Resistance to Church Lockdowns: What About Romans 13?
Gary North – July 30, 2020
I reported on their defiance in yesterday’s article: https://www.garynorth.com/public/21145.cfm.
The elders made their defiance clear. They did not weasel.
Christ is Lord of all. He is the one true head of the church (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). He is also King of kings—sovereign over every earthly authority (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14; 19:16). Grace Community Church has always stood immovably on those biblical principles. As His people, we are subject to His will and commands as revealed in Scripture. Therefore we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.
In the next paragraph, they cut off those pastors who prefer compliance, and who would be willing to cite Romans 13 as justification for this compliance. Here is Romans 13, verses 1 through 7.
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. 6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.
The elders correctly understand the context of Paul’s statement — the tyrannical Roman Empire — and also how Paul’s words should be applied today.
Some will think such a firm statement is inexorably in conflict with the command to be subject to governing authorities laid out in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Scripture does mandate careful, conscientious obedience to all governing authority, including kings, governors, employers, and their agents (in Peter’s words, “not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable” [1 Peter 2:18]). Insofar as government authorities do not attempt to assert ecclesiastical authority or issue orders that forbid our obedience to God’s law, their authority is to be obeyed whether we agree with their rulings or not. In other words, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 still bind the consciences of individual Christians. We are to obey our civil authorities as powers that God Himself has ordained.
Later in their manifesto, they wrote this:
Accordingly, the honor that we rightly owe our earthly governors and magistrates (Romans 13:7) does not include compliance when such officials attempt to subvert sound doctrine, corrupt biblical morality, exercise ecclesiastical authority, or supplant Christ as head of the church in any other way.
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul wrote this:
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour (I Timothy 2:1-3).
Paul was clear: civil government is legitimate. Churches even owe public prayer for civil rulers. He could not have been more clear on this point.
Peter was equally clear: Christians don’t owe obedience to civil laws that undermine the church of Jesus Christ. They are not morally obligated to obey these laws.
There is another issue: the language of plural governments. Paul was not writing just about civil government. He uses the word authorities. That is a plural word. I have explained this elsewhere.
In 2001, I published my economic commentary on Paul’s letter to the church at Rome: Competition and Dominion I had it professionally typeset in 2012. It is posted as a PDF here. Chapter 11 presents my analysis of Romans 13:1-7: “Legitimate Governments.” Here is what I wrote, but without the footnotes.A. Plural Authorities
Paul speaks of higher powers. Strong’s Concordance defined the Greek word exousia as follows: “(in the sense of ability); privilege, i.e. (subj.) force, capacity, competency, freedom, or (obj.) mastery (concr. magistrate, superhuman, potentate, token of control), delegated influence: authority, jurisdiction, liberty, power, right, strength.” It means, basically, lawful authorities. There are more than one. There is no single hierarchy in this life. God has created competing jurisdictions in order to eliminate the possibility of an absolute centralized tyranny. “And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city” (Gen. 11:6– 8). A national civil government or empire has always faced competition: from foreign civil rulers, local civil rulers, families, kinship groups, churches, voluntary associations, and businesses.
Paul says here that lawful authorities deserve obedience. He does not say or imply that there is only one lawful institutional authority that must be obeyed. In his confrontation with the high priest, he made this point clear. Even though he was an apostle and in possession of lawful authority, he did not deliberately challenge the high priest. “And the high priest Ananias commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth. Then said Paul unto him, God shall smite thee, thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law? And they that stood by said, Revilest thou God’s high priest? Then said Paul, I wist not, brethren, that he was the high priest: for it is written, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people” (Acts 23:2–5). Paul honored lawful authorities. But when one authority could be used to offset another, Paul set them in competition to gain his freedom. “But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question. And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: and the multitude was divided” (Acts 23:6–7). The Sadducee party, which denied the bodily resurrection, was associated with the temple’s priesthood. Paul’s words to the Pharisees immediately undermined Ananias’ power to prosecute Paul on the authority of the priesthood.
No power is established on earth that is not established by God. On this point, Paul is clear. “For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (v. 1). This English phrase—“the powers that be”—has come down through the centuries to describe the supreme rulers in a society. Therefore, obedience to them is biblically mandatory. “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (v. 2). Because God has established authorities to rule over men, men are required by God to obey rulers.
Paul lived under the rule of Nero, a tyrant by any standard. Yet he writes: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good” (v. 4) Christians are to do good deeds, gaining praise from their rulers. God has set rulers in seats of authority to be a terror to evil-doers. Let these rulers devote their efforts to overcoming their enemies, not look for rebellious Christians to prosecute.
There are rulers who themselves are evil and allied with evil men. Nevertheless, Paul says to obey. The goal of governments is to defend social order. Every government has rules. It enforces standards with sanctions. Most civil rulers want more authority for themselves. They want things to run smoothly. God has built into human nature the desire to live in a predictable world. For predictability, there must be rules and sanctions. This is why rules and sanctions make life easier. Tyrants want predictability. The closer to righteousness the civil laws are, the more voluntary cooperation that rulers will gain from their subordinates. Rulers cannot rule without subordinates who voluntarily cooperate. If everyone refused to obey a law, there would not be enough police to enforce it. This is why rulers prosecute a representative figure. This sends a message to the public: “If you don’t obey, and everyone else does, we’ll get you.” But there comes a day when many people take a chance and deliberately disobey the law. They refuse to cooperate with the civil government. On that day, the illusion of state omnipotence ends.
The early church lived under a pagan civil tyranny. Rome mandated idolatry as a means of extending the power of the empire. This polytheistic system of civil rule sought intercultural unity by divinizing the emperor. But Christians refused to offer public sacrifices to “the genius of the emperor,” for they understood the theology of ancient empires: the divinization of man and the state. For this rebellion, they were intermittently persecuted for almost three centuries. They did not rebel by taking up arms. They merely refused to participate in false worship. Over time, they gained the reputation for being good citizens and reliable subordinates. In the fourth century, they inherited the Roman empire. They had served under tyranny, and they became rulers when this tyranny collapsed into the chaos of civil war and bankruptcy. Nonviolent disobedience to civil authority on this one point eventually gained Christians civil authority. Otherwise, they were obedient. This is a biblical principle of authority: he who seeks to rule should first serve. Jesus told His disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve” (Luke 22:25–26). But there is another principle of biblical authority. “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Both principles must be honored. Both principles must be intellectually defended by covenant-keepers. Both must be honored by the flock.B. The Legitimacy of Governments
Paul’s discussion of institutional authorities follows a passage that challenges personal vengeance. “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). If personal vengeance is wrong, then how does God bring vengeance in history? Through civil government. The text does not say that vengeance is wrong. It says that God possesses final authority to impose vengeance. He has delegated the authority to impose physical vengeance to two governments: civil and family. Peter agreed with Paul on this point. “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king. Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully” (I Peter 2:13–19).
Neither Peter nor Paul demanded obedience to civil government at the expense of obedience to other lawful governments. Again, Peter explicitly told the Jewish leaders, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29b). Yet they had the authority to beat him, which they did (Acts 5:40). He submitted to the beating, but not to their command to stop preaching the gospel. He disobeyed, but he submitted to the sanctions for the sake of his disobedience. So did Paul.
The point is this: Peter and Paul self-consciously operated within the existing Roman legal system. Paul understood Roman law, and as a Roman citizen, he invoked it. “But Festus, willing to do the Jews a pleasure, answered Paul, and said, Wilt thou go up to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these things before me? Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest. For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar” (Acts 25:9–11). His words, “I refuse not to die,” affirmed the legitimacy of civil government, including capital punishment. But, at the same time, he appealed to Caesar to escape the jurisdiction of Festus, who Paul believed was acting on behalf of the Jews. This was consistent with his affirmation of the ministerial office of civil magistrates.
The anarcho-capitalist rejects all forms of civil government. He can point to every kind of tax as distorting the free market. He sees the free market as legitimately autonomous. But then come the problems of violence and sin. How can these be predictably restrained? The biblical answer is government, including civil government. In an anarcho-capitalist world of profit-seeking private armies, the result is the warlord society. Militarily successful private armies will always seek to establish their monopolistic rule by killing the competition, literally. Civil governments always reappear. They are one of God’s four ordained systems of government: self-government, church government, family government, and civil government. All four are sealed by an oath. All four involve sanctions.
Christians cannot legitimately adopt the libertarian quest to establish a world devoid of civil government. Sin mandates civil government and civil sanctions. The right of civil rulers to impose physical punishments is affirmed clearly by Paul in Acts 25. He affirms in Romans 13 the legitimacy of civil government among other legitimate governments. He says that rulers are ordained by God as His ministers. This is powerful language. It invokes the authority of God on behalf of the state. If Paul is correct, then anarcho-capitalism is incorrect. There is no way around this.C. Crime vs. the Division of Labor
The threat of crime forces men to allocate scarce economic resources to the defense against criminals. The state is the primary institutional means of crime prevention. The state imposes negative sanctions on convicted criminals. The goal is to uphold justice by means of fear. “And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deut. 19:18–21). Fear adds to the cost to criminal behavior. As the economist says, when the cost of anything increases, other things remaining equal, less of it is demanded. This is the goal of negative civil sanctions: less crime.
The expense of crime-prevention reduces men’s wealth. They believe that this expenditure prevents an even greater reduction of their wealth by criminals. Men find it more expensive to cooperate when crime increases. Their lives and property are less secure. This makes them more cautious about entering into cooperative ventures with people they do not know well. The information costs of dealing with strangers are high, and some people choose not to take these extra risks. Because of sin, the division of labor is reduced. Crime-prevention activities are a means of removing risk and increasing the level of cooperation. Institutional authorities seek to reduce crime by imposing negative sanctions on law-breakers.
To maximize the division of labor in a world of sin, the state must impose negative sanctions only on law-breakers, biblically defined. By adding laws that go beyond the Bible, or even go counter to it, civil rulers reduce the division of labor. Legislators and bureaucrats who go beyond the Bible in seeking to stamp out illegal activities make it more expensive for people to cooperate voluntarily to achieve their ends. This reduces the division of labor. It therefore reduces people’s wealth. The state thereby produces the same condition that criminals produce. The difference is, good men feel justified in defending themselves against criminals. They feel far less justified in defending themselves against the state. The predator state can become a greater threat to economic and social cooperation than the predator criminal class. In some cases, the state allies itself with the criminal class.Conclusion
Paul speaks of the illegitimacy of personal vengeance. He does not deny the legitimacy of vengeance as such. He says that God has restricted vengeance to legitimate civil governments. Civil power is supposed to restrain unpredictable personal violence, family feuds, and gang warfare. The free market is not autonomous. It is an extension of the individual or the family, both of which operate under civil law. The free market is under civil law. Civil law covenantally is superior to the free market. The civil covenant establishes the conditions of the free market by shaping public behavior and attitudes. Civil law is enforced by rulers who are ministers of God. Taxation as such is not theft, contrary to some libertarian theorists. Most forms of taxation are theft, and all levels above the tithe surely are (I Sam. 8:15, 17), but not all. Lawful authorities are entitled to economic support. Taxation supports the state.
Paul calls on Christians to obey lawful authorities. This may mean challenging one authority in the name of another. Authorities are to some extent in competition with each other. It is not unlawful to pit one against the other, as Paul’s tactics in Acts indicate. Freedom is sometimes achieved by using one authority to reduce the power of another. Paul used Roman law to undermine Festus’ desire to please the Jews. He lawfully removed himself from Festus’ jurisdiction. A legal system should not be allowed to become monolithic.
Rev. MacArthur and the church elders presented a biblically accurate assessment of Romans 13:1-7. I hope other congregations that face tyrannical lockdown laws will do the same when they defy these unjust, illegitimate laws and rules.