Is the Constitution the “Powers that Be” of Romans 13? COVID-19 and Assembling for the Lord’s Day

Retraction: The author still stands with the substance of this post, but has developed in his thinking on this topic throughout the pandemic. The end of this post implies that it is acceptable for a church to treat the government’s mandates as a “providential hindrance” so long as the mandates only continue for a short time. Now, I would say that any restriction the government places on the Church and her worship is outside of the jurisdiction God has given to the government. The Church is free to disregard any such restrictions. I have left the post itself unedited for transparency — may this retraction serve to clear up any confusion.

Our Savior has commanded – not suggested – that we render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s. In doing so, we obey the God who is not just sovereign over spiritual things, but over earthly things as well. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). This recognition forms the backbone of the Apostle Paul’s instructions in Romans 13. Contrary to the rebellious souls who seek to wrest this chapter, and to justify taking matters into their own hands instead of trusting in God to rule rightly, Paul does not say we should obey the government only because it tends to be a source of good (although that’s normative [v. 4]), but – on a more fundamental level – he tells us we must obey the government because it couldn’t exist without God establishing it:

“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.”

Romans 13:1-2

These words are absolute; there is no power that exists outside of God’s decree, and for that reason we must obey. The desperate squirming of self-willed men to escape the plain meaning of this text is confounded more bluntly by 1 Peter 2, which demands us to lend our obedience “not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward” (v. 18).

“For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God”

1 Peter 2:19-20

With one stroke of the pen, all of the contrivances of the God-resistors are dashed into pieces by Peter, leaving them muttering something or other about the founding fathers, John Locke, or “respected theologians,” for they have no Bible to appeal to. We should be equally willing to submit to the powers that behave rightly or wrongly, even if it means we suffer for it. If Peter could write these words under Emperor Nero, how much more should we submit to our own authorities?

BUT, in our present situation, not every argument that – in spite of government mandates – Romans 13 isn’t violated by holding church services deserves our contempt. Some, such as Pastor JD Hall in a recent podcast, present a much more respectable view, saying that defying a state quarantine for worship is in line with Romans 13, because the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and the First Amendment clearly prohibits the State’s interference with the free exercise of religion. This is an opinion worthy of respect, because it doesn’t so much deal with distorting the Bible as it deals with political theory. Unfortunately, there’s a flaw with this line of reason:

The Constitution is no more the final authority of the United States than the Bible is the final authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

I wish it were otherwise, but such is the case. Our government may say that the Constitution is the “supreme law of the land,” and the Roman Catholic Church may say that the Bible is a final authority for all matters of faith and practice, but ultimately, just as Rome’s interpretation of the Bible is their final authority, so, too, is the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution the final authority of our nation.

Ironically, those who would appeal to the First Amendment in order to legitimize disobedience concede that interpretative precedent – and not the Constitution itself – binds us. Contrary to popular belief, the First Amendment never says the government can’t interfere with the free exercise of religion. Here’s what it actually says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” [emphasis added]

Amendment I

Read that carefully. It does NOT say that your city, state, or the President via an executive order can’t interfere with your religion; it merely states that Congress shall make no law that does so. That’s it. In the early stages of our republic, other governmental authorities could and did adopt policy that discriminated based on religion. Massachusetts, for example, maintained Congregationalism as its officially established religion until 1833, long after it ratified the Constitution. Other New England states maintained similar policies of religious favoritism well into the 19th Century. In every case, they didn’t abandon their establishments because they were challenged by the Constitution (they weren’t), but because of the growing popular sentiment against them. This may seem shocking to many readers who take the separation of church and state for granted, and view it as a right guaranteed to all citizens of the United States. But it wasn’t always like that, and it’s only become so after years of consistent judicial interpretation of state laws through the lens of the 14th Amendment, which itself wasn’t ratified until 1868. The relevant section of the 14th Amendment reads as follows:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”

14th Amendment, Section I

Readers may be surprised to know that this is the first time Americans were established as citizens of the United States, as opposed to just citizens of their own State. They weren’t established as US citizens by the Constitution’s original form. The reality is that pre- and post-Civil War America are two completely different countries; beforehand, the United States was always referred to as “they” – plural, but afterwards always as “she” or “it” – singular. With the establishment of US citizenship came the eventual supremacy of the liberties that only the federal government was once forbidden to infringe upon, because all citizens were now entitled to “equal protection of the laws.” But which laws? The 14th Amendment prohibits states from enacting laws that “abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” but never actually specifies what privileges a US citizen is entitled to. The Constitution nowhere affirms that every freedom contained in the Bill of Rights is basic to all US citizens; this is acknowledged only because of the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution in landmark decisions, such as Gitlow v. New York, Mapp v. Ohio, Griswold v. Connecticut, and – of course – Roe v. Wade. If you wish to see just how far we’ve gotten from the plain meaning of the “supreme law of the land,” just look at that last case, which has the audacity to assert that the right to kill infants is guaranteed by the Constitution.

But back to the issue at hand. We’ve given this mini-history lesson because it shows that all appeals to the Constitution to overthrow precedent in favor of religious liberty are vain, because the protection of religious liberty against state edicts is not safeguarded by the Constitution, but only by precedent itself. And if judicial precedent clearly protects religious liberty in times of peace, with equal clarity it throws all rights out the window in times of “crisis.” From Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the restrictions on free speech during World War I, and the mass detaining of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the consistent verdict is that the government can do whatever it wants when it thinks it’s threatened. Whether or not our current predicament deserves to be called a “crisis” is a different issue; as long as the government believes it is, you can be sure you’ll lose in court if you plead your First Amendment rights. And because it’s the consensus of our government – and not a document – that ultimately “beareth not the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4), we can be sure that it’s the former that Paul has in mind when he commands our obedience.

Part II – To Assemble or Not to Assemble?

So far, the reader’s probably gotten the impression that I’m not in favor of assembling at this time. Well, not necessarily. Scripture must be understood in light of other Scripture, and the Book of Acts makes it clear that if the powers that be ever tell us to defy the commandments of God, then “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The government has a right to obedience only because its authority rests on God’s authority, so if there’s ever a case where God – the authority-giver – explicitly commands us to disobey the powers that be, then the authority bestowed to the government vanishes.

At this point, the issue becomes complex. Undoubtedly, our weekly assembling is grounded in Apostolic practice, it’s part of the way in which the Church enjoys her Sabbaths, and it provides the venue in which she administers the sacraments given to her by her Savior. All of this is mandatory (1 Co 16:2, Act 20:7, Heb 10:25, Mat 28:19-20, 1 Co 11:25). Nevertheless, not many say that we are so obligated to our weekly assembly that it’s a sin to temporarily suspend it in times of providential hindrance. So the question becomes, how long is it acceptable to suspend church?

It’s not my place to answer that question. That prerogative belongs to the elders of every local assembly who have been appointed to shepherd the flock, whose decision should be honored by us laymen. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account” (Hebrews 13:17). Let us support and pray for those who must make this weighty decision. But consider the matter we must, because there are those who’d like to extend the current restrictions even through August. Should the Church starve her flock until then? And what about the indications that this could be a seasonal virus; will we have to shut down churches again come October? It’s not my place to say how long we should wait, but one thing I can say: until our Lord Jesus returns to catch His Bride away, we must keep assembling. The Bible tells us we’re to eat this bread and drink this cup, proclaiming “the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The Bible tells us we’re to assemble “so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). The Bible tells us that before that great eventful day, “the gospel must first be published among all nations” (Mark 13:10). However long we forbear, this cannot become the new norm for the Church. I pray that all men whom God has placed over His flock will consider this seriously. What the Church provides is essential for her people, and she’s an essential witness to the unbelieving world.

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