Pastor Lance Ralston, Calvary Chapel Oxnard
ROMANS 13 IN THE DAYS OF COVID-19
Churches across the Country have wrestled with how to respond to stay-at-home ordinances issued from every level of civil government, from the Federal to State and local governments. While the majority have complied with the shut-down by moving from on-site to online services, a few notable exceptions have made the news, stirring outrage from Christians and non-Christians alike. Many Christians consider such flagrant disregard for civil authority as unwise or perhaps a “bad witness” and that holding services is not “loving our neighbors.”
At Calvary Chapel Oxnard, we’ve complied with the requirements of State and County by cancelling on-site meetings and switching to online services. While California prohibits church gatherings, it has assigned the treasured imprimatur of “essential service” to streamed services.
Of growing concern is that as the lock-down has lengthened, the number of people being allowed to conduct these services has declined to the current number of seven. That edict was passed by the Ventura County Health Department the week before Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, when our plans were already set.
That reduction, coming at the last minute, to what is for Christians one of the most important marks on our calendar, prompted me to return to a growing unease with the position civil government has taken toward churches during this crisis. It’s a concern I want to share with you because it could be an issue with the potential to do great harm to the Cause of Christ. That harm would come from a major rift among God’s people regarding our obligation to comply with the dictates of the State.
I recently shared on Facebook a post by a fellow pastor who supported Pastor Rob McCoy’s decision to hold a Communion service at his church in Thousand Oaks. By all accounts, even in news outlets typically hostile to Evangelicals, Pastor McCoy went about conducting the service in a way that well-exceeded CDC guidelines for social distancing. Replies to that Facebook post were either supportive or critical of Pastor McCoy. It became clear there is a diversity of opinion on the matter among people agreed on most other things.
What I noted among many of those who opposed Pastor McCoy’s decision was their appeal to Romans 13 and the Apostle Paul’s call that we be in submission to governing authorities. This was a consistent theme supporting their belief it was wrong for him to violate the stay-at-home order and conduct a Communion service for the members of his church and community. We need to take a closer look at what Paul says in Romans 13 and the way the Church has historically understood it before appealing to it as justification for complying with the stay-at-home orders and before using it to criticize those who take a different track.
Paul gives the God-ordained function of government in this passage; to promote and safeguard justice. He defines the realm of government’s authority and the force it is given to enforce it. He describes what happens when someone deifies civil government. But Paul cannot be understood to commend an indiscriminate compliance with the dictates of the State. He knew obedience to an earthly ruler does not trump obedience to God. It was tension between those two the ultimate resulted in Paul’s execution in Rome under the reign of the Emperor Nero.
Certainly, government is ordained by God and it is to be obeyed—when it faithfully pursues its mission of impartial justice. When it jumps that track, the people of God are no longer called to obey. They are then required by a higher obedience to God to disobey the dictates of man. As Peter told the Sanhedrin when prohibited from preaching in Jesus’ name; “We must obey God, rather than man.” But a general attitude of submission to civil government is to be maintained, even while disobeying a specific command. We see this in the humble way the Apostles responded to the Sanhedrin and Roman officials. They were never insolent or angry. Their disobedience was pitched less as a defiance of man as it was obedience to God. That’s the difference between a mere rebel and a genuine disciple. The rebel boasts in his defiance and disobedience. The disciple keeps His eyes on Jesus, trusting Him to reward his costly faithfulness.
Church history is filled with stories of those faced with the choice of obedience to God or man. Compliance with one meant defiance of the other. Today, we regard these people are heroes of the Faith.
The question before us is this—Does Romans 13 call us to an automatic, blanket compliance with civil government? The answer to that is surely, “No.” A careful analysis must be given to the interplay of our duty to God and the State. Yet in this moment, it seems some want to appeal to an indiscriminate application of Romans 13. Their position seems to be, “The government says no gatherings. So, no gatherings. To disobey is a both a bad witness and unloving of our neighbors because of the danger it puts them in.”
Question: At what point do we have to say to a government that keeps tightening social distancing guidelines? When do we say, “That’s enough” to those passing down what many see as increasingly abritrary ordinances? To mitigate the spread of the virus, we were told to limit gatherings to fifty, then ten, then seven. At what point, what number, do we say, “Hold on”? When they say “Three”? “Two”?
The reaction of some will be, “Don’t be absurd. That won’t happen.” A year ago, those would likely say limiting gatherings to ten was absurd and would never happen. Yet here we are. The question needs to be answered: At what point does the follower of Jesus have to say to the civil government, “That’s enough. You are now infringing on our constitutional rights in the free exercise of our faith and our right to assemble.”?
On what justifiable basis is seven given as the number allowed for us to conduct online services? What science backed the original limit on gatherings to fifty, then ten? For weeks we were told to keep a six-foot boundary around us. Recently that was increased to thirteen feet. It ought to be obvious to all—these numbers are less the result of careful scientific research and more the attempt of politicians dealing with an inordinately difficult situation.
This becomes even clearer when we realize States have adopted different policies regarding church services. Some prohibit services while others regard churches as providing essential services on par with grocery stores and medical clinics.
As of April 2nd, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, consider churches as providing essentials services and so allow gatherings, while encouraging them to adhere to social distancing guidelines as much as possible. Five other states allow churches to conduct services that benefit others in need of physical, emotional, and spiritual assistance.
So, those States that prohibit any church gatherings cannot be said to do so on some kind of universally recognized and scientifically based evidence. We can sympathize with politicians and their desire to keep everyone safe. Yet we need to bear in mind, many of those making policy and setting guidelines have little care for the things of God’s Kingdom. Quite frankly, that is not their concern. But it is ours. And when public policy conflicts with the Kingdom of God, His people must respond.
So, where ought we draw the line that tells the civil government they’ve required us to do something we can’t comply with while being right with God?
It seems to me the crucial issue is this → That line will likely be in different place for different people. That’s where we need the chapter after Romans 13. In Romans 14, Paul warns Christians about getting into disruptive disputes over issues of conscience; morally gray topics about which God’s Word is neither black nor white. In these things, we must each live by a conscience informed by God’s Word and Spirit. What we must NOT do is judge one another when we see things differently.
Pastor McCoy’s conscience required him to provide a Communion service for his flock. In his stated reason for doing so he brought up the issue of “essential services” central to stay-at-home orders. Certain businesses are obviously essential; groceries and medical needs chief among them. But why are liquor stores, cannabis dispensaries, and abortion clinics deemed essential? In the recent rules issued by the Ventura County Health Department mentioned previously, while regular church services were deemed non-essential, bike shops were. How can a bike shop and dispensary be deemed essential and the services a church provides its members, not? (By “services” I mean more than “worship services.” More on this in a moment.) In the eyes of many Christians, “Communion” is far more than a piece of bread and half an ounce of juice. It is a “co-unioning” with The Spirit and others, something not possible in the virtual space of the internet.
The Roman Catholic Church views the Eucharist as the literal body and blood of Christ, by means of which grace is dispensed to the soul and salvation is nurtured and maintained. Without it, Catholicism says, one’s relationship with God is in jeopardy. How long can Catholics go under stay-at-home orders? As a Protestant, I don’t agree with the Catholic position on the Eucharist. But I support their right to hold their belief and to disregard the rules of man in favor of what they believe is the higher rule of God.
While going against the arguably arbitrary number allowed for gatherings, Pastor McCoy’s church fastidiously complied with social distancing guidelines. Many people agreed with his decision. Many others disagreed and did so vocally and vehemently. The issue we must wrestle with while carrying on our back and forth discussions in support of whatever position we’ve taken, is that we MUST adhere to the higher law of love and respect for one another. Name-calling or assuming someone is “stupid’ because he/she disagrees, grieves the Spirit of God. Go ahead and disagree. But when all is said and done, be sure your love and respect has been more apparent than anything else.
Finally, regarding services; to my mature brothers and sisters in Christ who have their spiritual feet under them and can do just fine in their walk with God by joining online services once or twice a week, please understand not everyone is in the same place you are. In a local congregation, there are many levels of spiritual development and maturity. There are some who need regular fellowship. They are finding this time inordinately difficult to navigate. Taking the attitude that they ought to “grow up and stop being so needy,” isn’t helpful. Maybe you don’t understand why some are so desperate for fellowship. Instead of being critical, go the other way and reach out to them with a call or text that affirms and supports them.
Acts of love are a great way to spray some spiritual Round-Up on the weeds of disunity.
 Acts 5:29
 In the time between the original writing of this and it being posted, the same official who set the limit at seven has raised it back to ten. Indicative of the arbitrary nature of these numbers is a lack of statistical support for this change. While there has been a slight reduction in the rate of increase in infections in the County, the most recent decision to raise numbers and open certain venues seems far more indicative of a “popular” rather than medical decision.
LANCE RALSTON LEAD PASTOR, Calvary Chapel Oxnard
Lance and Lynn, his wife of forty years, have three children, four grandchildren, and have lived in Oxnard for all but their first year. They began Calvary Chapel Oxnard thirty-eight years ago, meeting in a park in the Southern California coastal city of Port Hueneme with a dozen people. Today, the church has 1,200 adults each Sunday. CCO’s outreach to the community includes a private Christian high school and a 24-hour low-power FM radio station, 101.5 FM, KOCC.
The ministry of CCO is centered on expository teaching of the Scriptures, verse by verse, book by book, through the entire Bible.
Pastor Lance is the author of one book, Marriage: As It Was Meant To Be. He authors the popular podcast “Communio Sanctorum: History of the Christian Church” (www.sanctorum.us). He holds a Masters of Arts in Biblical Studies and Ministry from Channel Islands Bible College & Seminary.
Lance enjoys backpacking, wood-working, working out, gardening, home improvement projects, reading, and graphic design.