dianoigo blog

Sunday 26 September 2021

Christian Submission to Governing Authorities in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic

In this article, we look at the Christian's obligation to submit to governing authorities, particularly in the context of government regulations put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the sections of certain New Testament epistles that provide instructions on the believer's obligations within the household, a central theme is submission to authority. In Ephesians 5-6, for instance, the general principle "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (v. 21) is followed by specific contexts in which subjection is required:
"Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord...Children, obey your parents in the Lord...Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling" (Eph. 5:22, 6:1, 6:5)1 
Colossians follows much the same template: 
"Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord... Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord... Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything" (Col. 3:18-22)
Each of these three relationships is depicted as an authority structure, with the "lower" party (wife/child/slave) obliged to submit to or obey the "higher" party (husband/parents/master). To be sure, obligations are also placed on the "higher" party, but these obligations do not include subjection or obedience; they largely have to do with correct use of the authority vested in them. Importantly, however, neither of these passages makes the "lower" party's obligation of subjection/obedience contingent on the goodness of the "higher" party. The inspired author probably would have granted that exceptional circumstances might arise in each of these relationships in which the obligation did not apply (e.g., a parent ordering a child to steal for them). However, the writer apparently did not consider such exceptions common enough even to mention.

Moreover, in a third such passage, the writer explicitly enjoins subjection/obedience even when the "higher" party is not good (and need we add that slavery is an intrinsically unjust institution!) This passage is in 1 Peter 2-3, and rather than addressing obligations within the household, it speaks to the principle, "Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles [i.e., unbelievers], so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge." (1 Pet. 2:12). How is this principle to be applied? Again, by submitting to authority:
"For the Lord’s sake be subject to every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right... Slaves, be subject to your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh... Wives, in the same way, be subject to your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct" (1 Peter 2:13, 2:18, 3:1).2
This text introduces a new authority hierarchy not mentioned in Ephesians and Colossians (which only focus on the household level): civilian/government. It is this obligation to "be subject to every human institution" that concerns us here. 1 Peter does not, as with masters and husbands, add a proviso to obey "even those who are harsh/do not obey the word." This is obviously not because the writer believes one must only obey good government officials. Rather, it goes without saying that government officials are no paragons of virtue. Remember, this letter was written in the age of emperors like Caligula (who had people killed for fun and made his horse a priest), Nero (who used Christians as garden torches and had Peter and Paul executed), and Titus (who sacked the holy city of Jerusalem and burned the temple).

The overall picture that emerges from these epistles is clear. These apostolic writers expect their charges to exercise subjection and obedience to their social superiors. This was not to be done only when or because those superiors treated them justly. Instead, the Christian obligation to submit to authority was to bear witness to Christians' submission to the Lord as the true Master from whom all earthly authorities received their power.

It is perhaps obvious, but needs to be emphasised, that submission to a higher authority entails not only granting respect to that authority and acknowledging its legitimacy, but also obeying its orders, and not only when one likes them! Should a child be considered obedient if she obeys only the parental rules that she likes? Would a slave be considered obedient if he obeyed only those instructions from the master that seemed wise and reasonable? The letter 1 Timothy makes a similar point when it observes that "law does not exist for the righteous, but for the lawless and insubordinate" (1 Tim. 1:9, my translation). The Greek word translated "insubordinate" here is anhypotaktos, a negative cognate of the verb translated "be subject to" used in 1 Peter 2-3 and elsewhere.3 

If an authority provided a suggestion and we thought it wise, we might follow it; but this would not be submission or obedience. The real test of submission or obedience is whether one follows instructions from the authority even when one disagrees with them. And it is precisely because some are disinclined to do this that laws (with penalties for disobedience attached) are required.

Books of the Old Testament written during or after the exile of Israel and Judah, such as Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel, contain much precedent for submitting to governing authorities, including those of idolatrous Gentile powers. This pattern continues in the New Testament, with explicit instructions to this effect given not only in 1 Peter 2:13-14 (discussed above), but in several other passages.

Memorably, when some opponents tried to ensnare Jesus with a question about paying tax to Caesar, he responded, "Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God" (Mark 12:17 NABRE). Jesus is under no illusion that the imperial government (under Tiberius during his ministry; probably under Nero when Mark wrote his Gospel) was a just system that would use tax revenues effectively for the common good. Some of it, yes; other funds might be used to build a temple to Jupiter, or pay the salaries of the legions that patrolled (and later sacked) Jerusalem. Yet Jesus does not vacillate on these grounds; he affirms that Caesar has—for the present—a legitimate domain of God-given authority in the land and that the Jews are obliged to submit to it.

Paul goes into more detail about the believer's obligations to the government in Romans 13 (see also Titus 3:1):
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Romans 13:1-7)
As in 1 Peter 2:13-14, there is a blanket commandment to be subject to the governing authorities, and Paul goes on to justify the commandment by arguing that all governing authorities that exist have their power from God and exist for God's purposes, namely to promote the common good.

Observe that in none of the New Testament passages that command believers to "be subject to" or "obey" some authority is there a condition attached, such as "provided that their decision and orders are reasonable and agreeable." This shows that exceptions to the "submit to authority" ethic are rare (indeed, as already stated, one is only really submitting to an authority when one obeys orders despite disagreeing with them). Nevertheless, exceptions do exist. In the case of governing authorities, we have several biblical examples. These include Daniel's friends' refusal to bow down to the statue of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3), Daniel's refusal to stop petitioning God (Daniel 6), and the apostles' disobedience of the Sanhedrin's order to stop teaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 4-5). The principle is simple: when one's obligations to government contradict one's obligations to God, God's authority trumps Caesar's (Acts 5:29). 

Importantly, though, exceptions are precisely that. They are not a loophole allowing Christians to disobey laws or regulations that they deem to be, or in fact are, unreasonable. The Christian must disobey laws or regulations when obeying them would directly contravene the law of God—for instance, an order to worship an idol or stop praying to God (as in Daniel) or to stop preaching the gospel (as in Acts). Or an order to take innocent life (e.g., a doctor who is compelled by law to perform abortions.) But a Christian who disobeys laws and regulations simply because s/he thinks they are ill-advised or unscientific or counterproductive is in fact sinning, by disobeying God's commandment to be subject to governing authorities.

Let us apply the moral principles developed above to the concrete and globally relevant case of regulations that governments have introduced over the past 18 months in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We will deal with three categories of regulations: mask mandates, vaccine regulations, and restrictions on social gatherings.

Before doing so, we must acknowledge that most of the world's Christians today live under governments that are far better, in many respects, to the Roman government that existed at the time of the apostles. Many Christians live in democratic countries, where the people can influence government decisions and hold government authorities accountable. Most such countries have constitutions that uphold human rights and freedoms—above all the right to life—and offer a judicial recourse for challenging unjust laws, regulations, and decisions by government. Thus, while the Christian cannot disobey the law (apart from the rare exceptions discussed above), s/he does have recourses for inducing positive change in the government and its laws.

Secondly, the Roman government perceived very little responsibility in the area of public health. This was the domain of private physicians (and religious healers), who of course understood relatively very little about the human body or illness. Today, public health is a major priority for virtually all governments, and most of these governments rely on the latest scientific research to guide law and policy. Therefore, while no government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been perfect, Christians today have a lot to be grateful for! Thankfully, all of the kinds of regulations discussed below are intended by governments to protect human life—a bedrock Christian value.

An a fortiori argument therefore applies. If the apostles commanded Christians to be subject to even unjust human authorities (e.g., unbelieving husbands, harsh slave masters, and cruel Roman emperors), how much more must Christians today be subject to governments as they seek to protect the population from a pandemic? At any rate, even if we consider today's governments to be harsh or unjust in their handling of the pandemic, this does not justify disobedience or disrespect of those governments.

This issue can be treated briefly and decisively. There is nothing about a requirement to wear a cloth mask in public spaces that in any conceivable way violates any law of God. Christians must therefore comply cheerfully with all mask mandates. Any Christian who deliberately violates a mask mandate, or encourages others to do so, is rebelling against their sacred Christian duty to submit to governing authorities. Even if one believes that masks are ineffective at preventing transmission, or that a mask mandate seems unnecessary due to a drop in local transmission rates, this does not justify a contravention of government regulations. For Christians to violate or rail against mask mandates frankly makes a mockery of the overriding principle in 1 Peter 2:12. 

Like mask wearing, coronavirus vaccines are a measure intended to protect human life from COVID-19. Like masks, they apply at the individual level. In most countries, certain COVID-19 vaccines have been approved by government authorities for use by the general public. Public health officials have then launched campaigns that encourage, but do not compel, members of the public to be vaccinated. Thus, in most jurisdictions it is a matter of free prudential judgment whether a person receives a vaccine. It is consequently not an act of insubordination to government per se to decline to be vaccinated. Factors to be considered include, inter alia, the effectiveness of the vaccine, the risk of side effects, and whether or not cells from aborted fetuses were used in the development of the vaccine (on which see here).

That said, compliance with non-compulsory public health advisories (such as calls to be vaccinated against COVID-19) is at least congruent with the Christian's obligation to reverence governing authorities. It may also be a bad moral decision not to be vaccinated, if for instance one has failed to exercise discretion in one's sources of information about the vaccines. Certainly, when Christians become associated with "anti-vax" conspiracy theories, it does not make it easier for the world to regard the Church as "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).

Many governments as well as private entities have placed restrictions on unvaccinated individuals. These include restrictions on travel, restrictions on being in certain public spaces (e.g., a workplace or school), and even making continued employment conditional on vaccination. Since private companies do exercise a legitimate domain of authority over their employees and customers, they are among those "human institutions" (1 Pet. 2:13) to whom subjection is obligatory for Christians. Unvaccinated Christians therefore cannot break such restrictions without shirking this sacred duty. Christians may, of course, exercise their democratic rights to speak or litigate against such restrictions if they believe them to be unjust. They cannot, however, violate laws or regulations or deny the legitimate authority of the institutions who issued them.  

Because the coronavirus spreads person-to-person, governments have placed restrictions on the number of people who can assemble in one place, and at times forbidden public gatherings, including religious ones, entirely. This is a more complicated issue than mask mandates, because it interferes with a sacred Christian obligation to God, namely communal worship (Heb. 10:25). May Christians therefore defy government prohibitions on religious gatherings to fulfill their duty to worship God together?

Assembling for worship is a Christian duty, but so is protecting human life. Since Christians assembling for worship on Sunday is analogous to—if not equivalent to—Jewish Sabbath observance, Mark 3:1-6 is highly relevant here. Jesus' opponents wanted to accuse him of violating his religious obligations because he healed a man on the Sabbath. Jesus' response was not that Sabbath observance was unimportant, but that protecting human life was more important: "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" (Mark 3:4) In the same vein, he gave the memorable chiasm, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Sunday worship is very important for Christians, but not as important as protecting life. Since government restrictions on public gatherings are designed precisely to protect human life (without interfering with communal life more than necessary), these regulations are consonant with the law of God and must be complied with. Thankfully, technology allows for communal worship and fellowship to continue virtually in a limited way while physical gatherings are not possible.

We should note that secular government officials may place a lower valuation on the importance of religious gatherings than religious believers do. It is, therefore, important for religious leaders and communities to engage with government officials to influence them against setting restrictions that are unreasonable and excessive. Such engagement, along with litigation if deemed necessary, are ways of challenging restrictions on religious gatherings that may be unfair. Violating the regulations, however, is inconsonant with the Christian duty to be subject to the governing authorities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought much tragedy and difficulty on the world, Christians included. With numerous government regulations restricting what we used to know as normal life, it has also tested Christians' resolve to obey the apostolic commandment to "be subject to the governing authorities" (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13). My hope for Christian readers is that, having read this article, you will be better informed about how to do so. My hope for non-Christian readers is that, having read this article, you will be better informed about how Christians ought to be conducting themselves, and will join with me in condemning all disobedience and disrespect of governing authorities that claims to uphold "Christian values."

  • 1 All Scripture quotations are taken from the NRSV unless otherwise indicated.
  • 2 I have italicised "be subject to" in each case because I have altered the NRSV's translation, "accept the authority of." To "accept authority" is too abstract; the passive form of the verb hypotassō, literally to be put in place under, denotes a submissive relationship (see BDAG lexicon).
  • 3 BDAG define anhypotaktos here as, "pertaining to refusing submission to authority" (p. 91). The verb hypotassō is used for subjection to government authorities in 1 Peter 2:13, Romans 13:1, 5, and Titus 3:1. It is used for subjection to other authorities (parents, husbands, or masters) in Luke 2:51, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, 8, and 1 Peter 2:18, 3:1, 3:5.