The Covid-19 Shutdown of 2020 has begun to produce a reaction, at least in the USA. Recently we have seen large-scale demonstrations in several states. The various orders issued by governors, mayors, and county executives to restrict movement has produced a degree of confusion. Last last week, in reaction to the number of people on the beaches in Orange County, the governor of California seemed to issue an order closing all the beaches in the state. Then, according to media reports, that order was modified to affect only Orange County. The early instructions from public health authorities gave the impression that they had the force of law but our county only started requiring the wearing of masks in public when within six feet of a non-family member, on May 1. In Louisville, KY, the mayor sought to forbid churches to gather in any form whatever on Easter, even going so far as to forbid drive-in services where people remained in their cars. Fortunately, a federal court overturned that rule and rebuked not only the mayor but also the governor for his plans.
In response to such restrictions and in the midst of a seemingly growing wave of distrust and even suspicion about the motives of some officials and orders, some Christians have begun to discuss and even to begin practicing civil disobedience of orders restricting gatherings for public worship. E.g., the elders in at least one congregation in my federation of churches (the United Reformed Churches in North America) have decided to hold services today, Sunday May 3, 2020 despite the prohibitions in place in their state. This is civil disobedience, which the Oxford Dictionary of English defines as “the refusal to comply with certain laws considered unjust, as a peaceful form of political protest.”
Civil disobedience has a long and honored history in this country. Recall that this nation began to be formed in the midst of acts of civil disobedience (the Boston Tea Party was 3 years before the Revolution formally began). In the 20th century Dr King led a non-violent movement that made its point by civil disobedience. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, that was an act of civil disobedience. It seems beyond arguing that civil disobedience is woven into the very fabric of this revolutionary republic.
The questions before Christians are these: May Christians practice civil disobedience and, if so, when?
Peter’s Context And Ours
God’s Word does speak to this question in a couple of ways. First, generally, it describes our twofold citizenship. The Apostle Paul reminded the Philippian congregation, which was probably composed of retirees with Roman civil and military service that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). Yet, when Paul was unjustly treated after his arrest in Ephesus, declared, “I am a citizen by birth” (Acts 22:28). We can see the power of that statement in the next verse: “So those who were about to examine him withdrew immediately, and the tribune was also afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.” Paul knew exactly what he was doing. Are Philippians 3:20 and Acts 2:28 incoherent? By no means (μὴ γένοιτο). John Calvin (1509–64) reconciled these two truths by explaining that Christians have a twofold citizenship or that we live under a “twofold government” (duplex regimen). God is Lord over both cities or spheres and citizenships but he administers them in two distinct ways.
More particularly, we see Peter exercising his twofold citizenship in Acts 5. The literary (in the narrative of Acts 5) and historical context, we have just seen the Holy Spirit put to death two people, Ananias and Sapphira, for lying to him. It was a dramatic, supernatural, and swift act of (Apostolic era) church discipline. It cause a godly fear in the whole church (Acts 5:11). The Apostles were continuing their unique, divinely authorized, and uniquely, divinely-empowered ministry including signs and wonders (Acts 5:12–16). This ministry, however, did not please the Jewish religious-civil authorities. The High Priest had the apostles arrested and imprisoned (Acts 5:18). The Angel of the Lord, however, rescued them and sent them out to continue the proclamation of the gospel (Acts 5:19–21).
When the Jewish authorities attempted to arraign the apostles they could not find them right away (Acts 5:22–26) and when they were located and brought before the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas, the High Priest interrogated them (v. 27). “…We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (v. 28; ESV). To this the Apostle Peter and the others replied, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:29–32; ESV).
We Christians have a dual citizenship but when our loyalties conflict we prioritize our heavenly citizenship over our earthly citizenship. This is how the early Christians responded when, refusing to distinguish between secular citizenship and state-religion, the pagan Romans required not only that the Christians obey the secular laws but also that they perform, if only outwardly, the expected rites of the state-religion. The Romans required the Christians to confess that Caesar is a god, to renounce Christ, and to pour out a drink offering to the gods. They authorities did not care what the Christians believed. They only demanded outward conformity. Would that the new pagans were a little less zealous about their orthodoxies.
Some congregations now find themselves compelled to follow the Apostles by saying, “We must obey God rather than men.” Are they right? Do the parallels hold?
The Jewish authorities sought to silence the Christians. To the best of my knowledge, none of the public health orders that restrict the gathering of congregations during the emergency, forbids Christians from proclaiming the law and the gospel. Christians continue to exercise their freedom of speech electronically. With the help of a federal district court, the Louisville, KY congregation was able to hold their drive-in service. Some congregations in California, which is under some of the strictest quarantine restrictions in the nation, are able to meet in drive-in services.
Depriving American citizens of the right to assemble and to practice their religion is a serious infringement on liberties that Americans hold to be divinely given. In the American system of government it is the role of government to uphold and defend those divinely-instituted liberties. Thus, when local magistrates forbid the exercise of assembly, whether secular (e.g., a protest against the restrictions) or religious (e.g., public worship) and some magistrates have not expressed their great displeasure over limiting the exercise of liberty, thus provoking the distrust of authority that is so natural to Americans. Nevertheless, it does not appear that Christians are being targeted because of their religion. The Apostles were targeted because of their religion.
The restrictions imposed by the Jewish authorities were not temporary nor were they issued in view of a grave danger to public health. Our secular authorities have justified their restrictions not on a religious basis but on the basis of public health. Christians might grumble about their worship services being classified as non-essential when groceries, weed, booze, and lotto tickets are regarded as essential. I suppose it comes down to how we see the analogies. Concerts, choirs, and political rallies are also banned for the time being. Formally, at least the analogy between those kinds of group activities and worship services is stronger than between grocery shopping and public worship.
Wisdom And Patience
In short, I do not think this is yet an Acts 5:29 movement. Should the authorities continue the restrictions unreasonably, then we may arrive at that point. For they part, the civil authorities could relieve tensions by being a bit more transparent and less partisan or selective in the way they construct, change, and enforce the restrictions. The ruling of the Western District of Kentucky in “On Fire Christian Center Inc. v Greg Fischer et al.,” may provide guidance to other jurisdictions working through similar issues.
We need wisdom to be able to discern the truth from hype and fear mongering. E.g., a Christian legal organization is reporting that the City of Kansas City, MO is demanding that churches submit membership lists and “register with the government.” This claim has been repeated on social media by at least one prominent Christian media personality. The claim appears to be false, however, as Warren Throckmorton notes, the rule actually says:
Based on public health guidance, non-essential businesses that are not open to the public will be permitted to open one week from today, subject to social distancing guidance. Religious gatherings – including weddings and funerals – of 10 people inside and 50 people outside can resume on the same date, provided social distancing is maintained and event organizers record the names and contact information of all attendees. In the interest of public health and subject to City Order, any Kansas Citian who does not yet feel safe returning to a non-essential workplace cannot be compelled by their employer to return prior to May 15.
It took me a few minutes of searching but I did find the actual order rather than relying on the claims made on Twitter and by an organization.
What we do need is wisdom and patience. We always need wisdom, of course, but especially now as we, as citizens who elect a representative government, are being asked to weigh statistical information about epidemiological trends and patterns. It is easy to lapse into simple analogies and explanations and to skip the ambiguities and difficulties entailed in doing science on the fly. We need the “spiritual wisdom” (Col 1:9) of which Paul spoke. We need to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders” (Col 4:5). We need to ask God for wisdom and trust that he will give it (James 1:5).
As we American Christians, shaped by our culture as we are, chafe at serious restrictions in our movements and assemblies, we need the grace of patience in tribulation (Rom 12:12). We need to be patient as we wait for the coming of the Lord (James 5:7; 2 Pet 3:9). We need patient endurance (Rev 2:19). These are things that our heavenly Father gives liberally to those who ask.
As we wait and trust in the Lord, we must also recognize that fellow brothers and sisters will look at the same set of facts, the same Scripture passages, and come to different conclusions. We need to be prepared to bear graciously with those who disagree with us without regarding those who disagree with us as unfaithful. This is not the AD 250s and Caesar is not rounding up Christians for martyrdom. Should it ever come to that we shall know what true suffering for the Lord is. Even then, a Christian consensus developed over the centuries against those who refused to re-admit the lapsed (those Christians who did deny Christ before the Roman authorities) were wrong. We extended grace to those whose courage failed. Christianity is for sinners and failures of all kinds.
Of course, in the American federal system, under the tenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States, powers not expressly given to the federal government are reserved to the states. To be sure, governors of the fifty states do have explicit authority to take extraordinary measures, even to suspend civil liberties, in an emergency. During the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 local and state officials cancelled worship services and other constitutionally protected assemblies and acts and the courts upheld those restrictions as constitutional.
As members of a twofold kingdom, however, American Christians have a civil right to expect the magistrate to uphold his end of the contract. We submit to him on the basis that he is protecting our God-given liberties. Should he renege on that agreement, then we have some decisions to make. Remember, this nation was founded by revolutionaries, who formed a Continental Congress and who rebelled against a nominally Christian King. It was a violent revolution in defense of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That is who we are. Most Americans did not understand or accept the cost of liberty in the 18th century and most likely do not today but our founding documents are clear enough. Americans of all religious persuasions should be engaged in the peaceful civil struggle to roll back the massive administrative state and the ever-encroaching reach of civil government in favor of liberty as classically defined.
Certainly this episode should be a wake up call to Christians and to all Americans to recognize how easily and powerfully the vast administrative state that has developed since FDR can move when it wants. That politicians and bureaucrats no longer feel the need to apologize when abridging American liberties sends a signal. It means that they believe that when we are sufficiently afraid, we will choose safety over freedom (defined as the relative absence of civil restraints on movement, self-defense, trade, association, and religion and the like). Caveat civis.
Christians must obey God rather than men but when we chose to apply that divinely revealed priority to civil life we must be prepared to accept the consequences. Dr King did. He knew that when he marched he risked being attacked by police dogs and hit with water from a firehose and more. He lived under the constant threat of death, a threat that was finally realized by a coward shooting from a bathroom window in Memphis. Civil disobedience in our present circumstances probably only means a ticket or a fine but it may not always be so.
Some talk about contemporary application of twofold citizenship as though it is an attempt to flee from civic obligations when, in fact, it is a serious call to take up our obligations to both spheres/cities under the sovereign Lordship of Christ. It is a call to set priorities and to distinguish to two spheres so that we do not confuse our civil loyalties with our loyalty to the heavenly city, where our most ultimate citizenship is.
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