The Covid era was certainly a challenge for many reasons. Particularly during the first couple of weeks after the virus broke out across the world, most people understandably were very cautious. Because of how the virus appeared to be worse for certain demographics, “fifteen days to slow the spread” and allow hospitals to prepare seemed reasonable to many of us.
However, as fifteen days grew to thirty and more, and as governments began to allow some industries to re-open while insisting churches remain closed, many of us began to smell something fishy. Indeed, despite the fact that most of us moved on years ago, the World Health Organization just recently announced that COVID-19 is no longer a “public health emergency of international concern.” You think?
The fact is that though the first couple of months were understandably confusing, many pastors made some very unwise decisions to keep their churches closed for months and even over a year after lockdowns began. Even many non-Christians are beginning to admit that many of the precautions were either unnecessary or ineffective, and some Christians are following suit.
For example, in a recent article at Christianity Today, Paul Miller acknowledged,
We got things wrong. Masks were not terribly useful unless you used an N95 and wore it just right. Some public schools stayed closed far longer than necessary. Social distancing was unnecessary outdoors. A lot of disinfection in public places was just hygiene theater.
However, Miller goes on to argue that we ought to simply declare a “pandemic amnesty” for pastors who closed their churches for an extended period of time since they found themselves unavoidably caught between choosing whether to obey Romans 13 or Hebrews 10:
Churches faced a difficult decision about whether and how long to remain closed. Should they obey the government, or insist on their right to stay open? Should they close for the sake of elderly or infirm congregants most at risk from the virus? Or should they open for the sake of everyone else? Obey Romans 13, or Hebrews 10?
This is a false dilemma that reveals a poor political theology, which, if not corrected, will continue to create problems when the government inevitably pushes again against the right of churches to gather.
The fact is that the commands given in Romans 13 and Hebrews 10 never conflict, because God has not given government jurisdiction over matters regarding our relationship with God. Therefore, we never have to choose to obey one or the other.
Do Not Forsake the Assembly
Hebrews 10:24–25 is clear:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Central to who we are as churches is gathering to stir up one another to love and good works. The author of Hebrews draws an inseparable connection between the command to stir up one another and gathering together—we cannot obey the former without the latter.
One might argue that stirring up one another can take place virtually, and to one degree it can, but certainly not to the fullest extend assumed in Hebrews 10. Broadening out from Hebrews 10, all of the New Testament’s admonitions regarding what we are to be doing as the church necessitate gathering together.
This is only highlighted when we consider the fact that corporate worship is not simply a lecture and some prayers, things that could conceivably be done over Zoom—corporate worship is gathering around a Table for a meal. You can’t share a meal virtually. The Table uniquely pictures and nurtures the communion that we as the Body of Christ enjoy with Christ as a result of the Lord’s death on behalf of those who believe.
Paul clearly states this in 1 Corinthians 10:16:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
The word translated “participation” there is the term koinonia—“communion.” Because of Christ’s death—because of his broken body and shed blood for the forgiveness of sins—those who believe are united to Christ and thus experience true communion with him.
But not only that, believers who are united to Christ enjoy communion with each other as the Body of Christ as well, and this too is uniquely communicated in the observance of the Table. Paul says so in verse 17:
Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
Partaking of the one bread is an essential part of the picture of communion shared by the Body, and this is possible only with physical presence. This is exactly why when Paul returns to discussing the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, he repeatedly refers to “when you come together.” Notice the frequent occurrence of that phrase in the context of giving instructions regarding the Table:
- v. 17: “when you come together”
- v. 18: “when you come together as a church”
- v. 20: “when you come together”
- v. 33: “when you come together to eat”
- v. 34: “when you come together”
This physical togetherness is fundamentally essential to the drama of the meal—corporate worship pictures communion of the body exactly through the physical, embodied acts done around the Table, especially partaking of the one bread. These embodied acts—the very essence of the observance—are impossible without coming together physically. And thus the corporate gatherings of the church are fundamentally different realities from other times when the church is not gathered physically.
In fact, in this context, Paul explicitly contrasts eating the Lord’s Supper when we come together as the church with eating in private homes (v. 22)—they are not the same thing, because when we eat privately in our homes, we are not gathered as the church.
The bottom line is this: Scripture commands us to gather together. Churches certainly have flexibility regarding what time, how long, or even how often to gather on the Lord’s Day, but the command and necessity to gather is not optional.
So what happens when government commands us not to gather? After all, doesn’t Romans 13:1 command, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities”? Romans 13 even tells us that governmental authority comes from God himself, and therefore a governor is “God’s servant for [our] good” (v4).
What if this servant of God commands us not to gather for our good?
Paul Miller would have us to believe that this is exactly where the commands of Hebrews 10 and Romans 13 came into conflict. Hebrews 10 commands us to gather, but God’s servant for our good commands us not to gather. Pastors were forced to choose between obeying Hebrews 10 or Romans 13, Miller argues; some chose to obey Hebrews 10 and remain open, while others chose to obey Romans 13 and obey the government. So let’s just give them a break—they had to make a choice.
But on the contrary, there are two essential biblical reasons pastors did not have to choose between gathering or obeying government.
First, even if the two were in conflict, Scripture is clear: when the commands of man and God conflict, we obey God.
The apostles faced this choice when religious leaders commanded them to stop preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. They replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:19).
So if God commands us to gather, and men command us to close our church doors, the answer is clear: we must obey God rather than men. We must, in fact, disobey human government if that government commands us to do anything that conflicts with the commands of God.
But this leads to the second reason that Romans 13 and Hebrews 10 actually never conflict: God has not given human government jurisdiction over matters related to our relationship with God.
Again, Romans 13 is clear: “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Human government has authority only because God has given it that authority.
But God has not given human government unlimited authority. And thus submission to government is not unqualified submission.
God gave government authority over a very specific and limited jurisdiction. In Genesis 9 when God first instituted government, he outline its role clearly:
Whoever sheds the blood of man,Gen 9:6
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.
Likewise, Paul’s command that we be subject to governing authorities involves a similar jurisdiction, namely, the punishing of those who murder and other crimes that have been committed between two or more individuals like theft.
However, government does not have jurisdiction to mandate or prohibit particular activities because they deem them to be physically harmful. It may only legislate and punish actual harm.
And even more importantly, government does not have jurisdiction to mandate or prohibit particular activities related to spiritual benefit or harm. Spiritual assessment is simply outside of God-appointed government jurisdiction. This is one of the beauties of the First Amendment: civil government is not qualified to regulate spiritual matters.
Spiritual assessment belongs exclusively to the jurisdiction of family (for an individual family) and church (for an individual church), and explicitly under the prescriptive jurisdiction of Scripture. And since Scripture explicitly commands churches to gather because this is what is best for them spiritually, churches must gather.
On this basis, then, we must subject ourselves to governing authorities on two conditions:
- what they command of us does not contradict a command of God, and
- what they command of us falls under their appointed jurisdiction.
If either or both of these conditions is not met, we are not required by God to obey government. In fact, we must not. We obey God rather than men.
I am so thankful that I lived in Texas in 2020. Governor Abbott took exactly the right approach during those early lockdown months—he urged churches not to gather, but he explicitly exempted church from his lockdown orders because he didn’t believe it was within his jurisdiction to do so.
So yes, those early months were complicated, and it was certainly understandable for churches to choose caution until more information could be gathered.
But no, Christians were never forced to choose between obeying Hebrews 10 or Romans 13, because there was never a conflict between the two.