The edict from the government for all except essential workers to remain self-isolated covers everyone including churches and street preachers. For us all to remain in our own homes until further notice. I’ve seen comments on social media and elsewhere by Christians suggesting that Christians should not obey this order. They quote the apostle Peter (Acts 5:29), out of context, to justify such resistance. I have since the edict was issued ceased from my evangelistic work on the streets. I know of two men who have insisted on continuing with preaching on the streets. Both have been apprehended by the police authorities and fined. It is my understanding from the word of God that both of these men were in disobedience not only to the state but to God himself. What follows in this article is my justification not only for saying that but for my own cessation of street activities. Whether it be churches gathering for worship or individuals who would normally be involved in street ministry, their place is to obey the “higher powers” i.e., civil authority. Any disobedience to this would endanger human life, contrary to God’s sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13). It would also rightly incur a penalty from the state, i.e., via the police. Also what ought to trouble them most perhaps, is that they would incur the wrath of God (Romans 13:1-5). The two men I have mentioned, I think it should be noted are not under any church authority, therefore, no charge should be laid against the church as a result of their actives. The following will perhaps explain the Christian position on this matter.
In Romans 13:1-7 the Apostle Paul instructs us on how we are to live in the secular realm, under authority to the state. We are to be good and responsible citizens within the nation-state where God has providentially placed us. When we make the claim that Jesus Christ is our Lord that means that he has the right to rule over us, to command us to be good citizens. It means also an end to resistance to the state’s authority. Why, because their authority comes from God, divinely instituted. The word power means authority, the right to command, expecting obedience, the right to impose its will upon others.
There are of course layers to the state’s authority. The home, the school, the employer, the police, the church and so on. The state is God’s minister for justice (v4). It has a sword for that purpose. Even though a majority seeks to resist the civil authorities, that does not make it right. The authority is from God who confers authority as he wills. If God has vested his authority in the state, as Christians we are bound to submit to their authority which is limited only by God. Their authority stops at the door of the church. The church is ruled by Jesus Christ, he is its head and its King. So for us to resist the powers of the state, right down through all its layers, is disobedience to God.
What about the attitude of resistance? Well, we’re not just fighting against men, but against God himself. We’re taking the sword into our own hand. The command is to obey. What if the state is evil, corrupt? The command still stands.
What of the objection that, “Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29)?
Here we must look at the context. “But the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors, and brought them forth, and said, Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:19-20). The apostles were commanded by an angel to go and preach in the temple area. But it was not the state, i.e., the Roman government who were forbidding them, it was the Jews, the Sanhedrin Council, who had no authority to stop them from preaching the gospel. The apostles were not resisting the state. If you do resist the state, be terrified, says the apostle Paul (v3).
The world is full of wicked, evil men. The state is authorised by God to check and punish their evil, and to protect their citizens. Ah, you say but they don’t do that? Well, they will give account to God for their misdeeds, eg in not imposing the sword, i.e., the death penalty for murderers (v4; Genesis 9:6). What about when the state alters God’s institution of marriage? What of the Herods, the Neros, the Hitlers? Well again they have God to deal with, they will appear before the judgment throne of God. For us as Christians, as much as is in us to do, we submit to the God instituted authority. Even a dying murderer and thief recognised this principle, “But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss” (Luke 23:40-41). So the Christian’s attitude is to be a spiritual one. I do not just obey the speed limit because I see a policeman, but for conscience sake (v5). Is not Christ our Lord our example in everything? Did he not stand before the magistrate, subjecting himself to their ordinance, bearing their sword (1 Peter 2:21-23)?
What of our present circumstances? First of all, the state is not coming against the churches, Christians. The isolation measures, i.e., the lockdown is imposed upon all its citizens, not just Christians. Why would or should we be exempt? Now we may not agree with their policy, how they are handling the crisis, in our free country we are allowed to have our opinions on what they do. But whether we agree or not, what they are doing is not for evil, but for good. They are in this instance fulfilling their God-given mandate to protect their citizens. They are endeavouring to keep as many of us as safe as possible, to stop the spread of the disease. We say that the situation is unprecedented, well in my lifetime certainly. But we have had plagues in this country before when churches were closed, Christians not able to gather. So are we to resist these measures? What kind of testimony would that be, I ask? Everyone else is bending over backwards to try to hinder the spread of the virus, but some Christians are just doing their own thing, and spreading it regardless by continuing street preaching! The reality is people are dying. A lot of people. No, we’re to act as intelligent, mature Christian citizens, even lead by example. Are we not commanded not to kill? That also means doing our utmost to preserve human life.
So for us as Christians, it is a time for deep reflection, for questions. Why has God in his providence brought this upon us? What is he saying to the world? What is he saying to our nation and to the church? What is he saying to me? It is time to prepare ourselves so that we come out of this lockdown, hopefully, as better people, equipped to minister to the many people who will be seriously affected by the aftermath, which promises to be worse than the disease. May the Lord grant us, his people, sanctifying grace, to be quiet and submissive in his presence to his ordinance. “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour” (Romans 13:7).
The entire message can be found here:
(© James R Hamilton, written April 2020)