Obeying Government Authorities

Published on March 25th, 2020

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment…Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he [the governing authority] is God’s servant for your good… (Romans 13:1-4).

In view of COVID-19, and as several have wrestled with decisions pertaining to this, I will this week write briefly about the 4th commandment.  Though the 4th commandment is primarily about obedience to one’s parents, yet it is clear from Scripture that the commandment is about all those God has placed in authority over us.  There is not enough space in this brief essay to write about the God-given authority entrusted to pastors, employers and others outside of the government.

It is interesting—and certainly no accident—that when in Romans 13:9 the Apostle Paul summarizes the commandments about our neighbor he follows the ordering found in the Greek (Septuagint) translation of Deuteronomy 5.  According to the numbers we assign to the commandments, the Septuagint translation of Deuteronomy 5 lists the commandments of the second table of the law thus:  4, 6, 5, 7, 8, 10, 9. In Romans 13:9 Paul combines commandments 9 and 10 under the word “covet”.  The 8th commandment appears to be missing in Paul’s list, however some ancient manuscripts of Romans 13:9 include the 8th commandment, placing it also in the Septuagint order.  What seems remarkable is that no manuscripts of Romans 13:9 include the 4th commandment.  Why?  St. Paul has in the first eight verses explained in detail an important aspect of the 4th commandment, namely obedience to the governing authorities.  He need not name the 4th commandment in Romans 13:9 because he has just given detailed teaching about the 4th commandment!  This in itself magnifies the importance of obeying the governing authorities.

Romans 13:1-4 presents the authority behind the governing authorities:  They are from God, instituted by God and God’s servant for your good.  We cannot take lightly what governing authorities dictate.  Though imperfect in this fallen world, the government remains from God, instituted by God and God’s servant for your good.  Certainly the Roman government was instrumental in Christ’s crucifixion, and it bore the sword in the persecution and death of many a martyr—which things Paul was aware of—yet it remained from God, instituted by God and God’s servant for your good.  Paul also penned the reality that God causes all things to work together for good (Rom. 8:28); which was clearly the case in Christ’s crucifixion at the hands of the Roman government.  His evil death worked the greatest good.

As Scripture rightly magnifies obedience to the governing authorities, Christians should be exemplary in this, yet Holy Scripture also gives an exemption to this obedience.  When the apostles were told by the Jewish governing authorities no longer to teach in Jesus’ name, Peter and the apostles responded, We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:28).  If the government demands a Christian to do something against the faith, the Christian may in good conscience disobey.  But clearly from Romans 13 any “disobedience” toward the government must be tempered with utmost caution, for Romans 13:3 warns, those who resist [the governing authorities] will incur judgment.  It is no small matter to disobey God’s left hand authority.

In relation then to the dictates given today by our government concerning COVID-19, if we disobey such directives we must be certain that the government is telling us to go against the doctrine of Christ.

Ponder the following questions (perhaps with your circuits or with church members/leaders, via Zoom or other such media):

  1. Who is being protected by the government regulations concerning COVID-19? Do we concur with such protection?  If we disagree, can we disobey the government?   Why or why not? (Consider the final paragraph above.)
  2. We indeed do not want to forsake the assembling together of ourselves (Heb. 10:25). Why is it so important to assemble together?  In obeying the governing authorities, how long can we go without assembling together?  How many members does it take to “assemble together”?  Is hearing the Word electronically the same as hearing it in the assembly of worshiping Christians?  Why or why not?
  3. The early church celebrated the Eucharist three times a week, later twice a week, and then it settled on once a week. Our Confessions encourage us to celebrate communion weekly.  Is this important?  Is it essential to the doctrine of Christ’s Church to celebrate The Supper weekly?  Why or why not?
  4. The church through the centuries has celebrated Holy Communion with a common cup. Is this important?  Is it essential?  Why or why not (to each question)?
  5. Scripture indicates that the “strong” should uniquely bear with the “weak” (Rom. 15:1; all of Rom. 14 speaks to this as well. See also Gal. 6:2). How might someone be weak physically?  Spiritually?  When must we bear with either or both categories of weakness in relation to our current COVID-19 situation?  When might we not bear with such weakness?
  6. Consider your answers to the above either in relation to obeying the 4th commandment or in relation to maintaining the doctrine of Christ’s church. Are we breaking either in our answers?
  7. Can we as U.S. citizens legitimately voice our disagreement to dictates and policies put upon churches by governing authorities? What kind of “spirit” should be in such disagreement?
  8. Where might pastors and God’s people need forgiveness in such matters?

May the cross of Christ stand tall in such discussions, and may we each be absolved and then forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us.

(This article was first published as a news release on March 22. President Brege added his addendum on March 25)