Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Does Romans 13 demand unconditional obedience to civil authorities?

The President of South Africa recently (11/01/2021 @20h00) announced that we will remain in adjusted level 3 lockdown. This is devastating news for the church. Many of us hoped the President would allow us to meet again, but unfortunately not. This time he also did not give us a date, but only said, "when the infection rate has dropped to a safe level." This can of course be indefinite as the government already began to prepare the citizens for a third and fourth wave. The situation is very worrying for the church in light of other economic activities that may continue.

Recently, there also were a few sermons and debates around Romans 13 and our obedience to governing authorities. This is of course true, but the question is, "should we obey the government unconditionally?" For example, corporal punishment is against the law in South Africa but as Christians, we should rather obey Christ in this regard. What should we then do with regards to church gatherings?

The government's instruction to completely suspend worship services is against the command of Christ (Ex. 20:8-11; Heb. 10:25). We must obey all the laws of Christ including the 4th command and not neglect the gathering of the saints. When the state’s commands conflict with God’s commands, believers must follow the Lord because Christ is the Head of the Church. God has also appointed different spheres of authority (sphere sovereignty) - family, Church and civil society. Each authority must be respected by all people and may not be suppressed or overturned by another. Romans 13 regulates the relationships between these spheres of authority but it does not override the authority of the Head of all authorities, Christ the Lord. For example, the Church is firstly obedient to the Head of the Church and secondary to government.

In his institutes (Book 4, Section 32), John Calvin writes, "In that obedience which we hold to be due to the commands of rulers, we must always make the exception, nay, must be particularly careful that it is not incompatible with obedience to Him to whose will the wishes of all kings should be subject, to whose decrees their commands must yield, to whose majesty their sceptres must bow. And, indeed, how preposterous were it, in pleasing men, to incur the offence of Him for whose sake you obey men! The Lord, therefore, is King of kings. When he opens his sacred mouth, he alone is to be heard, instead of all and above all. We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against Him, let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates - a dignity to which, no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God. On this ground Daniel denies that he had sinned in any respect against the king when he refused to obey his impious decree, (Dan 6: 22), because the king had exceeded his limits, and not only been injurious to men, but, by raising his horn against God, had virtually abrogated his own power."

Therefore, the government cannot unilaterally suspend worship services whenever they see fit. They must submit to Christ in this regard by asking the Church how they can work together to protect the lives of people. The Church can then explain their role under the headship of Christ and how we can comply while obeying Christ first as the Head of the Church. However, it is their duty to ensure the safety and religious freedom of society. That means there are certain things in the Church's domain they can regulate for the safety and common good of people but not when and how we worship. For example, they can regulate things like electricity, fire escapes, building regulations, health regulations, etc. In that sense, they can give us regulations to protect people but they cannot suspend worship service completely. That we must learn from Christ and Scripture and not from the government. Doing that they have taken upon themselves the role of Christ as the Head of the Church. They have moved out of their sphere of sovereignty into the Church's domain.

Suspending worship services completely while opening restaurants, malls, cinemas, casinos, etc., are implying the Church is non-essential and unsafe for society while other things are safe and beneficial. That is a massive contradiction because sitting in a restaurant without a mask while laughing and having a good time is not a lesser risk than a Church gathering once a week. Many malls are overcrowded with the closing of beaches. Allowing a sinful act like gambling to continue for seven days a week while the Church cannot gather at all is an act against God. This is an injustice against the Church of Christ and making a value estimation of the Church which is not their place. Christ paid with His own blood for the church to indicate its value and importance. God has ordained the Church to be the most essential institution of salvation, restraining-power, and moral-upliftment of society. Ignoring or acting contrary to this is acting against Christ regardless of the government's intent. That said, let us remember, actions speak louder than words and a tree will be known by its fruit.

Their actions are against the will of God and overstepping the boundary given to them by Christ. Christians, therefore, have the right—indeed, the God-given duty—to disobey the state whenever the government forbids what the Lord commands or commands what the Lord forbids. The principle in the Bible as practiced throughout Church history is that the sick, the vulnerable, and the elderly be protected while the healthy continue to worship. Scientific data shows that the recovery and death rate of the coronavirus is not so severe as to necessitate complete isolation of people. Government is already acknowledging this by allowing economic activities to continue to protect the livelihood of people. Therefore, the sick, the elderly, and the weak can stay home while the healthy continue to attend worship services. The government can therefore ask that we comply with some basic regulations to protect the lives of people while meeting but they cannot completely suspend worship services.

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