The mandates which have been given by governors across America been challenging to navigate and a source of conflict within churches, families, and well-meaning Christians. So I set out to study four biblical examples of people disobeying civil authority for the sake of obeying God.
Someone disobey civil authority when private acquiescence would have meant committing an act God had prohibited.
Someone disobey civil authority when public acquiescence would have meant committing an act God had prohibited.
Someone disobey civil authority when obedience would have meant abstaining from something God commanded.
Someone publicly disobey civil authority when private disobedience would have led to confusion about compliance.
In all four of those examples, the Bible commends those who set aside civil authority for the sake of obeying God’s commands. So when it comes to civil disobedience, the most important question to ask is:
What does God say in His Word?
All other considerations are then secondary. Because Scripture clearly teaches we are to preach Christ (1 Cor 1:23; 2 Cor 4:5) and make disciples (Matt 28:18-20) we need to obey. Similarly, there many other issues that are clearly addressed in Scripture and our decision making is determined by a study of the Scriptures and then follow in obedience.
When it comes to COVID restrictions, this is where the conversation should begin. The Christian mind is not to be primarily driven by “unknown potential consequences” when there are clear Biblical principles to follow. Considerations such as “Can the church be sued?”, “Will I be safe?”, “The governor has been more lenient on churches”, “Their motives are good for a good cause,” “I might infect others” etc…– while good points to realize and consider, they are all secondary to Biblical principles. Many missionaries and martyrs of the Christian faith did not make these considerations primary as they ventured into danger and preached Christ against the will of human authorities around the world.
Looking at those four examples, here are some principles we can draw to govern how we think through these restrictions:
Obedience and the Favor of God is Primary
In each example, there was a human governing authority commanding something contrary to God’s Word and/or enacting a prohibition against doing the will of the Lord. Submission to any human authority is always qualified by obedience to God’s word first. In each case, continued obedience to the Lord was the response that is presented. Ecclesiastes 12:13 reminds us, “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.”
God Honors Obedience To Him
When presented with conflicting choices of obedience to human authority and God’s Word, God honored those who obeyed Him. They trusted God no matter what the consequences were and their actions brought glory and honor to Him. In turn, they enjoyed peace, blessings, and the favor of the Lord. In some circumstances, the human authority gave honor and glory to God as well.
Continued Obedience As God Gave Opportunity
In the Scriptures, we repeatedly see continued obedience to God’s Word as the Lord gave them opportunity.
Some have separated God’s commands into two types (which seems to be from a Jewish origin): Commands to “do” (positive) and commands of “do not” (negative). For example, we are commanded to preach and teach (2 Tim 2:24, 4:1), pray (Mt 6:9ff; 1 Th 5:17), practice communion (1 Cor 11), sing (Eph 3:18-19; Col 3:16), and make disciples (Mt 28:18-20), yet there is little about the frequency, duration, or venue that is dictated in Scripture. Therefore, some conclude when there is a conflict with a law or mandate given by a human authority, we should withhold ‘positive commands’ for a time among believers with liberty as to when, how often, venue, and medium etc. Commands of “do not” are seen as ‘negative’ commands meaning that immediate obedience is always required such as “do not commit adultery.” It is never acceptable to do so.
In the four Biblical examples of civil disobedience provided above, there are two examples of each type but the responses are all the same:
Two ‘negative’ commands God gives paraphrased below:
Daniel 1 – ‘Do not eat or drink foods forbidden by Mosaic dietary Laws’ (Ex, Lev, Dt).
Daniel 3 – ‘Do not bow down to any idols’ (Ex, Dt).
Two ‘positive’ commands that God gives paraphrased below:
Daniel 6 – We are commanded in the Bible to ‘pray’; Daniel prayed
Acts 5 – We are commanded in the Bible to ‘preach Christ’; the Apostles preached
In all four examples there was opportunity to delay, suspend, or modify their obedience in order to satisfy human authorities, but in all four examples they did not do so. In fact, Act 5:29 tells us that they were quite blatant in their disregard to human authorities and sought to obey God. Why is this important? Because God’s authority and God’s mandates rise above the authority and mandates that are given contrary to His Word.
So, for example, the temporary mandate now given to churches:
State temporary prohibition: “…congregational singing is prohibited.”
But we are commanded in the Bible as an act of worship to “sing.”
What should our response be? The same as Daniel & the Apostles: laws prohibiting and limiting singing.
I want to underscore that this is not some rigid legalistic principle given here. Certainly, if there is a catastrophic event or extenuating circumstances, there may not be an appropriate opportunity. If there were such circumstances, then church leaders or individuals may exercise their own authority and prerogative. They are ultimately accountable to the Lord. Every individual or church has the freedom before the Lord to decide what they will do in different circumstances.
In the Bible, however, we see no pattern of deviation simply because a mandate – and especially one that is contrary to the Word of God. The examples and application of God’s command for the continued practice of singing are parallel to the Biblical examples given above. If an individual or church chooses to sing praises to God with others, they can do so with a clear conscience.
It must be noted that most churches have recognized the reality of the COVID pandemic, its effects worldwide, and the potential serious (and even fatal) health consequences for those who contract COVID-19. So the concerns expressed over the last few days do not arise from a denial about the seriousness of COVID. Moreover, I also wanted to point out that my view of the importance of congregational singing is not motivated by mandate fatigue, freedom of religion, constitutional rights, or antigovernmental sentiment. It is motivated by the desire that God would be honored and glorified above all else.
Like others who desire the same thing, we may come to different conclusions, but I hope to help the discussion by a Biblical analysis of four specific cases of civil disobedience. Various views have been adopted and implemented by well-meaning and godly Christians on these key questions. Neither side should disparage the other but to honestly seek the Lord and His Word together.
While every individual may make their own decision whether to join via live-stream or attend in-person, those who sing with others in-person are not guilty of any crime, stand innocent before the Lord, and can worship with a clear conscience. As Daniel declared in 6:22, “I was found innocent before Him; and also toward you, O king, I have committed no crime.”
Soli Deo Gloria