While the vast majority of American Christians are peacefully complying with stay at home orders issued by state governments, a notable few, religious leaders and lawmakers alike, are advocating for civil disobedience. This is particularly perplexing because these types of Christians are often the same who loudly proclaim that, because of Romans 13, undocumented immigrants should be locked up and deported for allegedly breaking the law.
Which leads you to wonder if some Christians think different rules apply to them than to everyone else.
To be clear, the Bible teaches that followers of Jesus ought to comply with the laws of the land, when those laws are good:
“For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4 NIV).
The Apostle Peter notes that Christians shouldn’t be known as lawbreakers. Quite the contrary:
“If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” (1 Peter 4:16-17 NIV).
The exception? Christians, however, are not to obey any law that would cause them to break a command of God. “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29 NIV).
For example, prolific 19th century Christian writer and abolitionist Ellen G. White concluded that Christians should not obey unjust laws like the Fugitive Slave Act of her day, writing that “[w]here the laws of men conflict with God’s word and law, we are to obey the word and law of God, whatever the consequences may be. The laws of our land requiring us to deliver a slave to his master, we are not to obey…” (Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 4b, 42).
What command of God would Christians be violating if they obeyed the Fugitive Slave Act? The law that says to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Romans 13:9). (And, by the way, there’s a good argument to be made here that loving your neighbor means Christians should advocate for and defend those fleeing violence in their home countries to seek asylum here in America).
But the current stay at home orders are in no way contrary to God’s law. In fact, we stay home because we love our neighbor and want to keep them safe. Pandemics are nothing new, and historian Jeffrey Rosario writes about how Christians have traditionally responded with love and common sense by staying home to protect public health.
Which is why even God must be embarrassed to hear some Christians argue that stay at home orders somehow amount to religious persecution simply because they can’t go to church. Really?
I’m a human rights lawyer who fights for Christians persecuted in nations like Pakistan. Christians denied rights to worship, arrested & tortured, even killed for their faith. That is real persecution. Stay-at-home orders to stop the spread of a deadly virus is NOT. Don’t conflate.
Significantly, none other than a conservative Christian, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, penned the United States Supreme Court’s controversial 1990 decision Employment Division v. Smith, where the Court found that the government need only show the slightest justification for enacting a generally applicable law that doesn’t specifically target religion. Clearly, stay at home orders do not target religion but rather are aimed at protecting public health, and thus would almost certainly pass muster under Smith.
THE EROSION OF CIVIL LIBERTIES
But what about creeping civil liberties restrictions? Should Christians (and everyone else) be concerned that at each crisis we seem to be giving government more power to intrude into the private lives of citizens?
Certainly. After 9/11 it was the Patriot Act which has allowed the American intelligence apparatus to spy on Americans. The current public health crisis is leading to other potential privacy intrusions. And undoubtedly after this pandemic there will be more violations of our civil liberties in the years ahead.
But while Christians should rightly raise the alarm when civil liberties are eroded, we should also do our best to support government officials dealing with complex national crises by giving them the benefit of the doubt, while taking at face value the steps they take to deal with those crises. As we obey lawful governmental mandates, Christians should also avoid conspiratorial thinking. Eric Louw writes about how our witness is only undermined when we push unfounded conspiracy theories about the government.
Even though Revelation 13 predicts the eventual total restriction of religious freedom in our world, the Bible indicates that, contrary to current Christian thought, the persecutors of God’s end-time people will be professed Christians empowered by a populist, democratic movement. Now that’s a unique plot twist! (More on that here and here).
We followers of Jesus ought to save our moral outrage for a time when we’ll need it: when persecution actually happens. We’re not there yet, at least here in America, and crying “persecution” now won’t do us any favors in the days ahead.
We’ll end with an apt admonition from the Apostle Peter:
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:15-17 NIV).
Steve Allred writes from Auburn, California.