Will the constitutional republic survive the coronavirus pandemic?
Will an outcome of the crisis mean the loss of constitutional restraints on the state?
Will the “new normal” be a more authoritarian government?
In the face of raw dominance, is it proper for people to resist, considering Romans 13, and its insistence that we must all be subject to the governing authorities because “there is no authority except from God”?
New York’s Mayor de Blasio threatened churches with permanent extermination if they violate his orders not to assemble. The Gotham mayor specified actions “up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”
A Kentucky pastor determined to go ahead with his church’s Easter gathering despite orders from Governor Andy Beshear. The local police tried to turn people away and took license plate numbers of attendees. Nails were spread at the parking lots.
Massachusetts Governor Charles Baker classified churches as “nonessential,” and therefore had to follow his orders about opening and closing.
“I can stand in a line of 200 people at a liquor store ... but I am not afforded the same reasonable accommodations in the same-sized building across the street to receive the Sacraments of my salvation as a practicing Roman Catholic,” wrote Carol McKinley in The Federalist.
Such bureaucratic overreach flies in the face of the spirit and letter of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The founders spelled out fundamental rights that were “unalienable” because they were given to the people by God, not the state.
The first ten Amendments to the Constitution provide details of the “unalienable Rights.”
The framers included a statement in the Declaration of Independence that might have been seen as stunning for their era: “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it...”
But what about Romans 13? Must Bible-believing people accept all despotic orders from governing officials, with total compliance and without resistance? Are the pastors of thousands of churches in California who intend to open May 31 despite the orders from their governor not to assemble in violation of the Bible?
The answer lies in the biblical distinction between authority and raw power. Authority is granted from the higher to the lower, and only to those who are under higher authority. Raw power is seized and imposed by those with “muscle” greater than those they dominate.
As a pastor I once counseled a wife whose husband told her she had to submit to his abuse — including beatings — because the Bible said the wife is to be submissive to her husband. However, 1 Corinthians 11:3 says that if the man is to hold true authority in the home he must first submit to the authority of Christ. If the husband steps out from under that authority, he loses his own “headship” in the family. The wife can and must resist the tyranny of a husband who does not yield himself to the Authority over him.
So, church leaders resisting the power-moves of authoritarian (but not authoritative) civil rulers are not violating Romans 13. Neither were the First Century Christians in Rome, nor those in modern times under Nazi, Fascist, or Communist despots, nor Dr. Martin Luther King and others in the civil rights movement who refused to submit to Jim Crow laws.
However, as all these teach us, we must recognize and accept that there’s a price to be paid for refusal to comply with authoritarian people and institutions.
Yet despots lose their right to rule as King Saul lost his whole kingdom when he came out from under the authority of God administered through Samuel. (1 Samuel 13)
Hopefully, among the many lessons we will learn from the COVID-19 experience will be the importance of understanding and applying constitutional provisions on a personal and corporate level.
Benjamin Franklin believed that “the principal support of virtue, morality, and civil liberty” was “a Bible and a newspaper in every house,” and “a good school in every district.”
The Bible would provide the principles for personal recognition of God’s transcendent authority, and the accountability of every citizen before Him. The individual would be well-informed regarding current events through the newspaper. The school would educate people in building society and maintaining the Republic.
Among the important teachings revealed in the Bible is that of taking responsibility for ourselves and understanding the restraints on government. If God Himself allows us to be free, then men and women in civil office certainly have no right to impose their dictates upon us.
The role of government in a free society under a constitutional system is to alert people to looming dangers, make recommendations on how to protect themselves and their crucial institutions, provide what is needed without destroying the nation the civil authority seeks to save, and, yes, establishing just policies addressing the crisis.
The individual is to respect truly authoritative government, be willing to resist regimes that trample civil rights, and, in light of information and warnings, make their own decisions with the well-being of society in mind, taking personal responsibility for care of themselves, their families, and all else for which they have personal stewardship.
Otherwise future generations will continue to live under the same old top-down, imperious regimes that have dominated most nations historically.
Wallace Henley is a former pastor, White House and congressional aide, and author of more than 25 books. His newest is Two Men From Babylon: Nebuchadnezzar, Trump, and the Lord of History, published by Thomas Nelson.