Some members of the Lord’s Church struggle to understand a Christian’s relationship with the government. The government “is God’s minister for good.” Christians are “subject to the governing authorities.” Government’s authority was appointed by God. Christians are directed not to resist their authority. To resist government is to resist God (Rom. 13:1-5). Yet, Peter and the Apostles said, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The Apostles said that to the local governing authority with God’s blessing.
The line that was drawn by the Apostles was clear. When government exceeds their authority by trying to regulate God’s Word they are not to be obeyed. Relating it to an unlawful order might help to understand that there are limits that should never be exceeded even when God appoints the governing authority in question. The government told the Apostles not to teach about Jesus Christ. The Apostles could have acknowledged the High Priest’s rightful God given authority and agreed to teach elsewhere. However, they defied that authority on the basis that God’s Word trumps governmental authority even when that authority was appointed by God.
For example, if the government said it was unlawful to meet for worship services, would that mean Christians must move to a country where such laws do not exist? That was an option the Apostles did not chose to exercise. Everyone needs to hear the gospel just like every Christian must worship regardless of their locality. If government exceeded their authority, Christians would have no other option but “to obey God rather than men.”
What should be done if the government made it unlawful to worship anywhere on a temporary basis for our own protection? Say a new virus caused a worldwide pandemic and if the government did not ban all assembling in large groups, more people would get sick and some may die. In this scenario, the government exceeded their authority once again, but it was for our own protection. Would the Apostles have allowed a cessation of teaching on a temporary basis to protect the lives of those they hope to convert? Should Christians forsake worshipping on a temporary basis to protect their own lives?
The latter question is easier to answer. Christians have a relationship with Christ that should preclude any notion that life on earth is at all important. “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). The opportunity to die in service for Christ by contracting a virus while worshipping Him should be very appealing to Christians (Heb. 11:13-16). If a Christian gets sick and dies from a virus while in worship to Christ, praise be the Lord! The church would not be responsible for their death. The Lord gives life and He takes it away (Job 1:21).
What about non-Christians? It seems very reasonable given the temporary scenario to avoid large groups due to a pandemic in order to protect those who have not come to Christ. Non-Christians do not worship the Lord anyway and teaching them would not necessarily cease due to a large group restriction imposed by the government. Teaching the lost could be done on a personal basis and certainly could be conducted over the internet or phone outside of worship services.
Someone will argue that the Lord allows sick people to miss services; therefore, allowances should be made to prevent sickness. The Lord allows members to miss services due to sickness (Jas. 5:14-15) and for those caring for the sick (Jas. 2:14-17). However, no allowance is given to healthy members to miss services unless they were providentially hindered (Matt. 12:1-12). If the virus in our scenario never goes away, will the healthy ever go to church again? For the last 2000 years, members of the Church accepted the risk of getting sick at the assembling of the saints but never made it their excuse. What is really being argued is the assertion that members may miss worship if they find a reasonable excuse. So if a family member dies and we need to bury them during worship services then that should be allowed. “Then another of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead”’ (Matt. 8:21-22). Is it harsh to put the Lord first in our lives (Mk. 12:30)?
Someone may ask what the difference is between a government employee being told to miss worship for work and anyone else being told by the government to miss worship for a virus? Both situations represent the government dictating the missing of worship. The difference is in the relationship the member has with the government as an employee. All Christians must provide for his own (1 Tim. 5:8). If any employer tells a Christian they must work or lose their job, it is necessarily inferred that the Christian must work; else he is worse than an infidel. However, if that same government employer told the same employee that they had to miss worship to protect him from a virus, that would represent the government exceeding their authority. That would be an unlawful order. A Christian must be astute enough to know the difference between lawful and unlawful orders. When government tries to regulate God’s Word, that is when it exceeds God’s given authority. Christians at that point must “obey God rather than men” (Heb. 10:25).
Admittedly, these scenarios make Christians uncomfortable. Most Christians never imagined such situations that could possibly require them to defy the government. It should be noted that Christians are blessed to live in the United States that has laws preventing the State from regulating religion. Even in recent developments with the coronavirus, government entities were reprimanded when they tried to impose rules regulating religious conduct. Christians in other countries may not be so blessed.