Amid the numerous government mandates regarding masks and social distancing in church, some Christian thinkers have argued that, “Christians should always obey the government, unless asked to sin.” Based on such reasoning, mask regulations should be strictly followed because it is not “sin” to wear a mask. Furthermore, Christians would also be obligated to obey any law, regarding any area of their lives, so long as the law didn’t require them to sin. But is such reasoning reasonable? Does the government have the authority from God to mandate anything (sin excepted) and are Christians (and all people) duty-bound to obey all such mandates?
To answer this question, we first need to understand what God has granted the government authority to do. The Bible makes it clear that God has granted the government the limited authority to punish evil (Rom. 13:3-4; 1 Pet. 2:14). If the government goes beyond this divine boundary, it has overstepped its authority and is acting in an unauthorized manner. The New Testament passages regarding civil government are prescriptive. In other words, they tell us how government should act; they tell us what government is authorized to do. For example, when the Apostle Paul says that civil “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Rom. 13:3), he is telling us how government should act, this is what government is authorized to do (namely, punish evil). Anytime the government seeks to punish good conduct, it is acting without authorization from God.
The church needs to do a better job of applying God’s Law to all of life. We need to do a better job of understanding what the Bible teaches about civil government. If churches had done this homework prior to the coronavirus, perhaps many more churches would have boldly stood on God’s Word rather than bowing to the state and closing their doors. To help us think biblically about the Christian’s relationship to government, here are three categories of governmental laws and how to respond to each: Category 1 Laws (you must obey), Category 2 Laws (you must disobey), and Category 3 Laws (you may choose to obey or disobey).
Category 1 Laws: Laws You Must Obey
Category 1 Laws are governmental laws that are consistent with God’s Law. These laws must be obeyed. For example, a law against theft must be followed. A law against rape must be followed. A law against bearing false witness in court must be followed. A law against murder must be followed. Anytime the government gets it right (and a broken clock is right twice a day), you must obey. You have no “freedom of conscience” in this matter. This is the very purpose for which government was instituted. And if you resist here then you should fear, for the government, if acting as intended, should punish these evils (cf. Rom. 13:4).
Category 2 Laws: Laws You Must Disobey
Category 2 Laws are governmental laws that contradict God’s Law. These laws must be disobeyed. For example, a law which forbids the sharing of the gospel. God commands Christian to share the gospel (Mark 16:15). Therefore, we must disobey the governmental law in this case. Any law which would require a woman to get an abortion must be disobeyed because murder is forbidden in God’s Law. A law that says the church cannot gather must be disobeyed because God commands us to gather (Heb. 10:25). (Sadly, many churches dropped the ball on this one and closed their doors during the coronavirus. For more on that topic download a free PDF copy of my book, Essential Service: Coronavirus and the Assembly of the Saints.)
Category 3 Laws: Laws You May Choose to Obey or Disobey, as Your Conscience Directs
Category 3 Laws are governmental laws that the government is not authorized to make. The government is not necessarily asking you to sin, but they are going beyond what God has given them authority to do. In these cases, you are free to obey the government or disobey the government without sinning against God. Of course, the government may bully you and oppress you for failing to live your life as they direct, but Christians should, in most cases, bind together and support one another when such governmental bullying occurs, rather than saying, “They should have just obeyed the government.” Unless a Christian is being punished for a violation of a Category 1 Law, the church should stand ready to support and help those Christians who face governmental threats, fines, and consequences. Here are four real-life examples of Category 3 Laws (several of which I have lived through). This list is not exhaustive, and wisdom is certainly needed when dealing with the inordinate amount of laws in America (boy, biblical law would be a relief), but these examples are some of the more obvious Category 3 Laws.
Example #1: Laws which forbid midwives to help mothers give birth at home. Choosing to give birth at a hospital is not sin, so someone could obey the government here and not sin. But the government does not have authority to forbid midwives to do home births. Is it evil to help mothers give birth to babies? Certainly not! It is a good thing. Therefore, the government has no authority from God to forbid such good conduct.
Example #2: Laws which require you to vaccinate your children. Vaccinating your children is not a sin, but the government does not have authority to force parents to do so. Parents, not government officials, are authorized to choose what is best for their children and there is nothing evil about delaying or skipping vaccines.
Example #3: Laws which forbid homeschooling. Is it evil for parents to homeschool their children? Certainly not! It is a good thing. Therefore, the government has no authority from God to forbid such good conduct.
Example #4: Laws which forbid the buying or selling of raw milk (or any other food product). Is it evil for the Amish farmer down the road to milk his cow and then sell you some of that milk? Certainly not! It is a good thing for people to enjoy the good things God created and bless their neighbors by trading such goods. Therefore, the government has no authority from God to forbid such good conduct.
There are many more examples of Category 3 Laws. The reason we have so many of these laws in America (and abroad) is because we have abandoned the biblical, limited role of government and instead adopted a humanistic view of the state which grants government the “positive” right to direct all of life. R.J. Rushdoony warned that when the law is positive in its function “the state has total jurisdiction to compel the total health of the people.” The government is no longer limited to enforcing God’s Law, but has free reign to apply humanistic law. “Because [humanistic] law is unlimited,” Rushdoony writes, “the state is unlimited. It becomes the business of the state, not to control evil, but to control men. Basic to every totalitarian regime is a positive concept of the function of the law.” Humanistic, positive law, then, leads to the government telling you what you can and cannot eat, what you must inject into your children’s bodies, how mothers can give birth, and so on. In many cases, it is wise to simply go along with Category 3 Laws; but each person’s situation is different, and our consciences should not be bound simply because the government issued an unauthorized decree.
Magistrates are not authorized to make iniquitous decrees. And you are not obligated to obey them. Iniquitous decrees include Category 2 Laws and Category 3 Laws. It is evil for the government to overstep its bounds and oppress the people with such laws. God will hold wicked magistrates accountable for such unjust decrees. The prophet Isaiah warned of this: “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey!” (Isaiah 10:1-2). It is wrong to say, “We shouldn’t be concerned about rights—we have no ‘rights,’ only ‘grace.’” This is pietistic jargon. When the government oppresses the people, by taking away their rights, God pronounces a curse on them. The prophet Isaiah cared about the rights of the people. We should too.
Chris Hume is a Christian husband, father, author, and military veteran. This article was adapted from Chris’ sermon, “When to Disobey Government.” Click here to listen to the sermon and learn more about this topic, including a biblical example of a Category 3 Law.