Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

7 Jul 2021

What Are the Limits to Governmental Authority over the Church?

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As Christians in North America continue to transition from governments that were largely favorable or neutral to Christianity to governments that demonstrate an increasing animosity toward traditional Christianity, believers and churches will be forced to wrestle more and more with the relationship between church and state (and family and state). When churches faced public opposition from governments in places like California, Ontario, and Alberta, many Christians criticized the pastors and churches who were gathering in opposition to government regulations. As I noted in my previous post, many of these critics are making the following argument:

Premise 1: Christians/churches must submit to all government regulations unless there is a clear command/prohibition in Scripture to the contrary.

Premise 2: There is no clear command in Scripture that a church must gather

Conclusion: Therefore, Christians/churches are sinning when they gather for worship in violation of government regulations (i.e., not submitting to government regulations)

In that post, I questioned the validity of the second premise, offering a more sound premise: There is no clear prohibition in Scripture against a church deciding it is best not to gather for a time, especially if they are providentially hindered.

But I think there are issues with the first premise in the argument as well. And again, I do not intend to present a positive, developed case for my position but instead to primarily critique the argument of others by considering its implications.

But before I continue my critique, let me commend two positives of the argument. First, this argument seeks to take seriously the teaching of Scripture that Christians are to be in submission to the governing authorities. The normal assumption should be that Christians will joyfully submit to government since it is God’s servant for the good of society. Second, the argument endeavors to ground any potential exceptions to the requirement to submit to government in appeals to Scripture and not in human opinions or desires.

Argument: Christians/churches must submit to all government regulations unless there is a clear command/prohibition in Scripture to the contrary.

Though premise 1 is seeking to limit exceptions to government obedience with appeals to Scripture, the wording actually makes the exception too narrow. It assumes that our obedience to Christ will always be based on a concise statement of Scripture that says “you shall do x” or “you shall not do y.” In other words, the government can compel people to do anything unless there is a statement of Scripture that says “you must never do that,” and can prohibit people from doing anything unless there is a statement of Scripture that says “you must do that.”

But there are several issues Christians face where, even though they may not have a clear command or prohibition in Scripture, it would seem that obedience to Christ would require them to do or not do something. Consider the following examples. (NOTE: in the following examples, I don’t think there is the kind of clear, concise command/prohibition of Scripture that this argument requires, but I think sincere Christians could, and often should, conclude that the teaching of Scripture still expects and even necessitates certain behavior.)

  • Could government ban formal church membership, so that no church can maintain a membership role?
  • Could government ban fathers from leading their children in prayer?
  • Could government ban public verbal prayer?
  • Could government ban sharing the gospel on national holidays?
  • Could government ban the baptism of minors?
  • Could government ban fasting?
  • Could government require everyone to fly rainbow flags during pride month?
  • Could government require everyone to drink one glass of wine each week for heart health?
  • Could government require churches to publicly post contact information for local abortion clinics?[1]

Those who are insisting on a specific, clear command or prohibition are acting like the legalistic teenager who demands from his youth pastor, “show me the Bible verse that says I can’t do this!” Mature believers understand that many things we do in obedience to Christ do not rise or fall on explicit commands and/or prohibitions but require looking at broader biblical principles to determine whether we can do things “to the Lord” (Rom 14:6-8), “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col 3:17), “to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31), etc. We do not simply ask “did God say I can’t do this” or “did God say I must do this” but always ask “can and/or should I do this in honor of the Lord?”

After all, the verse most often cited in noting the exception to submission to government does not say “We must obey the clear commands and prohibitions of God rather than men” but simply “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Which means we can strengthen premise 1 by removing the language that unnecessarily limits the exception.

Better Argument: Christians/churches must submit to every government regulation unless it would mean disobeying God (i.e., cause them to sin.)

I would hope all Christians would be willing to agree with the above exception: if obeying government means disobeying God, we cannot obey government. But if that is the only limiting factor on governmental authority over the church and family, that would permit government to exercise extraordinary control over those institutions. Consider the following examples, where I do not believe a strong case can be made that obeying the government would entail sin (at least not as strong as the earlier examples).

  • Could government institute a one-child policy?
  • Could government require all children to attend a government recognized school where a state sponsored religion is taught?[2]
  • Could government prohibit someone from being a member of the same church for more than 5 years?
  • Could government ban corporal punishment?
  • Could government ban Christians from exercising self-defense?
  • Could government ban giving Bibles to minors (including your own children)?
  • Could government require 50% of deacons in the church to be women and/or be members of an ethnic minority group?
  • Could government ban pastors from getting paid for any work done outside of the church?
  • Could government ban translating Scripture into different languages?
  • Could government limit sermons to no more than 30 minutes?
  • Could government cap churches at 15 people?

There are countless other scenarios we could envision. In these situations, should Christians/churches simply submit to the governmental regulations?

If your answer is “the government would never do that,” then consider whether the regulations that we have seen over the last year would have seemed possible a couple of years ago (and recognize that governments around the world have done and are doing some of these things).

If your answer is, “I may not like it, but I think Christians would need to submit to the government if they issued those regulations,” then you are probably fine with premise 1 as stated above.

If your answer is “I think Christians should submit if the government had good reasons for these regulations, or only required them for a time,” then you are actually admitting government does not possess this authority but you think it would be wisest to defer (not actually submit) to the regulations.

If your answer is “the government doesn’t have that kind of authority,” then you have rejected the first premise as stated. I think most Christians would answer along these lines, in part because we already recognize that government is limited in its authority, and churches and families have also been instituted by God and been given authority. Jesus taught that, while some things belong to government, other things do not belong to it (Mk 12:17).

Perhaps the only things that do not belong to government are the areas where obedience to God would conflict with government authority, but it seems more likely that the government would also be limited in some way by the other God-given authoritative human institutions. After all, just as a passage like Romans 13:1-7 simply requires generic submission, so do passages like Hebrews 13:17 and Eph 6:1. Why would we assume when there are conflicts between these authorities that the government is always the higher/rightful authority?

Which means we could strengthen our premise 1 even more by adding an additional qualification.

Even Better Argument: Christians/churches must submit to every government regulation unless it would mean disobeying God (i.e., cause them to sin) or the government is seeking to regulate something outside its sphere of authority.

I imagine some who have been using the argument I have been critiquing would be uncomfortable with this final premise. Who gets to decide whether or not submitting to government would mean disobeying God, or whether or not something falls outside of the sphere of government authority? The obvious answer is “God.” But, as a Baptist who believes the Bible teaches individual soul liberty and the autonomy of the local church, I think the final human answer has to be “individual Christians and local churches who are doing their best to think God’s thoughts after him.”

And if we can agree that this premise (or something close to it) is a better starting point for discussing when it may be permissible not to submit to the government, it will lead to three positive outcomes.

First, we can move the discussion to the real point of contention: does this issue result in disobedience to God, and does it fall under legitimate governmental authority? Far too often, people simply throw out Romans 13 or Hebrews 10 like they are spiking the football after scoring the winning touchdown (and acting as though those they are critiquing have never encountered or considered those passages). Citing Romans 13 (or similar passages) is not a final answer, since everyone recognizes there are limitations to governmental authority. And citing Hebrews 10 (or similar passages) is not a final answer, since a church would not necessarily be sinning if they did not gather temporarily.

Which leads to the second outcome: the discussion should largely move from one of sin to one of wisdom and discernment. People who come to different conclusions as to whether or not to submit to government regulations cannot just accuse the other of sinning. As I have heard it put, while we must not submit to government regulations if it would mean disobeying God, we may choose whether or not to submit to government regulations if they have exceeded their authority. (And, as I noted in the previous post, the point where we would be sinning if we did not do the positive commands/teachings of Scripture is not always clear).

Since there will be some disagreement among godly Christians as to whether or not specific governmental regulations would require disobedience to God, and even more disagreement as to whether or not it would be wise to comply with government regulations that have intruded on other spheres, the final outcome will be that Christians should be more charitable to, gracious with, and supportive of those who come to different conclusions.


[1] Remember, our concern is not with whether a particular governmental regulation could be upheld under the U.S. Constitution or the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, since many governments in history and around the world today do not recognize the God-given right of freedom of religion.

[2] Would doing so entail sin? If so, we should really rethink sending children to public schools, since, from a biblical perspective, religion and philosophy/worldview are basically the same (Col 2:8)!

10 Responses

  1. Brother Ben, this is another very good article.

    In Biblical support of your additional clause, “or the government is seeking to regulate something outside its sphere of authority,” might I offer a couple Biblical examples? If your statement is accurate, that explains why it was legitimate for Elijah who was addressed as “man of God” to refuse an order to come down from the hill, and to even call fire down from Heaven to consume the captains and their fifties. It would also explain why the priests could resist the civil authority when King Uzziah went into the temple to offer incense. Uzziah was not asking the priests to do anything wrong, he was just intruding in an area that was not the remit of the civil authority — and they resisted him, and God backed them up by sending a case of leprosy.

    However, I’d be interested in your view of my conclusion that a third clause applies. If I might reword your statement: “Christians/churches must submit to every government regulation unless it would mean disobeying God (i.e., cause them to sin), unless it would mean directly facilitating the sin of others, or the government is seeking to regulate something outside its sphere of authority.”

    Thus, I believe Jonathan was correct in refusing to summon David so his father could kill him (there would be no sin per se in summoning someone), there was nothing unique about God telling the wise men not to return to Herod (to do so would have been to facilitate sin), and Paul was justified in escaping from Damascus by a basket (to leave by the gate would have been to directly facilitate the sin of others).

    I freely admit that I’ve moved far from where I was when Covid began. Before Covid, I’d have held to Premise 1 with which you started this article. But the behaviour of governments drove me to look at what Scripture really says, and to look for examples where civil authority was disobeyed, in some cases with God’s explicit approval. It’s much broader than Premise 1, that seems very clear to me. Though since my thoughts on this are still a work in progress, I certainly welcome any thoughts you have on my suggested statement.

    I think it’s not surprising that there are significantly varied views on this. We’ve had it so comfortable in Western society that our thoughts on this topic haven’t been tried in the crucible of systematic and aggressive persecution by government. I think you do a service in facilitating discussion on this, because from a human perspective it’s hard to see a future that doesn’t include that kind of persecution.

    1. Ben Edwards

      Jon,

      I need to think through your third clause a bit more. My initial concern is in distinguishing disobeying God and directly facilitating the sin of others. I would think in most situations, directly facilitating sin would mean either participating in it or approving of it, which would actually implicate the person in the sin (e.g., Romans 1:32) and thus be disobeying God. So for Jonathan, would it be sinful to summon someone to be sinfully killed? I would think the answer is yes, which means the initial wording would still cover that example. The wise men would seem to be similar. The example of Paul is a bit different, but I’m also not sure there was a clear governmental regulation/rule he was violating by going over the wall at night (you may be able to enlighten me on that).

      I’m thankful you are taking the approach you are in trying to think carefully and biblically about these issues. And I agree that we are going to need to continue to do more study and thinking as we face increasing formal persecution.

      1. Thank you, Ben. Your point is well-taken.

        I suppose that extra clause was an attempt on my part to reflect the fact that there are obvious Biblical examples that the “clear command/prohibition” construct which you are refuting is too narrow. I agree that your “disobeying God” provision probably sufficiently covers those examples.

        I understand that the situation with these Canadian pastors has been the trigger for these articles but I appreciate your willingness to look past those specific examples to the principles involved.

  2. Ah Ben. One issue and one issue only is on the table today. Can the government for the sake of a perceived health crisis close public gatherings including churches for a limited window of time. No other issue needs debate.

    1. Ben Edwards

      Jeff,

      We are apparently at different tables, since the issue on mine is “What are the limits to governmental authority over the church.” 😉

      But even if I were at your table, we would inevitably have to decide what biblical principles we would use to answer your question, and those principles would necessarily apply to other situations. Assuming we are only answering that limited question today and not affecting any other question is a bit myopic.

  3. David Diez

    Jeff, I don’t think that is actually the issue for debate. A government can attempt or do whatever it perceives to be the greater good whether it is actually for the public good and/or to preserve or expand its power over the people.

    The issue is whether the church’s ministry responsibilities as mandated by Christ (Head of the church) via the Scriptures must be subordinated to the dictates of the govt – render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…render unto God what is God’s. The local church’s gathering for corporate adoration, bible teaching, mutual encouragement, baptism, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper is God’s not the government’s – not even denominational govt. I believe that is the case Ben makes. If a local church stops gathering physically for a time because of a govt mandate, then it should do so as a matter of voluntary submission to the govt based on trust in the govt’s sound policy for overall public safety. Thereby the local church willingly chooses to honors Christ in one area temporarily – submission to the govt mandate for public safety – over the other area for the sake of love of neighbor and the testimony of the gospel. GCC (MacArthur) did that.

    What is up for debate then is if, when, and for how long a local church is willing to suspend what it ought to be doing in submission to govt regulations for public safety.

    Ben, thank you again for a very good and well-argued article.

    1. Ben Edwards

      David,

      It does seem that people are often confusing the question of what the government can or should do with the question o what Christians and churches can or should do in response. Both are important issues, but I’m more concerned with the second, since that question is more important for me to answer as a Christian and pastor.

  4. Don Johnson

    I’m with Jeff. You are throwing the scattergun “what ifs” into the air and reasoning from them to your conclusion. You really aren’t arguing biblically.

    The question, “WHAT ARE THE LIMITS TO GOVERNMENTAL AUTHORITY OVER THE CHURCH?” must be answered from the Bible, not logic. The notion of “spheres of authority” is argued from the Bible by some, but they haven’t convinced me that this really answers the questions we are facing today. Tim Stephens argues that Romans 13 limits governmental authority. You aren’t really dealing with either of these attempts.

    James Coates in various ways claimed churches that didn’t agree with his views are in sin. His influence is causing trouble and heartache among other churches.

    These aren’t just academic exercises.

    1. Ben Edwards

      Don,

      I am not reasoning from the what ifs to the conclusion. I am asking if we think our principles and arguments lead to the proper application in those scenarios, and if not if that is a problem.

      I agree that we need to answer the question from the Bible. While I did not offer a full answer, I did ground my first exception in the explicit wording of Scripture and the second in a biblical principle: somethings things are God’s and not Caesar’s.

      You are right that these are not (or soon will not be) just academic exercises. Which is why we need to make sure our principles, arguments, and convictions will work beyond the one issue you may want to address today. We are going to be facing a whole host of issues in the coming days, and we need to make sure we have the right principles and arguments in place today to properly obey God when we are no longer asking these questions hypothetically.

      1. Don Johnson

        in general I agree with your last reply, however, I still think you are emphasizing application at the wrong end of the discussion. Until your terms are biblically defined, you can’t make solid biblical application.

        Maranatha!
        Don Johnson
        Jer 33.3

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