This past year many North Americans have had a first taste of having civil rights, protected in our charters of freedoms, taken away. There is strong disagreement about whether the threat of disease justified the government removing these rights.
This has raised difficult questions for believers about when to obey our authorities and when to resist.
It’s easy to apply the commands in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 about obeying every ordinance of man when it comes to laws against stealing or murder.
But what do you do in the grey areas when the government mandates make it challenging to fulfill other biblical commands like hospitality or gathering for worship?
Obviously it is a complex issue, but what might the Bible suggest as a short answer to the question of when to obey and when might it be okay to disobey?
If you look at the context, the chapters before and after the biblical injunctions to obey earthly authorities, you see two prerequisites to these commands:
The first is that Christians are those who have declared that Jesus is the ultimate Lord and Ruler of every area of our life. We are literally slaves of Jesus.
So the first condition to obeying government is we must obey Jesus first. Any human law that requires disobedience to a command of Jesus must be disobeyed. Jesus is the Judge we will answer to when we die.
When government forbids what Jesus commands, we disobey the government. When government commands what Jesus forbids, we must disobey the government.
The second precondition to obedience to earthly authority is that we are always bound by the law of love to our fellow man. Any law that requires us to deny an act of love to our fellow man must be disobeyed. Any law that requires us to act in an unloving way to our fellow man must be rejected.
Love requires that regardless of the laws of the land, we always seek what is best for the person right in front of us. We put his genuine needs and interests ahead of our own (Phil 2).
We honour the fact that the human in front of us is made in the image of God and endowed with God-given rights and freedom to obey his conscience, the right to be heard and understood, the right to fulfill the calling God has placed on his life, and the right to be loved and taken care of.
Governments are often bound by desire for power or political expediency, and have shown that despite the best intentions of law-makers, they are not always the best judge of what is truly loving.
History is full of unjust and cruel laws that, if obeyed, would have meant not showing Christ-like love to our fellowman. Christians who refused to sacrifice love for government submission, no matter the cost, have been behind the great strides forward that civilization has taken over the centuries.
The law of love is higher than any earthly law or health regulation could enforce.
In cases of sickness and disease, the law of love would cause a Christian to take extra precautions beyond the law of the land to protect the vulnerable from getting sick. Love always seeks to do no harm.
At the same time, love would also be fearless and do whatever it can to meet the needs of the sick person even if it means risky exposure. Love would not just care about physical health but also spiritual and emotional health.
The Bible does not call us to unqualified liberty. Christians should not be known primarily as those who stand up for our personal rights. But we will be at the front of the line to defend the rights of others.
Christians are bound by a love that requires self-sacrifice and kindness and forgiveness. It requires overcoming evil with good, praying for our enemies, blessing those who curse us, and seeking what is best for the person who is treating us unjustly.
When Christians walk in step with the Spirit and daily surrender to Christ and His law of love, when we abide in Christ and have our minds informed by the unchanging Word of God, then we are salt and light. This is when we turn the tide of darkness and improve all of society.
When people seek liberty for selfish gain and outside of surrender to God and His laws, this liberty quest only results in greater conflict, hate, and civil war.
I am praying that God will enable me to be even more surrendered to His Lordship and Love, and that His church will repent in the areas where we have failed to be obedient to His laws. A surrendered and loving church can reverse trends of evil and corruption and bring healing to our land.