In this article, I mean to defend my position that church and civil governments are distinct, to the implication that forbidding local church assemblies during a pandemic falls outside the jurisdiction of civil government. First, I will provide Biblical support for my position. Second, I will provide brief historical commentary concerning my position. Third, I will apply my position to the present COVID-19 situation in the United States.

My argumentation is quite lengthy (for a blog). If you want to “cut-to-the-chase,” then scroll down to the sub-section “Governments and Diseases” and read on.

A Biblical Examination of Civil Government

Four Types of Government

The Bible describes at least four types of earthly government: personal, familial, ecclesial, and civil.

Personal government involves the conscience and self-discipline. It is created by the covenant of life (works). This is the governance one enacts upon himself. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Romans 2:15). God writes His law upon the hearts of His people (), but He works His law upon the hearts of all men (Romans 2:15), to such an effect that all men are born with an innate sense of right and wrong.

Familial government involves the family unit. It is created by the covenant of marriage. The husband is the chief governor of the home, responsible his wife and children. “The husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church” (Ephesians 5:23). “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (6:4). Under this headship, both husband and wife govern the children. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’” (vv.1-2).

Civil government involves the rulership of a nation, where certain magistrates preside over citizens for the sake of peace. It is created by the covenant of governance. The governance of a nation may take one of a number of forms (monarchy, democracy, etc.), yet is always for the same purpose: punishing crimes and protecting rights. “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” (1 Peter 2:13-14).

Ecclesial government involves the local church, where the congregation holds the keys to the kingdom and submits to a plurality of elders. It is created by the covenant of grace. The governors of a local church are the elders, called overseers. The congregation governs the gate, guarding participation in the flock through the affirmation and denial of professions of faith (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5). “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The elders govern the pasture, ministering the corporate means of grace to those inside the flock. “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17).

Foundations of Civil Government

All civil governments have horizontal and vertical foundations. The vertical foundation of civil government is that God desires there to be civil government. Civil magistrates are God’s servant for our good (Romans 13:4), ordained and instituted by God (v.1). The horizontal foundation of civil government is the consent of the governed. This consent is not given perpetually or generationally, but rather covenantally. Those born into a nation are covenantally bound to the civil magistrate of said nation. However, this covenant must have been ratified by both the governed and the governor(s) beforehand.

In Genesis 12, God promises to make his descendants into a nation (v.2), thus linking the concepts of birth and nationality. As punishment upon Pharaoh, God smote the firstborn son of every Egyptian household (Exodus 12:29-32). In this instance, children born into the Egyptian nation directly suffered for the sins of their civil magistrate, thus highlighting the covenantal, national relationship a child is born into. If this was not true, God would not have killed those firstborn sons. This is not to say that birth is the only way to enter a nation. However, it is to say that birth is an entrance into citizenry.

As stated beforehand, a civil covenant must be ratified by both the governed and the governor(s). Israel’s forced servitude to Egypt was repudiated by God (Exodus 3:7-10) in Joshua 24. The heads of families were given the option to renew or not renew their covenant with God, which places great important upon their consent to be God’s people. If this is true of the covenant of grace and the most glorious relationship a man can have (i.e. between he and God), then how much more should it be true of lesser covenants among men?

Therefore, the foundations of civil government are these: it is ordained by God and covenantal among men. This means that civil government is a basic duty required of all men. We are obligated to be in covenant with civil magistrates. If we have no civil government to obey, then it is our duty to conceive of one, for it is God’s will that we be so governed. Further, because it is ordained by God, it is always a covenant made and fulfilled before God. I am unaware of a name being previously given to this covenant, and so I am calling it “the covenant of governance.”

Governmental Spheres

Each government possesses distinct spheres of responsibility. Their responsibility is directly related to their authority. If the husband is not responsible for his wife, then he has no authority as her head. If the elders of a local church are not responsible for their congregant members, then they have no authority to administer means of grace to them. With great authority comes great responsibility. Each government, possessing distinct spheres of responsibility, is likewise independent in regards to those responsibilities. A father does not have authority to force a child to believe upon Christ (a matter of personal government). A king does not have the authority to excommunicate someone from a congregation (a matter of ecclesial government).

There are distinct spheres of responsibility/authority, yet we have already established that each of these governments are instituted by means of a covenant. Personal government is instituted solely by God, and so it is unique in that respect. However, over an individual there presides a family, and over a family there presides a civil government and sometimes an ecclesial government (if this household is under the covenant of grace). These relationships are not two-dimensional. Each is responsible for distinct matters, yet there is a hierarchy. This is possible because the hierarchy is not absolute. The family is over the individual in certain matters, and the civil and ecclesial governments are over the family in certain matters. Ecclesial government, as this paragraph has implied, is hierarchically parallel with civil government, in that neither presides over the other.

One implication is that family members are represented before civil and ecclesial governments by their familial head (i.e. the husband). This does not mean civil and ecclesial governments have no jurisdiction whatsoever over individual members of a family, yet it does mean that the head of any household is to represent his members before civil magistrates and ecclesial authorities. Because the nation is built upon the family, it is only natural that this would be so – and a great shame to when it is not (Isaiah 3:12). Profound new freedoms have been afforded to women and children in the New Covenant, yet God still wants the husband to represent the family before the church (e.g. 1 Timothy 2:9-15).

Personal, familial, and civil governments are common graces which God has given to mankind. If a nation has no church, then it can have no ecclesial government. We may call these three “common governments.”

Distinctions

We must distinguish between governments and people. Ecclesial government has no authority to conduct the duties of familial government, but this does not mean that a member of a family must not submit to his elders. One man may subjugate himself to all four types of government, in which case he would fill various roles of rulership and submission. A husband must govern himself (personal) and his home (familial), but he must submit to his elders (ecclesial) and his national rulers (civil). One person can fill various roles of rulership and submission.

Yet even as this one person participates in such a variety of roles, he must recognize that these roles are distinct in nature. He rules his home (familial) from one position, and he rules himself (personal) from another. He submits to his elders (ecclesial) from one position, and he submits to his king (civil) from another. This is because he is simultaneously participating in four distinct spheres of life, which bear four distinct sets of responsibility and authority. For this reason, the king rules over the pastor in the matter of taxation, yet the pastor rules over the king in the matter of Communion.

A family is not constricted by the purview of the church. An individual is not constricted by the purview of the state. Further, if one government disbands, the others persist. If a civil government falls, the families (whose members are citizens of that nation) are not dismantled. If a church closes its doors, the individuals who are part of that flock do not lose their identity and responsibility to self-govern.

That each type of government must respect the ordained purview of another is clear. In Genesis 12:10-20, Pharaoh took Sarai as a lover. God smote Pharaoh with plagues because Sarai was Abram’s wife, though Pharaoh had not known this. When Pharaoh realized what was going on, he said to Abram, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her and go” (vv.18-19). Pharaoh had no authority to take another man’s wife (and he knew it). When God afflicted Pharaoh’s house with plagues, He confirmed our suspicion that civil government does not have absolute authority over a family. This story should be exemplary for all governments: stay in your lane.

This study will not delve further into the responsibilities and authorities of personal, familial, and ecclesial governments. Our focus henceforth will be upon civil government and how it relates to ecclesial government. First, let us consider in greater detail what responsibility and authority civil government possesses.

The Divergence of Priestly and Kingly Duties

In Genesis, the offices of priest and king are first recognizable in Adam. The limits of what man could eat and what he was to do (2:15-17) was communicated to Adam before God created woman, and so Adam was responsible for proclaiming this Word of God to Eve (e.g. 3:1-5). The language of “working and keeping” in Genesis 2 is used of Israelite priests (Numbers 3:7-8; 8:25-26; 18:5-6; 1 Chronicles 23:32; Ezekiel 44:14), and Adam taught his sons certain priestly functions of worship (Genesis 4:1-7). Also, as an image bearer of God, Adam served as God’s vice-regent and was responsibility for exercising dominion over the earth – a kingly office (1:27; 2:15). Therefore, in Adam we see a true embodiment of a priest-king.

Adam failed to fulfill either of these offices, and as history progressed the offices began to diverge. Cain probably became a civil ruler (4:17), but his priestly functions were rejected (4:1-16). Nimrod built a kingdom (10:9-10), but there is no mention of priestly duties. The next instance of unity between priesthood and kingship is Melchizedek (14:17-24), who serves Abram a proto-eucharist (v.18) and a blessing (vv.19-20). Christ would later be identified as belonging to the “order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 7), which among other possible meanings certainly refers to Him being no priest of simple human origin (Melchizedek had no lineage that we can recognize) and to Him being a priest-king.

Abram functioned as a type of priest. As he traveled through Canaan (the land God had promised his descendants), he built altars of worship to God (e.g. 12:7-9). It might be argued that because Abram was a nomad yet presided over much wealth and many people (e.g. 14:14), he therefore was a civil ruler. However, this would be antithetical to God’s Covenant with Abram, because the promise was future, not present, nationality. It is probably more congruent with Scripture to view Abram’s priestly functions as related to his family. Abram was, in a sense, a priest to his household: “I have chosen [Abraham], that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (18:19).

Abram’s familial, priestly function is reflected in the responsibility that husbands bear over their households. The husband is in a true sense a priest to his household, laboring for the sanctification of his wife (Ephesians 5:25-33), leading family members to regularly worship and obey God (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), and interceding in prayer on behalf of his children (Job 1:4-5). Yet this priestly function is only present if the household is in covenant with God, as Abraham’s priestly activity was related to the covenant God made with him. Further, such priestly functions should not be confused with formal priest, akin to the order of Aaron, for example.

So throughout time, certainly priestly duties are visible in familial governance, yet as mentioned above, these duties seem quickly divergent from civil governance. After Melchizedek, we find no clear priest-king until Christ. Moses led God’s people, though his leadership was prophetic (Numbers 12:1-9), for until Saul God served as the king of Israel (1 Samuel 8:7). Moses perhaps functioned in certain priestly ways, but the priesthood God established for Israel was the Aaronic order (Exodus 28:1). In fact, the Mosaic Law (Exodus-Deuteronomy) marks the formal separation of the priestly and kingly offices. After this time, it was considered a great evil for civil rulers to function as priests. “They withstood King Uzziah and said to him, ‘It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary, for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God” (2 Chronicles 26:19; c.f. 1 Samuel 13). The separation of the priestly and kingly functions seems evident gradually after the Fall and formally after the Mosaic Law. These functions are only again unified in Christ.

In these last days, the New Covenant presents every Christian as a priest unto God, in some true sense (1 Peter 2:5; i.e. not a priest of the order of Aaron or Melchizedek). Every Christian has direct access to God through the mediation of Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). Further, there is no priesthood in the church. Elders in a local church are not priests (e.g they are paid by merit of Deuteronomy 25:4 [1 Timothy 5:18] not Numbers 18:28). Roman Catholicism is in error on this matter: Christ is the true and greater High Priest, and by consequent everyone for whom He intercedes holds a priesthood of their own.

Still, one need not fill a priestly office in order to discharge certain priestly duties. For example, there are certain priestly duties which Christ calls elders in a local church to fulfill. These priestly duties do not involve the mediation of salvific grace, but do involve the shepherdly administration of certain means of grace (preaching, baptism, etc.). Elders are to feed Christ’s sheep (John 21:15-19; cf. Matthew 4:4; John 15:1-11; 2 Timothy 4:1-5) as temporary overseers of His flock.

Civil magistrates have no such priestly duties. Individuals are to govern themselves to worship God. Husbands are to govern their families to worship God. Elders are to govern their congregations to worship God. Civil magistrates, on the other hand, are not to govern their civilians to worship God.

This Divergence Evidenced in Admonitions to Civil Magistrates

The next matter is to consider admonitions God gives to civil government, to discern whether or not the rule formally established by the Mosaic Law (separation of priestly and kingly duties) stands. What responsibility has God given civil government?

God expects rulers to “pronounce just decisions” and “judge people fairly” (Psalm 58:1 NET). Kings are to judge rich and poor with righteousness (72:2). The weak should be safe and the oppressor crushed under the dominion of a good king (v.4). To unfaithful civil magistrates God says, “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (82:2-4). The Psalmist, in the above verses, presents what God expects of civil magistrates: that they would maintain justice in their respective dominions.

In Proverbs we read, “If a king faithfully judges the poor, his throne will be established forever” (29:14). “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted” (31:4-5). There are natural rights all people possess – human rights. Civil government is responsible for protecting these rights (e.g. Genesis 9:6). Civil magistrates who understand and execute this mandate will prosper their citizens. “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous and terror to evildoers” (Proverbs 21:15).

In the Prophets, we read that civil government has failed when “the land is full of bloody crimes and the city is full of violence” (Ezekiel 7:23). Civil magistrates are to “put away violence and oppression, and execute justice and righteousness” (45:9a). Ruling justly is an issue of personal morality for all civil magistrates, as Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar: “Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity” (Daniel 4:26).

These Old Testament principles are reiterated in the New Testament. Paul wrote: “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad… 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 (Romans 13:3-4). It is correct to say that civil government is “for our good,” but not in an absolute sense. Civil government does not exist to ensure health and prosperity in all realms of human life – if so, it would extend into the pulpit and the marriage bed. Civil government exists “for our good,” only in the context of punishing crimes and upholding rights. Or as Paul states, in the context of carrying out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (v.4).

Peter held a similar view of civil government: “By 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” (1 Peter 2:13-14). It is clear that the transition of ages, from Old to New Covenant, did not alter what the purview of civil government. From Genesis to Revelation, God gives civil government authority to uphold righteousness. It is ordained by God and bestowed with the sword of justice. This sword is for carrying out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer and is not wielded in vain (Romans 13:4). The sword is for punishing those who do evil (1 Peter 2:14).

We find no admonitions given to civil government which include priestly or ecclesial duties. The responsibility of civil government involves punishing crimes and protecting rights. Because this is the purview of its responsibility, it is also the limit of its authority. Thus, civil authority does not overlap with ecclesial authority.

Governments and Diseases

The clearest revelation of what responsibilities civil government possesses does not include general admonitions for protecting life. Several theologians whom I respect have argued recently that civil government does have a responsibility to, in general, protect life. While I do not see this in Scripture, I will concede the point for the sake of this article. However, I will only concede the point insofar as we have clear precedent in Scripture of God condoning civil governments who protected life. For example, I am willing to concede (for now) that civil government is responsible for helping civilians survive a famine, for this is what God sent Joseph to Egypt to do.

I am also willing to concede that civil government is responsible for helping civilians survive diseases, by means of instituting quarantines. According to Mosaic Law, authorities dealt with cases of leprosy (Leviticus 13-14). Medical illnesses such as leprosy and unknown diseases (esp. discharges; ch. 15) were to be dealt with by means of cleansing and secluding points of contamination.

Quarantines, therefore, fall within the purview of civil governance. If a household is suspected of contracting a deadly disease, civil magistrates should investigate. If the suspicion is vindicated, they should quarantine the family and purify the home. This is in accordance with Levitical guidelines. What this does not grant, however, is jurisdiction to issue stay-at-home orders. A quarantine is the hard segregation of an infected person/party away from the rest of society. A stay-at-home order (and similar orders) is the mitigation of normal activities in order to reduce the chance of disease spread. Quarantines are Biblical, stay-at-home orders are not.

If three men in a city are suspected to have contracted a deadly disease, they and anyone reasonably believed to be contaminated should be quarantined – a hard, strict, no-strings-attached quarantine. This is something civil government has authority to do (with my concession at the beginning of this section). However, these three sick men do not give the civil magistrates grounds for locking everyone in the city inside their homes, or closing down businesses city-wide, or from shuttering the doors of churches. If a church building is suspected of being contaminated by these three sick men, then the civil authorities have an obligation to quarantine and cleanse that building. However, they do not have the authority to forbid the church from meeting in the parking lot.

Historical Precedent

Over many centuries, the proper vision of church/state relations has been hewn from the Bible. Roman Catholicism introduced Papism, which posits that ecclesial government presides over civil government. The king bears a sword, but the sword is bestowed by the seat of Peter. During the Protestant Reformation, many theologians flirted with Erastianism, which posits that civil government presides over ecclesial government.

Reformation thought seemed to want a considerable blending of civil/ecclesial jurisdiction (e.g. burning heretics at the stake), while simultaneously attempting to separate ecclesial governance from the state. These conflicting motives become apparent in the original draft of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (LBCF) presents three paragraphs on the civil magistrate, whereas the WCF presents four. Much of the LBCF on the civil magistrate is identical to the WCF’s correlating section, with one primary exception. The WCF has four paragraphs in its section on the civil magistrate, whereas the LBCF omits the third paragraph.

In 1788, the American Presbyterians revised the third paragraph in the WCF, and this newer reading would not seem contradictory to what the LBCF commits itself to. However, the original reading of the WCF in paragraph 3 did present difficulties, which is why those who drafted the LBCF chose to leave it out. The matter concerned “soul liberty,” otherwise known as religious freedom. The original reading of the WCF in paragraph three was as follows:

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

The 1788 American revision reads as follows:

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least interfere in matters of faith. yet as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner, that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense or religion of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.

As should be plain, the 1788 American revision rejects the role of civil magistrates proposed in the original WCF. Instead, the revised WCF opts for a distinction between civil and ecclesial authority, such that religious liberty is protected. The role of the civil magistrate concerning religion is to protect the people in their exercise of religion. This involves keeping others and themselves away from disturbing “all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies.”

On the matter of civil magistrates, the LBCF reads as follows:

1. God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates to be under him, over the people, for his own glory and the public good and to this end hath armed them with the power of the sword, for defense and encouragement of them that do good and for the punishment of evil doers.

2. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate when called there unto; in the management whereof, as they ought especially to maintain justice and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each kingdom and commonwealth, so for that end they may lawfully now, under the New Testament wage war upon just and necessary occasions.

3. 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.

Commenting on this section of the LBCF, Samuel Waldon wrote:

Dictating religious belief and worship is not the task or function of the state. It is outside the sphere of the civil authority to do this…. If a state is to dictate religious belief or worship, this inevitably requires that the state either rule the church or the church rule the state. The first system is known as Erastianism. The second is papism. Although it has not always consistently worked out its commitments, the reformed tradition, beginning with Calvin himself, has always rejected these systems and taught that the church and state possess separate spheres of authority delegated directly to them from God, not mediated to them from the other…. For the state to dictate religious belief and worship, this biblical separation must be violated.[1]

A. A. Hodge seems to have agreed with Waldon, in his commentary on the WCF:

This is opposed… to the Papal doctrine of the relation of the State to the Church…. Our Confession teaches that the State in in its sphere entirely independent of the Church, and that it has civil jurisdiction over all ecclesiastical persons, on the same principles and to the same extent it has over any other class of persons whatsoever…. The statements of these Sections are opposed also to the Erastian doctrine as to the relation of the State to the Church, which ahs prevailed in all the nations and national churches of Europe. This doctrine regards the State as a divine institution, designed to provide for all the wants of men, spiritual as well as temporal.[2]

Both of these commentators define Erastian and Papal concepts of civil/ecclesial relations as erroneous. The state is not over the church, nor is the church over the state. Hodge continues:

…our confession teaches that religious liberty is an inalienable prerogative of mankind (Chapter xx.), and that it involves the unlimited right upon the part o every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience. Hence, ecclesiastical rulers, although endowed with the power of the keys, are not allowed to apply any civil pains or disabilities to coerce men to obey the laws they administer. Hence, also, the civil magistrate, while bound to protect church members and ecclesiastical organizations in the peaceful enjoyment of their rights and discharge of their functions, is nevertheless allowed no official jurisdiction whatever in the affairs of the Church.[3]

My argument is not that Waldon, Hodge, the writers of the WCF, and the writers of the LBCF, would all agree with my position that civil government has no right to close local churches in the event of a pandemic. My argument is not that these theologians would agree with me, if they were here today in the United States. Rather, my argument is that the Biblical principles which I have elaborated upon in the opening section of this article, are evident in the work of many other theologians in history (at least from the Reformation-forward).

Application

What Authority the United States Government Possesses to Forbid the Assembly of Local Churches

During our COVID-19 situation, many theologians and pastors have said, “Yes, civil government has authority to issues quarantine orders.” Almost all who say this do not follow up with a clarification, “But civil government has no authority to issue mass stay-at-home/social distance orders, and what the United States government has done is immoral and unbiblical.” Even if these leaders are correct in the latter assertion, they become at best misleading by not including the former assertion.

The matter stands, therefore, that civil government has no authority to forbid the assembly of local churches. If everyone in a local church is suspected to have contracted a deadly, communicable disease, then the civil magistrates may quarantine (hard and strict) these people until the assumption is verified or discounted. This is because quarantining diseased persons falls within the purview of civil government, and this does not change if the persons in question are members of a local church. Yet notice that this still does not give civil government the authority to speak to a local church governance, to send a letter to her elders, and say, “You must close your doors, regardless of whether or not the building and every member is contaminated.”

In regards to this matter, I must also posit that not only are such orders (stay-at-home, social distance, etc.) unbiblical, they are in fact unconstitutional. There are no provisions or amendments which state that in the event of a pandemic, civil magistrates have absolute authority of persons, families, and churches. It has been argued that these orders are constitutional because they are being issued “across the board,” but this is false on two accounts. First, where is this provision in the Constitution? Oppression is still oppression, even if everyone is oppressed equivalently. Second, the orders are not being issued “across the board,” but rather to those entities which the civil magistrate has subjectively deemed “non-essential.” While, for example, certain abortion mills are allowed to continue operating.

Some have argued the constitutional character of these orders on the basis of precedence, yet this does not suffice. First, it is judicial precedence is not equivalent to the Constitution. Second, judicial precedence allows for the continuation of abortion in our country, which I do not believe we wish to commit ourselves to. Third, Justice Clarence recently challenged the idea of judicial precedent in a Supreme Court case. Therefore, I see no reason to acknowledge recent order of the government as constitutional, on the simple basis that they have been issued before.

How Should Local Churches Conduct Themselves?

Commenting on the LBCF, Waldon writes, “Obedience to rulers is only appropriate ‘in all lawful things.’ The great question is, however, ‘What defines what is lawful?’ The answer must be, only the Word of God, not our opinions, nor our feelings, nor our traditions and not our convenience. The Word of God written is the sole authority for what is lawful.” Local churches must balance peace and holiness, obedience to civil magistrates and obedience to God. A good rule might be to obey civil government in all things until they forbid what God commands, or command what God forbids.[4]

The local assembly is a command of God, the height of New Covenant glory on earth. Therefore, it is not only permissible, but incumbent upon the elders of a local church to exercise great caution in the cancelation of this assembly. Let each elder body do as they deem best. The church may go for some time without meeting on the Lord’s Day, yet certainly not indefinitely. If, in the name of peace and generosity, one team of elders decides to cancel the assembly for a number of weeks, let them do so with a clear conscience. If, in the name of holiness and obedience to God, another team of elders decides to continue the assembly during this pandemic, let them do so with a clear conscience. Any attempt of the United States government to impose civil authority upon such decisions is inappropriate and should not be recognized by any local church. I heartily apply Hodge’s commentary: the civil magistrate is “allowed no official jurisdiction whatever in the affairs of the Church.”[5]

How Should Individuals Conduct Themselves?

The principle is identical for personal governance. A man has God-given rights that are not forfeit by a pandemic. Be at peace, in so far as you can, with you civil magistrates. Obey just laws and obey silly laws, all for the sake of demonstrating obedience and reverence to the ministers God has placed over you in civil governance. However, let each man decide for himself when such governors cross the threshold into mischievous territory – that is, forbidding what God commands and/or commanding what God forbids. Calvin wrote: “We are subject to the men who rule over us, but subject only in the Lord. If they command anything against him let us not pay the least regard to it, nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as magistrates – a dignity to which no injury is done when it is subordinated to the special and truly supreme power of God.”[6]

Yet Calvin also wrote with great force on the degree of patience and obedience which must be rendered to civil magistrates:

The first duty of subjects towards their rulers, is to entertain the most honorable views of their office, recognizing it as a delegated jurisdiction from God, and on that account receiving and reverencing them as the ministers and ambassadors of God…. From this, a second consequence is, that we must with ready minds prove our obedience to them, whether in complying with edicts, or in paying tribute, or in undertaking public offices and burdens, which relate to the common defense, or in executing any other orders…. If it is proper that anything in a public ordinance should be corrected, let them not act tumultuously, or put their hands to a work where they ought to feel that their hands are tied, but let them leave it to the cognizance of the magistrate, whose hand alone here is free.[7]

Regardless of how faithfully your civil magistrates exercise their authority, let us be compliant with our own duties, which chief among them is prayer for governors. “First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Do not grumble about your civil governors: our hands must be lifted without wrath and dissension (v.8). Consider writing letters to your representatives, encouraging them with Gospel admonitions and reminding them (with grace and clarity) what the Bible says about quarantines and civil/ecclesial governments.

May the Lord watch over you and keep you safe. May the peace of Christ, won by His blood, permeate your home and all of your decisions. Christ is victorious. Amen. 


[1] Samuel E. Waldon, A Modern Exposition of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (Evangelical Press: Great Britain, 1989), 294.

[2] A. A. Hodge, Commentary on the Confession of Faith (Presbyterian Board of Publication: Philadelphia, 1869), 404-405.

[3] Ibid., 405-406.

[4] Hodge agrees: “The limit of this obligation to obedience [to civil government] will be found only when we are commanded to do something contrary to the superior authority of God (Acts iv 19; v.29) and when the civil government has become so radically and incurably corrupt that it has ceased to accomplish the ends for which it was established” (pg.406-407).

[5] Hodge, 406.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, 2008), 988. Calvin continued: “On this ground Daniel denies that he had sinned in any respect against the king when he refused to obey his impious decree (Dan 6:22), because the king had exceeded his limits, and not only been injurious to men, but, by raising his horn against God, had virtually abrogated his own power. On the other hand, the Israelites are condemned for having too readily obeyed the impious edict of the king. For, when Jeroboam made the golden calf, they forsook the temple of God, and, in submissiveness to him, revolted to new superstitions (1 Kgs 12:28)” (Ibid.).

[7] Calvin, 983-984.

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