Romans 13 is not a blank check for government overreach
With the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic quickly approaching, many of us are wondering if there will ever be a return to “pre-COVID” normal. While the virus continues to claim lives to this day, despite the recent uptick in cases due to the Omicron variant, it is far less threatening and deadly than it was in the beginning.
With more than 60% of the population now fully vaccinated against it — not to mention its mortality rate in the U.S. is almost as low as that of the seasonal flu — it seems irrational to continue living in never-ending fear. Life must go on at some point.
Sadly, our government seems to disagree.
It seems that the new agenda is to keep this pandemic going on indefinitely — whether here in the U.S. or in many other places around the world. Most recently, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky hinted, ever so subtly, at keeping mask mandates as a permanent feature of daily life. Vaccine mandates are now being pushed not only on private businesses but on schoolchildren. Mask mandates are coming back, panic is settling in, and the “new normal” seems to be trending towards a state of permanent pandemonium. There seems to be no end in sight.
As Christians how are we to engage with such government measures? What is the right response?
The ultimate proof-text: Romans 13
Without a doubt, Romans 13 has been the most often quoted passage in this discussion. It is by far one of the clearest teachings in Scripture about the government’s role in a Christian’s life. Paul exhorts the church in Rome to “be subject to the governing authorities,” given that they have been “instituted by God” Himself (Romans 13:1, ESV). The obvious conclusion from this text is that citizens — Christians or otherwise — must be submissive to governmental authorities. If God is the one who establishes them, it’s no longer a political matter but a spiritual one. After all, “…those who resist [the authorities] will incur judgment” (Romans 12:2).
The Christian’s default posture toward God-ordained authorities is one of obedience and respect, not of rebellion and conflict.
Of course, everyone admits that there must be obvious exceptions to this rule. If the government forces us to do that which is a clear violation of the moral law, or to ignore clear biblical mandates, we are obligated to disobey it. No exceptions.
For example, if the president commands us not to preach the Gospel, we have no choice but to disobey him. As Peter famously responded to the Sanhedrin in Acts: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
However, our situation becomes trickier when we consider other factors. When it comes to COVID, the truth is that some public health measures like mask-wearing, social distancing, and vaccine mandates are morally ambiguous. These measures are not explicitly forbidden in the Bible, and neither is obedience to such mandates an explicit sin.
For this reason, many prominent voices within the Evangelical world say that in such a case, Romans 13 leaves us no other option than to obey our government no matter how inconvenient, ridiculous and even authoritarian such measures might be. We must yield and obey the government in all matters, except when it explicitly tells us to disregard God’s law.
But is the scope of Romans 13 really that narrow?
Without the broader context, we are bound to end up with absurdities. If the government tells us to wear pink bonnets or to hop on one leg in the sanctuary, are we obligated to comply? After all, such a hypothetical rule isn’t technically a sin. There’s no explicit biblical command that forbids wearing pink bonnets during worship. And yet, we recognize the absurdity of any church simply going along with such arbitrary and capricious laws.
What the text actually says
First, Paul qualifies his statements very carefully in this passage. He assumes that the authorities in question pursue good and punish evil: “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” (Romans 13:3-4).
Question is, what happens when government flips the script? If it starts promoting tyrannical and erratic laws as “good,” does it retain its authority in that instance?
The mistake many make is in assuming that government gets to define what is “good” at a whim. But the text says nothing about the civil government having that prerogative. Government is a “servant of God” (Romans 13:4), not some special ecclesiastical council. And like any servant, it operates within the parameters that God establishes. He doesn’t give free rein for government to do so; His law revealed in Scripture is what defines the good as well as the bad.
And at this point, it’s hard to see how the present overreach is truly “for our good.”
We now know that despite the media-manufactured hysteria, the Omicron variant is almost indistinguishable from the common cold. Long-term data, as well as studies after studies, show that mask mandates simply don’t achieve their intended goal. Not only that but the available vaccines are known to be 93% effective against hospitalization and death. Most of the population is now either vaccinated or naturally immune after contracting the virus, and getting the vaccine actually doesn’t do much in terms of stopping its spread. If we haven’t learned this so far, COVID is here to stay.
So, what is the purpose of continuing with the same exact policies two years later with no discernable end in sight? It is irrational in the extreme. None of these measures can be characterized anymore as being “for our good.”
That means that the authorities can no more tell me to wear a piece of cloth on my face than they can tell me to wear a tweed jacket on Tuesdays. The government is established to uphold justice and punish “the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4); not to act as capriciously as it sees fit.
Second, the Church retains its authority in its own sphere of sovereignty. Christ is the head of the Church (Ephesians 1:22) — not civil magistrates. That means that the administration of Church polity is given by God to the Church. And enforcing vaccine mandates, masks, and social distancing without good reason, is an unjustified intrusion into the authority of the Church itself.
Not only that, but these public health measures effectively stifle the close fellowship believers are commanded to pursue among themselves (2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26). These measures are not inconsequential. They affect relationships and church life in tangible ways. No one can pretend otherwise.
And lest we forget, the government is not some kind of a secondary elder board or parish council. When it trespasses on Church matters, the Church is not obligated to comply with its every wish. There is nothing in Romans 13 that would even remotely suggest that.
With all that said…
Every local church has the right to pursue its own course of action in a way that honors God and meets its members’ needs. Not everyone has reacted the same way to the pandemic. Navigating these new challenges has been tough and unprecedented on everyone. Ultimately, these things are a matter of prudence and wisdom.
The only problem is when we read into Romans 13 certain assumptions about government power that Scripture never intended to communicate. God is definitely honored when we submit to earthly authority. Let’s just do so wisely; not blindly.
Daniel Vaida is Assistant Opinion Editor at The Christian Post in Washington, D.C.