A Word from Pastor on Civil Obedience & Disobedience
“the church in Rome that Paul instructed to submit had to contend with permanent laws against large gatherings of Christians”
Where does civil disobedience find its place in the lives of Christians? I’m writing this to our church because many of you are asking this question in the face of what is happening in our culture today. The standard answer given is: when the government commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands then the church is obligated to obey God rather than men. I’ve heard this answer for a long time and agree that scripture supports this. We see God’s faithful not bowing to an idol in Daniel 3:16-18 and preaching the gospel when commanded not to in Acts 4:19.
In those two specific examples, it might be said that the hardest part to their disobedience was being afraid of the consequences for civil disobedience. Who wants to be thrown into a fiery furnace for not bowing to an idol? However, Christians today are finding it hard to discern if civil disobedience for gathering to worship on Sunday is appropriate during the COVID-19 restrictions. Social pressure exists not only from outside the church but also within it. We are witness to prominent Christian leaders disagreeing and leading their churches to different responses on the issue.
John MacArthur is the lead pastor at Grace Church in southern California. I have followed him for most of my Christian life. He has framed this as being offered two choices: between following Christ who is head of the church, or following Caesar who is head of government. He states, “Pastors who cede their Christ-delegated authority in the church to a civil ruler have abdicated their responsibility before their Lord and violated the God-ordained spheres of authority.” His view is that civil authorities are out of bounds when they restrict the freedom of churches to congregate. If he is right, then what does this say about Guam’s governor denying church gatherings this summer? Many of us have been frustrated by this and feel the pull towards civil disobedience in this area. For this reason, I have shared below some biblical principles on this issue that explain why Bayview has responded with compliance thus far to the governor’s restrictions.
- Romans 13:1-7 compels obedience. The first and foundational truth for me is that God wants his church to err on the side of obedience, not disobedience. That means if there is some uncertainty we should give the benefit of the doubt to the governing authorities. A careful reading of Romans 13 demonstrates Paul’s earnest desire to submit because the government has a specific purpose ordained by God. If we get this wrong, either by willful disobedience or by well-intended error, then we resist what God has appointed, we can incur civil judgment, invite a spirit of fear as well as God’s wrath. Paul actually exhorts the Roman church towards compliance for the purpose of the government’s approval of your choices. Today, we do have the option of peaceful protest against government actions we disagree with. We can also vote for new leadership. Both are options not available to every Christian in the world that Christians in Guam can appreciate and utilize. But Paul doesn’t allow for defying laws and orders.
- The church in Rome submitted to laws pertaining to no large gatherings. We are struggling today with health guidelines and restrictions that are temporary. But the church in Rome that Paul instructed to submit (Rom. 7) had to contend with permanent laws against large gatherings of Christians. In order to comply legally they gathered in homes. “That practice was due to a Roman law which forbade them to construct a mega-worship center dedicated to Jesus in the middle of town…That was a legal constraint that the early church not only coped with but also flourished in.” Rome was the mission field and the church found a way to adapt that both honored God and Caesar. It is good for us to adapt as well and continue to meet in ways that comply. I often hear people quote Hebrews 10:25 which says not to forsake the gathering together of the saints. But the writer clarifies they were referring to believers who did not come to church when he says, “as is the habit of some.” The text is about regular fellowship and not missing Sunday church due to government constraints.
- The church in Rome had a reputation for serving not protesting. Every time you drive out of our parking lot it’s there on our sign, “Seek the good of the island…for in its welfare you will find your blessing.” This is taken from Jeremiah 29:11. The early church had a reputation for sacrificial living and won communities over displaying the gospel in their life. “The authors of scripture were much more focused on our service, mission, devotion, submission, endurance, and sanctification. The defining orientation of the church in the Roman world was service to the community and subversion of Caesar’s gospel by preaching the good news of Jesus.”
- Disobedience affects our heart, so civil disobedience has to be for the right reasons. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Why does your heart fight for civil rights? I have said often that Christianity is not about our rights, it is fundamentally about giving up our rights. This is what Christ did on the cross (Phil. 2:5-10). Paul had this in mind when exhorting the church in Rome towards civil submission. Humility and self-denial are Christ-like qualities that strengthen our faith—certainly not fair treatment (John 15:18-25). John Piper clarifies that “in Paul’s mind, faith and humility and self-denial are vastly more important for the Christian than that we be treated well by the government. And the reason is this: Being persecuted unjustly is not the reason anyone goes to hell. But being unbelieving and arrogant and self-indulgent is why most people go to hell.”
As a pastor at Bayview, I haven’t yet felt like we had only two options as John MacArthur describes: Christ or Caesar. Like the church in Rome, I think we can still honor both by adapting how we meet and stay connected. This means that we will continue to use our online options. As the governor moves the island back to less stringent PCOR conditions we will respond in a like manner opening ministries and services up.
Remember that contexts matter too. It may be that there are some places where defiance is warranted. This contextual diversity compels me to be gracious then when watching how other pastors may lead their church in response to the question of Sunday gatherings. I would exhort all of us to do the same while seeking to serve Guam preaching the good news of Jesus.
Pastor Kevin & the Elders
Pastor Kevin Elwell