promote righteousness.
This was the way many of the Puritans and Westminster divines understood Romans 13. This is what is behind the turn of phrase in the Westminster Assembly that believers are to obey a magistrate’s “lawful commands” (WCF 23:4). The implication is that some government laws go beyond the “lawful boundaries” set by God, and in those, submitting to them is not submitting to God. Again, I want to stress that this doesn’t mean we should disobey. It does mean however that if we do obey laws that are beyond the role of government, we are obeying out of fear of the sword or out of protection of the conscience—both of which are very good reasons. They are just different than saying “we obey all laws unless they command sin.”
Building on this view, Thomas Manton added that it was in keeping with Romans 13 for Christians to suffer the consequences of their disobedience to government. In other words, he understood this passage not as teaching submission by keeping the law, but rather submission by receiving the punishment due when we choose to disregard the law (James, 385).
Some might object to this view, saying that it is too liberal in opening the door to disregarding government commands. But that is exactly the point! Charles Hodge wrote:
“When the civil government may be, and ought to be disobeyed, is one which every man must decide for himself. It is a matter of private judgment.… An unconstitutional law or commandment is a nullity; no man sins in disregarding it. He disobeys, however, at his peril.”
Systematic Theology III, 359
Today, this is the view advocated by John and Paul Feinberg in Ethics for a Brave New World: “Apostolic teaching (Romans 13), like that of Jesus and the OT, basically enjoins submission to ruling powers in order to accomplish certain goals in society (for example, order and peace) that will benefit Christians’ efforts to achieve spiritual goals (for example, evangelism)” (707).
(This also the view held by Culver in his Systematic Theology- p. 266).
The Baptist View—All that, plus the freedom of the church.
The Baptist tradition is in line with the Puritan view above—namely that submission is owed to “lawful” commands. But Baptists add an additional element: The government should not regulate the affairs of the church.
In practice, this is where many of the Westminster Divines were, but they were unable to articulate it as forcefully as the baptists. After all, the Westminster Assembly itself was called by parliament, whereas the Baptists had no such skin in the government’s game.
For this reason, Baptists have generally been more accepting of disobedience to the government. Baptists are often the first believers to be persecuted, and Baptist polity has gone even further than Manton and Hodges did in elevating “freedom of conscience” as a baptistic distinctive. In stressing local congregation’s autonomy from each other, there is also a stressing that the government cannot order the church’s worship. In Anglicanism, the Queen can be the head of the church. In the 1700’s, the government of different nations had to approve the appointment of pastors at specific churches (Scotland, Sweden, Norway, etc.). But not for Baptists.
In reading blogs and online discourse about what Grace Church is doing, much has been made of what level of health threat COVID poses, and thus what level of deference is owed to the government. I understand that, especially for those who believe that there is a duty to obey lawful commands—for those, this all hinges on if banning churches from singing really does advance society’s good.
But for a Baptist, that is not going to ultimately be persuasive. For us, when it comes to church affairs, the question is What do our elders think is the wisest course? and not What does the government say is the wisest course?
Simply put, Baptists have never granted the premise that the government has the right to appoint worship times, methods, or frequency. If the government commands churches to stop singing, or to close, Baptists may comply… but it won’t—or at least shouldn’t be—because of Romans 13.
This article originally appeared here.