When it comes to the question of when we should or should not obey civil authorities, our default must be obedience (Rom 13:1). That said, we live in a complex world in which we also must not do evil. To make sense of this complexity, I propose that we use these four distinctions to guide our moral reasoning for when we should follow the default of obedience and when we might need to disobey an evil requirement.
- Obeying civil authorities is good.
- Civil authorities can require good, or neutral actions. We should obey.
- Civil authorities can themselves do evil structurally, which we should lobby against.
- Civil authorities can require us to do evil, which we should resist.
The first two propositions seem straightforward. The third may need further explanation. Basically, the government may authorize physician-assisted dying. Christians disagree, and so we lobby and persuade people and MPs against furthering laws to make assisted death easier. The same is true about abortion.
If we believe suicide, abortion, and a host of other issues are wrong, then why do we not lead a revolt? The answer is because we work within the hierarchies of authority that God provides. We resist legally by lobbying against such things and persuading those against such things.
The fourth may need explanation too. If the Prime Minister mandates that we murder our neighbour, we say no. We commit civil resistance or disobedience. He requires us to do evil. This is category 4.
If the Prime Minister allows for abortion, we also say no but there is no civil disobedience since we do not rebel or blow up hospitals or what have you. This is category 3.
In my estimation, we are in category 2 during the pandemic. Since God commands us to obey the magistrates, we must do so unless they require us to do evil. Temporary restrictions on gathering does not exclude us from this command, in my view. We are not required to do evil but follow civil authorities.
We can still make our voice known. Argue for greater freedoms. Pursue legal actions. There is much we can do still here.
Perhaps we could say civil authorities dip into category three if they unfairly target churches. That would be a structural evil. We could and should lobby against the government then. But God commands us still to obey even governments that are inconsistent.
Scripture commands us to worship God together. It also commands that we must obey the authorities. Since civil authorities exist within God’s hierarchy in the Cosmos, then it stands to reason that the physical churches on earth exist within such hierarchies, which is exactly what Paul and Peter say (Rom 13; 1 Pet 2).
We as sojourners and exiles in a foreign country follow the rules of that country. Hence, Jeremiah sent the Word of Yahweh through the Babylonian government to Israel in exile (Jer 29). He used legal channels because Israel in exile lived under a hierarchy on earth. So do we.