Should churches in America disobey the government’s directive to avoid social gatherings in order to slow the spread of COVID-19?
The short answer is, no… but some folks might disagree with me. So, I’ll offer the following to support my answer.
First, Christian churches are assemblies governed ultimately by the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Bible (which is the word of Christ) commands Christians to submit to governing authorities in all things. A couple of Scripture passages are quite clear on the subject, and I recommend that the reader look up each of the following citations in their context.
An excerpt from Romans 13:1-7 says, “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… Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
An excerpt from 1 Peter 2:13-17 says, “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… For this is the will of God…”
Of course, there are exceptions, but one should not pass by these obvious and sobering commands too quickly. If we are prone to individualism and personal autonomy (and it is highly likely that you are), then we are probably looking for exceptions to the rule far more than we are sincerely seeking to follow the rule.
Second, Christians (including local churches) should normally obey the government in all things, but there are narrow exceptions to this general rule. God’s people are to obey God by disobeying their governing authority if (and only if) their governing authority commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands. In the Bible, we have examples of both of these.
In Exodus chapter 1, we meet two Hebrew midwives who were blessed by God for disobeying the king or pharaoh of Egypt. The pharaoh commanded Shiphrah and Puah to kill every Hebrew boy when he exited his mother’s womb (Exodus 1:16), but these women let the babies live because they feared God more than their earthly king. God had already commanded the preservation of human life (Genesis 9:5-6), and no earthly king can overturn God’s commands.
In Daniel chapter 3, we learn about three men who were preserved by God even as they disobeyed the king of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar was a famous Babylonian king, so revered by his people that they constructed a massive statue to be worshiped in his honor. When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down before the image, they were sentence to death. God did save these men by His miraculous power, but their willingness to die before disobeying God’s command is a good and sober example to us all (Exodus 20:3-6).
In Acts chapter 4 we can read about two Apostles, Peter and John, who disobeyed their governing authority when they were forbidden to do what God commands. Peter and John were beaten by local officials for telling people about the exemplary life, the atoning death, and the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. These men were even threatened with further punishment if they continued their preaching, but Peter and John refused to keep silent because God had commanded them to proclaim of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20; cf. Acts 1:8). They even prayed for greater boldness to tell more people about Jesus, and God gave it to them (Acts 4:24-30).
In each of these instances, God’s people were commended for disobeying their governing authorities, but only because their governing authorities were commanding or forbidding something in outright contradiction to God’s own instructions. If an earthly government or ruler forbids what God commands or commands what God forbids, then God is to be feared and obeyed above all others.
Third, and finally, Christians and churches in America aren’t being commanded to disobey God. In our case, the federal and state governments are not singling out religious institutions, nor are they specifically forbidding churches to meet together. Instead, government officials are calling upon all Americans (and citizens of specific states in many cases) to refrain from all social gatherings for a temporary period. Furthermore, the stated purpose for the temporary order is to preserve life, and local church pastors have no reason to believe otherwise.
Time will tell how effective this governmental strategy has been, but for now, local churches should do their best to comply with these civil requests and orders.
In almost all instances, God’s people are to give themselves to glad submission under the authority of their earthly governors or rulers. God’s people are to entrust themselves to God, knowing that there is coming a day when God will lay all hearts bare, and He will judge all things and all people rightly.
Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.