COVID-19 and Christian Action: Introduction
It is not uncommon for Christians and non-Christians alike to say followers of Jesus should not bring their faith into civil society - especially in times of heightened political unrest. Yet, is it a biblical position? Should Christians remain aloof, keeping their faith and Christian opinions to themselves? In truth, there are a myriad of details to be discussed under this rubric. This article primarily focuses on one aspect of Christian participation in the civic arena; public speech (and writing) directed at civil authorities.
The Bible clearly instructs followers of Christ to submit to civil authorities (Deuteronomy 17:8-13, Romans 13:1-2. 1 Peter 2:10-13). Yet there is a caveat concerning this command along with some clarification provided by the Bible.
The caveat concerns the character of civil rulers. While Christians do not have the right to overthrow nettlesome leaders, they have the duty to defy sinful decrees. Simple refusal to follow an ungodly edict may be pursued as a private individual. Yet, the biblical model prefer enlisting lower magistrates participation when defying a decree; it is required when seeking to overthrow unrighteous leadership. An example of a lower magistrate disregarding a wicked order is found in Obadiah, the steward of king Ahab. He defied Queen Jezebel's pogrom against the prophets of Yahweh, hiding and provisioning 100 of them in two caves (2 Kings 18:3-4). Ehud and Jehu are examples of lesser magistrates leading rebellions against godless rulers (Judges 3:12-30, 2 Kings 9:1-ff).
The first clarification relates to the nature of our submission. Throughout Scripture, Believers proclaim against injustice, especially when found in civil authorities. The old testament prophets, John the Baptist, the apostles and Jesus himself spoke truth to the civil and ecclesiastical power without hesitation. In each case, the harshest criticism was for leadership harming those under their care.
For instance, when the opponents of Jesus tried to manipulate him with dire warnings of Herod's malevolence, the Lord brushed it off with a denunciation of Herod's character. He knew Herod's heart and publicly marked him for what he was - a cunning, conniving predator (Luke 13:32). Our Lord also use scathing language to denounce the religious leaders who oppressed the people with their ungodly traditions (Matthew 23:1-36 and so on). Thus a member of Christ's kingdom is permitted - required - to call out corrupt rulers and proclaim the godly alternative.
A second clarification has to do with the locus of authority. In ancient Rome the emperor was considered the fount of authority. Christians understood God as the source of all power so they based their obedience to Rome on the requirement to obey God. But from a human standpoint, all authority flowed from the Emperor. Therefore, when Peter said submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the Emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good (1 Peter 2:13-14), he did not contradict Paul who said there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God (Romans 13:1). Certainly God is the author of all authority but the power exercised on earth can always be traced back to a point of origin; the place God has remitted authority for distribution.
Most modern nations have some form of constitutional civil rule. In the USA, all national civil authority rests upon the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United Sates. Even the individual State constitutions acknowledge the priority of the national documents. In addition, civil leaders are required to take an oath to uphold the United States Constitution along with whatever primary texts are specific to their jurisdiction. Thus, in the USA, authority resides in foundational documents, not in a person or persons. This is why the exercise of authority is passed from one to another each time there is an election. The day someone declares himself president for life will be the day the locus of authority has (illegitimately) shifted.
As it now stands, civil leaders must not exceed the authority doled out to them by the repository of power; the US Constitution and the germane jurisdictional record. If they do, the citizens of the land - especially Christians - have the duty to forcefully speak against overreach - and engage in open defiance of unlawful edicts.
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