By Patrick Zukeran
Our nation has been in lockdown for over two months and when the quarantine mandate will be lifted, no one knows. There are a few churches who have chosen to gather for worship despite their state government mandate against large gatherings. Many churches across the country are struggling with the issue now: should we gather for corporate worship against the government mandate, or should we obey the government? Is this the time Christians should obey God over man?
The disciple of Christ will always live with the tension of being a citizen of one’s country but also being a citizen of heaven (Phil. 3:20). In a fallen world, there will be times when human laws with conflict with God’s laws. When there is a conflict, how should Christians respond?
The Bible teaches that governments are established by God and a Christian is called to obey their rulers. Several passages make this point:
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. (Romans 13:1-2)
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. (1 Peter 2:13-14)
Governments are ordained by God and delegated the authority to rule justly and execute justice so that we may live in a peaceful and orderly society. Therefore, a Christian is called to obedience and to live as a model citizen of their country.
However, when a nation’s laws violate clear commands of God, a Christian is called to obey the higher authority. As Peter stated before the Jewish ruling council, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) When all means of peaceful petitioning for change fail, a Christian may have just cause for civil disobedience.
Civil Disobedience in the Bible
There are several examples in the Bible when civil disobedience was justified, and God blessed those who defied the government. Civil disobedience is justified when believers are prohibited from worshipping God and proclaiming His truth. Throughout the Book of Acts, Christians disobeyed the government and worshipped and preached Jesus Christ. In Acts 5, Peter and the Apostles were ordered not to worship or preach Christ (Acts 4:1-22). Despite these orders, they proclaimed Christ in Jerusalem and were arrested again. In response to the forced prohibition of worship and teaching of Christ, Peter responded, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
Throughout the history of the church, whenever governments prohibited the worship of God and the preaching of His truth, churches obeyed the higher law of God and practiced their faith often covertly. Many suffered the consequences of their disobedience. Civil disobedience is justified when Christians are prohibited from worshipping God and teaching his truth.
Second, civil disobedience is authorized when we are forced to worship a false god. In Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon ordered everyone in the empire to worship his image of gold or face the penalty of death. Three men chose to disobey the king in order to remain true to God. God blessed the civil disobedience of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and delivered them from the flaming furnace, which was their punishment. In addition, during the reign of the Tokugawa Shoguns in Japan, Christians were forced to renounce their faith in Christ and worship Buddha or the Shinto gods. Many Christians defied the Shogun’s order and suffered the fate of martyrdom.
Third, civil disobedience is justified when we are ordered to commit an immoral act. In Exodus 1, the Pharaoh of Egypt ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill all newborn Hebrew boys. The midwives refused to obey the Pharaoh and even lied in order to rescue the baby boys. Exodus 1:21 states, “And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.” God blessed the Hebrew midwives because they refused to murder the children and chose to obey God’s law over that of the Pharaoh’s.
Throughout history, there are numerous examples of Christians who disobeyed the orders of the government when forced to commit immoral acts. Many hid Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War. Christians in Europe and America led protests against the immoral slave trade and discrimination against black Americans. Civil disobedience is justified when Christians are prohibited from worshiping God and teaching His truth, forced to worship false gods, or forced to commit immoral acts.
Churches at this time are prohibited from gathering in person in their churches for worship service. Many Christians believe this violates God’s commands. Hebrews 10:24-25 states, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Further, many believe that the prohibition from gathering for worship violates their First Amendment Rights.
Time for Civil Disobedience?
My present position at this time is that civil disobedience is not the proper response of the Christian at this moment. There are several reasons for my conclusion. First, we are not prohibited from the worship of God or the preaching of His truth. We can worship God and teach His truth; we just cannot do it in large in-person gatherings. We are free to exercise our faith using other means such as the internet and other forms of communication available to us.
Second, we are not being forced to renounce our faith or worship other gods. Although we are prohibited from worshipping together in large groups, we are not being coerced to abandon our faith in Christ or accept another belief system against our will.
Third, I do not believe the prohibition from corporate worship is an immoral act at this time. Presently, we are dealing with a new virus that is highly contagious. We do not know how to treat this virus, and we do not know how dangerous it really is. Therefore, the prohibition against Sunday worship at churches is meant to save lives and prevent the spread of this disease. We must remember that the church is not the only entity restricted from meeting together. All schools, athletic events, gyms, concerts, theaters, and centers where large crowds are gathered are under the same restrictions.
In the Old Testament, quarantines were practiced. In Leviticus 13-15, people who were infected with leprosy or other dangerous disease were quarantined until they were cured. At that point, they were allowed to return to the camp or city. Also, measures were taken to purify affected clothes, property, and materials that may carry the disease.
Is this a violation of the Constitution?
The First Amendment states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
I am not a legal expert. My area of study is theology and Bible. I have read articles by lawyers and depend on their understanding and interpretation of law. It appears the government is not establishing a state religion or restricting our rights to practice our faith. We are also free to express our opinions and petition the government about the quarantine. Therefore, I do not believe our Constitutional freedoms have been violated yet. The prohibition to assemble in large groups was ordered to protect human life from a threat we do not fully understand. However, we should be cautious and make sure the government does not abuse its power and follows the Constitution. There are some instances where I believe the government has gone too far and it is the responsibility of every American to hold the government accountable.
At this time when we cannot gather for worship, what can churches do? I believe the church must find creative ways to gather for worship, prayer, and teaching of God’s word. Many churches utilize modern technology using the internet to worship and maintain fellowship. There are other churches that do drive-in worship using large parking lots and drive-in theaters. We can also spend time in family worship. I am sure there are many more creative ways to do ministry that Christians are discovering each week. There are some churches and Bible study groups that have actually grown in attendance through these means of communication.
As we await the lifting of the restrictions on churches, I believe civil disobedience at this time would be the wrong response of the church. I personally do not agree with many of the restrictions, but I agree with the intent to save lives. At this time Christians should prove themselves to be model citizens and comply with the government restrictions.
We can express our disagreement to the government officials in a respectful and safe manner. I believe that is the best witness to the unbelieving world that is watching our response and a manner of conduct that will allow dialogue with our civic leaders. Angry defiant protests and harsh, abrasive criticism will lead to further distancing between the church and government. A humble and gracious approach will be a much more powerful witness to the government and the unbelieving world. This approach is more likely to win a stronger hearing from our government officials.
As we await the day we can meet physically together for worship in all our churches, let us pray for the defeat of this virus and through this, let us glorify Christ in the way we face this crisis. The ministry of Christ is not hindered by any force of man or nature. Let us not be discouraged but continue to build up our faith as we await the ending of this quarantine.
© Copyright Evidence and Answers, May 2020