It has been over two months since the known world has shutdown, in order to level the number of cases of Covid-19. This has affected almost every aspect of life, churches included. But there have been a number of churches in various parts of the world that consider this governmental restriction from gathering publicly to be an impingement against their religious rights. Hebrews 10:25 has been cited, the command not to give up meeting together regularly. Context matters, right? So what is the context of that? Not a pandemic, let me assure you.
Romans 13 is another applicable passage regarding this situation. In fact, a right interpretation of this passage is very applicable for the situation in which we find ourselves. Paul specifically addresses the role of government and faith here. The context of this passage is extremely important. The first few verses state:
“Every person must be obedient to the superior authorities. For there is no authority except by God, and they exist as appointed by God. 2 As a result, he who opposes the authorities stands against the order of God, and those who have stood against will receive judgment. 3 For the rulers are not a fear for good works but to bad. Do you want not to fear the authority? Do good, and you will receive praise from them” (Rom 13:1–3; my translation).
The thing is, this passage has been used (and abused) for blind obedience to all authority, resulting in abuse of power, manipulation, victimization, and a lot of damage to people. But Paul isn’t commanding blind obedience in this passage. No, his point here is that the Roman Christians should comply with their authorities in the good that they are doing and advocating. Remember, at the time Paul wrote this letter, Christianity was mostly characterized as a defiant movement, defiant against Judaism, defiant against contemporary culture, and defiant against the Empire. So as a group with such a rebellious origin, it might have become a problem that they rebelled against anything and everything, especially Roman authorities. The context of Romans is very much different from our current Western, North American context.
So in that context, Paul is telling his audience to comply with the superior authorities, not simply governing authorities (ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις, with ὑπερέχω functioning attributively to modify the head term “authority”). Superior authorities are identified as superior in terms of morality and ethics in this co-text. If the authorities require their people to something that is “good,” for the well-functioning of society, then they should comply as a follower of Christ.
My co-blogger writes in his Romans commentary:
These words by Paul are both a warning regarding the behavior of individuals and an admonishment to authority. Morally upright authorities are expected, and there is no excuse for immoral behavior under the guise of claiming simply to be an authority. Similarly, so long as those under the authority—assuming its upright morality—do good work, then they ought not to fear the actions or behavior of the authority. –Stanley E. Porter, The Letter to the Romans: A Linguistic and Literary Commentary (NTM 37; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2015), p. 245.
We may consider some of our national, state, and provincial leaders to not fall under these moral and ethical categories as individuals, but Paul is talking about official governmental laws, as moral and ethical. Are the current laws moral or ethical, for the benefit or society, or oppressing specifically Christians?
I originally wrote this post before Trump had made his statement today about churches and other religious institutions as essential places and advocated for the reopening of public worship services. This is clearly a case of a government official “doing bad,” and thus not a “superior authority” as Romans 13 identifies. The previous mandate for all public gatherings—including churches—to cease because of a viral pandemic is not one that is meant to be oppressive to Christians and any one else. It has nothing to do with religious freedom and everything to do with public health safety–there is a novel virus that has spread and is continuing to spread throughout the entire world, and there is currently no treatment or vaccine for it! In fact, governments who maintain this mandate to stop gathering are “doing good,” their best considering the circumstances and unknowns, in protecting the population at large.
For churches, this means that Romans 13 tells us to comply with those superior leaders who have placed restrictions on public gatherings, because they are working for the good of society. I, as much as any of you, cannot wait until I can gather with my church again. Online services are not even close to the actual physical gathering of the church, but in complying with government mandates (or not listening to bad leaders), we fulfill the law of Romans 13.
— David I. Yoon