Should Christians disobey their government? When? Why? What about the consequences?
By Mark D. Harris
The United States has no official church as is common in Europe, but individual states had official churches for centuries. People debate whether the United States was established as a Christian nation, but it was founded based on the Judeo-Christian worldview and governance. As a result, Christ-followers in America have faced little overt persecution for four hundred years.
Today, though, the drums of persecution in America are beating louder, and COVID-19 has brought conflicts to a head. Civil governments, as in California, have ordered churches to close, ostensibly due to threats from the virus. Many churches have obeyed, either out of spiritual conviction or to “go with the flow” and avoid trouble. A few have disobeyed.
Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Newbury Park CA is being sued by Ventura County for holding indoor services. A county judge has issued a restraining order for them to stop, which the church has rejected. John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church in Sun Valley CA reopened in the spring and did not close when California governor Gavin Newsome ordered it to close on 13 July. Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, has informed MacArthur that his church will be fined $1,000 per day and he will face imprisonment.
Who is right? What should Christians do?
Prepare our hearts
Christians are first and foremost members of the Kingdom of Christ. Our allegiance to Jesus is eternal and complete. Our allegiance to any other organization, whether a state/nation, a profession, or another group is temporal and limited. We render unto Caesar what is Caesars, which includes taxes, general obedience to laws, and varying degrees of service (Mark 12:17). Our rendering to Caesar stops on the day of our death. We also render unto God what is God’s, which includes everything that we have and everything that we are for our mortal lives and into eternity. Christians are first Christians, and only much lower on the “identity scale” Americans or Chinese or blacks or whites or men or women or whatever. Jesus Christ alone is supreme.
Followers of Jesus are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:43-48). The Kingdom of Christ is not of this world (John 18:36), and we wrestle not against flesh and blood (Eph 6:12). The weapons of our warfare are not carnal (2 Cor 10:4). Christians are not of this world (John 15:17) and are not to love this world or things, such as money, fame, or power, that are in this world (1 John 2:15). Finally, inasmuch as it depends on us, Christians are to be at peace with all men (Romans 12:18).
In light of these truths, we must pray for God to prepare our hearts, calm our emotions, check our motivations, clear our thoughts, and enable us to discover His will in the current situation. Expect to spend hours or days seeking God and deciding what to do. Civil disobedience should not be chosen lightly or done poorly.
Political considerations should not influence the decision. Gavin Newsome and Eric Garcetti are Democrats, but the decisions of the churches above should be no different if a Republican administration asked them to do the same thing. Media, money, and other temporal concerns should also not factor in.
Search the Scriptures for relevant passages and interpret them carefully
The Bible provides guidance on most issues, ancient and modern, and we must learn and follow this guidance. In addition to the passages noted above, we must consider:
- Romans 13:1-7
- 1 Pet 2:13-17
- Hebrews 10:23-25
- Colossians 3:16
- Acts 2:42-47
- Acts 4:19-20
- Acts 5:29
The Bible is clear about obeying governmental authority, even when the government is bad. However, it is equally clear that there comes a time when the Church must disobey man and obey God. Further, it is not sufficient to obey some Scriptures and ignore others. The command to assemble is just as important as the command to obey the authorities.
Consult other believers in your church and groups of believers in other churches for their perspectives
Often there are ways to obey the commands of Christ, which are paramount, and still follow the spirit of the secular law, which is causing the problem. With respect to COVID-19 restrictions, some churches meet outside, some churches have drive-in church, and some churches still meet indoors but social distance, wear masks, and follow other good public health practices. These actions may be enough to settle emotions.
Grace Community Church wrote a careful and informative statement explaining why they are not closing. Christ alone is head of the Church. The three institutions ordained by God, the family, the Church, and the state, have their own sphere of influence and control, but they cannot meddle in the spheres of control of the others. While the Grace Community Church can’t tell Gavin Newsome how to run California, he can’t tell church leaders when to open, how to meet, and or anything else related to the Church.
Jesus Christ is not only head of the Church but the ruler of every civil authority. Grace Community Church doesn’t answer to Eric Garcetti, Gavin Newsome, or Donald Trump. Grace Community Church, as well as Eric Garcetti, Gavin Newsome, and Donald Trump, answers to Jesus Christ. Pastors and elders, not princes and kings, lead the Church.
The one outcome which is unacceptable to the Lord is division in the Church (John 17). We can disagree, and sometimes we should, but we cannot be divided.
Pray earnestly for God’s guidance
God may be telling one group of His followers to solve the problem in one way, and another group to do something different. One size may not fit all. He is not likely to answer quickly, so take time. Pray as individuals and as groups, and do not decide until many voices are heard.
Make your decision, act on it, and stick to it, unless the situation forces you to reconsider
God is still sovereign. There is no decision that you can make which will surprise Him or damage His plan. Only reconsider if God is clearly telling your organization to, as testified by a minimum of two or three witnesses. Only change course if you follow the same painstaking process and your conclusions are different.
Face the consequences
Fear cannot be our motivation, whether fear of ridicule, censure, or persecution. Even fear of suffering and death is not enough to dissuade a Christian from following his Lord. Avoid division amongst God’s followers but remember that people will leave your church no matter what you do.
John Hus was burned at the stake for opposing the ruling authorities. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged for preaching the gospel in Nazi Germany. Christians in many places in China and the Muslim world today are imprisoned and executed for following Christ.
Are members of Grace Community Church willing to use thousands of their tithe dollars to pay fines? Will they keep supporting civil disobedience when the City of Los Angeles padlocks their doors and sells their campus? Will John MacArthur’s members keep supporting his position when he is led away in handcuffs? Will they keep following Christ if Grace Community is broken down into hundreds of house churches? Are Rob McCoy and the members of Godspeak Calvary Chapel willing to make these sacrifices?
If they are, their church might shrink, but the Church, the body of Christ, will grow. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. Like our Lord, we endure the cross, despising the shame, for the joy set before us (Heb 12:2).
COVID-19 has been a trial for the world, but God is using it for His purposes. Believers are confronting issues that they have not commonly confronted in the West in the past. The Church of Jesus Christ is at its best shining as a light in a corrupt world. As COVID, riots, and other problems darken our globe, His glory shines brighter
 California church holds indoor services amid coronavirus pandemic, defying restraining order, 9 Aug 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/california-church-holds-indoor-services-amid-pandemic-defying-temporary-restraining-order-2020-08-09/.
 John MacArthur Threatened With Arrest, Fines for Refusing to Cease Holding Indoor Church Services, 5 Aug 2020, https://christiannews.net/2020/08/05/john-macarthur-threatened-with-arrest-fines-for-refusing-to-cease-holding-indoor-church-services/.
 Some might argue that their racial or sexual identity are as eternal as their Christian identity. That may be true, but it is not as important. The multitudes who stand before God, praising and enjoying Him forever, will be there not for their sex, race, gender identity, sexual preference, or whatever. They will be there because they are Christian.