Over the past year, we’ve faced many Covid-19 related restrictions from the federal, provincial, and regional governments. Non-essential travel has been restricted with closed land borders. Any who do travel must submit to a mandatory test, costly hotel stay, and forced quarantine upon their return. The economy has been shut down, stay-at-home orders and curfews have been issued, social gatherings have been limited, masks are compulsory in almost every indoor setting (and some outdoor settings), etc..
There have been vastly different responses among citizens to the Covid-19 rules. Some have meticulously obeyed every order while others have brazenly flaunted their disobedience. What should we as Christians do? What should be our response? Let us consider what the Bible says about our responsibility to governing authorities.
Paul states in Romans 13:1-5:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.
Paul is not saying God put specific leaders in place, but that the institution of government derives authority from God. Thus, the governing authorities have the right to make and uphold laws. We, as citizens, may not like the laws, we may not agree with the laws, we may even believe the laws are dumb, but as a child of God, we should obey the law of the land we are in. The Holy Spirit had Paul write the same in Titus 3:1-2 and corroborated it through the pen of the apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:13-17).
Are there exceptions? Yes. If obeying the governing authority causes us to disobey God, then we obey God rather than man. There are a few examples of such in Scripture. In Daniel 3, Nebuchadnezzar had a 9-story tall image of pure gold set up in the plain of Dura. At the prescribed time, the Babylonian king expected all those present to fall down and worship the image. Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, were present, and refused to bow before the image, for it was idolatry. Even under threat of death (a burning fiery furnace), they would not concede to this wicked ordinance. In Daniel 6, Darius the Mede signed a decree making it illegal to petition anyone but the king. Daniel knew this was the law, but he still opened his window toward Jerusalem and prayed. He was arrested and cast into a den of lions. In Acts 4, Peter and John were commanded by the Jewish council to stop preaching in Jesus’ name. Their response is recorded in v 19-20, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” In Acts 5, the Sanhedrin again spoke out against the apostles because of their doctrine, to which they responded, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (5:29).
When Covid-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020, there were a lot of unknowns. The Ontario government prohibited all “non-essential” gatherings, which included worship services. Not knowing the seriousness of the virus, we ceased meeting together for a time. Was it the right decision? Consider, if there were a blizzard or ice storm and the authorities issued a stay-at-home order, should we comply? Absolutely. In fact, we’ve cancelled our services at times because of severe weather without such an order being given. Should we gather to worship? Indeed (Hebrews 10:24-25; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). Are there situations which make doing so unsafe or ill-advised? Yes.
By late May 2020, our area had no active Covid-19 cases. It no longer made sense to suspend our services; the storm wasn’t over, but it wasn’t as severe as expected. We needed to begin assembling again, despite the government restriction. It was no longer suitable or right to refrain from assembling. Thankfully, the ban on religious assemblies was lifted and initially a limit of 10 persons was set (now it is 30% of capacity). Based on what we now know, if another prohibition were implemented by the government, I believe we’d be in a “we ought to obey God rather than men” scenario.
What about the current size restrictions? Our regular attendance is under the 30% restriction, but what if it were above? What should we do? Others have faced this question and two very diametric approaches have resulted. Some have ignored size limits and affirmed their right to have a full house. Others have gathered in two or more assemblies in order to adhere to the restriction. Brethren at various times and places throughout history have gathered in small groups to avoid detection and oppression. Sure, it would be ideal for houses of worship to be overflowing, but we are able to meet and worship within the current restrictions. We can obey both God and man.
What about the current face mask rules or social gathering restrictions? We may not like wearing a mask and may be annoyed that we cannot have a potluck or games night, but these orders do not violate God’s word in any way. Thus, we should “…be subject to the governing authorities…” for “…whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God…” (Romans 13:1-2). Face masks and social gathering rules are not ordinances of God; His ordinance is that we should be subject to the governing authorities. We may not like the rules, and hopefully they will soon be relaxed and even expire, but for the present, Peter says “…submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake…” (1 Peter 2:13). What does he mean, “for the Lord’s sake”? As God’s people we need to be careful about the example we set in this world. What we do (or do not do) will leave an impression upon our family members, friends, neighbours, and strangers. Their perception of God, His will, and His people will come from what they see in us. Do they see us making an effort to obey God and the governing authorities, or do they see us ignoring and disobeying the law of the land?