When Should Christians Engage in Civil Disobedience?
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly raised some interesting questions for churches and Christians. Not only are there obstacles to the mere survival of some churches (via financial loss or difficulty in maintaining an online presence), many congregations have struggled with how to obey Scripture’s command to gather together as believers in the midst of a government that is mandating social distancing protocols. Most local churches have largely taken one of three approaches: online services, modified gatherings (like drive-in church), or straight-up disobedience to the government and gathering as usual. A number of churches have made headlines for holding services when told not to and there have been charges laid and arrests made.
We could debate wether the government is overreaching in these orders or not. That’s not the point of this post. I do, however, want to ponder over the question, when should a believer willingly break the law? What does the Bible have to say about this?
The Default Mode
We should start by taking the stance that Scripture overall supports obedience to local government. A number of passages could be referenced, the most direct and thorough of which is Romans 13:1-7,
 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.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  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,  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.  Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.  For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.  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.
This passage is all-the-more powerful when one remembers that it is spoken of in the context of the tyrannical Roman Empire, which was known for corruption, a lack of accountability, and a general disdain for religion. Even in the midst of that, Christians are exhorted to obey the government, pay their taxes, and just generally be good citizens.
Jesus himself also refrained from challenging the government, even when baited to do so (Mark 12:13-17). The New Testament as a whole encourages a posture of obedience to the government, even going as far as to pray for those in power over them (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
Examples of Civil Disobedience
Given all of this, one might assume that it is never ok for a believer to break the law. But such a position lacks nuance, as there are a number of incidents in Scripture where God’s people disobey civil authorities and are commended for it.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew midwives refused to follow through on Pharaoh’s orders to kill all the male children they deliver (Exodus 1:15-17). Daniel refuses to pray to the king and is thrown into the lion’s den for his disobedience (Daniel 6). The three Israelite servants will not bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue and are cast into the fiery furnace as a result (Daniel 3).
In the New Testament, the disciples on more than one occasion are told to stop preaching the Word of God and are jailed and beaten as punishment (Acts 4-5). They reject the orders of silence on the grounds that they ought to obey God rather than mere men and continue their public ministry anyways.
Thus, there must be at least some instances when disobedience is warranted. Though relatively rare, these instances seem to be in the categories of (1) forced idolatry, (2) stopping evangelism, and (3) direct involvement in the murder of innocent people. I say “relatively rare” because these situations are rare in the Bible and for the most part in Western Society; however, they are not so rare in the wider scope of world history or even in current areas of the world today.
So let’s bring this home. Should churches disobey the government amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and more importantly, do they have biblical justification for doing so? My take is no and no. Although it does concern me that the government has the ability to shut down churches at will (since I fear that power being abused in the future), I do think there was a valid purpose for doing so. The government was not trying to stifle Christianity or the gospel, and Christians can still make use of other means to continue to share the message of Christ. Additionally, these lockdown orders are temporary, not permanent law. As far as I can tell, it is an unfortunate situation all around but not necessarily one that should call for Christians to break peace with the law and willfully disobey it. In short order, things will begin to return to some sense of normal and gathering as God’s people will once again be an available option. Until then, churches should continue to make wise use of technology and prepare for a future that is going to be full of all sorts of other pressing questions.
Amen! This is the stance our pastors are taking. The gospel is simple, but complicated at the same time. Jesus was as a lamb silently heading to the sacrifice, but also overcome by the zeal of the Lord when turning over the tables of the money changers. We must walk in and be led by the Spirit as Jesus was.