When the COVID-19 crisis and lockdowns started in 2020, it turned the world upside-down. Many businesses, organizations, communities, and even churches were rattled—not knowing what to do.
Eventually, the government had to put restrictions on everyone in every state and country, including the weekly and physical gathering of churches. Many churches complied, understanding that we must obey the government for the sake of public safety.
Then some significant events happened.
In the middle of 2020, the church of pastor John MacArthur resisted the government restrictions and claimed that the government restrictions were going beyond the stated goal and that it attempted to undermine the mission of the church. (They even brought their case to the court and they won).
Their church published many articles explaining their position. John MacArthur was even interviewed in many TV programs and online platforms.
And one message that this church emphasized is this: “Christ, not Caesar, is the Head of the Church.”
Eventually, many other churches started opening despite the restrictions and people voluntarily attended Sunday services. But this sparked quite a controversy among many churches and Christians throughout the world.
Christians began to ask, “Aren’t we supposed to obey the governing authorities? (Romans 13)” But others argue, “We must obey God rather than men.”
And I believe this crisis in the past 2 years made us realize how much we need to check our theology concerning the government.
“Is the government necessary?” “Is the government above the church, or the church above the government?” “Should we obey everything the government requires as long as it is a matter of public concern and not against God’s moral law?” “When is the time we resist the government, and if we do—how?”
And as we emphasize over and over again, when it comes to these issues, we always go back to the authoritative Word of God. What a blessing we have that the Bible doesn’t only teach us what we ought to believe in order to be saved, but also how we ought to live as Christians in this world.
So this morning, we shall study the place of the government in this world, and we will look at how the government relates to the church as an institution. Then, we will look at how we Christians, as concerned citizens, should relate to the government as well.
[TRANSITION:] “What is the Government?”
A. The Government, and the Church’s Relationship with It
- (A1. The State as Ordained Institution of God)
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 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, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
The passage is clear: The government is a divinely appointed and established institution. God has placed the state or the government on earth according to his design and purpose. Hence, the government is necessary.
We reject those who want to set aside the government or think lightly of its purpose (i.e., perhaps, because there’s corruption in the government).
As part of his providence, God continues to sustain and preserve mankind through the government. God has placed the government for the “approval of what is good” and the “judgment of what is wrong.” In short, the government is God’s instrument for keeping and promoting justice, order, and peace in our communities.
Because of human depravity, sin and wickedness is bound in the hearts of all people. And so God uses the government to serve as a deterrent, to keep evil from abounding among ourselves. (Although in the end, the world will be utterly evil, yet until God finally saves all the elect up to the last generation, he uses means to preserve mankind and that is also through the government).
Without the government, it will result in lawlessness and disorder (anarchy). That is why Paul reminds us that the government is “God’s servant for your good.”
Therefore, this calls us to be thankful for the government, that God has placed officials and other public servants for our sake. Sometimes, we complain more than give thanks because we tend to focus on the failures and corruptions of the government.
Yes, we also hold the government accountable, as we shall see later on. Yet even in their failures, we should be thankful for them. Because without them, it will be a greater chaos.
At the same time, we should be praying for the government. (e.g., Setting a reminder to regularly pray for them). Knowing that our welfare also depends on how they fulfill their duty, let us continue to pray for them that they will indeed uphold peace and justice in our land.
[TRANSITION] — If the state is God’s ordained institution, is the government above the church?
- (A2. The Separation between Church and State)
While the government is God’s ordained authority, the Scriptures also show that the authority of the government is not absolute.
In Acts 5:27-30, when the leaders of the Jewish council strictly charged the apostles to stop preaching Christ, Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
This conveys to us that there is a certain limitation in the function and authority of the government. And there is a certain distinction or separation between our obedience to God and our obedience to the government.
(We will look at the extent and limitations of the government for the rest of our sermon, but for now, let’s discuss the separation between the church and the state).
The apostles’ resistance to the government in Acts 5 that there is a domain of the church that is no longer the domain of the government. There are matters that belong to the church that do not belong to the government—and vice versa.
God has ordained both the church and the government as two separate institutions to function as authorities within two separate kingdoms. One is for the kingdom of God, the other for the kingdom of man.
The Church and State are separate and independent institutions of God having different origins, objectives, and means to attain those objectives.
In regard to their origins or source of authority:
- The State owes its origin to God as the sovereign ruler among all nations. And the civil government is God’s ordinance founded not in grace but in nature, called to exercise authority in all nations—Christian or not
- The Church owes its origin to Christ as her Mediator. And the church is founded in grace, and is able limited only to those nations where the gospel is proclaimed and where Christianity is proclaimed
In regard to their objectives:
- The government is ordained by God to promote and secure the outward order and welfare of human society everywhere—whether in Christian or heathen lands. (The state, being God’s servant, is also involved in advancing God’s grace on earth. But the primary duty is the human society)
- The church is instituted by God to advance and uphold the work of grace on earth and the spiritual interests of the Christian community, wherever it is found. (The church may also influence the temporal and social well-being of society, but the primary objective is the spiritual well-being of the people).
In regards to the means of attaining their objectives:
- The State secures the peace and rights of civil society through the power of force and coercion. The government “bears the sword,” the physical instruments for preventing human violence and rewarding goodness
- The Church is not invested with coercive power. (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:4) Our weapon is not physical and carnal, but spiritual. The church is the “pillar and ground of truth”, and we proclaim the truth by which the Spirit of God changes the lives of people.
Here we can see the various lines that separate the State from the Church. The State has no right in preaching the Word, administering the Sacraments, or performing church discipline to its members.
Likewise, the church has no right over the properties of men, but can only appeal to the hearts and conscience of men through the means of grace. (Even in church discipline, your officebearers could only withhold the sacraments or excommunicate you. But we cannot imprison you, fine you, or take away your properties)
The State cannot dictate how the church leaders will rule the church according to its divine rule (the Word of God). Likewise, the Church cannot dictate how the Government will impose its authority according to its laws and constitution.
That’s why when it comes to politics, the church cannot impose upon its members. As individual Christians, we may influence one another with our views. But the church as an institution cannot represent a certain politician or impose political views for its members (e.g., Black voting, rally). We must comment on moral issues in the state, but it is not in our power or influence to force civil matters on people.
So the State and Church are independent from each other. One cannot assume the jurisdiction of the other.
[TRANSITION] — If the state and church are separate and independent, is there no common ground for a relationship between the two? Do they exist and function contrary to each other?
- (A3. Duty of State and Church to Each Other)
While the State and the Church are independent from each other, either they become enemies (by taking over each other’s jurisdiction) or they cultivate a friendly alliance by lawfully supporting each other’s objectives.
When the government clearly commands us to disobey God’s Word or prevents us from obeying God’s Word—we become enemies of the State. And this would lead the State to go against the Church and persecute us. But if not enemies of each other, the State and the Church should aim for a friendly alliance.
When the Church fulfills its duty to proclaim the Word of God, promote spiritual transformation among sinners, and oversee the spiritual condition of men—the Church helps the State in pursuing righteousness, justice and peace in the lands. At the same time, we do the State this favor of reminding ourselves of our duty to obey and submit to the law of the land. We do not only remind people to do what is good, but also warn ourselves so that we respect the government.
We also have many examples when the Church brings missionaries and ministers to help people who are in prison and rehabilitation centers.
Now, at the same time, the Government should also fulfill its duty by respecting the Church’s rights and helping advance the Church’s mission. That is why Peter and the apostles would not submit to the Jewish leaders who wished to hinder their ministry.
Part of our Belgic Confession Article 36 reads:
“… Being called in this manner
to contribute to the advancement of a society
that is pleasing to God,
the civil rules have the task
of removing every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel
and to every aspect of divine worship.”
(*Not here to discuss all ramifications of the law). Even our country’s Constitution Article 2, Section 13 (for example), states that the Government is bound to “promote and protect [the youth’s] physical, moral, spiritual, intellectual, and social well-being.” And Article 3, Section 5 states: “The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed.”
Why is it necessary for the government to promote the Church’s mission?
Because without “any religion” no society will exist at all; without “true religion”, no society will enjoy happiness, justice, and peace. The Church is essential to the very existence and well-being of the society which the State is bound to care for.
What is needed in civil society for accomplishing the very end of its own existence, the Gospel alone can supply. And for the state (government) to dismiss the religious instruction and spiritual wellbeing of the people at large—[for the government to forsake the church and religion]—is to forego the main instrumentality which God has put into its hands for securing the authority of law, for promoting the ends of civil government, for promoting the rights and furthering the peace of society. ~ James Bannerman
Of course, this would lead us to ask, “Is the government today forsaking the church and religion?” “In this COVID-19 crisis, is the State being an enemy or a friend of the Church?”
Some would say that the State is not persecuting the church by closing it down or imposing restrictions. “Lahat naman apektado.” And I would agree.
The Church is not directly being persecuted by the State. We are not being dragged down into prison because of the gospel. But isn’t the State no longer giving the Church great importance in society as it did before?
The government may not be telling us “Stop preaching Christ!” But are we not being hindered from fulfilling our mission the way we should? The State may still allow us to preach online, but watching a service online or reading a sermon shall never replace the ordinary and public preaching of God’s Word that he has ordained for the Church.
Right now, we may enjoy some freedom compared to the past months. But anytime, the State may impose the same restrictions again, and close the society including the church. During the restrictions, in the government’s top list of “essentials” who can stay open—where is the Church? When restrictions were somehow lifted, other government officials are free to roam around, but pastors and ministers are limited to holding only funerals? Why? How about the weekly, public gathering, where the Gospel is ordinarily preached?
All of this implies that the State cannot treat the Church as equal to any other human society under its jurisdiction. Because when it does, it leads to the neglect of the church.
[When] the Church is regarded by the civil magistrate as merely on a level with any human society, and [that the Church must be tolerated and protected just like any other society]—[when that happens]—[the State loses] the strongest motive for respecting the Church’s rights, and is tempted on every national emergency or party crisis that may occur, to sacrifice those rights for the sake of state policy or interest. ~ James Bannerman
Sometimes, I still wonder how many other churches in the US, Canada, and elsewhere manage to just be open to anyone who wants to come and worship every Sunday. No limitations, despite government restrictions. I don’t have all the answers yet. Maybe the church should continue to pray for guidance, and be open to discuss more about how the church should relate to government policies during this crisis.
But the bottom line is this: The government is God’s ordained institution. But so is the church. Both are independent and should respect each other. The Church should proclaim God’s Word publicly, and the State should never hinder it.
[TRANSITION] — Now that we see the relationship between the State and the Church as institutions, how should we Christians—as concerned citizens—relate to the government? And the same question arises, “Are we called to submit to all the civil laws and rules of the government?”
B. The Government, and the Christians’ Relationship with It
- (B1. Our Submission due to a “lawful government”)
All of us are under the State’s authority by nature and bound to render obedience to it. Again, Paul even warns us that to resist the government is also to resist God himself.
But throughout the Scriptures, we see the proper view of our obedience to the government as citizens. In Exodus 1:15-17, we see the account of the midwives disobeying Pharaoh’s command to kill the male babies of the Jews.
The Apostle Paul, who exhorted us to “be subject to governing authorities” is the same Paul who escaped from being arrested by the governor of Damascus (Acts 9:24; 2 Corinthians 11:32-33), and who was eventually executed by Rome as a threat to their established order.
The Apostle Peter, who said, “Be subject to every human institution” (1 Peter 2:13-14), is the same Peter who escaped from prison (through the help of an angel) resulting in the death of the guards and left the scene as a “wanted” person (Acts 12:7ff).
There are many other examples in Scripture that should tell us that blind or unreserved obedience to the government cannot be the whole story. The command to “submit to governing authorities” doesn’t mean we submit to absolutely any ruler and any rule.
What do we mean?
Romans 13:1-7 says that we must be subject to the governing authorities, but Paul isn’t saying, “Be subject to anyone who wants to rule over you.” Because immediately, Paul describes who these governing authorities are. They are “appointed,” and they resist what is bad and approve what is good.
1 Peter 2:13-14 also says to every human institution, that is, those “who punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”
The authority to which we ought to render obedience and submission is the lawful government who executes justice. Not just any ruler. Because there can be someone who wants to rule over a people, but is not an appointed government. There can be someone who bears authority over a people, and yet a tyrant by practice not a government.
For example, suppose a terrorist group captures Cavite, they technically rule over us as hostages. But are we obligated to follow everything they command? Definitely not! Because they are not the lawful government, neither are they just.
[TRANSITION] — How do we determine the lawful government? Should the government be Christian or perfectly just to be considered “the government?” How is “the government” established?
Simply put, the government is one ordained by God and established by the people.
Even in the Old Testament, we see how people become lawful kings of nations.
“When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you… and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose…”
Another is David, who was already anointed as king by God through the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:12-13. But he was not yet acknowledged as a king or functioned as a king until the people of Israel themselves “set/installed” him as a king (2 Samuel 5:1-5).
In this case, the government owes its existence to the choice and authority of the people. Even today, it is the Lord who ordains anyone in the government. But the installation happens by the election of the people of the land.
So the lawful government is essentially established by the people and under the sovereignty of the people, not above the people. Even the Philippine Constitution Preamble expresses this:
“We, the sovereign Filipino people, imploring the aid of Almighty God, in order to build a just and humane society and establish a Government that shall embody our ideals and aspirations…”
Yes, there is a sense that the Government and its official function “above” the people, but only so far as it is appointed to implement the laws of the people and for the good of the people. It renders service to the people by commanding them.
A doctor provides prescriptions and tells the patient what to do, and the patient must obey. But the doctor is a servant, rather than a dictator.
The same with the government’s relations with the people. The government’s role is to serve the people, not itself.
[TRANSITION] — How does this happen? How is the government made subject to serve the people?
Part of establishing the government is what John Calvin also mentions as the “covenant” between the government and the people. We see again an example of this in 2 Kings 11:17 (when Joash was installed as king):
“And Jehoaia made a covenant between the LORD and the king and people, that they should be the LORD’s people, and also between the king and the people.”
Even until today, whenever a lawful government official is established, they take an oath before God—understanding that they are also accountable to God as His servants. But they also make a promise to uphold a “covenant” with the people. And what is that? They promise to uphold the Constitution (the laws and rights of the people).
That’s why John Calvin also writes that “the magistrate is the protector and the guardian of the laws.”
I believe that’s what many people lack in our generation. (And I myself am guilty of it. I never cared to know the Constitution). So we tend to think that whoever is sitting in authority right now has absolute power and whatever he/she says, I’m bound to obey. But a proper understanding of the relationship between the government and the people helps us realize that we are bound to submit only to the lawfully established government and only to that government that upholds the covenant.
It doesn’t mean the government should be perfect. We’re not only to obey a government who practices Christian faith and biblical morals. But it must be just and seeks to implement the constitution.
So, we do not only resist the unlawful, un-ordained rulers. We also resist tyrants or any practice of tyranny.
As Christians, we must speak against the government when they implement laws that are directly contradicting God’s Word. (For example: US laws concerning abortion and homosexuality). But it is also possible that a government may not command something against God’s moral law, or the government is not persecuting Christians—yet it contradicts the laws of justice and order in the constitution. In short, when there is oppression or tyranny.
There will always be corruption and mistakes in any government. But there will always be a difference between a true magistrate/officer and a tyrant.
(In the book Vindiciae Contra Tyranos: A Defense of Liberty against Tyrants, written in 1579 under the pen-name Stephen Junius Brutus)
A true king rules for reason and justice; a tyrant rules for self-will. A true king seeks to build the kingdom; a tyrant makes it weak and vulnerable to enemies. A true king strengthens the people; a tyrant disarms the people of their rights. A true king supports the good and punishes the guilty; a tyrant tolerates the evil and punishes those who are not guilty at all. (Paraphrase)
Again, of course, this would lead us to ask, “Is the government today already a tyrant, especially in this COVID-19 crisis?”
I dare not say conclusively that the government is now a tyrant. But I believe there are signs of tyranny against the basic rights of people. Imagine this with me for a moment…
(Imagine that to prevent the spread of heresies, the church will force all members by restricting them from even reading the Bible or speaking about it unless they get educated first in the seminary. Which is a violation already of the “basic” rights of the people)
Brothers and sisters, isn’t it the same thing happening in our society today? The government has been trying to say, “you’re not required to be vaccinated.” But unless you are fully vaccinated, you cannot ride the public transportation, you cannot enter the public market, you cannot even go out of your house. Is that tyranny? You be the judge. (PAO Chief Atty. Acosta and other politicians already spoke against it).
Again, we’re not to be “anti-vaccine.” But we must be anti-discrimination, anti-tyranny. (The same applies should the government discriminate against the vaccinated).
If they want to give special privileges to the vaccinated, they provide exclusive buses and airplanes, they build exclusive malls and marketplaces, they build exclusive roads. But they just cannot and should not violate the basic rights that everybody has from the very start.
Samuel Rutherford, “A man commanding unjustly and ruling tyrannically has no power from God in it.” It can be and must be resisted.
[TRANSITION] — Now, should there be any tyranny in the government, what can and should we do?
We do everything we can to call the attention of the magistrates/officials, the very people who promised to protect and care for us. In Acts 16:19-40, Paul and Silas were brought to prison without proper justice. And in verse 35, it says:
“When it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, ‘Let these men go.’ And the jailer reposted these words to Paul, saying, ‘The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul said to them. ‘They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.”
And it was important to also prove publicly that what Paul and Silas were doing preaching in public prior to their imprisonment is not unlawful at all. So the magistrates were afraid, “they came and apologized to them. And they took them out…” (Acts 16:39).
[Same thing] When Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea, governor Felix left Paul in prison for 2 years (Acts 24:26-27). Note that Felix was not persecuting Paul for his faith, but it was unlawful for him to procrastinate in serving justice for Paul.
So when there’s now a new governor, Paul appealed to a higher authority. In Acts 25:8, he says, “Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I committed any offense.” He was trying to avoid going to Jerusalem to the Jews because they would ambush him. So he argues, “I am standing in the court of Caesar, let them try me if I deserve any lawful punishment, even death. I appeal to Caesar.” (So he was sent to Rome for trial before Caesar).
[Same thing, last example] In 2 Kings 11, when Athalia saw that her son was dead, she killed all the royal family, though in the providence of God, Joash survived. For six years, this wicked, tyrant Athaliah reigned as a queen in the land. How was she resisted and overthrown? Jehoiada the high priest (a ruler himself) rallies the captains, the chiefs, and then the people, reminding them of their civil duty and showing them the true heir to the throne. The opposition was successful and Athaliah was executed.
So we see here, friends, that the proper way to resist unlawful governance is to appeal to the covenant/law/constitution through the help of the government as well. We don’t resist the government just by ourselves. Only the magistrates have the duty and power to execute the law and rally the people against unlawful magistrates.
These days, it’s good to be aware of our covenant/contract with the State—the Constitution and the laws of the land. Even if we ask all lawyers, IATF Resolutions are not law. They can only “suggest” what to do, but it lies on the magistrates, the LGUs how to implement those suggestions in accordance with the law and the constitution.
And whatever God allows us, let us help the government uphold the law. (Me bringing RA 11525 everywhere to remind the police, traffic enforcers, etc.). If we are lawyers, politicians, or have influence on these people, let us do whatever we are capable of so that justice, peace, and order are executed.
So we always go back to that truth that God instituted the government for justice and order. If there’s injustice, we ask for their help. And in case tyranny still exists, as if all the current officials collaborate in the injustice, we still do what we have to do while enduring it and trusting that God will provide the right magistrate to oppose it. We rely on the government that God ordained for justice.
Finally, this reminds us that because the government can never be perfect, and the government can become a tyrant—we remind ourselves with Psalm 146:3ff:
“Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. When this breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.”
This election, we may wish that the one who wins will help our country better. But we don’t hope too much. Our ultimate hope for justice and our well-being here on earth is still God.
Friends, brothers, and sisters, it is a blessing that God’s Word today guides us on these matters. It doesn’t only teach us what to believe for our salvation, but also how to live while we are here in this world.
Joseph Pipa, “It’s becoming more political than medical…” Especially in our days of crisis, it’s good to be aware of these things. We do not even expect the state to be for us until the end (cf. Revelation).
God has established both the church and the state as independent institutions. And we are to acknowledge the separation and limitations of both. We are to show respect and concern for both. Christ said: “Render to Caesar what is to Caesar, to God what is to God (cf. Mark 12:17).
And whenever we discuss the duty of the government to the church and to the citizens, are we trying to step out of our jurisdiction as the church? No. We do not demand the government to be as godly and religious as the church. We do not demand the government to just use the Bible as its law. We only remind and ask the government to do its job and be the government that God has ordained it to be.
So let us continue praying for the government, the church, and ourselves. Let us ask God for wisdom and boldness to do what is just, right, and pleasing to him.
In matters where we have to obey the government, let us obey and submit with humility as obedience to God. And in matters where we have to disobey earthly kings and rulers, let us disobey with respect and courage—ultimately giving our allegiance and hope to our almighty God, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Reuel Dawal is the Minister of the Word and Sacraments at ZCRC. He was an intern prior to being ordained and installed as the church's new pastor. He is currently finishing his Biblical and Theological Studies at the Miami International Seminary (MINTS) online. He and his wife Yeng are married since 2017 and lives in Imus, Cavite.