Updated: Apr 13, 2020
This article was first published on Blog and Mablog https://dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/romans-13-and-the-covid-19-virus.html
We publish this here, as it is the reasoning behind our supervising denomination‘s instructions to obey our State restrictions include gathering together at this time. “In a time of genuine plague, the civil magistrate has the right to shut things down... We will continue to do this until it becomes obvious that the orders are an abuse of their legitimate authority to quarantine.”
As the numerous state lock downs continue, and various Christian organizations have to make decisions about what to do about it, churches particularly, this brings into high relief all the various assumptions that Christians have been carrying about concerning Romans 13. Huh, we think. Look at that.
What I would like for this post to do is to provide something of a primer on sphere sovereignty? How are the governments God created to relate to one another in a time such as this?
But if you want to get the most out of this primer, then I would recommend that you take a look at two earlier posts I have done on this particular issue. The first is something I wrote right when the pandemic was heating up (https://dougwils.com/books-and-culture/s7-engaging-the-culture/contagion-cooties-and-covid-19.html), and the second provides some scriptural instructions on how quarantines are supposed to work. Those observations are consistent with what I have written elsewhere, and with what I am writing here.
The Romans 13 Problem
As our session of elders has been working this out, one of our men helpfully outlined the three positions that Christians tend to take on the magistrate’s authority to shut down a church in an emergency situation.
The first is that the civil magistrate has no authority over whether a church holds worship services. They may advise, but not command. The church is like a house cat. Unlike a dog, it never obeys you; it sometimes agrees with you.
The second position is that the magistrate has genuine authority in times of emergency to command the church to do certain things, or refrain from certain things (as with a quarantine in a time of plague). When the church complies, it is obedience, not happenstance agreement. At the same time, because no human authority is absolute, and because every form of human authority can be corrupted, those under authority, including the church (and especially the church), have the authority to identify when the genuine authority of the magistrate is being abused or mishandled to the point where it is now legitimate to disregard what they are saying.
The third position is to take a surface reading of Romans 13 (obey the existing authorities) as a straightforward absolute. Whatever they say, we are supposed to do.
To help you keep track of things, I am arguing for the second position here. I am doing this because, among other things, it is the correct position.
There are three basic governments that have their existence directly from the hand of God. These three governments are the government of the church (Eph. 2:20), the civil government (Rom. 13:1-5), and the government of the family (Matt. 19:4-6). All three of these were established by God directly, and all three are dependent for their health on the underlying reality of self-government in all the individuals involved.
These three governments must be distinguished from the organizations created through the by-laws forming your ham radio club, or your chess club, or your membership in the Kiwanis. These latter groups are fine and all, but they are man-made institutions. Men created them; they answer to men. The former three are God’s work directly. He created them; He makes the rules for them. He assigns them their respective responsibilities.
In normal times, those responsibilities are as follows: The civil magistrate is the Ministry of Justice and Protection. The family is the Ministry of Health, Education, and Welfare. The church is the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. But, like I said, normal times.
A Venn Diagram
As it happens, God wants us to use our heads. He wants us to apply sanctified common sense to the inevitable problems that will naturally arise in a world full of sinners, and where each of these respective governments are populated by sinners. And even when the individuals are not in overt rebellion against God, it is often the case that the people running the show are being insufficiently wise. What do we do when magistrates, fathers, or pastors are being evil, on the one end, or massive bunglers on the other?
On top of that, each one of these governments can get swollen, and can transgress the boundaries that God has established for them. For example, in the medieval period, the church had an out-sized role. In the time of the highland chieftains, the family had an out-sized role. And in the time of the modern state, faceless bureaucrats have an out-sized role. Sometimes this is evidenced through power grabs, and other times it shows up through gradual encroachments.
When the Venn diagram overlaps, a decision has to be made. But by whom? Well, in the very nature of the case, by both the governments involved. Usually this will happen, not as the result of joint consultations, but rather because one of the governments simply steps aside and gives way. In a civil emergency, the church should give way. In a moral showdown, the civil magistrate should give way. Theodosius should repent for the massacre at Thessalonica, and Ambrose was right to require it.
An Active Shooter
So suppose a worship service is in progress, and the cops interrupt it because there is a sniper holed up across the street, and the police want to evacuate the area. The immediate and instinctive response of the elders should be that of full and complete cooperation. They are not surrendering the keys of the kingdom because they urge their parishioners to exit immediately through the fellowship hall, without the Lord’s Supper, and without the benediction. Who cares? There is an active shooter out front. And not only should we exit, we should exit in obedience.
Because Christians are taught in the New Testament to be dutiful citizens, our first reaction when a crisis hits ought not to be that of giving the raspberry to the magistrate.
“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.”1 Peter 2:13–14 (KJV)
Having said this, and having given a nod to the demeanor that Romans 13 absolutists urge us all to have all the time, I need to point out that the man who wrote these words was going to have his life ended by the civil authorities as a seditious troublemaker. And the people he was writing to were also being equipped by him to undergo a “fiery trial” (1 Pet. 4:12), in which persecution they would be accused of all kinds of outlandish things.
But Wait, There’s More
There is a difference between citizens and subjects, and in times of crisis like this we are finding it awfully difficult to learn in ten minutes what we should have been learning for the last ten years.
One of the common mistakes made by writers on Christianity and politics is the mistake of confounding the question of “what Christian governance should look like” with whether or not Christianity can function under different forms of non-Christian governance. These are completely different questions. Of course the church can thrive under all kinds of ungodly regimes because the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. But the fact that the church can grow under communism does not make communism okay.
So our adjusted question should be this one. Are the existing authorities of Paul’s day identical to the existing authorities on ours? And the answer is no, they are not. We are living under a different form of governance, which means that our constitutions are different, our rulers are accountable in different ways, and we are citizens, not subjects. The reasons for these changes are attributable largely to the influence of the Christian faith as it has spread over the centuries, and as it has influenced the formation of our public institutions.
And this means, coming right to the point, that the president is not a Caesar. Your state governor is not a Roman pro counsel. The common law is not a nullity, and the Constitution is not just a piece of elastic for Supreme Court justices to use in order to maintain muscle tone in their arms. In our system of governance, we are citizens, not subjects, and this means that we are part of the existing authority. The doctrine of the lesser magistrate is an important one to remember, and all of this means that the law is far more than whatever a particular bossy pants maintains that it is.
Let me illustrate this with some hypotheticals that are not all that hypothetical. Do the “people in charge” have the right to cancel or postpone the election in November because of “the pandemic?” We just had a fight over an election in Wisconsin that was held yesterday, with loud voices demanding that it be postponed. The ostensible reason was the pandemic, while the real reason was that it served their political purposes?
We have already had our right to assembletaken away because of the pandemic, which is a right recognized by the First Amendment. Suppose the authorities said that spreading false information about the virus was every bit as dangerous as people meeting in large numbers, and so free speech was therefore to be abridged in the interests of public safety. No touting the benefits of hydroxychloroquine, you. And they decided also to nix that part of the First Amendment that recognized your right to redress your grievances to the government. Do you simply go along with this foolishness?
If you do, you are not a Romans 13 absolutist, however much you pretend to be. This is because the Constitution was written down for a reason, and it is because the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Those who allow their governors to simply abrogate their rights, plainly outlined in the text of the Constitution, are themselves rebels. They are rebelling against lawful authority by submitting to unlawful authority. I am not saying that this is a place where Romans 13 “does not apply.” Rather, I am saying that it applies in spades, and that the precious and overly-compliant are defying it.
Checks and Balances
Checks and balances were not invented by James Madison. The Founders of our nation were imitators, not inventors.
This is because, when the three governments are healthy, there will be tension between them. And when one of them is caught up in the sin of pride, and the others are trying to resist them, there will be a lot of tension.
The way our system was designed to work is through challenges. Your governor says that the right to keep and bear arms means, in his lexicon, that you do not have the right to keep and bear arms. You, being literate, say something like “that is not what it says,” and you continue to keep and continue to bear. You get arrested, and the case goes to court.
This is not an instance where the existing authorities are trying to do the job that God assigned to them, and you are proving to be singularly uncooperative. Rather, it is an example of one portion of the existing authority (your leftist governor) is trying to supplant another part of the existing authority (you, your gun, your rights as a free man, and your Constitution), and you won’t let them. Good for you.
When It Becomes Obvious
So this is how it all fits together. In a time of genuine plague, the civil magistrate has the right to shut things down. The Plague is upon us, and bodies are stacked on every street corner, and the cry of “bring out your dead” is heard throughout every township. Listen, you Christian libertarians. Obey your governor. Wash your hands. Don’t meet. Don’t go out. Pray to God. Bring out your dead.
But suppose we go back to our active shooter situation, and your congregation has been ushered out through the fellowship hall for six weeks in a row now, and there has been no sign of an active shooter anywhere yet. There are plenty of signs that the cops, for some reason best known to themselves, are lying to you.
Okay, so at what point do the elders meet the cops at the door with some kind of “wait a minute”?
So we are in the middle of a national pandemic, with most states in lock down mode, and the pandemic is really bad, right? Is that why we have a bunch of empty hospitals? Is that why hospitals are laying people off? At what point to the people get to say, “Wait a second . . .”?
What we have been doing at Christ Church thus far, as a church, is to comply with the orders of our governor and our mayor. We will continue to do this until it becomes obvious to us that the orders are an abuse of their legitimate authority to quarantine. We do not challenge that authority of theirs to quarantine, and we have not relinquished our authority as elders to call a meeting of the church. These two positions are currently in tension, but because we are good citizens and not scofflaws, we have resolved that tension by deferring. But there is a point where such orders would be tantamount to commanding water to flow uphill. As such these would be orders that would be unscriptural and therefore immoral, unconstitutional and therefore illegal, and nonsensical and therefore lame.
I do not yet believe we are at that point. But I do think I can see it from here.