How seriously should I take the lockdown orders from my county? How seriously should I consider the consequence of disregarding the orders? Is it a trivial matter? It is there any real sin at stake?
[First caveat: I am considering a mere disregard for the law — not appropriate challenges to the law. There are a number of appropriate challenges to a law. For instance, a lawsuit against the local authority on the grounds that the law in question is unconstitutional on equal protection for first amendment grounds would not be disregard of the law. Petitioning the local authority to revise the law would not be disregard.
[Second Caveat: There is a moral case to be made against the law on the economic cost. There could even be a case to be made that in some circumstances, disregard of the law is necessary to preserve life. The moral case would require a different analysis and presents different consideration.]
The easiest way out would be merely to say this is no big deal. And perhaps as an ultimate matter, the stakes are inconsequential and no one will be immediately hurt by disobedience. But that decision was not given to me to make. First, I am not tasked with the civil authority to make such a decision. Second, there is plain direction from Scripture on my duty to obey the law. So, I cannot merely say this is at most a “little sin” (I will come back to this point, below.)
Let us assume for the sake of argument that the lockdown orders are unfair, poorly conceived and poorly executed. What is my responsibility as a Christian?
As an American, ignoring leaders and laws I dislike seems like a fundamental right. “Don’t Tread on Me” is in the history of the country. To be submissive to authority sounds like weakness or foolishness.
There is also the innate human desire for autonomy. When we first come into this world, we come as tyrants demanding submission from all whom come near.
And so adhering to rules which I think are foolish or wrong makes me feel like a sucker. Why would I willingly surrender any authority to the petty tyrants who see fit to control my life?
And so, the wisest response seems to be to just disregard the rule when it seems overwhelming ridiculous.
In addition, when the rule sees ridiculous or unwarranted, the easiest understanding of the rule is that is simply too silly to be obeyed.
In the instance of the lockdown, the stakes are ostensibly life-and-death. Whether the rules instituted actually will help in that regard; and whether the threat is actually life and death (or at least sufficiently dangerous that extraordinary measures are needed). Thus, the concern is extreme; even if the means to protect against that concern are absurd.
Perhaps it will be learned that the lockdown regime was as effective as smoke was in protecting against the Black Plague.
So for argument’s sake let us stipulate that the rules are somewhere between non-effective to excessively restrictive. Perhaps the rules are brilliant, but the argument will be clearer if the rules are simply wrong.
And so, may I disregard laws which I think are foolish, ineffective, or annoying? My political instincts and education and the default positions of Americans (as is readily apparent from both sides of the aisle, depending upon the ruler and the law) is that I may and perhaps should disregard the dumb laws – or at least laws I dislike.
That is one side of the argument, but I don’t believe it can be supported from the Scripture.
In First Peter, the apostle begins a long discussion of submission in verse 13 of chapter two. The general rule is given in verse 13,
1 Peter 2:13–14 (ESV)
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.
The command is exceedingly clear: submit, put yourself in subjection to the authorities.
As Paul writes in Romans 13, all governmental authority has been instituted by God. Rom. 13:1. It is sufficient to observe that Peter and Paul both set down this rule with respect to a government which condemned both Peter and Paul to death:
Nero was emperor when St. Peter wrote. Christians were to obey even him, wicked tyrant as he was; for his power was given him from above, as the Lord himself had said of Pilate
H. D. M. Spence-Jones, ed., 1 Peter, The Pulpit Commentary (London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909), 73. Unless some other rule specifically makes for an exception, this rule stands absolute.
And yes there is an exception to the law: the government has no right to make us sin. The example of Daniel continuing to pray even when the law forbade his prayers is the right example. Daniel prayed despite the law; and Daniel accepted the consequence of his disobedience.
The command is quite clear, and so is the rationale, “For the Lord’s sake.” There are two aspects of this rationale. First, our obedience to a governmental authority “for the Lord’s sake” is ultimately obedience to the Lord. This aspect is made plain in verse 16:
1 Peter 2:16 (ESV)
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
Our obedience to the authority is not because we consider our primary allegiance to that authority: we are free people. But our freedom also makes us servants of God. Or as the NASB has it “bondslaves of God.” The Christian is absolutely bound to the direction of Christ. And thus, if the Lord has given a command, we have no discretion in the matter. [An issue in the lockdown order is whether the stay home orders conflict with a duty to corporate worship.]
This leads to the rationale for obedience found in Paul. As he explains in Roman, obedience to the authority is grounded on the proposition that God has instituted the authority.
Peter, however, adds an additional rationale: as a witness to the authorities and to the world.
In verse 15, Peter writes:
1 Peter 2:15 (ESV)
For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
Peter’s concern is for the public witness of the Christian. This is a thought that goes back to verse 12:
1 Peter 2:12 (ESV)
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
The “Lord’s sake” of verse 13 is the public demonstration that we willing lay down even our freedom for the sake of something more important, our testimony that our concern is God’s glory “on the day of visitation.”
The concept here is that by our obedience to human authority, we remove any ground that anyone could speak ill of our behavior.
Peter’s point is that Christians are called upon to be as obedient to the government as possible so as to remove any argument against Christ:
By submitting to government, Christians demonstrate that they are good citizens, not anarchists. Hence, they extinguish the criticisms of those who are ignorant and revile them. Such ignorance is not innocent but culpable, rooted in the foolishness of unbelievers.
Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 130. As Christians we are called upon to willingly set aside ground for disobedience to governing authorities because have a duty to remove any possible ground for anyone to speak ill of us.
Do I really want to violate an inconvenient law if the effect would be give anyone a reason to slander Christ?
If we Christians are hated, then we must not be hated because we have disobeyed the authorities. If we suffer, then let us suffer as a Christian for being a Christian:
1 Peter 4:14–15 (ESV)
14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.
To underscore and explain his point concerning obedience to authorities Peter sets out a series of examples. First, he speaks of slaves who are mistreated, even physically beaten for unjust cause:
1 Peter 2:18–20 (ESV)
18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.
Notice how Peter describes the master: “unjust” (NASB, “unreasonable”). The suffering is “unjust”. The result is a “beating.” The cause of the beating is having done “good.” The slave did what was “good” and was beaten by an unjust master.
The slave is called upon to endure the beating in patience, “because this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”
The second example given is Christ suffering unjustly. Christ did not revile when he was reviled (1 Peter 2:23). Rather, Christ turned the response over to God:
1 Peter 2:23 (ESV)
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
In verse 21, Peter specifically says that Christ has given us an “example” which we are required to follow.
Peter then gives a third example, a wife being “submissive” to an unbelieving husband. The position of a woman in the ancient world was very difficult. Peter specifically mentions that she is to be submissive to her husband (the same command given to all and to slaves with their own masters) and do so without fear of “anything that is frightening.” (1 Peter 2:6). These are very hard words.
Why is the wife called upon to engage in such extraordinary conduct? To “win” her husband:
1 Peter 3:1 (ESV)
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives,
The demand being made upon Christians is extraordinary. It by nature unreasonable and at times even dangerous. Why would Christians lay aside their defense? For the Lord’s sake. We are called upon to suffer injustice so that none may have a cause to speak against our Lord.
Before going further, someone could say that bearing up under unjust or difficult orders is one thing, but dealing with silly or foolish orders is quite another. There are three responses to this. First, if we must maintain our submission even when being beaten for doing good. If we must do the greater thing, then we must do the lesser.
Second, this makes the bad testimony even worse: you are willing to disobey on the slightest cause. You have must have a very low regard for those in authority.
Thomas Brooks in his Precious Remedies for Satan’s Devices list as device number three of Satan, “extenuating and lessening the sin.” To bring us to sin, the Devil tells us the sin is a very small thing. He makes a number of points about small sins, such as the fruit in the garden may seem a very small sin; small sins lead to greater sins; a small hole can sink a great ship; many saints have suffered death rather than commit the smallest sin, such as just offering up a pinch of incense upon a pagan altar.
Speaking of refusing to follow because the law is so silly, “That it is sad to stand with God for a trifle.” If this thing is so small and insignificant, then it is especially foolish to refuse to obey. For instance, the lockdown does not require heroic acts; it is merely very inconvenient. And yes there are very serious economic issues for many people, but that is a different argument than the law is silly.
Two more that bear consideration: Your soul cannot stand the weight of guilt which is inherent in even the smallest sin. Nothing less the death of Christ was necessary to preserve you from the guilt of this “small sin”. If God were to set the full weight of this guilt upon your soul and you were to understand it aright, it would put you into a horror of madness.
Also, “there is more evil in the least sin than in the greatest affliction.” If it is a sin, then it is inherently worse than death itself.
And lest you think that perhaps I am seeing something new, the Venerable Bede in 7th Century England wrote:
This there is the praise which good men receive, when they act properly and obey the king’s servants, even when it means putting up with ignorance of unwise governors.
As he notes, there is no, but my governor is a fool exception to the rule.
In the Second Century, Justin writing to the Roman Emperor sought clemency for Christians. In his argument, Justin explained – based upon these propositions in Peter and Paul – that Christians were the best of citizens:
And more than all other men are we your helpers and allies in promoting peace, seeing that we hold this view, that it is alike impossible for the wicked, the covetous, the conspirator, and for the virtuous, to escape the notice of God, and that each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions. For if all men knew this, no one would choose wickedness even for a little, knowing that he goes to the everlasting punishment of fire; but would by all means restrain himself, and adorn himself with virtue, that he might obtain the good gifts of God, and escape the punishments. For those who, on account of the laws and punishments you impose, endeavour to escape detection when they offend (and they offend, too, under the impression that it is quite possible to escape your detection, since you are but men), those persons, if they learned and were convinced that nothing, whether actually done or only intended, can escape the knowledge of God, would by all means live decently on account of the penalties threatened, as even you yourselves will admit. But you seem to fear lest all men become righteous, and you no longer have any to punish. Such would be the concern of public executioners, but not of good princes.
Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 166.
We Christians obey the laws because we are concerned the judgment of God – not the judgment of the king. You have nothing to fear from Christians, we are your best of servants.
The importance of obedience to the civil authorities – even bad civil authorities – as a means of testimony, and the willingness to accept the consequences for disobedience when to obey would be sin, was eloquently stated by Pastor Wang Yi of the Early Rain Church in China in a statement released after his imprisonment:
As a pastor, my firm belief in the gospel, my teaching, and my rebuking of all evil proceeds from Christ’s command in the gospel and from the unfathomable love of that glorious King. Every man’s life is extremely short, and God fervently commands the church to lead and call any man to repentance who is willing to repent. Christ is eager and willing to forgive all who turn from their sins. This is the goal of all the efforts of the church in China—to testify to the world about our Christ, to testify to the Middle Kingdom about the Kingdom of Heaven, to testify to earthly, momentary lives about heavenly, eternal life. This is also the pastoral calling that I have received.
For this reason, I accept and respect the fact that this Communist regime has been allowed by God to rule temporarily. As the Lord’s servant John Calvin said, wicked rulers are the judgment of God on a wicked people, the goal being to urge God’s people to repent and turn again toward Him. For this reason, I am joyfully willing to submit myself to their enforcement of the law as though submitting to the discipline and training of the Lord.
At the same time, I believe that this Communist regime’s persecution against the church is a greatly wicked, unlawful action. As a pastor of a Christian church, I must denounce this wickedness openly and severely. The calling that I have received requires me to use non-violent methods to disobey those human laws that disobey the Bible and God. My Savior Christ also requires me to joyfully bear all costs for disobeying wicked laws.
But this does not mean that my personal disobedience and the disobedience of the church is in any sense “fighting for rights” or political activism in the form of civil disobedience, because I do not have the intention of changing any institutions or laws of China. As a pastor, the only thing I care about is the disruption of man’s sinful nature by this faithful disobedience and the testimony it bears for the cross of Christ.
As a pastor, my disobedience is one part of the gospel commission. Christ’s great commission requires of us great disobedience. The goal of disobedience is not to change the world but to testify about another world.
When placed in the matrix of life of the apostles and martyrs, when measured against the life of men like Wang Yi, our rebellion against inconvenient orders seems terribly misplaced.