COVID-19, Romans 13, and Civics 101

The first thing we need to remember in the midst of these troubling days of misfortune in which we find ourselves—particularly in an age when everyone is looking to the government as the source of salvation, wisdom, provision, and security—is that it is not the government’s responsibility or role to protect people from getting sick.

Let me say that again, more slowly, so we can hear everything between the lines. The function of civil government was established in Genesis 9, as an extension of the family’s authority, in order to uphold justice—(1) protecting those in their charge from unjust aggression (by outside invasion or by intra-jurisdictional crime), and (2) punishing the evildoer. Now, quite a few things fall under that definition (such as enforcing contracts, recording property ownership, etc.), but that’s the substance of it. What does not fall under the civil magistrate’s role and responsibility, is keeping everyone healthy (or education, or social security, or a myriad of other matters that ought rightly to be counted in the sphere of the family or the church).

Now, we do see quarantine laws in the Old Testament law code, and that has been frequently appealed to in all of this. However, the quarantine instructions in the Mosaic law have to do with quarantining the infected, not broad unaffected populations—because indeed, the government is to defend the innocent against the aggression, or, in this case, reckless endangerment, by a verified personal threat, hence the requiring that infected individuals not endanger the healthy. This is different than mandating that large swaths of citizens close down their sources of livelihood simply because a virus is present and spreading.

Indeed, we don’t want to diminish the danger of it. And there’s certainly a fairly subjective moving line (“subjective,” meaning “it’s a matter of wisdom applied to particular circumstances,” not “totally relative”) regarding what specific measures ought to be taken to protect the population from reckless endangerment (things like travel bans and quarantining hot spots could easily be argued to be legitimate) before we cross over into unwise, unnecessary, unjust, or even tyrannical measures. But it’s not as simple as saying, “well, there are quarantines in the Mosaic Law, so…”

Part of what makes this a difficult carry-over is that the quarantines in the OT Law were enacted by the priests, not the civil authority. Additionally, the transfer of principles from the Mosaic case law to our context is further complicated by the fact that much of the Mosaic Law, including laws regarding disease, serves a larger theological purpose in requiring separation from anything and everything having to do with death. It’s not necessarily meant to communicate directly to us principles about the jurisdiction of modern states (granting, however, that I do think we ought to draw a fair amount of principles and instruction from the Mosaic law code—indeed, more than normally assumed).

Romans 13

However, even setting aside the discussion of the biblical view of civil government’s rightful jurisdiction, we have to remember—especially today when so many have forgotten—we have to remember that we are a constitutional, republican federation (read that again… we are not a democracy; we are not an unconstitutional empire; we are not a unitary nation state). This means we have a form of government with things like separation of powers, and which, at both the state and federal level, holds the written constitutions as the supreme law of the land—the constitutions alone hold imperium—and every governing officer is bound under that law to remain in submission to the law.

I do think Romans 13 (as a positive law command, not natural law) prohibits Christians from seeking to violently overthrow the government, and commands Christians to seek to maintain peaceful and quiet lives in submission to whatever authority structures are in place by God’s providence.

There is so much more to say about this… but alas, another time.

One problem we face today, though, in applying Romans 13 to any particular order issued by a government official, is that our body politic (both PA and the US) is not made up of officials who bear imperial prerogative. The highest civil authority (thus, the most important authority Romans 13 is referring to) in the commonwealth is the PA Constitution. The highest civil authority in the federal republic is the US Constitution. What that means is that particular office-holders are bound under that law such that if they make a law, or issue an order (which is not the same as a law—see Schoolhouse Rock), that is in violation of the constitution or which is outside their constitutional authority, it is invalid—citizens are not bound to follow it (as affirmed by the US supreme court).

Now, of course, I would argue that we often would be pragmatically wise to still submit to even unconstitutional orders simply because, while might doesn’t make right, the government certainly has the power (however illegitimate) to coerce obedience. And, for that matter, to nuance it a little further, I do think Roman 13 would suggest that the Christian’s settled impulse ought to be to submit to the authorities that God has arranged in His providence… and even that Paul would have Christians in certain countries or times submit to the authorities even if they are meddling in affairs that are technically outside the biblical design of civil governance (which I would argue ours have for centuries).

The complication in our context is simply that in strictly adhering to the Constitution, or in calling out or disobeying those who don’t, I don’t think Romans 13 is violated—because of the structure of our polity. As always, there’s so much more to be said here.

I am heavily influenced by Jonathan Leeman’s “Political Church,” and am largely sympathetic to his argument that a citizenry may potentially have grounds for a revolution “when a government systematically defies the justice mechanism [of Genesis 9] and falls under it’s condemnation.” But that’s a rabbit hole.

Who pays attention to those dusty documents anyway?

So, what do the constitutions say? The PA Constitution specifically notes that “no human authority can, in any case whatever,” interfere with the rights of the citizens to assemble for the worship of Almighty God.

This provision just simply is not removed by the presence of a virus (as the NCLL has noted, among many others).

Governor Wolf has thus been comparatively careful in how he has addressed the issue of churches meeting—exempting them from the (albeit still unconstitutional) lockdowns while at the same time urging churches to not hold in-person services during the quarantine for safety purposes.

In a press conference last month, the Secretary of Health answered a number of questions regarding churches, including: “Are church meetings and gatherings like funerals or weddings prohibited?”

Secretary Levine: “The governor’s order does not apply to religious events. Religious services are not prohibited. But the less people you have, the safer it will be.”

In the official guidelines attached to the order, it is again explicitly noted with regard to the policies in place for the stay-at-home and for “universal masking” that: “Additionally, nothing in this policy shall be construed to affect the operations of… Religious institutions. However, religious leaders are encouraged to find alternatives to in-person gatherings and to avoid endangering their congregants.”

Both the guidelines and Secretary Levine’s statements in the press conference urge that holding services “outside is better than inside.” But it has been repeatedly made clear that it is up to the church’s discretion whether we meet and how we go about it.

As a technical aside, even if a governor does order churches not to meet, it is not, in fact, a violation of the 1st Amendment. The Bill of Rights restricts the federal government, not the state governments. It may be a violation of the state constitution, but the governor is not Congress, so he’s not violating the Bill of Rights.

The county executive also does not have the authority to order churches not to meet—even less so the power to enforce it. In fact, the Erie county charter explicitly prohibits the county executive, council, or any officer or employee of the county from infringing in any circumstance on the “rights, privileges and powers reserved or guaranteed to individual persons or to the people by the Constitution of the United States of America or the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

So, the discussion is not one of when we will “break the law” or disobey a legitimate order. The discussion returns to whether it is prudential, in light of what we know of the virus in our area, to return to the assembly, and, secondly, whether it is wise, practically, to disregard the county executive’s stated desire that we not meet, or instead to cheerfully comply (as, again, my church has until now).

In a recent Erie county press conference, our county executive, Kathy Dahlkemper, specifically singled out churches, instructing churches not to hold worship services, even stating that her task-force would be sent to enforce the order for churches “just like any other business” (which, of course, we are not). This is a flagrant overstepping of both her constitutional authority, and the God-ordained authority of the civil magistrate. What was, at once, both amusing and exasperating about the whole press conference was that Dahlkemper repeatedly defended herself in other contexts (when it was to her benefit) by clarifying that she does not have the prerogative to shut down businesses or decide which businesses are essential or not. And yet, she made plain (again, at separate points in the conference) that she was ordering churches not to meet for worship (despite churches being exempt from Governor Wolf’s order), and that, in fact, she would be sure to enforce the ban for churches—again, because, as she said, “a church is a business.” No, folks, it is not. The entire crisis at hand has revealed the grave misunderstanding of just what the church is and what the church is for, both in the unbelieving world and even among Christians.

So, how should we respond?

We want to be careful not to throw caution to the wind and say we are meeting simply because we’ve been told not to. “You can’t tell me what to do! So I’m going to do it!” is not a Christ-honoring impulse. That being said, we also must be careful to make sure that if we are canceling services (as my church is, for now), it is truly and genuinely because we see the need to be very careful not to be reckless and potentially responsible for spreading the virus, and not simply because we’ve been ordered not to assemble.

In 1673, pastor Richard Baxter gave apropos advice on temporarily suspending church meetings due to the presence of a deadly virus or similar crisis:

“It is one thing to omit them [church meetings] for a time, and another to do it ordinarily. It is one thing to omit them in formal obedience to the law; and another thing to omit them in prudence, or for necessity, because we cannot keep them… upon some special cause, as infection by pestilence, fire, war, etc.*… If princes profanely forbid holy assemblies and public worship, either statedly, or as a renunciation of Christ and our religion; it is not lawful formally to obey them. But it is lawful prudently… to omit some assemblies for a time, that we may thereby have opportunity for more: which is not formal but only material obedience.”

[*This phrase from earlier in the same section is provided here for context.][Emphasis mine]

In other words, a church can choose to suspend their meetings in material cooperation with the instruction of the civil magistrate out of “prudence or necessity”—for example, to aid in not spreading a virus. But a church should not suspend their meetings simply out of formal obedience to the dictate of the magistrate—the civil government just simply does not have that jurisdiction (biblically, or, in our context, constitutionally either). My church, for example, made clear that we are suspending our meetings not out of fear (either of legal consequences or of the virus itself), but out of love and care for one another—and only temporarily, “that we may thereby have opportunity for more.” So we want to keep that clear—in our own minds and in our communication with both our church and our community.

The only legitimate reasons I see at this point for temporarily not meeting (not just biblically, but even in our immediate particular legal/political context as well), are (1) our concern to be cautious about spreading the virus (which becomes less and less of a concern as we learn more and pass the peak), (2) our desire not to unnecessarily/recklessly harm our reputation in the community, and (3) the protection of our church in not recklessly opening us up for legal battles and inconveniences (which, again, is a matter of prudence and expedience given the seemingly temporary nature of it all—since the concern is not whether we would actually win a legal battle).

I think these are legitimate reasons. That being said, I also think churches and individuals are at liberty to appeal to their rights—natural or chartered. There is much to be drawn from Paul’s insistence on charges and his appeal to Caesar in Acts 25.

Again, there’s much more to say about all of this, especially the intricacies of interpreting and applying Romans 13 (and other passages) to our own context. But I hope this train of thought has been helpful, and not shown to be a runaway. If you have any questions or wish to discuss further any of these issues, I welcome the interaction… I’ll be here at home:)

How to Have Peace

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” — Phil. 4:6–7

Philippians 4:6–7 is an oft-misunderstood passage. It’s almost become cliché. It’s one of those portions of Scripture easily utilized as a bumper sticker, or seen on a coffee mug, or overlaid on a stock image of mountains or flowers in the local kitsch store. It’s numbered among those verses that have become so familiar as to be considered banal, tacky, trite. But Philippians 4:6–7 is a tremendously comforting passage when understood correctly.

“Do not be anxious about anything…” And the opposite of being anxious, or, rather, the way to not be anxious, is to “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” The word for “requests” refers to a plea or petition—to entreat a sovereign Lord who has the ability and the good will to help us in our time of trouble and worry.

And verse seven gives the result: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is a promise. If we bring our cares and worries and concerns before the Lord in prayer and supplication, He promises to give us peace to guard—to ease and protect—our minds.

The reverse implication is that if you do not have peace, you have not yet truly given God your worries through prayer and thanksgiving. Because—the promise is—if you had, the peace of God would keep your hearts and minds. What a comforting promise indeed!

Easter Reflections on the Promise and the Provision

Why did the disciples have such a hard time understanding Christ’s mission on earth? To us it seems so obvious. Where did this confusion come from?

Throughout the entirety of the Old Testament, there were two lines of salvific hope — two lines of redemption. One begins in Genesis 3:15, with the promise of the seed of the woman, who would destroy the tempter, and rescue mankind from the curse brought upon them (and the whole universe). The other line begins in Genesis 3:21, with the provision of the animal skins — the shed blood, of an innocent victim, of God’s provision, to cover the guilt and shame of man’s sin.

The first line is a promise of a deliverer, and the second is of a covering — of an atonement. These two themes of redemptive hope, the promise, and the provision, run parallel throughout the entire Old Testament. And as time goes on through progressive revelation, the revelatory content of these two truths expands, but they are still two separate promises, and you can trace these all the way through. The Old Testament saints were looking forward to both the promise of a Messiah — a king who would conquer the enemy and rescue mankind — and the provision of a covering for their sins.

Now, we know, because we’re looking back, that that all was really one promise. We know that the deliverer, was also the covering. But those two lines of hope run parallel to each other, and they don’t explicitly meet… until the cross.

And when Jesus comes offering Himself as Messiah, those who believe Him understand that that means genesis 3:15. But when He starts telling His disciples, who have accepted Him as Messiah, that He is going to suffer and die, they’re horrified! Because He’s the Messiah, He’s going to be King, and they’re going to help Him get there!

And then, on Thursday night, April 2nd, 33 AD, soldiers come to arrest Jesus. And Peter proves his loyalty to Christ when he draws his sword to fight. And I think when Peter said, to Jesus, “I will never abandon you,” he meant it, and in the garden he shows that he meant it. So why did he deny Christ later that night? I think it’s because he thought that he proved his loyalty in Gethsemane, but Jesus rebuked him for it, and gave Himself up to the soldiers to be crucified. And Peter is so completely disillusioned, and he doesn’t understand what’s going on, because this is not supposed to happen to the coming king.

You see, Jesus was expected, to establish His kingdom in 33 AD, but what actually happened was that this man, who so many had come to believe was God come in the flesh and who was going to set up His messianic Kingdom… This man was arrested by the Romans and Jews, subjected to illegitimate trials through the night, beaten and scourged, and crucified on a Roman cross — the most impeccably excruciating, and humiliating form of execution known to man. And then He died, at 3:00 on Friday afternoon. And the hope of His followers, who had believed that he was the Messiah to come to conquer the enemy and rescue mankind, was dead, because their King was dead.

Well, see what happened was that the disciples didn’t connect those two lines of redemptive hope, the promise and the provision. And they couldn’t grasp that the messiah, the coming king, was first going to be Himself the ultimate provision — the perfect sacrifice given once and for all, to remove the condemnation of sin from humanity.

Hebrews 10:11 says, “Every priest stands day after day ministering and offering the same sacrifices time after time, which can never take away sins. But this man, after offering one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God…” (emphasis added)

See, in the tabernacle (and then later in the temple), with all its splendor and accoutrements and precise careful instructions, there was one piece of furniture that was conspicuously absent — and that was a bench or a chair or something on which to sit down. This was to avoid the possibility of a priest ever running the risk of getting tired and thinking he could sit down for a moment, because that could give the impression that in some way his work was done; but the priest’s work was never done — there were always sacrifices to be made. But when Christ offered Himself as the sacrificial lamb, Hebrews 10:12 makes a big deal of the fact that Christ sat down — His work is finished. There are no more sacrifices to be made! The work is complete!

Then the next verse says that Christ is now waiting until his enemies are made His footstool. Because Jesus is coming back as a conquering king, and He is going to establish His kingdom here on earth (and we’re looking forward to that day)! But that’s not what He did the first time He came. He came to offer himself as a substitutionary sacrifice to take the penalty for sin that we deserve — to die the death that you and I deserved to die… to cleanse us of all our unrighteousness and to qualify us to be adopted into the family of the King!

And on that cross, when the weight of His body was putting such excruciating pressure on His lungs that even to take one breath he had to push Himself up — He had to stand up on the nails in His feet and scrape his raw, ribboned back against that rough wood — just to breathe. In the last moments, before He gave up His spirit, He whispered, “I thirst.” And we know now that crucifixion saps every last ounce of moisture out of the body, and Christ’s mouth and throat and tongue would have been so swollen and caked with dust and blood, that He would have struggled to get anything more than a whisper out. And so He asks for a drink, and He’s given a sip of sour wine to wet his throat. Because there is something He desperately wants to say; and the whole universe has been groaning for 4000 years, longing to hear Him say these words… and He lifts Himself up on the nails, and cries out: “It is finished.

Our debt was paid in full! And if we believe Him, and trust in His work on the cross, sin’s curse no longer has a hold on us — we are saved from the penalty of sin, we are freed from the bondage of sin, we are bought out of the slavemarket of sin, we are delivered from the power of sin, and we belong to the One who saves us from our sin!

When the Jews would lay their hands on their lambs to sacrifice them, they wouldn’t just touch them with their hands, they would lean all of their weight on that animal as if to say, I am identifying with this animal, and this lamb is dying the death that I should be dying… and if we lean all of ourselves on Christ, if we are willing to identify with Christ, if we rely wholly on Him to take the penalty of sin for us, He welcomes us into His arms — forgiven! That is the wonder and glory and love of Christ — that He would die to purchase you and me, so that we may have communion with Christ forever!

Life of Christ Resources

Dr. Doug Bookman, professor of New Testament at Shepherds Theological Seminary (a favorite professor of mine, and one whom I am blessed to count a dear friend), has been going through the Passion Week on Facebook live.

He has made a Dropbox folder available for anyone to make use of, with not only the videos from his Facebook live series, but other lectures on the Life of Christ, as well as charts, maps, and harmonized Bible readings (which are quite helpful for Passion Week).

This is a wealth of resources that any would do well to make use of — https://www.dropbox.com/sh/3vn4j8o8y86utsa/AADd-2QUbgzSbskKQHKUeNLJa?dl=0.

What About These Communion Alternatives?

A recurring question that arises as many churches deal with the inconvenience and horror and heartbreak that these lockdowns and quarantines entail, is whether it may be appropriate to observe the Lord’s Supper—either virtually with their church, or privately with their own household.

I understand and sympathize with those who are looking for a way to continue to celebrate the Table even while being unable to gather for corporate worship. Some churches have resorted to serving communion “to go.” Others have sought to observe the ordinance virtually via Zoom. Still others have encouraged their members to observe the Supper with their own families.

As I said, I understand the sentiment; but I would strongly urge against such practices. I understand the Lord’s Supper to be an ordinance of the local church, to be observed by the local church, when the local church is gathered as the church. The physical, embodied gathering of the body, and the onetogetherness of partaking of the elements together, is essential to (meaning, not just “really important,” but “of the essence of”) the observance of the Lord’s Supper.

We can no more properly observe the Lord’s Supper virtually or privately, than we can truly assemble for corporate worship without actually assembling. It’s just not possible. We can communicate online; we can maintain unity and some semblance of fellowship online; we can lessen the tragedy of being apart by overcoming relational isolation online. But we can’t assemble as the body online. We can’t teach and be taught face to face online (not really). We can’t greet one another with a holy kiss (or your more sanitary and contextual application of the principle) online. We can’t join our voices together in physical (vs. digital) union as we sing of our God together online. And we can’t observe the meal that marks out who the church is and embodies our union with Christ and one another without actually partaking of the elements together, being together physically as the body of Christ.

Now, I know I’ll receive a lot of pushback for that view, and I’ll share a few articles for further reading that better explain this position. My contention is, first, that we have an emaciated doctrine of the body (individual and corporate). Meaning here, simply, that the fact that so many modern churches do not uphold and cherish the primacy and import of the embodied physical gathering, is a symptom of a larger doctrinal and philosophical famine; and, second, that the desire (nay, the apparent need) to do everything we can to replicate the normal while everything about us tells us there is nothing normal about this, is, I think, indicative of the larger cultural attitude (which—and I say this to our shame—has so seeped into the church that we hardly recognize the problem) that demands the comfort of met expectations. And so, unable to acknowledge the need to accept a time of lamentation and longing as we are hindered in the providence of God from gathering with the body, we seek to replicate our worship services to such a degree that we can continue to deliver our services (and note the strategic equivocation there) to the consumers congregation (uncongregated though it may be).

So, I encourage you to maintain family worship with your households—to pray and read the Bible together, and perhaps even sing together—but do not confuse that for the corporate worship of the church. I’ve encouraged our church to be intentional about keeping in touch with one another, interacting and encouraging one another as best we can, as our modern technology certainly does help mitigate the relational isolation caused by the quarantining. Just don’t be deceived into thinking this distance communication can truly do what physical, face-to-face interaction and edification can do. I have been providing teaching each Sunday and Wednesday via Zoom and Facebook live. But we do not call this “church,” and I’m careful to note that it is a poor substitute for face-to-face teaching, and I dearly miss the embodied interaction and gathering of the regular assembly.

Additionally, bread and wine have, since at least the days of Abraham and Melchizedek, been the standard and common elements of celebratory meals among the people of God, even apart from/in addition to the special significance tied to them as part of the Passover and, later, the Lord’s Supper; and so I would heartily encourage you to recover that ancient habit of celebrating with bread and wine—not just generic merry-making, but truly Godward celebration of the Lord’s blessing through the enjoyment of two foods that represent and epitomize our Creator’s good provision for and blessing on mankind in general, and on His own people in particular (Gen. 14; Judges 9:13; Amos 9:14; Isa. 25:6, 55:1; Dan. 10:3; Deut. 14:26; Ps. 104:14–15; Prov. 3:10; Eccl. 9:7; 1 Tim. 5:23; John 2:1–11).

Just don’t pretend that eating bread and drinking wine (or juice) with your family, or by yourself, or while watching other believers doing the same thing on the computer screen, is actually doing what the New Covenant ordinance of the Lord’s Supper does.

Finally then…

To learn more about this, I would commend to you the following articles. I may not agree with every way they worded something, but I think these three did an excellent job of upholding the biblical understanding of the Lord’s Supper, and articulating well my convictions about the impropriety, ordinarily, of trying to observe the Lord’s Supper in any way other than in the physical assembly of the local church.

Why ‘Virtual Lord’s Supper’ is Impossible
Can Baptism and the Lord’s Supper Go Online?
There is No Such Thing as Virtual Lord’s Supper

“Eat your break with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart.” — Eccl. 9:7

How Should Christians Respond to Crisis?

On our new podcast, By the Way, we sat down with missionary and Bible teacher, Gene Cunningham, and asked him about the pandemic panic (and a few other things)—specifically, how we, as Christians, ought to respond to crises like the coronavirus in a manner that is markedly different than the unbelieving world. Here’s a short preview. Be watching for the full episode at anchor.fm/termon!