What is the authority of the church and state in COVID-19 restrictions?

The Bible teaches that there are two kingdoms, one is the civil jurisdiction, the other is Christ’s spiritual kingdom. Mark 12:17 speaks of these two kingdoms: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” John 18:36 says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world.”

In book four of The Institutes of Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote, “Let us observe that in man government is twofold: the one spiritual, by which the conscience is trained to piety and divine worship; the other civil, by which the individual is instructed in those duties which, as men and citizens, we are bold to perform. To these two forms are commonly given the not inappropriate names of spiritual and temporal jurisdiction, intimating that the former species has reference to the life of the soul, while the latter relates to matters of the present life, not only to food and clothing, but to the enacting of laws which require a man to live among his fellows purely, honorably, and modestly.”

If the church or her pastors take civil matters into their hands, which pertain to the physical realm and not the spiritual realm, such as issues of public health, they assume authority that is not given to them. Contrary to Scripture, Roman Catholicism holds that the church has final authority over both the spiritual and physical realms, the church and the state. Historically, Roman Catholicism claimed that the church is given authority to rule over all things in God’s creation. In the quotation above, Calvin is expressing a particular understanding of the two kingdoms, but orthodox Protestantism, and certainly Baptists, have held to a division between the two kingdoms. A way to express certain entailments of this distiction between two kingdoms is to distinguish between the authority of the church and the authority of the civil government.

Authority Given to the Civil Government

Romans 13:1-2 says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” Titus 3:1-2 says, “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” 1 Peter 2:13-17 says, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith 24.3, summarizing Scripture, says, “Civil magistrates being set up by God for the ends aforesaid; subjection, in all lawful things commanded by them, ought to be yielded by us in the Lord, not only for wrath, but for conscience’ sake; and we ought to make supplications and prayers for kings and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty.”

Limitation of the Authority of the Civil Government within the Church

Given this biblical teaching, we need to understand the limitations of the civil government’s authority within the church. Historic Reformed theology distinguished between ius in sacris (right in sacred things) and ius circa sacra (right around sacred things).

The civil government has no right to rule in sacred things (ius in sacris). That is, the government has no right to determine our confession of faith, the elements of our worship, the content or act of our preaching, the ordinances of worship, etc. The government has no right to forbid preaching Christ, to require false worship, or to demand that we sin.

The civil government does, however, have a right to rule around sacred things (ius circa sacra). For example, they have the right to determine fire codes and building codes. Zoning laws rightly apply to church buildings. Similarly, churches must refer criminal actions to the civil government, and not merely handle them in-house. Reformed scholar, Bradford Littlejohn, provides an example from World War 2 era England. The English government had the right to require evening church services to meet only by candlelight in order to prevent church gatherings from being visible to German bombers. In these instances, the civil government is not attempting to legislate the sacred things themselves, but only the circumstances surrounding them.

Representing a version of Reformed orthodoxy, Richard Baxter wrote in The Christian Directory, “If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him.”

Therefore, the civil government has the right to govern the circumstances around worship for the physical protection of the public. To deny this would be to insist that the church has absolute authority over all things, and over the civil government. But the church has authority over some things, and the civil government has authority over other things.

Authority Given to the Church and Her Elders

Scripture teaches that elders are called to administer the Word of God and the ordinances of the Lord Supper and baptism (1 Cor 4:1-2). Based on Hebrews 13:17, John Owen said that elders are also given the authority to determine the administration of the circumstances of church life for spiritual reasons. That is, elders determine circumstances such as the time of worship. They decide how long the sermons are. They decide how many songs we sing. They decide on times of formal fellowship. They decide how meetings are to be conducted. They decide how quickly or slowly people are admitted into membership. They decide how quickly or slowly someone progresses through the stages of discipline. These are the circumstances of church life.

Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” The church should obey elders when they simply repeat biblical commands. But the church should voluntarily submit to elders when they order the circumstances of the church for her spiritual wellbeing as long as the elders aren’t requiring the church to sin and are operating within the boundaries of the church’s constitution, trying to manage the church. Submission does not require agreement, only acquiescence for the sake of good order.

The Second London Baptist Confession 1.6 says that the circumstances and details of church life are to be governed by the light of nature and principles common to human societies: “There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”

Thus, the elders of a church have freedom to change aspects of the manner and schedule in which the church meets for the spiritual good of the congregation.

Overlapping Civil and Ecclesial Authority

Notice that there is overlapping authority when it comes to matters around sacred things. Neither the church nor the state has final authority on the circumstances of church life. So, how do we know which kingdom has authority when? When does the church have authority, and when does the state have authority?

The state has authority over the circumstances of the church in physical and temporal matters, but the church has authority over the circumstances of the church in spiritual and eternal matters.

Biblical Authority to Suspend New Covenant Ceremonies Temporarily

Scripture provides authority to temporarily suspend church services or to call for mitigation for health reasons. The Lord Jesus expressly teaches that we should not observe ceremonial ordinances at the expense of human health or life. In other words, the Bible’s positive laws must never supersede or take precedent over God’s eternal moral law. Positive laws change according to the covenant we’re in, but moral law is natural, rooted in God and in human beings as His images. Moral or natural law never changes, and is permanently fixed.

Jesus said, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry and those who were with him; how the entered the house of God and ate the bread of presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests” (Matt 12:3-4)? This passage teaches that David broke a positive law about the showbread in order to keep the moral law for the life and health of his soldiers. Jesus also said, “I desire mercy [moral law] and not sacrifice [positive law]” (Matt 12:7). Jesus further said, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matt 12:11-12). It is right to work on the Sabbath to save or protect life and property. Remember that the particular day of the Sabbath is not moral law but positive. That is how the Sabbath could change from Saturday under the old covenant to Sunday under the new covenant without violating any transcendent ethical norms. The day is positive. And Scripture teaches that it’s right to break the positive aspect of the Sabbath law in order to keep moral law, which is more important. Jesus told the Pharisees, “You tithe mint and dill and cumin [positive law], but have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faithfulness [moral law]” (Matt 23:23).

Richard Baxter, representing a version of the Reformed tradition at this point, said, rightly I believe, “If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him. 1. Because positive duties give place to those great natural duties which are their end: so Christ justified himself and his disciples’ violation of the external rest of the sabbath. ‘For the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.’”

The Church’s Spiritual Interest in Physical Things

Scripture is clear that the church must never obey the civil government, if it requires us to sin against God. Acts 6:29 says, “We must obey God rather than men.” We are required to engage in civil disobedience if the civil government commands us to break God’s law.

Any governmental orders to stop gathering or that require physical distancing for the sake of public health may be obeyed temporarily as demonstrated through the biblical theological reasoning above, since these are physical and temporal circumstances. But such government restrictions may not continue indefinitely and certainly not permanently. Human beings have had to learn to live in the midst of difficulties of disease, war, and disaster. We must do the same in COVID-19.

Scripture’s new covenant positive laws require us to assemble as a church (Heb 10:25). Social distancing disrupts normal human expressions of love and affection. The Bible speaks of physical expressions of love, such as greeting one another with a holy kiss (Rom 16:16) and extending the right hand of fellowship (Gal 2:9). Masking covers the face, which is an expression of a person’s identity. The Bible teaches that we should long to see one another “face to face” (1 Thess 2:7; 2 Jn 12, etc.). Thus, when the government mandates interruptions of these kinds, they must only be temporary for reasons of physical public health and safety. The state has a physical interest in these things, but the church has a spiritual interest in them.

If civil orders that prevent church assembly, physical proximity, human touch, or seeing each other’s faces continue indefinitely with no end in sight, the church would be free to make use of the legal system, like Paul, to obtain a remedy. Paul exercised his right to defend himself under Roman law, using the existing legal system (Acts 16:37–40; 18:12–17; 22:15–29; 25:10–22). For example, Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC was forbidden to meet in DC for a long period of time, such that they had to meet in another state for a time; therefore, church chose to sue the city of Washington DC. The outcome of the lawsuit was that they won back their right to meet in the city of DC. Utilizing the existing court system is the lawful way to appeal what the church believes are unjust orders, which are not clearly and directly matters of persecution or requiring us to sin. Using the courts respects the established civil order and refuses to upend it through civil disobedience for reasons of expediency.

As a caution, Scripture warns that there are wise ways to act within existing systems of government. For example: “Even in your thoughts do not curse the king” (Eccl 10:20). “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone” (Prov 25:15). “He who loves purity of heart and whose speech is gracious will have the king as a friend” (Prov 22:11).

Passages like this weigh against jumping quickly to civil disobedience. And they inform the manner in which the church should seek legal remedies, if it ever comes to believe that is wise.

Biblical Civil Disobedience

It’s important to note that the Scriptures only show examples of civil disobedience in matters of direct religious persecution and when the government commands believers to commit clear moral transgressions. I would add that when the civil government violates its jurisdictional boundaries, which in our society is outlined in the constitution, we may or may not disobey. But we do not have a single biblical example of civil disobedience when believers differ with the opinions and actions of the government pertaining to matters of competency or wisdom in governance related to public health. Consider the following biblical examples of civil disobedience:

In Exodus 1:15-12, midwives refused to obey a command to murder (moral law). In Daniel 6:6-9, Daniel refused to obey a command requiring false worship (moral law). In Matthew 2:1-11, the Magi refused to tell the king where Jesus was because they knew the king wanted to harm Him (moral law). In Acts 5:28-29, the Apostles refused to stop preaching Christ as the government commanded (moral law). In 2 Corinthians 11:32-33, Paul avoided the government officials who were trying to arrest him for preaching Christ (moral law). In Hebrews 11:23, Moses’s parents refused to obey the king’s requirement of murder (moral law).

Thus, the Scriptural examples of civil disobedience aren’t due to governmental incompetence or disagreement with health policy. Rather, they pertain to refusing to obey the government when it requires false worship or sin.

The Westminster Larger Catechism Q127 says, “The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors [authorities] is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.”