Church Worship (and other livelihoods): The Duty to use our Citizenship….

or….Paul did not intend in Romans 13 to promote absolute submission to human authorities

Citizen:The native of a city, or an inhabitant who enjoys the freedom and privileges of the city in which he resides; the freeman of a city, as distinguished from a foreigner, or one not entitled to its franchises.
– Webster’s 1828

A couple of pre-emptive statements:

  1. I am not arguing against the reality of COVID-19 virus nor the degree of prevalence of the spread COVID-19, whether in Crosby, Colorado, or in California, etc, etc.
  2. I am not arguing that our church, in retrospect, should not have suspended regular worship. As my friend Joe Reed says, “If someone knocks on your door and says your roof is smoking, only a fool would not go outside and check to see if the thing is burning down.” God is sovereign, we are not; yet we are called to make decisions based upon commandments, convictions and calculated risk every single day. We are guided by obedience to God and love of others, and we act by faith because we do not have foresight. We are, after all, flesh and blood. That’s why, at various times in the winter, we have canceled our church programs for snow (or even on the basis of a forecast) based upon the limited knowledge we have while calculating risk/reward. I do not regret, for our church in our area, the decision to suspend worship for a time, the same decisions that almost all were making, upon the forecasts of COVID–19.

That said…

I am deeply concerned about this now popular notion among-st Christians that Romans 13 argues for absolute submission to the human Governing authorities for seemingly whatever length they suspend the assembling of the church.

Truth: Our attitude should always be one of humble submissiveness, and our actions should be in submission to proper authorities, unless the government goes against the clear directives of Christians as laid down in God’s Holy Word.

What are those clear directives?

Gathering together personally and publicly as a local church for worship (Colossians 3, Hebrews 10:25). The Holy Spirit brings isolated sinners from death to life, through the preaching of the Gospel, and into a local family, the church, as we run together towards heaven (Hebrews 12:1-2) The church is certainly more than Sunday worship, but it is also certainly nothing less than Sunday Worship – together, in person. Virtual meetings are a mirror of gathering, but there are many “one-anothers” which cannot occur through a video screen, and much participation by the whole is lost while watching the performance of one. Virtual worship is something, but it is certainly not “the church.”

Let me give an example from Scripture which I think is quite applicable today, showing us how and when to properly interpret scenarios where submission to Government applies.

In Acts 16 as Paul and Silas are preaching the Gospel, the rightful governing magistrates of Philippi, being influenced by some upset and angry citizens, arrested and beat the evangelists, throwing them in jail. They were then released by a divinely sent earthquake. Their jailer and his family, in fear and awe of God’s power and the kindness of his disciples, hear and are converted by the Gospel to Christianity. Here is the relevant text for us today, in our current situation: Christians who are also American Citizens:

But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” (36) And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” (37) But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” (38) The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. (39) So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. (40) So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.
Act 16:35-40

Do you see it in v. 37? Paul uses the rights of his Citizenship, as (evidently) understood by All Romans, to challenge the authorities, that they, not he had violated the law and needed to repent, to change their course. Paul was actually demonstrating proper and legal submission to the government by reminding them of the rights of Roman citizens that Roman magistrates were expected to honor. The Magistrates had violated the law, not Paul.

Paul disobeyed the magistrates by not leaving town, but his dis-obedience was not moral, it was not a sin against God. The magistrates were out of line, according to their own oath of office. But confronting them, he was both helping himself and doing them a favor.

Each nation, of course, is different, so let me appeal to Americans.

In the USA the rights of citizens are recognized in the Constitution. It is the right of citizens to free, peaceful assembly: “Congress shall make no law respecting and establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

We obey God and God commands us to gather together bodily for worship (Colossians 3, Hebrews 10:25). It is what the pastor/elders/leaders of your church will be held accountable to God for. Did they obey God, even in the face of opposition? We can suspend worship, related to common sense reasoning (weather, pandemic, etc), but it is the church’s government, not civil government’s responsibility and sphere of authority. If, we as church leaders, make a wise or foolish decision, that is on us, not our civil government. Our American Constitution itself recognizes the very fact. Thank the Lord for this reality. The Governor can make recommendations and pleas to the church, but the church leadership are delegated to make decisions on Worship.

My question: In our Governor’s executive order to not allow churches to “meet for public worship”, is he, within the rights of his office and the laws of the land, according to the Constitution, or are we?

When we gather peaceably, we are exercising our rights as citizens and indirectly reminding others that this right is protected. If we do not remind the government of our place and their place, according to our own laws, who will? My primary goal in re-staring public worship is not to remind the government of anything. I am obeying God’s command. But, as an American Citizen, it is within my rights to do so. Period.

All things considered, such as the issues of risk, health, and love, it is crazy for the church right now to not at least read the constitution and wrestle with our American rights, our duties as the citizenry, as Paul did in Acts 16 when his rights were violated.

End Notes:

*We must differentiate the authority of civil magistrates and the authority (oft too much) of public opinion. Fear is a powerful weapon to wield, and it can enslave those who succumb to its influence. How often do we surrender our call and obedience to God because of the fear of who will shame us or hurt us?

*Similar principles and rights apply to businesses and other livelihoods in our nation. Where in the constitution is my right to make honest and peaceable commerce not protected right now….by what standard?

*A helpful video on the purpose of Church worship (Governmental Authority and the church) is found at https://www.facebook.com/aomin.org/videos/247003543025946/