25 May 2020

What Is a Christian's Duty to Unjust Government?

by Phil Johnson

This guy, angry that Grace Community Church yielded to the 9th Circuit Court's ruling banning church meetings in California this weekend, Tweets at me: "An unjust law need not be followed."

I'm appalled at how many people who profess to believe Scripture echo that sentiment. Nero was emperor when Paul wrote Romans 13:1-7: "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. . . ." First Peter 2:13 was written to people suffering unjustly. ("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...")

Peter goes on to say: "Be subject . . . also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly" (vv. 18-19). Indeed, "to this [unjust suffering] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps." (v. 21). When someone in authority over us treats us unjustly, the example we are to follow was set for us by Christ, who simply "continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly" (v. 23).

The only exception to this principle is when the one in authority instructs us to sin. Then "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

So does a government-mandated quarantine ask us to violate Hebrews 10:25 ("not neglecting to meet together"), or is the quarantine in keeping with the principle of Leviticus 13-14, where quarantines are expressly mandated?

The answer to that question may vary according to where we live. Quarantining people in the midst of a pandemic is a legitimate prerogative of government. How long the quarantine should last and who should be exempted are questions that don't have clear, fixed answers. The severity and duration of the pandemic determines what's reasonable or not. We may or may not agree with how the quarantine is being implemented (I certainly do not), but we have a clear duty to submit unless we are being asked to sin.

How long until the government-ordered quarantine is undeniably excessive, or we conclude that it's targeted persecution against our worship and therefore an illegal attempt to make us disobey Hebrews 10:25? That time may come, and when it does, we may have to implement the principle of Acts 5:29. The question of whether we have already passed that point is another subjective issue, but it's clear that among believers—in the church itself—there is not yet consensus on whether the quarantine has gone too far.

Nevertheless, if you hang out on Twitter or Facebook, you may have noticed that there are countless people in the evangelical community who refuse to regard any of the above questions as matters of conscience. They believe the answers are perfectly obvious. They are eager to tell you what you and your church ought to be doing. They are locked and loaded with vituperation for anyone who sees matters differently. Two camps of them have squared off against each other—hordes of angry Karens at opposite extremes, all of whom disagree with the position I've outlined above. Some of them are scolding us for thinking Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 actually apply in today's circumstances. The others are berating us for wanting to resume public worship ASAP.

Sorry, but in the words of Martin Luther, here I stand. I can do no other. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help us.

Phil's signature


SKH said...

For sure, people love and *hate* GCC. Yours is a unique and blessed and targeted position. I think there are those, however, who *love* GCC and still have some questions.

Phil, you observe that "there are countless people who think the answers to these questions are all cut and dried." And yet that is exactly how Dr. MacArthur presented the argument for reopening. *He* made it cut and dried (as is his modus operandi). "The President said it's OK, so it is."

For all of the urging us to obey the Bible which is, as you argue, so clear about our need to submit, the plan to reopen GCC for on-site services showed a surprising lack of awareness of who the governing authorities in your situation are in the first place.

So the initial GCC announcement was cut and dried, without any acknowledgment of the actual legal jurisdictions, but then those who wonder about that are the "angry Karens"?

I get that it's hard to be criticized so much, and in this case, criticized by someone regardless of what you do. But acting like everything GCC announced (to reopen and then to not) was consistent with Romans 13 and 1 Peter, and scolding the hordes for failing to understand, is at least ironic.

J. said...

SKH. That's a legitimate observation.

Phil Johnson said...

SKH: I should have been clearer. My criticism is not merely that someone might think a complex, ambiguous, or subjective question has a definitive answer. What I'm grousing about is the eagerness some people have to settle cases of conscience for their neighbors. Christians all over Twitter and Facebook are acting as if whatever answer they have chosen MUST be immediately enforced on their social media friends and their churches. People who have never shown any concern about whether sound doctrine is taught or the authority of God's Word is observed have decided that you dare not come to a different conclusion on THIS. The quarantine has unleashed a troubling amount of busybodying in the evangelical social media world.

Anyway, I re-edited the troublesome paragraph and fixed it now.

Unknown said...

I think Grace elders have proven themselves faithful enough to be respectfully submissive and supportive of their decisions. I wish I could be a member of their congregation!

John said...

Hi, Phil, I appreciate your article and the effort to remain biblical and calm in this time. I’m an elder in a small church here in CA, and I have heard multiple views on this topic within our small body. I can’t imagine what it’s like at Grace.

My question. How do you shepherd people who believe that they are going against their conscience now by not gathering or partaking in the Lord’s Supper? Their reasoning is proper. They don’t want to rebel, but they believe they are going against Hebrews 10 for example. Do we tell them that they’re not in sin because it’s the government who’s put them in this difficult position? I hope that makes sense. Thanks!

Phil Johnson said...

"Forsake” in Hebrews 10:25 is ἐγκαταλείπω--literally, "utterly forsake." It’s talking about permanent and/or willful abandonment, the final discontinuation of public worship. It clearly doesn’t rule out temporary or involuntary absence from the gathered assembly. Paul in prison and people under quarantine aren't sinning if they can't gather with God's people on the Lord's day.

On the other hand, if the bans against church assemblies threaten to become routine or permanent efforts by the authorities, motivated by contempt for Christ to thwart the gathering of God's people, THEN we will need to invoke Acts 5:29. When will that be? See third paragraph from the end in the above blogpost: Possibly very soon unless the governor begins to loosen his restrictions against public worship. But at the moment the elders of our church believe such a move would unnecessarily cause division within the body, heighten the fears of people in high-risk categories, provoke unneeded animosity from both government authorities and the people in our community--and do nothing to clarify the gospel.

What is the telling factor that would signal clearly that it's time to overstep the quarantine order and disobey Caesar? It's fairly simple, I think: If restrictions are relaxed against movie theaters, sporting events, and other large public gatherings but kept in place against the church, then it will be undeniably obvious that politicians driven by evil motives are demanding that we disobey Hebrews 10:25. We will have to obey God rather than men.

I hate the fact that we're being told not to meet even now, and my dislike increases every time the quarantine gets extended. I think it's bad policy, destructive to the economy, more hurtful than helpful for public health, and an unprecedented case of extreme government overreach. But by the principles given to us in Scripture, none of those complaints warrants civil disobedience.

John said...

Thanks for your response. I completely agree on Hebrews 10:25. The author was clearly dealing with people who were considering abandoning the church due to persecution. The believers in my context and no doubt yours have the longing to gather corporately again not to forsake the fellowship.

It does look like our church can start meeting again since we are small enough, so we are praising the Lord for that. I’m praying for the day when Grace can meet in person again and for continued wisdom for you and the rest of the elders.

Tiribulus said...

Phil says: "The severity and duration of the pandemic determines what's reasonable or not."
And herein lies the heart of the problem. Never in my 56 years for sure, has there ever been less certainty about a circumstance this public and this pervasive.

Depending on who you listen to and what day (or even time in some cases) it is, this is either an eye roll worthy false alarm not much worse overall than the seasonal flu, or the practical end of civilization as we know it. Lettered experts on all sides. Pretty much all of them with at least some agenda.

On a sliding scale I'm inclined to lean in the direction of the former. A panicked and paralyzed populous is the nanny state tyrant's dream. That much I have no lack of certainty about.

Finding a clear levelheaded, biblically informed position would be much simpler in the presence of settled data we could have a lot of confidence in.

Steve at GCC Bowling Green said...

Phil: you write: What is the telling factor that would signal clearly that it's time to overstep the quarantine order and disobey Caesar? It's fairly simple, I think: If restrictions are relaxed against movie theaters, sporting events, and other large public gatherings but kept in place against the church, then it will be undeniably obvious that politicians driven by evil motives are demanding that we disobey Hebrews 10:25. We will have to obey God rather than men.
I agree with your major premise - but can you help with this in view ... the government's determination to be unfair related to mass gatherings would reveal both their contempt for the church and for the Constitution. Yet, it seems this constrains the church's obedience to God's call for the church gathered to the revelation of the heart of the government on a matter. Are we not more to be constrained by God's revelation of His heart on the matter?
We (elders) have been helped by this logic train: 1. The Christian church would not refuse to assemble under risk to themselves. This happens all the time, and even now in many parts of the world. 2. The Christian church would refuse to assemble under risk to others. In other words - "You meet and we'll burn your church down!" Sorry, we are going to meet. Contrasted with "You meet and you'll burn the public health down!" Wow, we will not meet.
This has made our determination always inexorably linked to the legitimate risk our meeting would pose to the public. We have relied on the health officials to make a compelling argument toward that threat. We have been quite comfortable accepting their determinations, we not being health experts. We asked one question always: "What reason do we have to assemble - given the current health risk?" Now, with the health risk being questioned. With the new CDC guidelines that clearly tolerate church's gatherings leaving the measure of risk in the hands of those they know aren't qualified to make that assessment (pastors/churches) - (those guidelines clearly make that case - and it seemed GCC Cali reached that same conclusion). With that - the question facing the church has changed dramatically. No longer is the question: "What reason do we have to assemble - given the current health risk?" - - but now "What reason do we have NOT to assemble - given the diminished health risk?" Those two questions are dramatically different.
The point being - the government's imposition against assembly was never credible outside of the prevailing health risk it posed. They applied that risk and limited assemblies of all sorts universally; not treating churches peculiarly. But remove the prevailing health risk and the government's right to impose restriction on assembly crumbles. Not constitutionally - but theologically. That perspective doesn't demand pastors become health experts. Rather, it allows pastors to use reason - tied to the highest health concern we have in America (CDC) - - and to act reasonably, and obediently to God.
Are we thinking correctly? Biblically?

the Rambler said...

A persuasive argument indeed. I do have a question that strays a bit...
The USA is a peculiar nation in history. In ancient Rome, obedience to the law was required of 'good citizens', which is why Christians were viewed as bad actors (disobeying commands to sin).
However, in the USA, good citizenship has generally meant someone who participates in our system of democratic-republican governance. This sometimes means agitating and disobeying - which is why the First Amendment guarantees our right to peaceably assemble.
Is there an argument to be made that the call to obey any law that is not sin, is different in an American context?
An example: Marching on the streets of Selma, AL for Civil Rights after the local/state government demanded the peaceful marchers to disperse?
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this... and thank you so much for writing this piece. I found it to be generally helpful!

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

There may be Karens on "both sides", but one side believes that the pandemic is false or not very serious and that Bill Gates wants to inject us all with vaccines that carry tracking devices.

And that side is the "we should remain open" side.

Sue said...