Will we obey God or men? Balancing Biblical and Civic Allegiance  

Just six years ago, this Houston Chronicle headline sent shockwaves across the city’s evangelical landscape: “City subpoenas pastors’ sermons in equal rights ordinance case.”

Related to the ordinance pushed by Houston’s first openly gay mayor, Annise Parker, the subpoenas were withdrawn, and voters soundly defeated the measure with help from the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Pastors and church members alike believed the proposed civic ordinance trampled underfoot their First Amendment rights.

Six years later, and it is responses to the coronavirus and not equal rights that masquerade as persecution.

Adherents to a variety of faith expressions face severe restrictions, fines, and even closure if they transgress local and state governments’ attempts to regulate the freedom of worship. This is at odds with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, however, which states in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

New York governor Andrew Cuomo addressed his concerns about mass religious gatherings in a televised address on October 5, saying religious communities would be allowed to worship corporately only if they agree to follow the rules and then actually abide by them. “We have to have real enforcement,” said Cuomo, noting he wants a “person at the door … a real enforcement capacity” that will determine how well the rules are followed.

Cuomo said if the religious communities do not agree to the rules “as a starting point, then we will close down the religious institutions.”

Need we point out the obvious that, a state enforcement official will be policing churches?

The first and obvious question is when did Cuomo become a qualified epidemiologist?

The second is whether he is aware of the precautions Sweden did and did not employ that garnered such success? Sweden enjoys an extremely low per capita rate of Covid-related cases and deaths. That is because the Swedes followed the science that avoided lockdowns and other measures that now seem universal.

But the most important question to all evangelicals in this country is whether any governor — whether well informed or mis-informed — has the authority to even set the rules for faith communities, much less enforce them under despotic draconian threat. 

In April, Kansas legislators overturned an executive order by the state’s governor that limited attendance to church services and funerals. The state’s attorney general advised police in Kansas not to enforce the governor’s order, saying it appeared to impinge upon rights guaranteed by the state’s Constitution.


However, USA Today reported on May 30 that U.S. Supreme Court justice John Roberts cast the deciding vote in an action to prohibit churches in California and Illinois to reopen with more worshippers than state plans permit.

Grabbing national attention in this milieu is Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and its pastor, John MacArthur, who reacted to Governor Gavin Newsom’s shut-down order.

A statement from the church released in July read: “God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church.” The statement also said that “government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders.”


“It’s tyranny to even suggest that a government action cannot be challenged and must be obeyed without question. This case goes to the heart of what our founders designed for the purpose of the legitimate government—not to be above the rule of law,” said Jenna Ellis, special counsel for the church. “Pastor MacArthur is simply holding church, which is clearly his constitutionally protected right in this country.”


On August 14, a California superior court agreed and recognized the right of churches to remain open and to hold indoor services in their sanctuary.


Despite how the scales of justice might sway, the question for Christians is whether to obey God or man. After being arrested and subsequently instructed to stop ministering in Jesus’s name, the Apostle Peter’s decision was to obey God, (Acts 5:29). He and the others with him subsequently were beaten and told once again to cease preaching.

Flip the pages in your mental Bible and you will recall this passage from Romans 13:1-3, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore, whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same” (NKJV).

When comparing the verses from Romans 13 to Acts 5, there seems to be a tension that could form a crisis of belief in the hearts and minds of some Christ followers.

Do we obey the laws of God or do we obey the laws of the land? Verse 3 relieves the tension somewhat in saying that God-ordained rulers “are not a terror to good works.” It seems obvious, therefore, that submission to the government goes only as far as the government obeys the laws of God — the one who ordained the government’s authority in the first place.

With the U.S. Constitution protecting Christians’ civil rights, and the inspired word of God informing his children of spiritual responsibilities, the path to action seems clear: Obey civic authorities’ laws until such laws require one to disobey God.

MacArthur struck what appears to be a reasonable and respectable balance. He initially rebelled on biblical grounds but has said the church will comply civically with other COVID preventative measures.

Given the decline of Western Civilization along with the diminishing influence of the church in our secular culture, it’s safe to say that the pandemic and its subsequent fallout for the evangelical community is but the first shot across the bow of our beloved Gospel ship. And the only remedy for what we and our children face is the Gospel itself. For, when a people are right with God, they also are right with each other.

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Norm Miller

Norm Miller is an ordained Baptist minister and freelance writer living in Louisiana.