The Church and Lawful Commands
In chapter 23 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, we confess in Para. 4 that one aspect of our duty toward the civil magistrates is “to obey their lawful commands.” This is in addition to praying for them, honoring their persons, paying our taxes, and being subject to their authority. Of interest to us in our atheistic, statist context are these words: “Infidelity or indifference in religion doth not make void the magistrate’s just and legal authority, nor free the people from their due obedience to him: from which ecclesiastical persons are not exempted.” This last, interesting phrase condemns the common subterfuge of priests and prelates to be exempt from the jurisdiction and penalties of civil laws.
The Reformed faith has thus codified careful, intelligent respect for civil government, even unbelieving civil government. God has instituted governments among men, and we recognize in them his authority over us, whether or not they recognize God’s authority over them. This confession is remarkable for its gospel spirit of forbearance in our spiritual fathers. They were persecuted for their doctrine and worship, but when God liberated and gave them space to write their confessions, they did not reject civil government but placed it upon a biblically defined and limited footing, encouraging submission to it.
The peoples and nations that have been most influenced by the Reformation have enjoyed greater civil and religious liberty than those still in heathen blindness or that held fast to the Roman harlot. Careful has been our spiritual fathers’ confession that our civil and religious liberties originate with God and are not bequeathed by man and his governments. The civil government has its rightful authority and is due respect, but it is not an unlimited authority and must endeavor to be a “nursing father and mother” to the church. Any civil government and people that desire to be blessed must yield allegiance to Jesus Christ, protect his church, and rule by his law. Neither the Bible, our Lord Jesus Christ, nor his apostles, and certainly not our Confession, give any credence to political polytheism, which will result in political despotism and the end of civil and religious liberty.
It is the word “lawful” in Para. 4 to which I turn your attention. “Lawful” assumes that not everything commanded by the civil magistrate is good, just, or binding. He can command things that are against God’s law, and are therefore unlawful; he can command things against existing civil law, which is also unlawful. Very often, the civil magistrate exceeds his appropriate bounds, walking into Naboth’s vineyard and stealing it. There are limits to the authority of the civil government. Modern secularism does not recognize this, for it has divinized the state. If there is a problem, the state can fix it; if there is a crisis, the state should regulate it. Biblical religion, however, recognizes a law higher than any state, and this has been confessed by all believers from earliest times: Moses’ parents and the Hebrew midwives, Daniel and his three friends, Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, the apostles of Jesus Christ, and believers throughout the two millennia since our Lord’s glorious resurrection and ascension to rule over all. “We ought to obey God, rather than men” (Acts 5:29). When the laws of men truly conflict with God’s revealed will in Scripture, we must obey God. A true conflict exists when civil governments command us to do something that requires our disobedience to God. In our statist environment, to speak of civil government having limited power, much more to say that not all man’s commands are lawful, requires a little explanation. Let us consult the standard writers on “lawful.”
A.A. Hodge on WCF, Ch. 23, Sects. 3-4: “The limit of this obligation to obedience will be found only when we are commanded to do something contrary to the supreme authority of God (Acts iv. 19; v. 29); or when the civil government has become so radically and incurably corrupt that it has ceased to accomplish the ends for which it was established. When that point that unquestionably been reached, when all means of redress have been exhausted without avail; when there appears no prospect of securing reform in the government itself, and some good prospect of securing it by a revolution, then it is the privilege and duty of a Christian people to change their government – peacefully if the may; forcibly if they must” (The Confession of Faith, p. 299).
Francis Beattie, in The Presbyterian Standards, comments about this conflict: “But cases may arise where the civil magistrate, either on civil or religious grounds, acts in an unjust manner, and even oppresses the people. In such a case, when every other means to secure relief has been exhausted, and when the civil magistrate, being very corrupt, commands what is contrary to the will and authority of God, resistance by arms on the part of the people may be just. In such a case the civil magistrate has really forfeited the end for which civil government is instituted; and so, when the people are not able to mend the government, they may virtually end it” (p. 378).
In more recent times, G.I. Williamson has commented on this section of our Confession: “Yet to assert that civil authority is of divine origin is not to say that it is unlimited. All divinely-constituted authority in human affairs is limited by divine statute…As long as a civil government is content to restrain and to punish crime and violence, protecting the good and punishing the evil, the Christian must support, pray for, and honor that government. But when that government punishes the righteous, and rewards the evil, becoming militaristic and bent upon aggression, it is the duty of Christians to resist that power because it subverts the ordinance of God. It is without doubt difficult in many cases to determine precisely when and to what extent a Christian must resist a particular civil government. We do not seek to make it appear simple. But certain principles are very clear, and, if rightly applied, will enable one to make the proper decision in a given instance. (1) We ought always to obey the ‘lawful commands” of our government. We are in any and every instance ‘to be ready to every good work’ (Titus 3:1). (2) We must always obey God rather than man when there is a conflict between the two (Acts 5:29). ‘We must obey God rather than men.’ (3) We may resist actively as well as passively if that be necessary to obedience to God. When a civil authority becomes a terror to good works rather than evil, we believe that Christians have the right of self-defense (of life and property) by sanction of law (Ps. 82:4; Prov. 24:11,12)” (The Westminster Confession of Faith, pp. 241-242).
Three more respectable Presbyterians would be hard to assemble, and they are unified on several principles. Civil governments are God’s ministers for justice and righteousness. They have a real and ministerial authority, but not an absolute authority. Nor is the authority of the state supreme over the other spheres of authority in home and church, but all spheres should seek to be under God’s law and mutually uphold one another in their respective duties. Christians should give respect to whom respect is due, and this includes the civil government. Civil governments, however, can become corrupt, and in cases of true conflict with our revealed duty to God, must be disobeyed in order for us to obey God and to uphold a legitimate view of civil government. Even while we disobey, we may honor the king for his office’s sake and for the God whom he should serve.
I bring these truths to your attention because their relevance presses sharply. While a civil government may request, advise, and in cases of urgent necessity (war, fire, pestilence) even command the closure of businesses and churches (see Richard Baxter in his Christian Directory – Part 3, Quest. 109), believers, pastors, and churches should not unthinkingly or easily give up what we know to be a divinely revealed duty of our religion, necessary to our spiritual wellbeing and the public honor of God – to meet for corporate worship (Heb. 10:24-25). When the powers that be confess that the perceived threat is not as great as it was originally thought, when the most vulnerable to illness may be protected without imprisoning an entire country, when working men are forbidden to earn their daily bread but required to seek it from the paternalistic hand of a messianic state, when the crisis appears to be increasingly manipulated for political ends, we should return to our first principles: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
“Lawful” commands means that other legitimate authority spheres in home and church must take into consideration that preserving health is not our only duty, or even necessarily the most important duty that we have. Have we become so obsessed with protecting our own health and that of others that we cannot truly love them? Is isolation love? Is leaving the elderly and sick to die alone truly love? A better love was shown in former days, but there was less fear of death then. Removing God from the room, secularism has not matured but released ghosts from every dark corner and enslaved men to a Legion of fears and psychoses. Let us say that this virus is the modern equivalent of the bubonic plague – which it is not. But if it were, I would still say that it would be more lawful to spend time ministering to the sick and worshipping the Lord than huddling in one’s own room. And when I stand before the Savior, shall I say to him, “Well, I died trying to save myself and to conquer a virus?” It would be far preferable that I should confess, “Lord, I died ministering to the sick in your name.”
Which brings us back to the authority of the civil magistrate – is it absolute? Is there an ethical one size fits all, so that rates of infection in New York should be turned into graphs and prognostications, formed of course by fallible men, then imposed upon the rest of the country? There may be very good (bad) reasons that New York has been heavily hit, and those same reasons may not apply to the bulk of the country. A wise magistrate would take this into consideration, allow the rest of the country to work, and then perhaps they would more of a mind to support with American generosity a sick region of our body politic – rather than shutting everything down and creating unrest everywhere.
Which leads to another ethical consideration of much more serious implications than this particular virus – is there a time when actively committed eighth commandment crimes take precedence over possible sixth commandment tragedies, i.e., more deaths? We have just robbed the national treasury, which only had moths and IOUs in it. It was like we were bleeding profusely from a main artery, and the solution was to yank out the artery – print more money in the form of stimulus, guarantee universal basic income. And why? Because working men are told they cannot earn their living and whole industries were shut down. What if a man would prefer to work rather than starve in his home and receive a government check? This is where biblical religion and present political realities jarringly clash. The Bible says, “If a man will not work, neither shall he eat,” but our civil government has just told millions of men that they may not work because of possible spread of a virus whose mortality rate has been so radically downgraded from initial reports as to be of very little comparative threat to starvation or political subjugation for hundreds of millions. But we as a people have assumed that government should pick up the tab for everything – school loans, airlines, lost wages, old age income – you name it. It is called wealth redistribution, which is theft in the best of times, but what if there is no wealth to steal? It is called “creating something out of nothing,” which only God can do. But this is our national government and most world governments. Far worse than any virus is that they suffer from the millennia-old virus of emperor worship and statism – we will feed you. Trust us. But God gives our daily bread, not man.
But people are dying with or from this virus, and we are told we should do all we can to prevent it and conquer the virus. What else can we do? We have already ruined or radically altered our economy for generations to come. We have told 350 million people in our country to stay at home unless they are essential, as defined by government officials. Let us by all means care for the elderly, but let that mean not isolation from families and friends, but a loving recognition that the body is not everything. Love is laying down my life for others, and if necessary dying to care for them, not preserving my life at all costs. No secularist can admit this, for then his entire system must come crashing down in an instant. Yes, there is a soul also, and often bodies get better when their soul is healed. There is a mysterious but certain symbiotic relationship between man’s created aspects. The Christian faith ministers to body and soul, but modern medicine pretends there is no soul. But we in the church are supposed to accept that men who completely ignore the immortal aspect of man’s nature are able to tell the church what she can and cannot do in times of supposed crisis? We should at least pause before we agree to take this quietly, for the honor of the Creator of the world is at stake, and humble Christians are his only earthly defenders.
Well, all this may be true, you say, but still should we not wait a couple more weeks or months. How about mid-May? Mid-June? I for one believe we should simply obey and trust God. In a month, more crises, justifications, and extensions are as likely as not. There are so few bold and believing men in places of public trust now, at least not at the national level, who are willing to lose the next election or their jobs to speak the truth. Few are willing to go against the social media police and screaming special interests, so local churches, pastors, and elders are all that is left. I am no maverick, am willing to listen to all godly counsel, and do not believe I know more than doctors. I do believe that most of our experts see only one side of this issue, do not understand Christian and Biblical ethics with its wise hierarchy of duties, and above all, must be seen to share in the general public fear and concern, lest they be lampooned as unfeeling. If we really love men, let us do what we can to minister to their souls and get them worshipping again. Let us give them hope there is a King in Zion, the Lord Jesus Christ, and that his gospel is the most essential thing in the world, more essential than bodily health, face masks, stimulus checks, and internet entertainment.
Understand that I write this knowing that many are in seasons of life and bodily circumstances in which health threats of this kind are not theoretical. Toward them, I can honestly say that I have the deepest compassion, pray earnestly and with tears for your situation, comfort, and courage, and would advise you to take wise precaution to preserve yourself and others. This is a duty we all have, but it is not the only duty. There is another duty, one that is most difficult to practice in these times. Our Lord summarized it: “It is I; be not afraid.” Hundreds of time in Scripture we are commanded not to be afraid. Fight against fear, child of God. Virus or no virus, you will not die one day before the full tally of your days is lived out before God’s face. One of the best ways to overcome fear is to keep your mind upon the love of God in Christ, believe that nothing can separate you from his love, trust that your death as a believer will be for you a chariot into the loving arms of Jesus Christ, and that it is far better to spend your life laboring for the Master than huddling in fear. Then, committing your ways to the Lord and delighting in him, move forward in the path of duty, where you will find Jesus Christ at the head of the path, encouraging you forward, sharing with you his joy in doing his Father’s will.