ISN'T PASTOR JAMES COATES IN VIOLATION OF ROMANS 13?
When it comes to the Christian's duty to submit to the civil authorities, it is vital that we rightly interpret the whole of Scripture. Firstly, it is crucial to recognize that Romans 13 (the biblical text that is so often cited for why churches should comply with the current government regulations) says nothing explicitly about Christians being required by God to submit to unrighteous rulings handed down by tyrannical overlords. Instead, Romans 13 merely describes God's purpose for civil governments, and therefore, the text assumes that Christians would do well to submit to these civil governments. But don't just take my word for it. Let's look at the text: “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection...” (Romans 13:2-5). Notice, the text does NOT say, “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do [whatever he says, whether morally right or wrong], and you will receive his approval, for he is [an autonomous agent working for his own benefit].” Instead, the text says, “Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is GOOD (that is, what is objectively good according to God's unchanging standard), and you will receive his approval, for he is GOD'S SERVANT (that is, he works for God and is obligated to function within God's perimeters for civil authorities) for YOUR GOOD (that is, your true and lasting good in accordance with what God calls good).
“It is crucial to recognize that Romans 13 says nothing about Christians being required by God to submit to unrighteous rulings handed down by tyrannical overlords.”
So are there times when Christians are not required to submit to the civil magistrate? Well, let's look at a few more biblical texts. In Exodus 1:16-17, we find these words: "When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthing-stool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live. But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live." We can be sure that these Egyptian midwives' rebellion was righteous because the Scripture informs us that their decision to spare the Hebrew boys was rooted in their fear of God. Also, Rahab refused to report the Hebrew spies in holy defiance of Jericho's civil authorities (Joshua 2). Furthermore, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego rebelled against the king's edict when they were commanded to bow down and worship the king's golden image (Daniel 3). And in addition to this, we see that Daniel was also willing to rebel in Daniel 6:7-10: "All the high officials of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an injunction, that whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions… When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously." When the king's decree forbade Daniel from continuing to act in obedience to his God, Daniel courageously chose to ignore it. And lastly, although more examples could undoubtedly be given, it is worth remembering that even the apostles decided to defy the Jewish Council (which served as both a religious and civil authority for the Jews at that time) when they were instructed not to preach in the name of Jesus any longer (Acts 5:27-29).
“When the king's decree forbade Daniel from continuing to act in obedience to his God, Daniel courageously chose to ignore it.”
In Daniel's case, it is worth noting that he did not find it necessary to “throw any extra punches" toward the civil authorities of his day. However, notice that he was deliberate not to “pull any punches" either. Daniel was committed to praying three times a day with his windows opened toward Jerusalem because this practice was in accordance with God's covenant found in 1 Kings 8:27-30. Daniel's windows remained open due to the "substance" of his worship, not the "circumstances" of his worship. In 1 Kings 8:27-30, God promised to hear the prayers of his people (even if they were held captive in a distant land as Daniel was) if they would pray toward Jerusalem where his temple was constructed. As it pertains to the New Testament Church, the "substance" of our worship is preaching, prayer, singing, and the sacraments. Christians cannot change these worship elements, but the "circumstances" of our worship may be altered. For example, a church that chooses to gather at 9am versus 10am is modifying the "circumstances" of their worship, but a church that chooses to live-stream their services as a substitute to physically gathering together is altering the "substance" of their worship. This is because the Bible clearly commands Christians to physically gather together (Hebrews 10:25).
IS IT REALLY THAT IMPORTANT FOR CHURCHES TO GATHER TOGETHER?
Those who maintain that churches should continue to physically gather together are often relentless in citing Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some...” Although I wholeheartedly agree that this text applies to our current situation, I simply wish that more believers were better equipped to explain why it is so vital that we obey this particular command. Hebrews 3:12-13 says, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another… that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” So Hebrews 10:24-25, when properly placed in context with Hebrews 3:12-13, provides both a biblical and logical explanation for the tragedy of apostasy (how some individuals who once belonged to the “visible” church ultimately chose to abandon the faith). By way of implication, Hebrews 10:24-25 informs us that the weekly gathering of the saints is the primary context for “stir[ring] up one another to love and good works.” And Hebrews 3:12-13 informs us that “exhort[ing] one another” (the phrase “exhort one another” is synonymous with the phrase “stir one another up”) is one of the church’s most effective strategies for guarding its members against being “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” which eventually causes people “to fall away from the living God” (commit apostasy). In other words, Christians are commanded not to neglect the weekly gathering of the saints because this is the necessary environment for fulfilling their Christian duty of stirring one another up. And stirring one another up (or exhorting one another) serves as a powerful defense against the deceitfulness of sin which creates a hardened, unbelieving heart. And finally, an unbelieving heart is what ultimately leads people to fall away from the living God.
“Christians are commanded not to neglect the weekly gathering of the saints because this is the necessary environment for fulfilling their Christian duty of stirring one another up.”
Therefore, it appears that Christians have a simple choice: We can either forsake the gathering to minimize the physical threat of death to our bodies (perhaps we should stay home and live-stream our church services for a few months each year during flu season), or we can continue to gather to minimize the spiritual threat of damnation to our souls. Some overly zealous Calvinists might object at this point by insisting that God is sovereign over salvation, and therefore, he is capable of preserving the souls of his elect, even in the absence of physically gathering together on the Lord’s Day. However, I might remind these Calvinists that the same God who is sovereign over salvation is sovereign over everything, and therefore, he is also quite capable of preserving the health of his people as they diligently seek to obey his commands.
ARE CHRISTIANS BEING SPECIFICALLY TARGETED?
Indeed, there are some distinctions between the biblical examples I've provided and the rulings issued by our own civil magistrate in light of Covid-19. Therefore, the task of those who desire to be obedient to Scripture is to determine the proper biblical criteria for when it is both appropriate and necessary for Christians to rebel. Some may be tempted to conclude from the previous biblical examples that the common denominator in each of these cases was that the people of God were specifically targeted. This is simply not true. In Daniel's case, the decree of King Darius made it illegal for anyone in all of his kingdom to pray to any "god" or petition any man. This decree oppressed those who worshiped the true God right along with everyone else. And in the case of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, it was the same. The decree of King Nebuchadnezzar affected everyone in the whole kingdom, even the pagans who worshiped false "gods." However, it is vital to recognize that Christians will often be affected more severely when governing authorities remove civil liberties. This is because we have been given clear commandments from God that must be obeyed. Whenever liberty is suppressed, Christians will uniquely suffer because Christians delight in the Law of God. And the Law of God is "the law of liberty" (James 1:25).
“Some may be tempted to conclude from the previous biblical examples that the common denominator in each of these cases was that the people of God were specifically targeted. This is simply not true.”
For example, in the case of King Nebuchadnezzar's decree, those who worshiped idols could simply add the king's statue to their list of false "gods." Most of these pagans were polytheists, and therefore, there was minimal conflict in submitting to the king's edict. However, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were committed to worshiping Yahweh alone. Their monotheistic religion presented a significantly greater challenge.
“Most of these pagans were polytheists, and therefore, there was minimal conflict in submitting to the king's edict.”
In the New Testament Church of the first century, Domitian ruled as emperor over Rome. His cruelty rivaled that of Emperor Nero. Statues of him were sent all over the empire. On appointed days, feasts were held where the entire population was required to pass before the images of Domitian and bow down before him as "god." Once again, this was a blanket ruling that affected the Roman Empire's whole population. Still, Christians were the ones who most frequently lost their lives due to their unparalleled allegiance to Christ. Regarding the social restrictions against gatherings due to Covid-19, although everyone has been affected in some manner, not everyone possess an allegiance to Scripture, which commands that we gather for corporate worship on the Lord's Day.
“Although everyone has been affected by the Covid-19 restrictions in some manner, not everyone possess an allegiance to Scripture.”
A further problem with this view is that if the singling-out of Christians is the only valid criteria for righteously choosing to rebel, the civil authorities can simply do what they have always done throughout church history. They can pass a universal law that affects all people but harms Christians significantly more. And for Christians to have the "biblical" option of rebelling, we must then be able to somehow infallibly discern the hidden motives of all the governing officials involved. In the case of Daniel (as well as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), malicious officials were serving as councilors to the king. These wicked officials worked tirelessly to influence the king to issue a foolish law that would affect those who feared God in much more significant ways than those who did not. However, we only know these officials' wicked motives because it has been recorded for us in Scripture. In all fairness, although these laws were inspired by sinful officials who aimed at the persecution of godly men, these laws affected everyone. If anyone of any religion prayed to any “god” (or even if an atheist petitioned any man) other than King Darius for 30 days, they would be thrown to the lions. There were likely many religious people at that time who urged one another to submit to the king's edict. Perhaps they said something like this: "The king has promised that the current restrictions against prayer will only last for 30 days. Surely, we should be patient during this season as we seek to humbly submit to those who are in positions of civil authority." Sound familiar?
“These wicked officials worked tirelessly to influence the king to issue a foolish law that would affect those who feared God in much more significant ways than those who did not.”
Regarding our own civil magistrate's rulings, the reality is that we simply do not know what motives our officials had when they made their decisions surrounding Covid-19. So do the officials responsible for these decisions possess hidden motives against the people of God? We cannot say with absolute certainty either way. But it appears quite possible, especially in the state of California. Therefore, it is both unbiblical and illogical to hold that Christians being definitively singled out is the only valid biblical criteria for rebelling against the civil magistrate.
SO WHAT IS THE BIBLICAL CRITERIA FOR GENUINE PERSECUTION?
The clearest common denominator found in each of the biblical examples I've provided is this: Both men and women who feared the Lord righteously chose to rebel against their civil authorities whenever those officials required them to partake of something that God forbids or forsake something that God commands. So for Christians to "forsake the gathering" in a manner that is acceptable before God, there must be a biblical reason for doing so. And this biblical reason must be something more than repeatedly chanting Romans 13 as an incantation and then framing the most recent document signed by Governor Newsom on your bedroom wall. Perhaps, the current challenges we are facing require a little bit more complex thought. Again, we must recognize that Romans 13 says nothing explicitly about submitting to governing officials when their decisions are not righteous. It most assuredly says nothing about submitting to governing officials when their laws require us to forsake something God commands.
“Both men and women who feared the Lord righteously chose to rebel against their civil authorities whenever those officials required them to partake of something that God forbids or forsake something that God commands.”
Conversely, the perimeters I've just presented for justifiable civil disobedience also serve as the perimeters for genuine persecution from the state in the form of civil tyranny. Man does not get to decide the purpose, function, and authority of civil governments. God is the one who instituted the sphere of civil government, and therefore, God is the one who maintains the exclusive rights for determining the role of civil government. God's determination in this matter has been clearly communicated to us in Scripture, namely Romans 13 (as well as a few other biblical texts). So whenever civil governments overstep their God-given jurisdiction, we have a legitimate case of civil tyranny. And whenever this civil tyranny inhibits Christians' obedience to God's commandments, we have a genuine case of persecution. This is not to say there are no degrees of persecution. Certainly, some Christians have been persecuted more, while other Christians have been persecuted less. In comparison with other examples of persecution over the course of the last 2,000 years of church history, it appears indisputable that the persecution presently experienced by Pastor James Coates is on the lesser side. However, to claim that what is currently taking place does not even qualify as legitimate persecution, and that Pastor James Coates and his church our merely “playing the martyr,” reveals an alarming level of ignorance and cruelty.
“Whenever civil governments overstep their God-given jurisdiction, we have a legitimate case of civil tyranny. And whenever this civil tyranny inhibits Christian obedience, we have a genuine case of persecution.”
As a final note on this subject, we need to recognize that as Christians in the United States of America, we are not subjects in a monarchy. Instead, we are citizens of a republic. We are not ultimately subject to a sovereign human official because the highest civil magistrate in our land is not a human official but a document: "The Constitution of the United States of America." Therefore, a reasonable argument can be made for Christians righteously rebelling against lesser civil magistrates (governors, mayors, and even presidents) in order to righteously submit to the highest civil magistrates (Federal and State Constitutions).
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