Over the past year, Christians had to answer tough questions regarding their relationship to the government. Here, I want to answer some frequently asked questions (and questions that should be frequently asked) like: can the government tell the church what to do? Do we need to obey unjust governments? Can we obey Christ and the government? When do we need to say “no” and disobey an authority?
In this article, I offer patterns of thinking to answer such questions. I do so from the perspective of early reformed teaching on what the Bible says, and so I do not represent other viewpoints than the one noted.
With that caveat, here is the FAQ:
How do Christians generally relate to earthly authorities?
1. All people live under the government of humankind; only Christians serve under the government of Christ which begins in our spirit and works its way outward.
2. Since all of us live within the first government, we have duties to it: Jesus suffers death from it; Paul submits both to the religious and political powers that crucified Jesus, even repenting of insulting Ananias the High Priest. When confronted, Paul says, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people” (Acts 23:5).
When Scripture commands that you speak well of a religious body that helped crucify the Messiah, then you do.
Paul showed the same respect for the Romans. He went to Jail for 2 years and God honoured that with the Gospel spreading like wild-fire. To be too obvious, Paul was quarantined for 2 years but the Gospel was not.
Do earthly authorities have authority among congregations?
3. God gives the earthly government authority over all of us, Christians or not, as Romans 13 says. They can arrest you. They can punish you for evil. They can even use their civil powers for weal or woe against certain outward forms of Christian activity. A sin like theft falls to the civil magistrate to punish, even though it is a sin within a Christian body (if someone steals the offering, for example).
4. Christians are nevertheless free to pray, to preach, to commune with God, to worship according to the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, and more besides. No earthly power can prevent us from being forgiven or united to Christ even if they may tell us what roads we can drive on or not.
Do earthly authorities have authority among individuals?
5. As individuals, we cannot actively disobey civil laws like speeding, parking lots rules, or even being, say, 4 feet apart from someone when you can be 6 feet apart. I know that this is rarely possible. But you get my point. We may individually dislike this stuff-I do. But we should do our best to “be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Rom 13:5).
Should Christians submit to unjust authority?
6. The Bible tells us to submit to unjust authorities as Peter does in 1 Peter 2:13–17. John Calvin and the magisterial reformers as well see this as a must; no one can be perfectly just in this life. The opposite perspective may lead to anarchy. See Martin Luther’s thoughts on this in his 1525 treatises!
7. Any belief that the church forms a bubble that is free from the state incorrectly understands God’s ordination of the magistrate. Authorities organize our life here below. They cannot control our spiritual, regeneration, nor our freedom to love, nor our freedom to pray, etc. These belong to the kingdom of Christ. But while we live in the flesh, God protects us against anarchy through the state—even states we disagree with.
What about Nazi Germany?
8. Whataboutism says: what about the Nazis?! Whenever the most extreme example is cited to make sense of a lesser situation, then something runs amiss. Insiders in the Nazi regime, to the best of my knowledge, tried to kill Hitler because he became unhinged (or always was or whatever). I suppose this might be the lesser Magistrate doing his duty. I leave that to the historians. But the point here is: of course, you would not actively obey an evil command to murder or whatnot. Whataboutism here sidetracks us because it casts the real issues into a hypothetical.
9. Our Canadian government according to its Charter may restrict our freedoms; we are well within our rights to resist the magistrate by writing, pleading, working to expand our freedoms. If they infringe our freedom, we have a mechanism a la the lesser magistrate to regain those freedoms.
When should we disobey an authority?
10. When the earthly government tells you to worship an idol or actively do evil, you don’t. Passive evil happens like abortion. We don’t storm the Parliament but we resist through appealing with our votes and letters and whatever else to the state.
What theology of resistance do Christians have?
11. The doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate respects God’s hierarchies by encouraging us to either become magistrates (MPPs) to appeal to higher magistrates (Premiers) or to appeal to lower magistrates to hold higher magistrates accountable for their actions.
How should individuals resist an authority?
12. Any belief that individuals ought to resist violently or actively against the state because of personal disagreement misunderstands that “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed” (Rom 13:2).
13. Individuals should instead use the doctrine of the lesser magistrate to resist authority as noted above. Obvious exceptions will include: times of anarchy, etc. These exceptions prove the rule.
How should churches resist an authority?
14. As churches, we have Charter Rights and MPPs/MLAs through which we can work to pursue our resistance.
Should churches resist authority during COVID-19?
15. Churches should resist according to legal means and according to the teaching of the lesser magistrate before engaging in direct disobedience.
16. As churches during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have legal options to meet in small groups to visit those with mental health issues (an exception allowable, I believe), to meet in most Provinces even with small numbers.
17. Scripture does not require us to meet on Sunday.
18. Scripture does not require us to meet in a large group.
20. Scripture does require us to meet to worship. But that could be in a small group on Tuesday.
21. That might mean, according to your ecclesiology, that you church plant in groups of ten in Ontario or groups of 15% of capacity in Alberta. I do not hold to this ecclesial conviction myself, assuming that the Spiritual body of Christ sojourning in a local place can meet in various ways over many services if the need be (this is not ideal though).
How should individuals and churches treat an authority even if resisting it?
22. We must never threaten or speak ill of the Offices of the government. The individual perhaps, the policy perhaps. As noted, Paul repents when he does so to Ananias the high priest. Jesus calls Herod a fox, but he is also the Personal union of God and man and “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Minimally, be wary of letting our anger let us insult the Office of an official. As Paul notes in Titus 3, “show perfect courtesy to all people.”
Should the government impose Old Covenant laws on its citizenry?
23. The Old Covenant laws apply to us not under the Old Covenant but under the New Covenant. So it is a tutor, not a legislation for us to impose. That said, the Ten Commandments represent God’s eternal law (here expressed via natural law, law observed in nature). These are therefore applicable in different contexts. Murder is always wrong, for example.
Can Christians be anti-government as a general rule?
24. Being against the state as such is to be against God as such: “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed” (Rom 13:2). Anarchy is worse than an overbearing government.
25. It is not theft for governments to levy taxes nor must we violently resist the use of our tax money if we disagree with the government. We should resist according to the doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate.
Does two-kingdom theology downplay our earthly duties?
26. Two government or kingdom teaching does not make Christianity gnostic. All people, Christian or not, must submit to the earthly government as God has ordained it to be so (see Calvin Inst. 4.20). All Christians are justified in Spirit and able to obey the government of Christ freely due to that. This government has implications for living in this world and minimally means that we can freely obey God’s eternal law via his natural law without compulsion.
27. Humans are irreducible wholes of body and soul. But the flesh, due to the Fall, vies against the mind (nous) as Romans 7 says. Hence, Christian freedom (see Luther’s 1520 treatise or Calvin’s Inst. 3.19) means we must bring our flesh into subjection to the spirit, or mind, or soul, or what have you. Applied to the earthly kingdom, we all must not allow the passions of our flesh to control our response to even unjust earthly governments. We must submit our bodies to our governing authorities as is right to do: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (1 Pet 2:13).
Can we reasonably think that we can persuade governments to do good?
28. Paul argues that God appoints authorities to do good and punish evil (Rom 13:1–7). They act, to use Calvin’s language, as God’s deputies on earth. So there is good reason to believe that natural law through God’s common grace will allow magistrates to be able to make just decisions or change to a more just course of action. Philip Melanchthon calls this civil good, which is possible for all people to achieve; it is not moral or spiritual good which is impossible for all people to achieve apart from Christ. Everyone can make a good civil decision (how to make a safe road, etc.).
29. Natural law is the mechanism for the common good within the earthly kingdom. We can persuade our leaders by natural law because that law guides (or should guide) the earthly kingdom.
30. A governor who submits to both kingdoms explicitly will or should be the best magistrate because he or she submits to natural law internally and out of a Spiritual regeneration.
What about my other questions?
At the end of the day, some matters do not have a straightforward answer. Prayer, patience, and kindness are required.
I, for example, sympathize with those who have chosen to directly disobey Provincial mandates during this Pandemic. While I do not personally agree with these actions, my plea on these matters, even where we disagree and never will agree, is to remember that our unity centres on the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.
In September 2025 (or whenever), do we really want to have our teeth set against each other over how we responded to COVID-19? I don’t.