This article was originally published at Advocates for Truth under the title “When Should Churches Submit to Government.”
For several months, churches have undergone some kind of restrictions on corporate gathering and worship in order to slow the spread of Covid-19. These restrictions have either been implemented voluntarily at the request of state and county health officials or involuntarily through force of law. This has led to conflicts between churches and government officials over their ability to gather for corporate worship in a manner consistent with their beliefs. Many Christians and pastors are rightly wondering what the proper response is to these impositions.
For Christians, the root of the debate revolves around three commands in Scripture. First, is the command in Romans 13:1-7 to submit to the governing authorities. Second, is the command to meet together for corporate worship (Hebrews 10:24-25). Third, is the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14). In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, all three of these commands come into tension with one another and can even seem contradictory. How should Christians respond?
This article will focus on key issues in Romans 13, which commands Christians to submit to the government out of obedience to God. What exactly does it mean to “submit” to the government in our current context?
The Historical Context of Romans 13
The relationship between Jews, Christians, and the Roman government had a complicated history. Prior to Rome, Israel had been under Babylonian, Persian, and Greek rule. Generally speaking (especially while in exile), the Israelites were commanded to submit to the nations which governed them and even to pray for their well being (Jeremiah 29:7). After the Israelites returned to the land, the Maccabees led a revolt in 167 BC against the Seleucid empire.  This eventually led to the establishment of the Hasmonean Dynasty (a Jewish monarchy), which ruled until Jerusalem was conquered by Rome in 63 BC. 
Following that, there were numerous conflicts between the Jews and the Romans, especially over issues of worship and taxation. This can be seen even during Jesus’ ministry when the Jews tried to trap him with a question concerning paying taxes to Caesar (see Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:19-26). Nevertheless, at the insistence of the Jewish authorities, it was ultimately Rome that put Jesus to death on the cross.
After the death of Jesus and the spread of the gospel, a Christian community developed in the city of Rome. The book of Romans was written by the Apostle Paul in 57 AD and was addressed to the Jewish and Gentile Christian audience living in Rome. Living in the capital city of a foreign nation would undoubtedly have raised questions about how Christians should live under the government of a foreign power. At that time, the Roman church was living in relative peace under the reign of Nero. Although he would later become infamous for his brutal persecution of Christians, at the time the letter was written, this had not yet happened. Nevertheless, just 8 years earlier (49 AD), Claudius (the previous emperor) had expelled all the Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2). Though some Jews had made their way back to Rome, this expulsion would undoubtedly have been on the minds of the Jewish and Gentile Christians living there. To what extent were Christians obligated to obey orders such as that?
Interpretation of Romans 13
Romans 13:1-7 is the most extended treatment in the New Testament on the role of government as well as what ought to be a Christian’s attitude toward human government. Romans 13 begins by saying, “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.”
First, this establishes the legitimacy of human government. This was not a new principle. Shortly after the days of the flood, God said to Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Genesis 9:6) This put the responsibility on people to carry out judgment for evils done in this world. Over time, this responsibility took on the form of kings, rulers, and other kinds of government that carried out such actions.
This is also what we see in Romans 13 when Paul remarks, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad…But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” Governments exist to prevent and punish evil and uphold what is good, righteous, and just. Because of the fallenness of the world and the sinfulness of humanity, government is needed to provide a deterrent (“the sword”) to those who would do evil or act unjustly.
Second, Romans 13 establishes the posture of the Christian towards government in general: one of submission. Submission is a common theme in the Bible which characterizes several relationships, the most important being our relationship to God (James 4:6-7). It also pertains to relationships between wives to husbands (Ephesians 5:22), children to parents (Colossians 3:20, Luke 2:51), slaves to masters (1 Peter 2:18), and congregants to elders/pastors (Hebrews 13:7). Likewise, citizens are called to submit to the government (1 Peter 2:13-14).
What Does Submission Mean?
What submission will look like depends on the type of relationship. For example, a wife does not submit to a husband in the same way that a child submits to a parent or that a citizen submits to the government because each relationship carries with it different roles and responsibilities.
Additionally, submission to government, like the submission given in other human relationships, is a qualified submission. Unlike God, governments (and the people that inhabit them) are not perfect. So, when the government commands a Christian to do something wrong or prohibits them from doing something which God commands, should they obey the government in this circumstance? In short, no. The only relationship where we give submission in any absolute sense is to God because he alone is perfect (Deuteronomy 32:4, Romans 3:23).
The book of Daniel gives two examples of rightful disobedience to government. In Daniel 3, Nebuchadnezzar had set up a golden image and commanded all people to worship the image. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego disobeyed the order, prepared to suffer the consequences. Yet, God demonstrated his faithfulness and delivered them. Likewise in Daniel 6, jealous officials set up a scheme to convince the King to prohibit all worship except for himself, knowing that Daniel would disobey. Aware of the consequences, Daniel remained faithful to the Lord and continued praying to him three times a day. He was therefore thrown into the lion’s den, where the Lord delivered him as he had delivered Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
In the New Testament, we are given the example of Peter and John being commanded by the Jewish authorities to cease preaching the gospel. They responded that they must obey God rather than men (Acts 4:19, 5:29).
The submission that we give to the government is a qualified submission. Because the state ultimately derives its authority from God, if a law is passed which forces us to disobey God, then Christians not only have the right but the duty to disobey such a law. However, as we see in Scripture, we must also be ready to suffer the consequences, trusting in God with the results.
On the other hand, barring such circumstances, the command to submit to the government still stands. Christians should not stretch the exception created in Scripture to disobey the government over trivial issues, or as a ploy to advance a political agenda. Christians “must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” (Romans 13:5) We must “live as people who are free, not using [our] freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” (1 Peter 2:16) Our actions towards the government ultimately serve as a witness of the gospel to a watching world.
Therefore, Christians must use the utmost caution in invoking God’s name as a justification for civil disobedience. We (especially as American Christians) must be careful not to conflate the political rights and freedoms we have in this country with God-given rights and responsibilities. Unless a clear biblical issue is at stake, we should not use our faith as a justification for civil disobedience.
At the same time, this does not mean that Christians cannot fight for political rights. Paul himself was not afraid to assert his own political rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:35-39, 22:22-29). In the United States, we have a system of government which allows for us to voice our opinions, lobby, vote, and file lawsuits in order to defend our Constitutional (i.e. political) rights. Part of stewarding our responsibilities as citizens is to use these political rights as a means of advancing policies that will benefit society and our neighbor.
Application to Churches and the Coronavirus
In our current context, there are a number of competing factors in deciding whether churches should disregard government rules and regulations on corporate worship.
First, as this article has been discussing, Scripture is clear about our duty to submit to the governing authorities except in certain instances where submission to the government would cause us to disobey God.
Second, we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14). Unlike the common understanding of the word “freedom,” freedom in Christ does not mean the ability to do whatever we want, but the freedom to do what is right, good, just, true, and what is in the best interest of our neighbor. Paul reminds us in Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Ultimately, if we are self-centered in our decision making, we are acting in disobedience to God.
Third, is the command to meet together as a corporate body (Hebrews 10:24-25). The Greek word that church comes from (ekklesia) literally means a public gathering or assembly. Gathering corporately is an essential part of what it means to be a church.
When considering all three parameters, there are some questions worth considering on this topic: What does it mean to assemble? Does it mean gathering online, in an outdoor setting, or in an indoor setting, with or without social distancing, with or without face masks, with or without singing or chanting? Are any of these parameters something we can temporarily forego as a means of stopping the coronavirus and protecting those who might be vulnerable to it? If so, then for how long? Or are all of these parameters non-negotiable? Such questions must be answered only after much deliberation and prayer.
Christians are called to submit to the governing authorities as Romans 13 commands, recognizing that this is a qualified submission and that our ultimate allegiance is to God alone. The coronavirus and recent government action have created a situation in which several commands from the Scripture seem to come into tension with one another. In such situations, only through careful consideration, much prayer, and the application of biblical wisdom can we navigate our way to an answer. Whatever conclusion we arrive at, we must recognize the difficulty and nuance that such a situation presents. The needs and responsibilities of local churches will differ from one another. As such, we must be gracious towards those who come to different conclusions than we do. Christians can disagree on such matters in good conscience as we all seek to glorify God and be obedient to his commands.