The Extent of Governmental Authority

A closer look at Romans 13 and its implications

The Covid rebels argue against government authority over church gatherings on two grounds. The first ground is that God commands Christians to meet in person, so when government commands otherwise, the Christian duty is to God rather than man. The previous chapter addressed the “command” argument, in which I held there is no such command in the Bible, and certainly not in Hebrews 10. Some Christians, who are not Covid rebels, disagree with my view, but offer no exegetical or theological support to contradict it, at least so far. There is, of course, Biblical precedent for the commands of God superseding the demands of authority (see Peter before the Sanhedrin, Acts 4.19, 5.29). If there is no clear command, the principle is irrelevant; and even if one believes there is a command to meet, we must answer several other questions before we conclude, “This is the time, I take my stand, do what you will with me.”

One of those questions is the extent of governmental authority. The Covid rebels say that God limits governmental authority to matters of crime and punishment, to “justice,” but grants no authority over public health and safety. To refresh, here are two statements from pastor Tim Stephens of Calgary’s Fairview Baptist Church, cited in my first chapter:

“There is nothing in Romans 13 that teaches that the government is responsible for the common good. There is nothing in Romans 13 that teaches that the government is responsible for keeping people safe from a virus such that they even command what takes place in the church and in the home.”1

“Romans 13 defines the authority of the state to uphold justice and mete out God’s wrath according to God’s standards. It does not give power to the state to define justice or what is good and evil. It does not give authority to the state to outlaw gathering freely in worship, and then bring the punishment of the sword upon those who do.”2

And, once again, this is Pastor Aaron Rock of Harvest Bible Church in Windsor, Ontario:

“In Romans 13, civil authority is given jurisdiction over justice in the public sphere. Our Christian forebears were comfortable with that and urged churches to submit to it. But modern states have extended their authority well beyond matters of justice to include public education, public health, private property use, transportation regulations, right down to requiring dog tags for the family pet. To extend the biblical notion of subjection to any and all areas of life that the government chooses to control is a failure to acknowledge the discontinuities between the ancient and modern world.”3 [Emphasis mine.]

In sum, the Covid rebels limit the application of Romans 13 to a narrow window. They claim the state has no authority over the church when it comes to its worship, and this includes when, where, and how the church should worship. They insist they need not follow public health orders when they worship. The result of this in Canada is national news stories with various pastors under arrest, some imprisoned for a time, and many charges laid and fines levied. There are ongoing cases before the courts. It remains to be seen how all these matters come to a resolution. Likely before these matters work their way through the courts, the Covid crisis itself will become much reduced and most churches will be meeting normally anyway.

Nevertheless, the treatment of Romans 13 by the Covid rebels deserves some comment. I should rather say, “mistreatment,” because these men badly mis-apply the passage.

When one examines Romans 13, there is little question about what the passage says. What I’ve read from the Covid rebels shows essential agreement about the content of the passage. The issue is application, not explanation.

To proceed, though, I think we should briefly4 summarize the teaching of Romans 13.1-7, the passage in question. Everett Harrison says, ““This is the most notable passage in the NT on Christian civic responsibility.”5

The passage begins with a universal proposition: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.”

  • The subject of the sentence demonstrates universality, “every person.” The “governing authorities” are “the higher powers” as the kjv translates. The action is passive, every person must order himself under the authorities. He must find his place, submit, put himself in the proper order.

  • The reason for the proposition is simply that God ordained, or set in place, the authorities. All humans resent (to some extent) the authorities in their lives, due to their sin nature. They do this because they resent God — something very close to the original sin, inherited from Adam. God established authority, so the natural man despises authority. Unfortunately, the Christian man requires reminders that his life-changing transformation by the gospel means the universal proposition that opens Romans 13 is meant for him, too. To rebel against the higher powers is the same thing as rebelling against God.

  • Thus, we sum up verses 1-2: All must submit, for God appointed the authorities, and rebellion to human authority equals rebellion to God.

  • When someone resists human authority, pain ensues. If you do good, you have nothing to fear; if you do evil, be afraid. Paul says, “for it [government] does not bear the sword for nothing.” In other words, government has authority from God and power in its hands to back up that authority. If you won’t obey, you will feel it. Paul says that government is “the minister of God” when it punishes wrong doing. The whole idea behind the Western justice systems rests on these principles. Government stands in for God to mete out justice for offences.

  • However, since Government is a minister of God (Rm 13.4), Christians have an additional reason for submission, because they have a Christian conscience (Rm 13.5) which calls for their submission to God’s ministers.

So far, so good. I think as far as exegesis goes, the Covid rebels would generally agree with what I’ve said about Romans 13 above. However, the Christian conscience that calls for obedience is an interesting thing. Paul offers an illustration in verse 6 that takes the discussion a step further:

Rm 13.6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.

  • Notice here the word “also.” The Covid rebels want to limit the power of the sword and the authority of government to matters of justice. If you check Tim Stephens’ writings, you will see that he argues that the instructions of Romans 13 follow on from the admonition to the Christian, “don’t take vengeance,” in Romans 12. The Lord appointed the government to handle these matters, so Romans 13 teaches that governments may only act in matters where an injustice occurs, when they are to take vengeance on our behalf.

  • But wait, what about “also” in verse 6? Even if we concede that Romans 13 follows on from Romans 12 (some commentators make this connection), how do “taxes” figure into my desire for vengeance on my neighbour who offended me? Answer: they don’t. Paul offers “taxes” as a further illustration of the principle.

  • We pay taxes for the same reasons we submit to the laws of civil government: “for rulers are servants of God” – they are doing, in a sense, religious service. The word for “ministers” here is related to the service of the temple – liturgical service. We get the English word “liturgy” from this word. Obviously, this isn’t religion as we normally understand religion, but note Paul’s observation about the rulers who are “devoting themselves to this very thing.” They take tax collection religiously!

  • What is my point here? Paul himself applies this passage to more than mere justice. He applies it to taxes as well. I suspect that none of the Covid rebels also advocate refusing to pay taxes. After this, Paul renders a summary statement:

Rm 13.7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

  • This last verse gives imperatives or implied imperatives. These are sober obligations. As I say, to Biblically defy governmental authority one must clear a very high bar Paul set up for us here. If we determine to defy the authorities, we had better be sure we have a strong biblical reason.

Now let’s consider some other passages about divinely appointed civil authority. You may be familiar with the three-part division of Old Testament law: Ceremonial, Moral, and Civil. The Ceremonial division includes all the regulations concerning sacrifice and the liturgy of OT religion. The Moral division includes all those regulations on moral conduct, such as those listed in the Ten Commandments. The Civil division has to do with laws affecting the Israelites as citizens of a nation.6 Let’s look at some of them to see the scope of authority God granted to human government.

In Deuteronomy 15, the Lord gives laws dealing with land ownership, managing debt, and taking care of the poor. The chapter opens with this:

Dt 15.1 ¶ "At the end of every seven years you shall grant a remission of debts.

In keeping with these laws are those of Leviticus 19.9-10 which instruct landowners to leave the corners of their fields in harvest time for the benefit of the poor.

Lev 19.9-10 ¶ 'Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 'Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God.

The Law gave instruction for public safety in house construction.

Dt 22.8 ¶ "When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you will not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone falls from it.

In Leviticus 13 and 14, God gives the laws concerning leprosy. In these chapters he gives authority to the priests to determine when someone has the plague of leprosy and when he is delivered from it. He gives the priests the authority to examine affected clothing and require the destruction of these articles if they find disease in them. He gives authority to the priests to enter houses suspected of leprosy breaking out in the walls (apparently some kind of mold-like growth). Under certain conditions, the priest could order the partial or complete destruction of the affected house. All affected stones, mortar, timber, whatever the house is made of, was torn down and discarded outside the town in an “unclean place.”

Now we fast forward to the twenty first century. Are we saying the God who granted this civil authority to priests in ancient Israel has not granted authority to Public Health Officers today? Do we seriously want to argue that public health is not an interest of civil government? Or that civil government has no authority here, the church, due to its sovereignty over its worship services, can simply ignore public health orders?

This kind of defiance seems a very strange way to follow our Lord Jesus, who, noting the freedom of the sons of the king, nevertheless submitted to the ordinances of his day and paid taxes. (Mt 17.24-27)

Mt 17.27 “However, so that we do not offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me.”

Jacob Reaume, one of the Covid rebels, recognizes government authority extends beyond merely administering justice. He says in one of his many blogs arguing for defying government restrictions on worship:

“Typically obedience to Federal, Provincial, and Municipal regulations is easily given, such as is the case with fire safety codes, municipal drainage requirements, and other building codes. But a lockdown order to cease meeting as a church body for fellowship and worship would contradict the commandments of God, and in such a case TBC is compelled to listen to God instead of the government.”7

It is inconsistent to recognize Federal, Provincial, and Municipal regulation in many such matters, but then defy government lockdown orders in an emergency. He interestingly mentions fire safety codes. Fire safety codes restrict unfettered use of buildings for worship. The codes impose an occupancy limit on worship spaces. We all know that you can fit more people into a building than the code allows. If your church grows to the point that you have more people wanting to attend than the fire safety code allows, what do you do? Do you defy the fire safety code? Or do you accommodate yourself to legitimate government authority that puts a legal restriction on your assembly?

What is the difference — in essence — between a fire safety code and a public health order?

To conclude, I think we all agree that God established governments and that they are ministers of God over us for public affairs. The Covid rebels want to narrow the scope of government authority to imagine that they have no authority over our worship spaces. From the teaching of Romans 13, the Old Testament precedents, and the example of the Lord Jesus, I think we can say they are wrong. Public Health is a legitimate area of government authority. The government has authority to restrict behaviour in keeping with Public Health objectives.

However, what if the government is wrong in its approach to a public health emergency? What if their orders make no sense, and they require something of us that will not address the emergency they declared? We’ll take that topic up next.

~~~

PostScript:

Richard Baxter (1615-1691), English Puritan pastor wrote on this subject. My source is a book that contains a collection of his writings called, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter. In Volume 4, on Christian Politics, Baxter answers the question:

May we omit church assemblies on the Lord's day, if the magistrate forbid them?

1. It is one thing to forbid them for a time, upon some special cause, (as infection by pestilence, fire, war, &c.) and another to forbid them statedly or profanely.

2. It is one thing to omit them for a time, and another to do it ordinarily.

3. It is one thing to omit them in formal obedience to the law; and another thing to omit them in prudence, or for necessity, because we cannot keep them.

4. The assembly and the circumstances of the assembly must be distinguished.

(1.) If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him.

  1. Because positive duties give place to those great natural duties which are their end: so Christ justified himself and his disciples' violation of the external rest of the sabbath. "For the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath."

  2. Because affirmatives bind not ad semper, and out-of-season duties become sins.

  3. Because one Lord's day or assembly is not to be preferred before many, which by the omission of that one are like to be obtained.

(2.) If princes profanely forbid holy assemblies and public worship, either statedly, or as a renunciation of Christ and our religion; it is not lawful formally to obey them.

(3.) But it is lawful prudently to do that secretly for the present necessity, which we cannot do publicly, and to do that with smaller numbers, which we cannot do with greater assemblies, yea, and to omit some assemblies for a time, that we may thereby have opportunity for more: which is not formal but only material obedience.8

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3

Source: Our Stance on COVID-19: November 25, 2020 | Article: A Call to Divine Obedience over Civil Obedience

4

When I preached through Romans a few years ago, I accumulated 18 pages of notes on the passage and preached 6 sermons. Brevity is a challenge!

5

Everett F. Harrison, “Romans,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 10 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 136.

6

Some dispute these categories, but there the general idea makes sense in distinguishing one law from another in the OT. Some OT laws, to be sure, are difficult to assign to only one category.

8

Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, Kindle Edition, vol. 4, n.d., 456–57.