The Public Health Orders that have been continuously issued since March this year have brought significant restrictions upon the liberty of citizens. When the first wave of COVID-19 hit, there was a general level of acceptance in our community that the lockdowns we all experienced were for our good. We saw the number of cases reduce, the curve flatten and an eventual easing of restrictions.
However, the second wave, generated from Victoria, has seen a tightening of restrictions within NSW and a hardening of borders across state lines. Yet, as general fatigue across the community sets in, the level of resistance to laws that curtail our liberties grows. We have seen protests in the streets across the globe where people openly defy restrictions on gathering in public places.
Even in Victoria, whose hard lockdowns and curfews have weighed heavily upon the population, we see protests against the government’s harsh measures. How should we respond?
The Bible’s teaching on our relationship to human authorities is quite clear. Those who govern us are set in place by God.
“Everyone must be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1-2).
These are strong words from the Apostle Paul, especially when we realise they are written to Christians living in the capital city of the Roman Empire, whose harsh treatment of Christians, as well as Jews, was well known.
Paul himself had experienced imprisonment and beatings under Roman rule, and would, of course, later suffer martyrdom in Rome during Nero’s reign. Yet he exhorts his brothers and sisters to obey the authorities, because “the one in authority is God’s servant for your good” (v4). In other words, God’s providential care for our world extends to the setting of rulers, governments and authorities over us. He has set them over us “for our good”.
As we learn from the fifth commandment that we must honour our parents, the very first persons who were set over us, the same principle applies to all those who exercise authority over us. This is God’s plan for an ordered society.
It is always easier for us to criticise those in authority than it is to obey them. This is not a uniquely Australian trait but is part of humanity’s sinful desire for autonomy, the very essence of Adam and Eve’s first sin. However, as we must submit to God’s rule over our lives, so we must submit to his command to obey the authorities.
As Peter expresses it, we submit to the governing authorities “for the Lord’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13). Similarly, Paul calls upon believers to submit to the authorities “as a matter of conscience” (Romans 13:5).
This does not mean that the government of the day is beyond criticism. We live in a democracy where free speech is available to us as a human right. However, the right to speak freely does not overturn the responsibility to obey. “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority?” Paul asks in 13:3. “Then do what is right and you will be commended.”
The Bible does not differentiate between good rulers and bad rulers, as if our level of obedience can increase or diminish depending upon our evaluation of the moral worth of the person over us. David’s recognition that Saul was God’s anointed king curbed any action that might have overthrown Saul’s divinely appointed role.
However, the Bible also has examples where one’s prior commitment to God shapes the relationship we have to those set over us. Two examples come readily to mind.
During the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon, Daniel and his three friends are faced with moral decisions when their rulers require of them actions that would defile themselves before God. In chapter 1 of Daniel’s prophecy, Daniel seeks to fulfil the wishes of his masters by suggesting a creative alternative to the king’s rich diet. By respecting his master’s authority over him, he honours his master by seeking to fulfil the desired goal of his superiors through a route that does not dishonour the God he serves.
However, where a creative alternative is not available, when Daniel’s friends refuse to bow down to a statue, they display their God-given responsibility to obey the king by submitting to the penalty for their disobedience. This is the critical element of understanding when our obedience to the authorities is in direct opposition to our obedience to God.
In the New Testament, the same principle applies. When Peter and John were charged by Jewish authorities not to speak of Jesus, they replied: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). They still recognised the authority of the Jewish leaders, and Peter was himself later imprisoned, but they did not stop speaking about Jesus.
Under the present government restrictions we cannot meet in church as we once did, we cannot sing, we cannot mingle or share the peace with a holy grasp. We either sit at home watching our streamed services or we meet at social distance from each other wearing face masks. Yet we are not deprived of all fellowship, as attenuated as it is.
Our citizenship is in heaven, not on earth; but while we are on earth we obey our human rulers so that we might be good citizens of the king we serve.