As the second anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic approaches, many of us wonder if there will ever be a “pre-COVID” return to normal. While the virus continues to claim lives to this day, despite the recent increase in cases due to the Omicron variant, it is much less threatening and deadly than it was when it started.
With over 60% of the population now fully vaccinated against it – not to mention its death rate in the United States is almost as low like that of the seasonal flu – it seems irrational to continue living in endless fear. Life has to go on at some point.
Unfortunately, our government seems to disagree.
It looks like the new agenda is to keep this pandemic going indefinitely – whether here in the United States or in many other places around the world. More recently, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky to have a reference to, very subtly, to keep the mask mandates as a permanent feature of everyday life. Vaccine mandates are now imposed not only on private companies but on schoolchildren. The mask warrants return, panic sets in and the “new normal” seems to be tending towards a permanent state of pandemonium. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
As Christians, how should we engage in such government actions? What is the good answer ?
The ultimate proof text: Romans 13
Without a doubt, Romans 13 was the passage most often cited in this discussion. This is by far one of the clearest teachings in scripture about the role of government in the life of a Christian. Paul exhorts the church in Rome to “be subject to the governing authorities,” since they have been “instituted by God” himself (Romans 13: 1, ESV). The obvious conclusion of this text is that citizens – Christian or not – must be subject to government authorities. If God is the one who establishes them, it is no longer a political matter but a spiritual one. After all, “… those who resist [the authorities] will incur judgment ”(Romans 12: 2).
The Christian’s default position towards God-ordained authorities is one of obedience and respect, not of rebellion and conflict.
Of course, everyone agrees that there must be some obvious exceptions to this rule. If the government forces us to do what is a gross violation of moral law, or to ignore clear biblical mandates, we are obligatory to disobey him. No exceptions.
For example, if the president orders us not to preach the gospel, we have no choice but to disobey him. As Peter famously replied to the Sanhedrin in Acts, “We are to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
However, our situation becomes more delicate when we consider other factors. When it comes to COVID, the truth is that some public health measures like mask wear, social distancing, and vaccination mandates are morally ambiguous. These measures are not explicitly prohibited in the Bible, nor is obedience to such mandates an explicit sin.
For this reason, many prominent voices within the evangelical world say that in such a case Romans 13 leaves us with no choice but to obey our government, no matter how inconvenient such measures may be, ridiculous and even overbearing. We are to yield and obey the government in all matters except when it explicitly tells us to disregard the law of God.
But is the scope of Romans 13 really that narrow?
Without the larger context, we are doomed to end up with nonsense. If the government tells us to wear pink caps or jump on one leg in the shrine, are we obligated to comply? After all, such a hypothetical rule is technically not a sin. There is no explicit biblical command that prohibits the wearing of pink caps during worship. And yet we recognize the absurdity of any church that simply follows such arbitrary and capricious laws.
What the text actually says
First, Paul qualifies his statements in this passage very carefully. He assumes that the authorities in question are pursuing good and punishing evil: “For rulers are not a terror for good behavior, corn so bad. Would you not be afraid of the one in authority? So do what is Well, and you will receive his approval, for he is the servant of God for your good(Romans 13: 3-4).
The question is, what happens when the government reverses the scenario? If he starts promoting tyrannical and erratic laws as “good”, does he retain his authority in this case?
The mistake many make is to assume that the government can define what is “good” as it sees fit. But the text says nothing about the civilian government having this prerogative. The government is a “servant of God” (Romans 13: 4), not a special church council. And like any servant, he operates within the parameters that God sets. It is not giving the government free rein to do so; His law revealed in the scriptures is what defines good as well as evil.
And at this point, it’s hard to see how the current overbreadth is really “for our good”.
We now know that despite the media hysteria, the Omicron variant is almost indistinguishable from a cold. Long term The data, as good as studies after studies, show that mask warrants simply do not achieve the intended purpose. Not only that, but the vaccines available are known to be 93% efficient against hospitalization and death. Most of the population is now either vaccinated or naturally immunized after contracting the virus, and the vaccine does not do much in terms of stop its spread. If we haven’t learned that yet, COVID is here to stay.
So what is the point of continuing with the even exactly policies two years later with no discernible end in sight? It is irrational in the extreme. None of these measures can be described as “for our good” any longer.
This means that the authorities can no more tell me to wear a piece of cloth on my face than they can tell me to wear a tweed jacket on Tuesday. The government is established to uphold justice and punish “the evildoer” (Romans 13: 4); not to act as capriciously as he sees fit.
Second, the Church retains her authority in her own sphere of sovereignty. Christ is the head of the Church (Ephesians 1:22) – not civil magistrates. This means that the administration of Church policy is given by God to the Church. And enforcing vaccination warrants, masks and social distancing for no good reason is an unwarranted intrusion into the authority of the Church itself.
Not only that, but these public health measures effectively stifle the close fellowship that believers are urged to pursue with one another (2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26). These measures are not without consequences. They affect the relationships and the life of the church in tangible ways. No one can claim otherwise.
And let’s not forget that government is not some kind of high school seniors council or parish council. When it interferes with the affairs of the Church, the Church is not obligated to comply with every wish of the Church. There is nothing in Romans 13 that would even remotely suggest this.
With all that said …
Each local church has the right to pursue its own course of action in a way that honors God and meets the needs of its members. Not everyone reacted the same way to the pandemic. Navigating these new challenges has been difficult and unprecedented for everyone. Ultimately, these things are a matter of prudence and wisdom.
The only problem is when we read in Romans 13 some assumptions about the power of government that the scriptures never intended to communicate. God is definitely honored when we submit to earthly authority. Let’s do it wisely; not blindly.
Daniel Vaida is associate opinion editor at the Christian Post in Washington, DC