Category Archives: COVID

Part 5 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: The Limits of Power (Part II)

Conflict

“A power ethical, politic, or moral, to oppress, is not from God, and is not a power, but a licentious deviation of a power, and is no more from God, but from sinful nature, and the old serpent.”
Samuel Rutherford, A Christian Manifesto

Last installment looked at the limits of different authorities, all of which God has instituted to serve Him in the world He created. Before moving on to the confessional statements about authority, specifically laid out in the fifth commandment, I want to revisit these three limitations by way of quick review, and add two additional thoughts.

In the limitations drawn out so far, this series outlined three specific ways the government’s authority is naturally limited. The civil government is limited first by its national borders. That seems fairly obvious. Second, they may not treat their citizens as their own property. Tyranny is men with a derived authority, acting as if they hold that authority as their possession. Tyranny itself is usually rejected, but the response is where the waters get muddy. More on that later. Third, governments must themselves be subject to the laws of their own nation.

In this article I want to add two more limits to lawful authority, specifically as it applies to the civil government. The fourth limit is that government is to act honestly with its citizens. It may not prosecute based on bearing false witness, neither may they use false pretenses to justify powers they would not usually hold. The state must prosecute and legislate honestly. Just to address the elephant in the room here, the next paragraph is not going to be that COVID is a hoax. But I am willing to say that a 2-year state of emergency based on an illness with a less than 1% mortality rate is not honest. These claims no longer serve as a justification for sweeping powers that certain governments want to appropriate for themselves: powers that control private business, medical rights, and even ecclesiastical matters. And when an authority uses dishonesty to expand its powers, they are working outside of the limits of the authority which has been entrusted to them.

The fifth limit is that government may not assume authority entrusted to others. That means the civil magistrate has no authority over the business of the church or family. Applying that principle in church and/or family is often easier and clearer. For example, the church is only free to proclaim what God’s word has plainly said, or what can be derived from it by good and necessary consequence. It may not enter into formal discipline for matters of conscience, but only clear, unrepentant violations of God’s commandments. When the church does either of these things it exceeds the limits of the authority entrusted to it. In the same way, fathers may not administer the sacraments to their families in their homes or excommunicate their children from the church. Ironically, within the Christian community when church and father exceeds the limits of their authority, there is a large outcry in the church. Justifiably so. Why not when the same thing is done by the civil magistrate?

Some may object to this and point to cases where the civil magistrate has rightly addressed fraud in the church or abuse in the home. But to think carefully through those examples, it is plain that when a church commits fraud, it is operating unlawfully in its ecclesiastical authority. Or when a husband abuses his wife or children, he is acting unlawfully, which moves beyond the boundaries of his authority as God has given it. Returning to the realm of the civil magistrate, that means the government is in no way to interfere with anything that rightly falls under the authority of the church and/or family. That means no control over any part of religious worship as was recently seen in COVID measures in several states in our Union, most notable California. That means no right to mandatory government education as is the case in several European nations. That means a respect for bodily autonomy. The authority of the civil magistrate has limits, and these should be respected.

By way of summary, let me just enumerate the five limits described above. The government is limited in its use of power in the following ways:

    1. The authority of any civil magistrate does not extend beyond its national borders. That would be a violation of the 8th commandment;
    2. Tyranny is not within the proper purview of government authority. Its citizens are not its property. To treat them as such would be a violation of the 1st and 8th commandments;
    3. Government must themselves operate under the rules and laws of their nation. That would be a violation of the 5th commandment;
    4. Falsehood and propaganda cannot be used as a means to justify authority that would otherwise be unlawful. That would be a violation of the 9th commandment;
    5. The magistrate may not encroach on authority given by God to another institution. That would be a violation of the 5th commandment.

The main point is that, as a servant of God appointed for the good of its citizens (Rom. 13:4), the Moral Law of God, summarized in the Ten Commandments also applies to the government. Its authority is exercised within the limits prescribed by God and the good laws of the commonwealth it governs.

Everything up to this point is to establish that the civil magistrate may overstep its rightful bounds. When other authorities like church and family do so, there is a reasonable expectation of response. And that should not be different in the case of the government either. The question that is so challenging is, what is that response? How does a Christian respond in a Christlike manner when the civil magistrate exceeds the limits of its powers. These questions will be addressed in our next installment.

Part 4 » The Christian’s Relationship to the Civil Government: the Limits of Its Power

“Whenever obedience to man is inconsistent with obedience to God,
then disobedience becomes a duty.”[1]

At the start of this series, the mission statement was made: to help the Christian navigate an exercise of government power not previously experienced in my life-time. The virus that has troubled the world since the beginning of 2020 has subjected western society to a variety of mandates and restrictions, including businesses and churches. Christians everywhere have experienced these things, but there is disagreement about a proper response. There those who advocate for complete compliance, and those who have taken up what sounds like a Christian activism. This series represents an attempt to help Christians think clearly about this subject. Whatever our gut response may be, these articles are asking whether they are biblical. And to begin that critical assessment, this series began with a biblical study and the source and purpose for the power of the government.

First, we have seen from Romans 13 that all authority is given by God. That would include the authority that the civil magistrate has, even if behaving in an ungodly manner. Clearly, the biblical position of authority is that it is God-given. Second, we have also seen that the government exists as a servant of God. It is to carry out God’s vengeance on the wrongdoer and protect those who do good. The words “wrongdoer” and “good” are theological words, which must be biblically defined. A government will apply its power well, or poorly, and the report card is based on the biblical definitions of these words. And it is in this last observation that the problem arises. What does the Christian do when the government does not match up well to the biblical definitions of wrongdoing and goodness? Is there a point when the government’s authority is to be disobeyed because of its disregard for its function as God’s servant? What are the limits to this power?

To further complicate matters, there are other authorities in the world as well. That means there may be times when different authorities (all of whom God has provided) come into conflict with each other. For example, consider parental authority or church authority. This authority is also God-given, with its own set of responsibilities. These different authority structures further add to the difficulty of what may happen. For example, Colossians 3:20 says, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” What happens if the demands of the civil authority conflict with those of parents? Which is to be obeyed? As an example, what should happen when the government mandates that a child in kindergarten participate in an explicit “educational” presentation on human sexuality. Even if it is only factual, without any propaganda about the perversion of human sexuality, does the government have the implicit right to overturn the parents’ authority over the child, simply because they have God-given authority? The bring some clarity, consider these possible limits to government authority.

Man’s authority is always delegated. God provides authority for specific reasons. Parents are provided to train up their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Elders are given to protect the church from false doctrine and encourage it toward love and good works. The civil magistrate is empowered to provide necessary order in society. For each of these positions of authority there are limits. That is because a father is not the owner of his children and the elder is not the master of the congregants. These things are easily seen. For example, most would agree that parents are not free to force their children to marry against their will. Or elders are not free to require all congregants to wear a yellow suit to church each Lord’s Day. And these are recognized limitations. There is much talk about hyper patriarchy in the family or toxic leadership in the church. If limits are readily recognized in these two realms, it is right to examine if the civil government’s authority can be wielded unlawfully as well. In doing so, several limits are discovered.

There is one obvious limit, which is also described in the quote at the top of the article. If a magistrate would require sin, he has clearly exercising authority unlawfully. I have not heard any Christian leader object to this principle in the last two years. The oft-quoted biblical instruction comes in Acts 4. Peter and John are ordered not to speak of Christ anymore. Their response is instructive for all authority relationships: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20, ESV). When any human authority requires sin, whether family or church or civil, the giver of all authority, God, is to be obeyed instead. But there are other limits on government authority as well.

First, each nation’s government is limited by its geographical bounds. The people of Germany do not obey the laws on the books in Canada. If you live in the United States you do not obey the mandates of Australia. That is because the authority of each nation state is limited to its own citizens. All nations live in such a way, and this limit is universally respected.

Second, a government may not exercise authority over its people as a tyrant. The government’s relationship with its citizens is not one of master and slave. The king is to carry out the good laws of the land with justice and equity.[2] For example, a government may not enter a citizen’s home and confiscate private property without process and just cause. A government may not force families to separate, requiring the wife to move to Miami, while ordering the man to live in Seattle. A government may not, at a random check point, confiscate your vehicle and take possession of it. Unless you live under a communist government, that is. The examples of these abuses could possibly all be obeyed without the citizen sinning in obeying it. And yet the government is not justified in acting as a tyrant because it denies its delegated authority. The government does not own all, and cannot behave as if it does. When government behaves this way, says Samuel Rutherford in Lex, Rex, they are acting as if their authority belongs to them as a right, not as a delegated power. Yet the men and women that make up government are not gods, but part of God’s creation, just as their citizens are. That means that since God is the giver of authority, government is to wield it as His servant.

Third, a government is bound by the laws of the land. These limits that are being ignored these days. In Acts 22, Paul has been rescued by the Roman cohort of soldiers from a violent Jewish mob. Paul was brought into the Roman barracks to examine him by flogging. Before this atrocious, unjust, and violent act could be committed against him, Paul reminds the tribune that he as civil magistrate is breaking the laws of the land which he may not do. “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25). It is, of course, a rhetorical question. It is not lawful for them to do so, and Paul reminds them of that. The tribune and his fellow examiners immediately reverse course. They are in positions of authority, but still under authority. They, as civil magistrate, do not live above the laws of the land, but must follow the rules of their country. It is at this point that many government abuses have taken place, at least in the United States.

Here is the point. All authority has limits because it is a derived authority. That does not mean there is a place where the civil magistrate behaves perfectly.  Since the fall, all authority is abused because it is exercised by sinful men. Today, governments are acting as a master over its people by assuming responsibility over its citizens’ consciences. Some will agree with what it is demanding and imposing, others not. The point is not agreement with policy, but limit of authority. Today, governments are failing to live under the laws of their own nations. In effect the government has become a law breaker. Again, some will agree with what it is demanding and imposing, and others not. The point is not agreement with policy, but limit of authority.

The reality for the Christian is that the government is assuming authority over people’s private businesses, their movements, their worship, and even their employment. For several members of the congregation I serve, this topic is not theoretical. It is a pressing matter that must be examined on the basis of principle, not preference. But what does the Christian do when a government behaves badly, even sinfully?

To help with that, it is always good to look at the reformed confessional statements for their understanding of what Scripture teaches on this matter. After that investigation is complete, perhaps we will be ready to consider what a proper response may be.

[1] Charles Hodge, Romans, (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 406

[2] Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince, (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle Publications, 1982), 64-68.

When Worry Overtakes You

What news story gives you anxiety these days? Is it COVID infection rates? Supply chain interuptions? The southern border crisis? If you listen to the news it will not take you long before you think the world is falling apart. I have not gone through any journalism training, but it seems to me the news is actually written in such a way as to create exactly that response. And  this is where the problem is because worry is a denial of God’s ability to care for His people (Cf. Matt. 6:25-33). So how, by God’s grace, do we fight anxiety?

Pray for joy in all your circumstances. It is normal for people to fear death, discomfort, and hardship. Not right. Just normal. And our worries inevitably come true. God brings them in His perfect timing, and the inconsistency of our hearts is laid bare through our fretting. Repentance includes praying that God would change us to make us joyful as we rest in His promises.

Turn off the news, open your Bible. This statement is not promoting complete ignorance about the happenings in our world. But if the news creates anxiety, turn it off. The Bible is a book filled with comfort, so open it. The more we study God’s word the more clearly we know His ways, character and sovereignty. The more we are faced with the promised reality that, because we are in Christ, the time we spend on earth is a sojourning, in anticipation of a glorious homecoming when we are called home to glory or Christ returns. And these truths will comfort us when they are received with faith. In other words, spend more time reading the Good News as compared to hearing bad news.

Christians, of all people, should be at peace even in the most tumultuous times. And there is much to worry about these days. But, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” (Psalm 4:8).

Part 1 » The Christian’s Relationship with the Government

“If their princes exceed their bounds, Madam, no doubt they may be resisted, even by power. For there is neither greater honour, nor greater obedience, to be given to kings or princes, than God hath commanded to be given unto father and mother.” (1)

The words above were spoken by John Knox as recorded in his History of the Reformation in Scotland. They are an excerpt of a conversation he had with Mary, Queen of Scots. She had asked him to meet with her to discuss his role in the unrest that was sweeping across the land. In response to her accusation that Knox had incited her subject against her, the reformer gives the response quoted above. No doubt, few men had, have, or will have the courage and boldness of John Knox. He was a unique man, set apart by God for a unique time in the history of Scotland and His church. But the question today is not whether anyone is like John Knox, but rather if there is anything to be learned from his answer to queen Mary. In other words, should Christians be more like John Knox?

The words above are of great relevance for today, because the civil magistrate is exercising authority in ways not seen in recent memory in what is called The West. Much of recent mandates and regulations exceed the experience of most Americans. The vast majority of the demands of the government have to do with COVID. Because of the intensity of these government interventions, there is an on-going discussion about whether the government is to be obeyed when it comes to its different mandates. However, this series of articles is not addressing Americans as Americans. It is not addressing any other political entity either. Instead, it is addressing Christians who happen to live in this nation. Can the Christian say “Amen!” to what our brother Knox said to Queen Mary back in 1561?

Certainly, from the Bible there are different instances when Christians disobey their political rulers. Peter and John do so in Acts 4:19-20 where, in response to the command to stop preaching and teaching, Peter says, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” The debate among Christians is usually not over whether the government can ever be disobeyed. It is more likely to be about what may trigger civil disobedience by Christians.

Some of these questions are extremely complicated. However, in order to be positioned to give a reasonable response, the Christian must be familiar with the Bible’s treatment on the subject of government, or what will be referred to as the Civil Magistrate. Summaries of biblical doctrine can be of great help to today’s church, and for that reason this series will consult with the Westminster Confession of Faith and other confessional statements from the Protestant Reformation. In so doing, this series will address the following questions:

    1. What is the source of the civil magistrate?
    2. What is the power of the civil magistrate?
    3. Are there any limitations to this power?
    4. How does the Christian citizen respond?

God willing, these will be released over the next couple of weeks. The theology of the Christian on government will inform how he responds to its authority. So let us lay a strong foundation and live for the glory of God.

(1) John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 278.

Steady On, Christian

The beauty of good doctrinal statements is that they pass the test of time. The Heidelberg Catechism, though written in 1563, still benefits the church today, touching us where our greatest needs are felt. For example, this 16th century catechism begins with this very relevant question and answer: 

What is your only comfort in life and death?

There is no more relevant question to be asked today. The world, strained by 18 months of COVID restrictions and new geopolitical unrest, is filled with anxiety and worry. But here followes the answer for the Christian: 

That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. 

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. 

Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Christian, as you struggle with the hystyria in the world over an uncooperative virus, remember: your comfort is found in your belonging to Christ. Hairs may fall from your head, but they will not do so apart from the will of your heavenly Father. It is He who loves you, not the CDC or anyone else. So be steady, find your comfort in Him, and then live for His glory.

On Being too Fond of Life

bell tower

“It is a pity that saints should be so fond of life as they often are: they ought to be always on good terms with death.” Thomas Boston, Human Nature in its Fourfold State

The quote above comes from Boston’s consideration of the difference between believers and unbelievers in facing death. His basic argument is that unbelievers die in a hopeless state, while Christians in a hopeful one. As a true puritan, he acknowledges at least ten different fears Christians may have in facing death, but in the quote above he returns to the reality that the Christian does not need to fear death, but in some sense should recognize it as his gateway into the eternal presence of God.

Why bring this up? Because it seems to me that the Christian church has, by and large, demonstrated that it is a little too fond of life in this world, and altogether too fearful of death. COVID has brought this fear to the surface, and since March 2020 it has begun to take over the spirit of the church. Now come the mandatory qualifiers. This article is not an indictment against any churches who have adjusted their services in the face of this disease. This article is not a denial that people have died of this dreadful disease or suffered other side-effects besides. This article is not an assertion that all Christians should respond to a difficult issue in the same way. But it is an appeal to the church that it consider what is most important.

I’m not wanting to over-simplify an issue, but it seems the general argument made for suspending in-person worship is that the physical health and safety of the people of the congregation will be preserved in this way. That was the motivation of our Session when we resorted to live-stream only for 5 weeks in early 2020. We wrestled with what COVID was and what impact it would have. However, is it right at this point to continue to make the same argument after a whole year of data?

However, the question is not primarily a pragmatic one. Rather it speaks to the very essence of the reason for existence for the Christian. The delight of the Christian is not found primarily in his physical health or in this life. It is in his reconciliation to God. Sin has separated us from Him, but Christ purchases reconciliation by His own blood. Therefore the Christian does not ever cease to glorify God and enjoy Him. He is joined to Christ. The apostle Paul writes of this union:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” (Romans 8:35)

These are all rhetorical questions. The obvious answer is that no one or nothing can separate you from Christ, His love, and the inheritance that comes with it. But that inheritance is not found in this world, but in heaven. Worship is that foretaste of heaven, and there are a variety of ways in which the Christian will arrive in heaven. Some will be martyred, others will die of natural causes. Some will be gathered into heaven at a young age, others having lived a full life. Some will die subject to horrible suffering, some will pass into glory in their sleep. The point is not that all die and so therefore hand yourself over to a fatalistic recklessness. It is not to forfeit any sense of prudence. Rather, it is “How is it that the church loves life on earth so much that it is willing to forfeit and limit the corporate worship of the saints for close to a year now?”

Some questions to consider in the church’s response to COVID:

  • If the church is not gathering for worship, where is the unbeliever to find the peace offered in the gospel that can give him rest in the face of the constant threat of death? How is he to find Christian fellowship as described in Acts 2:42?
  • If the north American church is faced with persecution sometime in the future, will there be courage among Christians to continue to worship the Lord? And if there are Christians who are willing to assume that risk, should they be permitted to worship or should the elders forbid them and remove the option?
  • The next time a missionary desires to be sent to a dangerous region that is hostile to the gospel, will it be consistent with current COVID policies for the church to let him go and voluntarily face that risk?
  • If the risks for COVID go away, are there other risks, perhaps not as common in the news cycle, that also can cause death (such as highway travel) which would need to be eliminated before the church is willing to re-open? Will we forbid our members from eating fried foods? In other words, if we are doing all we can to remove risk of contracting this disease, shouldn’t we do the same for all other diseases and dangers?

The point is not that all responses to COVID must be uniform. But, to forfeit the worship of the living God based on the data we have (taking the CDC’s data at face value) could easily lead to the conclusion that the saints are a little too fond of life, and are unwilling to risk letting it go. What do you love more? The worship of the Living God or physical life? It’s a serious question. And, as a follow up, if someone were to look at your life today, would they say the same? Whatever our response to COVID may be, let us remember what the chief end of man is: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.