Submit to the Government Serving God to Save Lives
A few weeks ago, due to the present coronavirus pandemic, our Session decided to postpone face-to-face assemblies of worship at the church building electing (for a time) to serve Christ and our covenanted saints through online Lord’s Day webcasts. This decision was not unanimous but we moved forward with it in hearty unity.
What follows is a developed work from our original effort to explain this temporary change to our members (some had appealed to us to continue with worship in our building though all respectfully submitted and are participating online or via a phone line). We hope this writing will be a helpful reference for other churches similarly adjusting (especially of a confessional commitment and subscribing to the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals).
While it sometimes seems unclear from our State and Federal mandates (or strong recommendations) of what “essential” may include or exempt for public gatherings, our local and national magistrates are strictly guiding us to presently stay home and not assemble to avoid spreading COVID-19 and the coronavirus to other citizens and risk their deaths. After prayerful study and discussion, we decided to follow our civil leadership for this civic concern and adhere to our magistrates’ current timelines. We here provide Scriptural and confessional support.
First, it surely proves beneficial to hear what the Reformer Martin Luther proclaimed in a sermon entitled, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”, during a similar time: “I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, He will surely find me and I have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others.”
Further, something the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter wrote is equally significant for our seeking wisdom in many counselors:
“It is one [appropriate and valid] thing to forbid [public church assemblies] for a time, upon some special cause, (as infection by pestilence) ... If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence ... it is a duty to obey him.”
Let us now reflect on much of what informed our decision that our temporary change to online worship webcasts would not be disobeying God but rather submitting to Him.
First, it is important to recognize that the present government mandates are not religious persecution (if they were we would insist on public worship together and be ready to face the consequences). Everyone in our society is suffering indiscriminately. The government is not forbidding Christian worship assemblies in principal but is trying to curtail an unknown pandemic that life’s religious sphere affects.
Second, Christianity is a religion of submission and we are to submit to God’s authority through His ordained ministers not only in the sphere of Church but also of State. We mainly turn to Romans 13:1-10 for our consideration and leave the reader to attend to this and other Scripture references directly.
In summary, Paul teaches that as citizens of this world we must not rebel against our earthly authorities in the civil sphere of life for they too are ministers ordained by God to serve us just as are ministers of the Word over the religious sphere of life; as Kingdom of Heaven citizens we are to lovingly work for the good of our earthly societies under their lawful jurisdiction and to do so is to obey the Law of God.
Notice the use of the word “powers” throughout (or “authorities”) speaking of the government. In the Greek, this word “authorities” by nouns and verbs comes up three times in verse one, once in verse two, and as “rulers” (a different Greek word but the same concept) in verse three.
These authorities, whatever they understand of themselves, are “of” or “from God”, as is twice said in verse one, twice in verse four, and once in verse six; as well, in verse six, the Greek word for servant or minister is a word that is similarly used in the New Testament elsewhere for a “minister” of the Word in connection with religious service in the Old Testament Temple (see Romans 15:16 and Hebrews 8:2). Here it is helpful to remember that in some nations like England with a state church, government offices are spoken of as serving God and country with names such as the “Ministry of Defense”. As Paul emphasizes that these formal officers are ordained both in Church and State, thus they are official servants in both spheres to be held accountable by God and not to be taken lightly by their respective citizens.
Further, see that these earthly authorities have been “ordained” or “appointed” by God in verses one and two, and they are actually “servants” to us for our own good living in their earthly kingdoms under the authority of King Jesus. Twice in verse four the word “servant” in the Greek is diakanos, where we get our word for a church “deacon”. In verse six, such a ruler again is said to be our “minister”. God is showing us that He ordains our government leaders to help us.
Paul provides several applications of what he has above declared. In verse one, he says to “be subject” to these earthly authorities; the Greek word connotes subordination or voluntary submission to another’s will. We must obey our civil magistrates when they are trying to protect us and our fellow citizens. In verse two, if we resist their God-given authority, we are rebelling against God Himself and His delegated heavenly authority to these earthly rulers. To do that is what we are all concerned about, bringing judgment upon ourselves. In verse three, we are encouraged to do good in working with these government authorities so that they praise us as model citizens and bring attention to our citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven. In verse five, Paul says it also is necessary to be subject to them “for conscience sake”: the word means in the Greek, “with knowledge” related to whether we obey or rebel against God’s Law that is at the least a work written on our hearts per Romans 2:15. We cannot disobey authorities and avoid God’s judgment in good Christian conscience when it is related to the sphere of civic life.
In verses six and seven, Paul tells us that to fulfill God’s law we must fulfill our obligation to these authorities, such as paying taxes just as we do our tithes to support the Church’s ministry over the religious sphere of life under Christ—but that must include our appropriate respect and obedience.
In verses eight through ten, we see that it is lawful to submit to earthly authorities guiding us for temporal safety of our neighbors. In fact, to do so fulfills the Second Greatest Commandment (as summarized by Christ in the Gospels): love your neighbor as yourself. Not only are we to love church brethren but all our fellow citizens of the earthly kingdoms within which we live, including the magistrates that God has put there to protect us all. This Second Greatest Commandment summary comes from Leviticus 19:18, and in context of that one verse it is seen to be the antidote for the sin of bearing a grudge against our neighbors (surely a problem we have to be careful about with a natural disposition toward revolting against government authorities). And that love of the Second Table undoubtedly includes the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”, which is listed in verse nine. To live under the lawful leadership of our government is to live out the Law of God.
The Geneva Bible of Reformation times has some helpful notes on Romans 13:1-10. On verse one:
Now he distinctly shows what subjects owe to their magistrates, that is, obedience: from which he shows that no man is free: and the obedience we owe is such that it is not only due to the highest magistrate himself, but also even to the lowest, who has any office under him ... because God is author of this order: so that those who are rebels ought to know that they make war with God himself: and because of this they purchase for themselves great misery and calamity.
On verses two to three:
An excellent way to bear this yoke, not only without grief, but also with great profit ... they are to be most profitable: because God by this means preserves the good and bridles the wicked: by which words the magistrates themselves are put in mind of that duty which they owe to their subjects. [This is similar to the personal benefit of submitting to our elders and ministers in the sphere of Church authority per Hebrews 13:7, 17].
On verse five:
...we must obey the magistrate, not only for fear of punishment, but much more because (although the magistrate has no power over the conscience of man, yet seeing he is God's minister) he cannot be resisted by any good conscience.
On verse seven:
Obedience, and that from the heart. Reverence, which (as we have reason) we must give to the magistrate.
We deem this present pandemic that affects our religious sphere of life as primarily a civic one in which we need to defer to the authorities put in place by King Jesus over us in that sphere and trust their medical advisors know more than we do. As citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven we must be exemplary citizens of our State working peaceably with all men as far as we are able. We do not think it is required by King Jesus to rebel against our magistrates handling this pandemic on behalf of us all (perhaps we would be rebelling against Him if we did disobey them per Romans 13 notes above).
Having supplied Scriptural explanation of our present move to live webcasts for corporate covenanted worship at this time, we now offer confessional support. First, the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 23, “Of the Civil Magistrate”:
1. God the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates to be under Him, over the people, for His own glory, and the public good; and, to this end, hath armed them with the power of the sword, for the defence and encouragement of them that are good, and for the punishment of evil doers...
4. It is the duty of people to pray for magistrates, to honour their persons, to pay them tribute or other dues, to obey their lawful commands, and to be subject to their authority, for conscience sake. Infidelity, or difference in religion, doth not make void the magistrates' just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to them: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted...
Further, the Westminster Larger Catechism number 135 instructs us on what is required in the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”:
The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavours, to preserve the life of ourselves and others by ... avoiding all occasions ... which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any; by ... patient bearing of the hand of God, quietness of mind, cheerfulness of spirit; ... by charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behaviour; forbearance, ... and protecting and defending the innocent.
Is it not also worth remembering that much of Christ’s ministry was mercifully healing the sick based on compassion for them? It is hard to imagine that our Lord would later say, “Well done good and faithful servants” for having kept the physical church doors open (while we could have temporarily worshipped live online) and yet in so doing have permanently removed some of our brethren from ever rejoining us in physical congregation once things had subsided.
We are not just closing and going to our own private devotions. We are endeavoring to facilitate worship together as a covenanted church in fellowship with one another. We are not violating Hebrews 10:25. We are assembling in a manner that honors the spheres of Church and State both under the authority of Jesus Christ for such a time as this. As well, using our online webcasting service allows several of our more elderly people who do not use smart phones or computers and the internet to be able to call in on a landline and listen live. So this situation sets us up for better serving them when we are back in our building and they or others need to stay home while recovering from illness, injury, or operations. It actually involves more public worship with our covenanted community, not less.
Consider also how Paul says in Colossians 2:5 that he is absent in the body but present with the saints in the spirit. The Church is not a building but a group of believers. We are assembling together spiritually. While we are finite and limited God is not, and Hebrews 12:22ff says we enter into worship with the saints in heaven. We can be with one another in the Spirit with our spirits and the blessing of modern technology to tackle this modern problem with modern science. Let us be careful to avoid hagiography and anachronism for people of earlier days who would not have had our same modern knowledge about how germs spread nor our protection they might have taken advantage of if afforded the opportunity through today’s technology that also allows us to worship together spiritually while staying safe physically.
As well, consider that in Genesis, Joseph was used by God by Pharaoh in the civil sphere of life as an earthly authority to save many lives, especially His brethren and thus the Church. Yet his family moved from the Promised Land for a time to survive. And their survival of a seven-year famine sent from God involved fourteen years of heavy government intervention sent by God. Joseph was provided by God to intercede through the government and save many lives in the sphere of the State ultimately on behalf of the Church’s physical survival and continuation in the world.
Let us pray that this crisis will lead the Church and nations to repentance before God and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord—and that Christ would use what Satan means for evil for the good of them that love Him and add to the Church daily such as should be saved by securing their sanctified attention. And let us pray for God’s mercy on behalf of His Church and its growth and the glory of His name and covenant that a remedy for this coronavirus would soon be found, that we can soon return to our buildings to worship and our jobs to work (both creation mandates), and that all would thank Him for it through Christ.
And in the meantime, as we adjust our worship services with modern abilities to try and accommodate the efforts of our civil authorities seeking to save lives during this pandemic, let us have peace that we are submitting to God as we Submit to the Government Serving God to Save Lives.
Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Evangelical Church of America in San Diego, CA, since 2010. He and his wife, Fernanda, have five covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, Isaac, and Gabriel. He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.
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 Due to some resources forwarded to us by members to consider before our decision, which we did review, and other ongoing arguments against such a move that we continue to observe (though not directly toward us), we felt compelled to give a detailed explanation to our church and the greater Church.
 We qualified this with a note that we reserve the right to change based on what develops and settles over time.
 For the full sermon, visit https://blogs.lcms.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Plague-blogLW.pdf. I am indebted to one of our members, Mr. Mike Delgado, for making me aware of this resource.
 Christian Ecclesiastes, Question 109. I am again indebted to Mr. Mike Delgado for forwarding me this resource. Here is the longer section in full: “Quest. cix. May we omit church-assemblies on the Lord’s day, if the magistrate forbid them? Answ. 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. (4.) But if it be only some circumstances of assembling that are forbidden us, that is the next case to be resolved.” See The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, Volume 5: for a link to that complete work in digital form for free, scroll down to it on this webpage: http://digitalpuritan.net/richard-baxter/.
 Other important Scripture texts we must heed in this discussion are 1 Timothy 2:1-2; Titus 3:1-2; and 1 Peter 2:13-17.
 See Romans 12:18; 14:19; and Hebrews 12:14.
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism, number 68, reads: The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life, and the life of others. Along with Romans 13:1-10, the Sixth Commandment as explained by our catechisms is our main motivation to submit to our magistrates at this time. Visit our Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) series on Sermon Audio for the sermon on WLC 134-135 part 1, “Preserve and Save Lives”. In summary, Paul teaches by implication in Ephesians 5:28-29 that all human life is precious and to be protected. To not murder is more than omission. It is preservation.
 All this of course points to Jesus Christ Who was appointed and sent by God to save many lives eternally as our eternal Governor.
 To listen to our recorded webcast service with this sermon, visit https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=322201914365622