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).
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:)