Submit to the Authorities, Or Don't Forsake Church Gatherings?

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“No entrance without a mask” is across most doors today, even as the law has banned large gatherings, hindering churches from enjoying Sunday service in person.

The Bible says we “must be subject to the governing authorities.” (Rom. 13:1), so should we observe these laws? Or would this be “forsaking the gathering” of believers we’re warned against (Heb. 10:25)? The answers have led church-goers to either submit or oppose, but whoever’s wrong risks damaging the name of Christ and His church – perhaps more.

Those who do submit, if wrong, are unnecessarily silencing the witness of the church before a watching world, while potentially stunting the edification of the church itself.

But those who don’t submit, if wrong, are potentially putting people’s lives at risk, unnecessarily rebelling against the God-ordained government, while propagating an anti-Christian image to the world that already “speaks against you as evildoers” (1 Pt. 2:12). There’s a lot at stake. But who’s right?

The Purpose of Sunday Service

Let’s deal with the Hebrews passage, which, by the way, isn’t about going to church on Sunday mornings in the traditional sense. First of all, the book of Hebrews isn’t about church etiquette; it’s an exhortation for wayward believers to not ditch Christianity for Judaism because of the pressures of persecution. They were to be strong in loving Jesus’ people, and “to do good and share what you have” with one another (Heb. 13:16). This isn't an attendant issue.

It’s within this theme that the author says, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb. 10:24-25). See the purpose of gathering? As is always the case with the Bible, the intention is to love one another and to spur one another to love one another more. This is more than going to a building to hear a speech and sing a song.

The gathering laws prevent collecting in large masses in one place, but do they prevent love? We can still encourage each other, give to each other, spend time together in smaller, distant settings, and do various other expressions of edification and love for each other without having to meet in large groups. We have to be mildly creative and flexible, but we can still fulfill the purpose of gathering. We can still love each other. So what about Sunday Service?

If going to church in the traditional American sense is illegal, hazardous, and rude, then it works against love – the entire point of church. If meeting in mass works against love for the name of Jesus, then those who do this not only miss the point of church; they’ve stomped it into the ground. How can we assert our rights to worship when the point of worship is to lay down our rights for our neighbor? Now let’s check out the Romans passage.


Live Out the Gospel

In Romans 13 Paul tells the Romans to obey human authorities “for there is no authority except from God” (Rom. 13:1). He goes on to say that all human governments have been appointed by God to stimulate good and retard evil, so whoever resists this, provokes God, and will rightly incur punishment (vs. 2-7). Is he saying Christians should always obey all authorities without exception, or only under certain circumstances? If the latter, who determines the circumstances?

The first leads to wearing masks, avoiding large meetings, and doing anything that might be decreed, even if it’s wrong. The second can and has resulted in meeting with as many people as one wants, whenever they want, wherever they want, without wearing masks – all in the name of Christ. As is usually the case with the truth, it’s not hidden in the black or white. It’s in the gray zone.

The context is important. He’s not asking a theoretical question about universal government engagement. He just finished telling them that in view of God's mercy for all people in the gospel (Rom. 11:32-12:1), they should love “those who persecute” them (Rom. 12:14-20). This is why Paul talks about the government.

The Roman empire was their greatest persecutor, fixated on perfectly exterminating them. So should they rise up and fight back, or not? This is the question Paul’s answering.

Submit To Thy Enemy

He urged them to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). In other words, if you pick up the sword of your enemy to kill your enemy you will join your enemy. They must rise above this malice to reflect Jesus’ mercy. He overcame evil with good, conquered cruelty with compassion, stopped brutality with benevolence, even as He destroyed death with life. The principle, as always, is self-sacrifice.

This requires a general submission to the Romans – rather than confrontation. It’s submission to keep peace and afford an opportunity for kindness. This is Paul’s meaning. It’s not an abstract rule with no setting or purpose, but guidance to help specific Christians live out love in their context. What about us?

Will wearing masks and following gathering guidelines keep the peace? Absolutely. Does it show kindness? It’s considered a sign of respect toward others (see this pole), so yes.

Still, some may argue that not all governments are to be obeyed at all times. Peter flagrantly rebelled against the Jewish authorities, saying that “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

True, but Paul’s point is that generally, the government is God’s agent to prevent societal decay. This suggests that rulers should be submitted to so far as they are active agents of righteousness. But if they turn into machines of violence, joining them would be aiding unrighteousness. Defiance is necessary against governments like Nazi regimes, and there is plenty of precedence for this procedure in Scripture.

As far as the law equips ministers of destruction, it must be boycotted; but if it supports God’s design of human welfare, it must be adhered to. The real question is: do the laws about masks and gatherings result in protection or harm? If they’re for harm, then we must obey God rather than man. But if protection, as is claimed and seems evident, then we must submit to God by complying.

What If COVID’s Not So Deadly?

It’s not my point to argue for the factuality of the deadliness of COVID. Either COVID is as dangerous as the government is acting on, or it merely appears to be.

If it is this deadly, then every church that decides to disregard the laws risks spreading the virus’s fatal effects. And why? To uphold our religious freedom to meet on Sundays to hear a sermon and a song? This is almost as bad as funding a Nazi crusade in Jesus’ name! Christians are supposed to be a blessing to the nations, not a disease.

But even if the virus is somehow totally benign, wouldn’t disregarding these laws tarnish our already tarnished reputation? If our neighbors think that putting on masks keeps them safe, would it not be Christ-like to do so, even if we know better? If temporarily meeting thru Zoom makes outsiders and onlookers feel cared for, wouldn’t it show them Jesus to do so, even if it’s inconvenient? If the world thinks that crucifying our rights protects them, wouldn’t it demonstrate Jesus’ meekness to do so, even if it’s based on superstition?

But if we assert our rights at the expense of others, how is this like Jesus? If we put our church services before serving others, how is this being salt and light? If we protect our religious rights at the expense of Jesus’ reputation, what’s the point?