Masks, Meetings and Mandates
Ryan Butler is pastor of Grace Church of Bull Shoals, Bull Shoals, Arkansas. He serves as the current Vice-chairman of the SGBF.
(This article has been edited for digital publication)
All we have to say is “2020.” This year has become a byword. We are facing multiple trials, including those brought on by our own authorities. Many of us have felt like we are in a Shakespearean tragedy looking into the hollow eyes of a skull and soliloquizing, “To obey or not to obey? That is the question.”
To begin, we need to embrace this foundational understanding: The biblical default for us all is submission to the civil authorities. It is nothing less than the command of our Sovereign Lord that we are to obey every legitimate authority in our lives in every instance, except when compelled by God or constrained by God’s wisdom to do otherwise (more on this later).
Consider Romans 13:1-2: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”
And 1 Peter 2:13-17: “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men—as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.”
Please do not misunderstand. Our authorities need a John the Baptist to confront them to their faces when they act wrongfully, but we who are under authority must beware of the attitude and subsequent actions of rebellion! Samuel told Saul that “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry” (1 Sam. 15:23). We must be certain that we have first carefully examined our hearts, the scriptures and the facts. Then we must draw sound conclusions before we refuse to obey. Failing in this is to bring the judgment of God on ourselves (Rom. 13:2). How terribly ironic if we proclaim to our leaders that they are under the judgment of God, while we in turn bring God’s judgment on ourselves for wrongful resistance.
Titus 3:1 says, “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men.”
Paul spoke harshly to the high priest and then repented of it in Acts 23:2-5: “And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, ‘God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?’ And those who stood by said, ‘Do you revile God’s high priest?’ Then Paul said, ‘I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, “YOU SHALL NOT SPEAK EVIL OF A RULER OF YOUR PEOPLE.’”
Do we therefore say that we are to obey every authority in everything? No. It is true that some commands of God are absolutized: “Thou shalt not murder. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal.” Commands such as these have absolutely no exception. There is no instance when we rightly say, “It is ok to murder if ….” But other commands are more general in nature and have an implied exception. In essence, God is saying, “Submit to the governmental authorities, except when...” Here are three such exceptions:
1. When authority is illegitimate
Children, wives, and church members are required to submit to their own parents, husbands, and pastors, not to all. Likewise, citizens are to submit to their rulers, not to every ruler. Furthermore, an abusive authority may be opposed and removed from office according to the legal process of a nation.
2. When an authority violates its jurisdiction
Those in authority must operate only in matters under their authority. For example, your pastor, unless he is also in law enforcement, has no authority to give you a speeding ticket. Likewise, there are limits on the jurisdiction of the civil authorities over the family and the church. In some instances, civil disobedience is permitted when the authorities step outside their jurisdiction. But primarily, we need to look to the next exception to determine our responsibility.
3. When an authority commands disobedience or forbids obedience to God
Submission to God is our supreme directive. Our King Jesus, after rising in triumph from the grave, proclaimed, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Mt. 28:18). Therefore, when ordered to disobey God, we should echo the apostles in saying, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). We cannot ultimately serve two masters (Mt. 6:24), and in the end, every earthly authority is appointed by God and derives its authority from God (Rom. 13:3).
As well as these precepts, we have many positive examples in Scripture of people obeying our Heavenly Father by disobeying or resisting earthly authorities: the Hebrew midwives (Ex. 1:17); Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego (Dan. 3:18); Daniel (Dan. 6:10); Esther (Esther 5:2); the apostles (Acts 5:29); and ultimately Jesus (Mk. 3:5).
Before we apply these exceptions to situations facing us in 2020, let us consider one other matter specific to the United States. We have a legal process by which we may challenge the constitutionality of directives and laws. States have their own constitutions, and as a nation, the Constitution is the highest law of the land. The court systems are set up to hear challenges to the constitutionality of directives and laws. Under select circumstances, even Christians may righteously file conscientious lawsuits.
Now to the specifics. Let’s talk about masks. I know -- you are probably tired of talking about masks. Few things have caused such furor on Facebook as the issue of mask directives and mandates. Three things to say up front:
1. Private citizens and business owners have a right, when no directives are issued by their governments, to make their own decisions regarding their persons and property.
We must be careful not to judge others according to our consciences (see Romans 14). We do poorly to categorize masked neighbors as fearful “sheeple,” or to categorize unmasked neighbors as cavalier rebels who do not care if people die. Human motives are complex, and rightly judging the motivations of others is not an exact science. That is why God warns us against it (1 Cor. 4:5).
We do well when we are charitable and when we recognize and respect lawful personal determinations and private property rights. Remember, the person wearing a mask may be doing so because he truly believes he is protecting you and others. Remember, the person not wearing a mask may have severe asthma. Remember, if you do not like a store’s policy, you may shop elsewhere. A little humility and charity will go a long way.
2. We in the U.S. can frequently rule out the first exception listed above: illegitimate authorities.
We have a democratic process for electing our officials and a legal process for removing them. Thus, we generally ought not view them as usurpers or casually dismiss their authority while they remain in office. No military coups in my lifetime, how about yours? Even so, it is appropriate to promote removal from office those who abuse their authority.
Some have tried to make the case from Romans 13 that only godly rulers are legitimate. After all, it teaches that rulers are “God’s ministers.” Does this mean that if they rule unjustly, they disqualify themselves? I read a book with this thesis, but it failed to be compelling simply because the context of both Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 is the Roman empire (not exactly the epitome of godliness). In fact, Nero was Caesar at the time when Peter wrote, “Honor the King” (basilea in Greek, meaning the one with absolute authority). The authors of the book conveniently neglected to address 1 Peter 2. which teaches that even an evil ruler like Nero was to be obeyed and honored.
Nero became emperor at the age of 16 and his later reign was marked by evil and violence. We don’t know precisely when 1 Peter was written, so we don’t know if Nero had begun official persecution of Christians. But, many date the writing at A.D. 64, by the Summer of which Nero was blaming Christians for the fires in Rome, and was beginning state-sponsored persecution and reportedly even dipping Christians in pitch and torching them to light his garden. State-wide persecution fits well with Peter’s theme of suffering for righteousness.
But, even if Nero’s evil had not progressed this far, years earlier he had committed matricide, having his own mother murdered. Yet, he was still considered by God as one to be honored by Christians in his capacity as basilea in Rome. Specifically, he was to be respectfully obeyed in every righteous order he issued. We would be hard pressed to find a public official in the U.S. as evil as Nero.
Now, let us consider jurisdiction (our second exception). Even if we are convinced that face coverings are ineffective and that mandating them is disproportionate to the risk of infection, we are hard pressed to conclude that our authorities have no jurisdiction to issue such directives.
I am not a legal expert, so I will leave to the Arkansas legislators the lawsuits they have filed against the governor of my state. But what saith the Scripture? When we look, we see that safety codes, such as the requirement to build a parapet around rooftops, were commanded of Israel (Dt. 22:8). There were also laws requiring quarantines for those diagnosed with contagious illness (Lev. 13:4). But note that only the sick were isolated; healthy people were not ordered to stay at home. The principles in these divine precepts are wise and applicable to nations today.
Some have argued that the civil authorities are only granted jurisdiction to punish crime. The building safety code requirement in Deuteronomy 22:8 shows otherwise. Furthermore, in every other authority structure (family, church, business), it is recognized that there is discretion to make “house rules.” So why do we not extend this to the state? Governments are permitted, within reason, to wisely order their nation for the good of their citizens.
To be clear, I am not arguing for mask mandates. In fact, when Asa Hutchinson, my governor in Arkansas, mandated face coverings statewide, I wrote to him expressing my disapproval. Yet, I am not convinced he has violated jurisdictional authority.
3. It is also helpful to remember that when governments overstep or even abuse their authority, we are not necessarily compelled to disobey, for they may not be requiring evil of us.
For instance, Jesus said that those in charge of the temple had made it, “a den of thieves” (Mt. 21:13). Yet, he told Peter to pay the tax to the temple (Mt. 17:24-27). So, although we may use all the legal, godly means to affect change or to oppose our governments, we have a substantial burden of proof to fulfill before we disobey them.
So, what about our third exception: commanding to disobey God or forbidding to obey God?
Does God say that wearing a face covering to limit the spread of a virus is sin? Are we to be modern day Daniels going mask-less in our daily routines in the face of tyrannical, idolatrous dictators who threaten scorn and perhaps even light fines for “unmasked marauders”? You must decide.
But please consider the examples in Scripture: The Hebrew midwives defied Pharaoh, but murder was the issue. The three Hebrew youths and Daniel defied Nebuchadnezzar, but idolatry was the issue. Esther defied the edict of a king, but genocide was the issue.
I suggest that using legal means to affect change is in order: Write, petition, vote! Make your voices heard, even if through the thinnest material you can find to make your homemade mask. I admit, it does feel foolish to wear a mask as I walk through a restaurant to the table, only to take it off as soon as I am given tortilla chips or a drink. Yet, I ought to obey God rather than my feelings.
We need to follow this same analytical process regarding stay-at-home orders, business regulations and closures, future vaccine mandates and on and on. God says to submit, but we have a few exceptions. Many of the issues are complex, and most of us have never had to face them in our lifetimes. So, we should exercise humility, be gracious toward Christians with whom we disagree, and dig in and do the difficult research, exegesis, and application.
Now, what about directives and mandates given to churches? This is a concerning issue. Several states have forbidden or limited gatherings and created laundry lists of requirements. At the time of this writing, Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA has been forbidden from meeting indoors and from singing, and it has been given a long list of requirements including using disposable seat covers on outdoor chairs.
Does not the local health department have a vested interest and jurisdiction in keeping people safe? Should not churches love their neighbors by doing everything within their power to save even one life? Is not Covid-19 a doomsday virus sweeping the nation and threatening to kill millions? Or is it the case that the government has no jurisdiction whatsoever over churches?
Let us first explore this issue of jurisdiction (our second exception). Some are arguing that since God is the sovereign ruler and Christ alone the head of the church, then the church is given sole jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters. Doctine, practice, and polity, they say, are solely under the purview of the church and mediated by qualified elders and deacons, not civil officials. According to the logic of this argument, government officials do not have authority to regulate the teachings of the church, worship practices, meeting times and durations, locations, or size of gatherings.
Generally, this is correct. But the spheres of authority for family, church, and state overlap, and the civil government has the broadest jurisdiction since every person within its borders is under its authority. This means that church leaders and members are under civil governmental authority, and since church leaders and members can commit crimes and violate codes and ordinances, the civil government has limited jurisdiction over churches.
Generally, the state should not dictate to the church her doctrine, but what if a minister preaches to incite a riot? Generally, churches alone should have discretion over removing ministers, but what if a minister is wanted for a crime? Generally, churches should be left to determine their meeting times, locations, sizes, and the duration of their meetings, but civil governments have legitimate authority and a vested interest in promoting order and safety through zoning and building codes, and limited jurisdiction during times of plague and war. So the questions become, “When, in what ways, and for how long, may the state dictate to the church?”
It is helpful here to remember that civil governments derive their authority from God and ought not to violate His commands or to overstep the jurisdictional bounds He has established. God will hold accountable all rulers who abuse their offices, and He has relegated to the ashheap of history many empires (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, etc.) who have refused to “Kiss the son!” (Ps. 2).
Also, since the state is not the church, it should respect the God-given right of the church to regulate itself according to the ordinances of God. In the U.S., we have the First Amendment, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” In the Bible, we have the principle, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), and, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22:21).
We see in Scripture that God has given the church specific directives for her ordering, and the state ought to respect this. For instance, the church has jurisdiction, not the state, to appoint qualified men (Titus 1:5). God orders those men to lead His congregations in the preaching and teaching of the Word, prayer, singing, the ordinances, etc. Not so the state. But this does not mean that the state has no discretion to regulate (temporarily and in a limited way) the church during times of widespread severe crises when the wellbeing of all citizens is at stake.
For example, the state may declare a mandatory evacuation of coastal areas when a hurricane is nearing. This will affect the ability of churches to gather. But do we condemn the state as God haters who are forbidding us from obeying God if they command us to evacuate on a Sunday morning? No.
So, how does the above apply in states such as California, where for many months now churches have been severely restricted? If the government has some jurisdiction during times of crisis, such as war or plague, when does this cease? What are the bounds? A comprehensive look at biblical and constitutional factors is required during this pandemic to determine when churches should or may disobey. It is a complex issue with lots of moving parts. Here are a few thoughts.
Hebrews 10:25 teaches that we should not voluntarily forsake assembling to worship God. It is not an absolute commandment that churches must gather every Lord’s Day, regardless of plague, storm or flood.
Any pastor who makes that case but cancels church for a blizzard or hurricane is a hypocrite. But this passage does teach by implication that churches should gather corporately and regularly with rare exception. Whether local and state officials are being overly oppressive here will require a reasoned evaluation of the severity of risk and extent of the risk, the duration of the prohibition, etc. Some, like Grace Community Church, have determined that the risk is too small and the time frame too long. Thus, they, and many other churches in California, weighing this and other factors, have determined to disobey the authorities and to meet.
Another factor is that some cities, counties, and states have forbidden or severely regulated congregational singing and the Lord’s Table. These are commanded elements of worship (Eph. 5:19; 1 Cor. 11:23-25). The circumstances would be extreme and rare that would justify the state in any way regulating these. But what about war time, for instance, when singing may expose one’s position to the enemy? Some such restrictions were imposed during WWII, but does the threat from Covid-19 rise to this level? Regardless of the “war against the virus metaphor,” it is a major stretch to ague such. Any wise congregation will voluntarily modify their actions during time of great need. This is what most churches did initially at the government’s request regarding Covid-19.
Furthermore, the legal case seems strong that churches in some states have been treated disproportionately. Churches, nonessential. Liquor stores, essential. Really? Caesar’s Palace is allowed 50 percent capacity when Christ’s churches are limited to 50 congregants. Really? Such matters justify lawsuits.
I respect those who take the matter to the courts rather than just thumbing their nose at the authorities. Since God wants us to have an attitude of submission and to honor even ungodly rulers, then we do well to take a respectful, righteous stand after exhausting other options. And although small churches may not have the resources for a prolonged court battle, larger churches are taking this on themselves.
If the need is great, we may do as righteous Esther when she violated an ordinance by seeking an audience with the king, uninvited. Her courage also informs us that the righteous person is so certain of the justice of her cause that she or he will willingly face the legal consequences for resisting. Submission is such a serious matter to God that if one is not fully confident of his cause, then he needs to take pause. There are currently pastors, such as John MacArthur, willing to go to jail.
Ultimately, a strong cumulative case can be made that churches are permitted to disobey the civil authorities under the current circumstances. I say permitted, because some churches have decided to submit (yet still gather) by breaking larger congregations into smaller groups, meeting outdoors, doing midweek services online, etc. Since we are not commanded by God to meet a thousand strong (don’t we smaller churches wish we had such a problem), rather than break into congregations of 50, then we should not declare unfaithful those who do so. Conversely, it is uncharitable to accuse those who meet in large groups of hating one’s neighbor. Going to church throughout history has been risky! Refusing to meet for worship is risky!
I do believe that push-back is warranted. When statist leaders taste power, they want more. Time will tell if the health guidelines and directives are truly temporary. Regardless, God’s people ought always to be the best citizens, being concerned for the health and safety of others. But above all, we must be concerned to obey God in everything, regardless of the outcomes. After all, the greatest commandment is not, “Love neighbor,” but, “Love God!” And God says to submit to the governing authorities except when...