COVID-19: the limits of authority

COVID-19: the limits of authority

This post is by Elder Dr. Ben Burlingham, of Trinity Reformed Church, Bloomington, Indiana. Ben teaches chemistry at Indiana University.

Living through the current pandemic has raised heated debate concerning how much power state and federal government have to regulate the actions of individuals and local churches. We know the Bible teaches us to obey our earthly authorities, but at the same time we remember the words of the Apostles Peter and John who asked their rulers to consider whether it was right to obey them or to obey God.  In the news, we hear about local churches being fined, pastors being threatened with jail, and even the Supreme Court making decisions about how many people can gather for worship. How can a Christian decide what is right to do in these difficult situations?

Although it is common to hear that we are in unprecedented times, these issue are actually nothing new. Christians have wrestled with how to deal with competing authorities for thousands of years. So how should a Christian respond?

First and foremost, we must recognize that according to the Bible, the only infallible source of truth, all authority is delegated by God. This means that, as Christians, we are not only obligated to honor God directly, but also to honor Him by obeying those that He has placed over us. Since the time of the early Church, Christians have recognized that that God has given men authority in three basic areas: those who have authority in the family (husbands, fathers, mothers), civic authorities (presidents, kings, governors, police, employers), and church authorities (pastors, elders, deacons, bishops.) Each of these authorities is responsible to God for the area, or sphere, to which He has assigned them, so this doctrine has often been called “Sphere Authority:”

The Lord defines the sphere authority of civil government in Romans 13:1-7:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same;  for it is a minister of God to you for good.

But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evilTherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 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. (Romans 13:1-7)

God’s Word declares that, in the sphere of the family, husbands have authority over their wives and parents have authority over their children:

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:22)

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you. (Exodus 20:12)

God has also set authorities within the Church.

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account, (Hebrews 13:17)

Furthermore, God has defined how each sphere can enforce its authority. God has limited Church discipline to the administration of the sacraments, moral suasion through exhortation and admonishment, and in more serious cases, rebuke and excommunication from the Lord’s Table. He has given parents instruction, moral suasion, and corporeal punishment for children. In contrast, he has granted “the sword” to the civil government: the use of fines, incarceration, and capital punishment through the police and the court system.

The concept of “sphere authority” does not, however, mean that church, family, and civil authorities operate within neatly separated jurisdictions without any interaction with or accountability to the others. For instance, parents committing violence in the home are accountable to civil as well as church authorities. If pastors or elders embezzle church funds, they are accountable to both civil and family authorities. Civil authorities are obligated to church and family authorities to provide all that is necessary for safe and peaceful assembly for worship.

These are just a few examples. The general principle is that, whether the authorities recognize it or not, each sphere is accountable to the other two because all authority is accountable to God.

In addition, none of these authorities can exist in a vacuum, separated from the others, because their responsibility is to the One True God. In many cases, the Lord holds all three accountable to the same command. For instance, the Lord has commanded authorities in all three spheres to protect life. In the circumstances of the current pandemic, fathers, pastors, and governors are all accountable to God for their actions in protecting those under their care from COVID-19.

At the same time, even when working toward the same goal, each authority must recognize that God has defined the sphere of their authority. When authorities overstep their God-given bounds and use their authority in a different sphere, this has often been called “inter-meddling.” While intermeddling is easy to define in principle, it is often difficult to define in practice. That is because what one sphere might call its duty in protecting life might be called intermeddling or even oppression by another sphere.

The civil authority, at the federal, state, and local levels, have the authority to protect life by the use of quarantine and the right to enforce this authority. Even though a quarantine might interfere with the freedoms of a family or the public worship of God in a local church gathering, enacting such a quarantine is not intermeddling as long as it is only as extensive and long as the current need. [1]

However, if the enforcement of the quarantine grows in scope—becoming longer, more extensive, and more comprehensive—in such a way as to control the lives of the citizens in an absolute manner, then the state has over-reached its bounds, and its acts are no longer valid. One way that the State has over-reached its God-given authority is by declaring the church to be an essential or nonessential entity. God Himself has instituted the Church, so although one may recognize that it is essential, no man can declare it to be either essential or nonessential.

So although it is not necessary that the church be exempt from quarantine, the civil government is limited in its authority. For example, no one would claim that the state could issue a permanent quarantine. So the question becomes, at what point does the State over-reach its authority in interfering with the proper function of the family and the church?

Given that the quarantine has lasted for months, and in some places there are hints that it will become indefinite, it is right for family and church authorities to consider how far they must obey the civil government. The civil sphere does not have the right to impose a quarantine that is so detrimental to the family and the church that they are in fact robbed of life, since man does not live by bread alone.[2]

There is no one-size-fits-all answer for the question of how the church and family should respond to civil authorities due to the various levels of quarantine and infection rates in various localities. Rather, we must respond with humility and discernment. Family and church authorities must assess the spiritual condition of their own people, obeying civil authority where possible and disobeying where necessary in order to feed and protect their people. Even in cases in which the over-reach of the civil authority has made its acts void, the family and church must approach the proper response through prayer, wisdom, humility, and honor, if not exact obedience.

May God have mercy on us, forgive our sins, and lift this judgement from our land.

***

[1] Under these conditions, a quarantine is also not an infringement on the First Amendment because it is a “general law of neutral applicability,” meaning that it is applied equally across all walks of life, not targeting only churches, and does not have as its intent the limit of free worship.

[2] Deuteronomy 8:3


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About The Author

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Pastor of Trinity Reformed Church since 1996, Tim and Mary Lee have five children and lots of grandchildren. Tim's books include "Daddy Tried," The Grace of Shame," "Church Reformed," and a new book for elders. Tim spent ten years in the PC(USA) and twenty in the PCA. He's now a member of Evangel Presbytery.

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