A submission of thoughts regarding Romans 13, Coronavirus, and quarantines:
The sphere of the government, of the state, and its attendant offices, is established by God. Verse 1 reads, “For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” Ordained by God, this sphere of government is, therefore, good. A society lacking the state would be lacking a good. Christians should not, therefore, be anarchists.
Those laboring in this sphere, the civil magistrates, are deacons of God. Verse 4 reads, “For he is the minister of God to thee for good…for he is the minister of God.” A civil magistrate is a deacon, a servant, of the God of the Bible. This is what he is, regardless of how he chooses to identify. And, so, we see that the identity of the magistrate is central to understanding if he is good or bad. The only way to be a good magistrate is to self-identify according to this inescapable reality. An official of the state, when sworn into office, must swear fealty to Christ. Entering the office of servant of God, he must publicly acknowledge and gladly take hold of his servitude to Christ. To fail to do so is to walk in rebellion, to fail to accomplish the first order of his station.
A servant of Christ, holding an office ordained by God, is constrained in the legitimate use of authority to God’s assigned task. He is bound to do that which is proper to the office and bound from doing anything more or less. What is the duty, under Christ, of the magistrate? “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” The state exists as the arm of God’s earthly vengeance against criminals. Criminality is not left up to the defining ingenuity of the state or the demos. Rather, it is established by Scripture, where we see examples of the Ten Commandments being so heinously violated as to directly threaten the goodness and survival of civil order. To put it another way, when life and property are directly assaulted, the governing authorities are to stand in opposition, using the means given them by God.
How are the citizens of a society to relate to the governing authorities? Well, when a civil magistrate, having been legitimately appointed, acts legitimately within the constraints placed on him by God, citizens owe obedience. And, as Christians, we are always to give what is owed. “For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” To withhold what is owed in such a circumstance is to withhold from God himself.
That said, governments are often chock full of men who refuse fidelity to Christ, who walk their own way, and do whatsoever seems right in their own eyes. How should citizens, Christian citizens, relate to men who walk outside God-appointed limits? In the negative, they should not react to such men as revolutionaries. Revolutionaries are those who see all that ought to be (correctly or incorrectly) and insist on it all, all at once, at all costs. This is the French way. It is necessarily chaotic, assaulting not just perceived tyrants, but the very institutions of government established by God. Verse 1 reads, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained by God.” Again, anarchy, and, so, revolution, and, so, la méthode française, is no friend of God.
Instead of running the fiery gauntlet of revolution, Christians are to plod the road of reformation, that road which led to the dethronement of blasphemous Caesars and liberation of American colonies. Though reformers see all that ought to be, they don’t insist on it all at once at all costs. The destruction of the state sphere is not the goal. Its reformation is the target. This is a long game, one that starts with the all the way down and all the way through holy living of the church of Christ. “Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not covet;’ and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.'” Without barring the legitimacy of civil disobedience (i.e. Shadrach and compatriots, Daniel, etc.), the focus for Christian citizens is to be their holiness. In holy living, the church’s salt and light levels will necessarily result in the undermining of tyranny, in the production of righteous magistrates, those with sufficient courage to obey the Crown and lead organized opposition to rebellious magistrates.
How, then, do these thoughts connect to our present situation regarding COVID-19 and state ordered quarantines? Many states have issued stay-at-home orders, shuttering what they deem to be non-essential businesses and gatherings, including church gatherings. The stated purpose of these orders is to limit the spread of contagion. Is such a public quarantine within the purview of the governing authorities? It is plain from the OT that God has granted to governments the authority to quarantine as a measure of guarding against a direct assault to life. That said, unlike our current approach to quarantine, the quarantines we find in the Bible are of the sick. Leviticus 13 details how to wisely deal with those who are found to have skin disease. They, and not the entirety of the public, are to be isolated in order to prevent the disease from becoming unnecessarily widespread. Those not infected with disease were to remain free to carry on with their God-given duties. Though my alma mater hates the living God, this is how it dealt with swine flu back when I was a student. Those who tested positive for Swine Flu were quarantined. The rest of the student body continued to go to class and get on with life. Unless someone can show me an example from the Bible of a government quarantining the entire public in the face of pestilence, I’m left to conclude that such an approach to quarantine is outside the bounds of the government’s authority.
Because honor and subjection to the hierarchy established by God can be properly given without giving obedience to any and every order of governors, it would seem that civil disobedience by the healthy is permissible in this matter. Even contrary to public orders, it would, therefore, be acceptable for healthy members of churches to continue to meet. Ideally, the liberties the healthy enjoy to work and assemble would be protected by lesser magistrates, local elected officials, against any reactionary overreach of state and federal officials. COVID-19 may very well be as serious as the Swine Flu or the Spanish Flu, pestilences that did, in fact, threaten the life of the public. But, from the testimony of the Scripture, is not the government limited in its quarantining abilities to deal only with the sick? Governing officials are not free to do what seems right. They are only free to do what God reveals to be right and proper for them in their roles. And our resistance to their overreach is not equivalent to revolutionary, French anarchism, that which is forbidden to the Roman Christians and to us in Romans 13.
Contrary to common practice in this American moment, our land needs churches to meet; for our land needs repentance. It needs revival. It needs reformation.