As Christians, we want to obey the Bible and honour God in all that we do. In this time of government restrictions of healthy people during Covid, especially regarding public worship of the Lord Jesus Christ, questions arise as to whether Christians should obey the government or not. Does the Bible teach us to submit to government at all times and in all circumstances?
It may surprise some that there are only three sections of Scripture that directly talk about submission to government. There are other sections that deal with respecting and praying for our government leaders. This is something that we need to be very careful to do. God at no time allows us to treat leaders of any kind with contempt or disrespect. Even in cases of the abuse of power, as we have today, we must still maintain an attitude of respect. Respecting leaders is difficult when we see the pain, destruction and death caused by these abuses. The defiant and rebellious attitude of many leaders against God can tempt us to lash out in defensive anger.
The Archangel Michael, who went to the mat with the Devil as they fought over the body of Moses, wouldn’t have dared level him with a blasphemous curse, but said simply, “No you don’t. God will take care of you!” Jude 9, The Message
But Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him an abusive judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” Jude 9, NASB
There are a couple of things related to our topic of whether the Bible teaches Christians to submit to government that we can see in this verse. First, even when dealing with pure evil, words were not chosen or used lightly. We need to be very careful how we speak to those in authority, especially when they are in opposition to the Truth. Second, this does not mean that we do not vehemently oppose those who are attempting to bring evil purposes to pass.
So, there is no doubt that we must pray for and treat our leaders with respect whether or not they are rebellious against God. However, that is different from submission to evil men and women in power. What are the limits of the Bible for us to submit to government? Let’s take a look at the three passages that directly deal with this subject, keeping in mind that disrespect in never an option. Also, keep in mind that we must consider the entire Scriptural teaching in context on a topic, not just selected verses.
Every person is to be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a servant of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; respect to whom respect; honor to whom honor. Romans 13:1-7, NASB
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. 1 Peter 3:13-17, NIV
Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, 2 to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone. Titus 3:1-2, NIV
1. That governing authorities are established by God. The civil government does have a legitimate role in the purposes of God.
2. That we are to be subject or submit to those authorities because ultimately their authority comes from God.
3. That both Paul and Peter DEFINE what they mean by a legitimate government that requires our submission. Government is to:
A. work on God’s behalf [i.e. Servant of God], which means enforcing God’s standards and will,
B. reward those who do good,
C. punish those who do evil.
In short, the civil government is to be submitted to God and administer His justice [not their own] on the earth.
4. In all our actions, with people in general and governmental authority specifically, we are to be respectful, not to slander, be obedient, be peaceable and be considerate.
But what happens when the government is not a terror to those who do evil, but a terror to those who do good? In other words, what happens when the government itself is in rebellious opposition to its authority, the Lord Jesus Christ?
We must recognize that the Kingdom of Christ is not established through rebellion and revolution, but through the regeneration of the hearts of men and women. We may suffer violence, but we do not respond violently. Both Paul and Peter emphasize that we do not return evil for evil [Rom. 12:17-21, 1 Peter 3:8-14]. So we do not oppose unGodly rulers and laws by rioting, slandering or other acts of evil.
But must we passively, like an abused wife who refuses to leave her husband, accept whatever is put upon us? Peter gives us a Biblical guideline as to when submission to government becomes a sin.
The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Acts 5:27-32, NIV
The Sanhedrin was a governing authority both religiously and politically. The apostles verbally and strongly opposed them. They also made it clear that God’s commands superseded man’s commands. If there was a choice to be made, then God’s laws were higher.
So what are legitimate Christian responses to the orders of leaders who would do evil?
1. Compliant And Silent
This applies at two different times.
A. When we are faced with evil people and have no control over the situation [Matt. 5:39]. For example, this is the instruction of slaves to their masters. They have no control over the situation. Resistance would lead to further punishment. So they are counselled to be obedient, diligent, giving a good witness and accepting unjust punishment, knowing that their Ultimate Master will reward them in the end [1 Peter 2:18-23]. In fact, we are to go out of our way to love and serve these people as an expression of the love of Jesus, Who loved and served us when we hated and fought against Him.
B. When the command does not involve a critical issue. If it isn’t that important, then we simply obey [cheerfully - what a challenge!] although we know it is not right or fair.
2. Compliant But Verbal
Here we maintain a good attitude and are obedient and submissive, but we have the responsibility to warn the leader that his/her actions are wrong and will incur God’s judgment. This may also include public speaking/writing to inform the general public of the real situation. Many of the Old Testament prophets did this. John the Baptist got himself beheaded because he let Herod and his “wife” know about their sin [Matt. 14:3-5].
3. Non-Compliant But Non-Confrontational
In this case, the law/command violates a fundamental Biblical issue or would cause us to violate our conscience before God. We simply continue doing what we know is right quietly. We don’t make an issue of it, but we don’t violate our conscience either. Daniel is an example of this. When the king issued a decree that only the king could be worshipped, Daniel didn’t raise any objections but simply went about his normal routine of praying to God and calmly accepted the consequences [Dan. 6:10-11]. This [and #4] would also be the position of the brave people who hid Jews and POWs in WWII.
4. Non-Compliant But Cooperative
This may seem like a contraction in terms. In this case, we do not violate our conscience, but we work quietly within the corrupt system to protect the innocent and influence positive change. Obadiah is an example. He worked within the wicked Ahab’s court, but, at the risk of his life, he saved 100 prophets of God from death [1 Kings 18:3-4].
5. Non-Compliant And Confrontational
This is where the situation is very serious, and we have the power to influence change. This would include strong speaking/writing and perhaps civil disobedience. Again, we see an example of this in the book of Daniel, where his three friends were forced to publicly disobey the order of the king [Dan. 3]. This was also the apostles’ position in the book Acts when they told the Sanhedrin that they were going to preach the gospel in violation of the Sanhedrin’s commands [Acts 5:27-32].
I hate to mention this as the world [and worldly-minded Christians] often want to start here. It usually shows a lack of confidence in the sovereignty of God. As mentioned above, the Kingdom of God is about Regeneration of people’s hearts and minds, not Revolution. In rare cases [and the very clear leading of the Holy Spirit through multiple Godly men and woman], where the Majority of people in a nation are Godly [not the case currently in any nation I know of] and a Minority of evil leaders rule over them, this may be an option. Some feel the American War For Independence fits this description. The book of Judges offers Biblical examples of when most of the nation returned to God and God raised up leaders to overthrow the oppressors.
Probably most of the situations we will face will be a 1 - 3.
So how does this relate to our current Covid situation? There will be legitimate disagreement among dedicated Christians who love the Lord Jesus. Below is my opinion.
I would put wearing masks as a 1 or a 2. They are unnecessary, unfair, inconvenient and dehumanizing but, for most people, not a serious threat to their well-being. In the case of being required to wear masks in a worship service, I would move it to a 2 or a 3.
Lockdowns interfere with God’s command to work. They violently interfere with a person’s ability to provide for their family, they break up families, they increase social problems [suicide, abuse, etc.], and they are driving an estimated 150 million people into extreme poverty. They definitely violate God’s command to care for the poor, the widow and the orphan. I would put lockdowns anywhere from a 2 to a 5, but favouring 3 to 5.
The closing of in-person churches and worship services I would put somewhere in the 3 to 5 range.
When we are placed in unfair situations by leaders, we need to access where their commands lie on the above scale. No matter what we decide, we need to accept the consequences of our actions with grace, humility and confidence in the sovereignty of God. If we can’t do that, we need to stick to number one.