(An earlier version of this article was posted at our website in April. This is the version that appeared in our July 2020 print edition.)
By Rusty Russell
Should we have canceled church during the COVID-19 pandemic? What if the virus rebounds and we are asked to cancel again? What if there’s a less serious pandemic in the future? Will we be asked to cancel the next time there’s a flu outbreak?
I was discouraged by how many Christians—even church leaders—quickly made judgments about church closings based on whether they watch Fox News or CNN rather than what God would ask us to do. We allowed the culture to dictate our perspective on what should be an important biblical issue: What is our relationship with the government, and when should we consider conscientiously objecting to its commands?
On Wednesday, March 11, the NBA announced it was suspending its season because of the coronavirus outbreak. That was the turning point. By Friday, March 13, most schools and churches had decided to close, and the words coronavirus and COVID-19 were on the lips of every American.
Over the course of those few days, some church leaders were convinced the government was underreacting and quickly moved to close before being required to do so. Others believed the government was overreacting and closed reluctantly or not at all. Both sides harshly judged those who disagreed. I got some nasty notes from outsiders who disagreed with the decision we made. Most of the notes were laughable. But I confess my feelings were hurt when a fellow pastor sarcastically suggested I wasn’t taking things seriously enough. Maybe I deserved it. He probably picked up on a haughty tone in my voice and I needed to repent. But I was surprised at the judgmental spirit we all tended to have toward those who disagreed with us.
When We Submit to Governing Authorities . . . and When We Don’t
I’m convicted that both sides—whether they believed the government underreacted or overreacted—need to reconsider their perspective. There is a third option, and I believe it is the biblical calling of all Christians. The biblical principle is submission to the governing authorities. I almost choke on the words. But the Bible is clear. Romans 13 says,
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing (Romans 13:1-6).
Jesus summarized this principle in one beautiful, balanced sentence: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21, English Standard Version).
The principle is clear: We are to submit to the governing authorities as often and as long as possible. We refuse to submit only when the government would force us to disobey God, including these situations:
- When submission would be immoral—for examples, if the government told us not to preach the gospel or that we should turn in our Jewish neighbors to the Nazis. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29, ESV).
- When submission would be unjust—for example, by submitting to an illegal order. When Paul was unjustly ordered to be flogged, he asserted his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25).
- When submission would be unloving—for example, if Jesus had given in to the religious leaders’ demand not to heal (do good) on the Sabbath. When faced with this situation, Jesus healed anyway (Matthew 12:9-13; Mark 3:1-5; Luke 6:6-10; 14:1-6).
But if or when it happens, we disobey only inasmuch as is necessary to obey our Lord.
How We Make the Difficult Decisions
In preparation for this project, I read several articles on this topic. I was surprised that one Christian author promoted complete disregard for any unjust government. Once a government proves to be unjust, you no longer need to respect them, the writer claimed. But every government is unjust at times.
Paul’s words to the Romans were written under a frequently unjust government. Yet he said governments are here to punish the wrongdoer and reward the righteous. His point was that most governments favor the law-abiding citizen most of the time. Even the Roman government typically protected the innocent homeowner from the thief, the innocent bystander from the mugger, and so forth. When you must disobey, you do so only in that situation that merits disobedience.
The decision in March over whether or not to cancel church was a difficult one. It wasn’t clear. God calls us to gather. That’s a strong command in Scripture. Think of the commands to love one another, sing to one another, remember the body and blood of our Lord together, and to preach and offer hospitality. Jesus said, “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). Clearly, Jesus wants us to gather on a regular basis. It’s a command and an expectation. Scripture says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24, 25).
If an atheistic government attempted to close us permanently, as has happened to so many of our brothers and sisters throughout church history, the decision would be clear: Gather, even if you must do so in secret. God has commanded you to gather. Obey God, not man, and trust him with the consequences.
But this situation was different. I respect those who conscientiously objected and stayed open, and I believe we should come to their defense and not judge our brothers. But they may have unnecessarily focused negative attention on the church. I respect those who canceled quickly before any government mandates. But I worry about the precedent that set.
As churches began canceling, and many of us were asking one another for advice, it bothered me that no church had a plan for “uncanceling.” Of particular importance were these two questions every church needed to seriously consider: What parameters are driving our decision to cancel? How will we know when it’s time to regather? Nobody seemed to have clear answers.
I love where our elders landed. We decided to submit to the governing authorities. We did not close that first weekend, because none of our governing authorities—federal, state, or local—were asking us to close. By the second weekend, March 21 and 22, things had changed, and the authorities were recommending we not meet. We complied, rather than conscientiously object, for three important reasons:
1. We trusted their request was necessary—that their knowledge was superior to ours and extreme social distancing was necessary for the welfare of all.
2. We trusted their request was temporary—that they were not asking us to cancel permanently or at the onset of every flu outbreak.
3. We trusted that their request was impartial—that they were not impurely motivated against the church, nor was their request unjustly burdensome to the church. They were asking the same of all large gatherings.
Based on those three trusts, we decided to temporarily suspend our gatherings and meet only online. We decided that if at any point we can no longer trust the validity of those three conclusions, we should consider reopening. Most helpfully, this perspective provided guidance for exactly when to reopen: when those in authority over us declared it was safe to reopen.
What About Next Time?
At this point, a cynical person might brush me off as biased toward the current federal and state governments. “Would you say the same thing if ‘the other party’ were in office?” the skeptic might ask. I would, and I did. I’ve written and preached about these things for 30 years, through the best and worst of times. It’s been much harder at times to maintain this perspective, but this has always been the biblical call. Submit to—and respect—the governing authorities as far and as long as possible. And do it with a Christlike attitude. I haven’t always practiced what I preached. But even when I had strong disagreements with those in authority, I still preached this biblical mandate of submission.
We are called not only to submit, but to submit “as unto God.” This is a theme throughout the Bible with regard to the authorities we are under. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1). “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). “Slaves obey your earthly masters . . . just as you would obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5). Again, remember Romans 13 (“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities . . . for the one in authority is God’s servant to do you good.”) In that passage, Paul alludes five times to the government’s authority coming from God.
I personally need to do better. At times, I’ve had a cynical attitude, criticized our leaders for petty disagreements, and generally been a mediocre citizen. I’ve lived in the Port Charlotte area for 10 years, but I don’t personally know a single councilperson. I know only a handful of first responders. I’ve squandered opportunities to pastor and to love those who lead us. With God’s help, I need to do better.
Some of my friends do so much better at this than me. Some of them, I’m sure, made phone calls to local governing authorities during this season and offered advice, prayer, and comfort because they have pastored them for years. Because of their past efforts, churches in their community were treated with honor instead of scrutiny. Imagine how much better even the most secular governments would treat us if we were model citizens and loved and pastored those in authority over us.
It’s quite possible there will be a “next time,” and that the government will set the bar lower in full expectation churches will close. If the bar continues to be lowered, there will come a point when we will be forced to say, “We must obey God rather than men.” This most recent experience should motivate us to prepare for the next time by building strong pastoral relationships right now with those who govern us—not only for the sake of our churches, but for the sake of their souls and all those they govern. This is love, this is our biblical calling, and this is what will glorify God.
Rusty Russell serves as lead pastor of New Day Christian Church in Port Charlotte, Florida. He has coauthored several books with his father, Bob Russell, including When God Answers Prayer and When God Builds a Church. Rusty is also the player development coach for the Port Charlotte High School football team.