The rumours and whisperings of Covid 19 began to crescendo in February 2020. Then in March 2020 it reached its climax and we were swiftly and unceremoniously thrown into a lockdown. At the time I was pregnant and sick, sick, sick. Hardly able to leave my room, let alone the house, for a while the national lockdown didn’t have an enormous impact on me. I didn’t think too hard about obeying the rules. But when I did, it seemed simple: Romans 13 says “submit to the government.” The government says keep to these rules. Therefore, God wants me to keep to these rules.
I did feel a little uneasy about churches being closed, and this feeling grew as time went on. But everything else seemed like a necessary evil. Why shouldn’t the stronger among us lay down our rights to protect those of the vulnerable? Surely it would all be over in a couple of months… time to buckle down and watch Netflix…
A Thousand Small Decisions
Almost a year later and a deep, grunge-y angst set in. The question has shown itself to be far more complicated and requiring a much more nuanced answer. Decisions which would never have previously been questioned before have become ethical dilemmas: should I have my heavily pregnant friend round who is struggling with a toddler, and teetering on the edge of depression? Should my husband help our reclusive, vulnerable neighbour fix his TV? Do I have to watch “church”? Should I go home for Christmas if my parents have mixed too many households?
Should I hug my mum?
Before I launch in, please let’s remember: none of this is a question of salvation. The gospel depends on the perfect righteousness of Christ, not human behaviour (especially not law keeping, see chapters 2-8 of Romans). My salvation and his love depend on Him, not on my keeping of Covid-19 restriction rules.
That said, we know that, “we are not saved by works, but we are certainly saved for good works” (John Frame, Systematic Theology: How Then Shall We Live?). Or as Romans would put it:
In view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worshipRomans 12:1
How Covid-19 rules fit into that is not a simple question. The whole situation has thrown into sharp relief the slightly bizarre way that I currently live my life. My attitude back in the beginning of the pandemic was essentially rules/laws ethics in action, and of course it’s almost always possible to find a verse to back up a Christian ‘rule’ (what I call “slap a verse on it” or, more properly, “proof texting.”) In this case my mantra had been Romans 13:1: “Be subject to the governing authorities.”
It’s good that I was trying to apply God’s Word. I believe that it is sufficient and that in it we find life. I also believe that this is how He speaks to us. It’s also true that I am trying my best to do what is good for as many people as possible. I don’t want to people to die.
The only problem is I hadn’t stopped to consider or to pray through any of the following questions: What does it mean to ‘be subject’? Is it the same as ‘always obey’? How do we square these verses with other parts of Scripture that tell us to stand up to oppressors and fight for justice? Why am I slapping this verse on and not, say, Romans 12:13 (‘Practise hospitality’)?
I told you it wasn’t simple.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being Subject
Looking carefully at Romans 13 we see that Paul does clarify something of what it means to ‘be subject’ to the government. Rather than couching it in terms of “obey vs. disobey,” he holds up the dichotomy as “do right vs. do wrong.” He implicitly accepts that there is a standard other than governmental rulings. In fact, a major emphasis in this text is that the ultimate authority is God (v1-2). Moreover, the opposite of being subject here is ‘rebelling’: it is a word that has connotations of violence and force. Just a few verses before, in chapter 12, Paul reminds the believers that God is the one who will take vengeance and that we should ‘overcome evil with good’.
In other words, the first instinct of a Christian who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with their government should be reform, not revolution. Surely this especially applies when the government is, however imperfectly, attempting to save lives rather than arbitrarily imposing restrictions.
However, this does not seem to preclude resistance, even disobedience. Paul wrote Romans from prison, where he had been sent for disobeying governing officials. For the Christian faced with systemic injustice “being subject” might mean accepting the cost from the government of following our consciences. Romans would suggest that, like Jesus himself, the attitude we should have is that we should be prepared to pay for our decision to disregard the guidelines, be that by fines, or prisons sentences (or even our lives) rather than the blood of our enemies.
It’s the difference between Rosa Parks riding the buses and the storming of the Capitol building with guns: both instances provide an example of demanding rights, but the second was prepared to strip others of theirs as they did so.
All of this is starting to sound a little dramatic. They’re asking us not to jog twice a day, not dragging our neighbours away in the dead of night. My point is that while Romans 13 tells us that our first inclination should be to stick to the rules, there are going to be circumstances in which it may become right to disobey them.
And there’s the rub: between us there are going to be different points at which we feel, as Christians, we have to go against what is legislated. This is made even more difficult because our religion is not one that is just about gathering to worship on a Sunday. It encompasses all of life; our every decision. Covid rules affect how we live as Christians all week long.
Donkeys in Ditches
A rules-based method of living isn’t going to work. But neither is trying to guess what the outcome or consequence will be and trying to act in line with that. The trouble is, no-one really knows what the impact of all these restrictions are going to be, even in the short term. Even a good outcome doesn’t justify an evil action (see Romans 3:8).
A phrase that has been knocking around my head for a while now has been this: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” It’s what Jesus tells the Pharisees in Matthew 9 when they see him breaking their rules by eating with ‘tax collectors and sinners’. It comes from Hosea 6:6, where God tells his people, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” The people are ostensibly keeping the law, but they do not love the Lord, or their neighbour, as they should. In other words, you can break laws OR keep laws for the wrong reasons. It’s all about the heart, and it always has been.
And what should be in our hearts? Romans 13 again: “Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of law.” (13:10)
Frame puts it this way: right motivation + right standard + right goal = right action. (John Frame, Systematic Theology: How Then Shall We Live?)
An action motivated by love, seeking to be obedient to God’s Word (in all its many facets) that is trying to do good to a human and bring glory to God, is an action that is pleasing to God.
Jesus exemplifies this in Luke 14 when he heals on the Sabbath. To explain why he is ‘working’ he asks:
If one of you has a child or an ox(/donkey) that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?”Luke 14:5
While the Sabbath law is holy and righteous and for the general good of all people, there are certainly times when the present, pressing need of the individual in front of you will make it right to break it. The parable of the Good Samaritan also works, but as a negative example. The Priest and the Levite who ignore the wounded man may have been doing so to avoid the possibility of making themselves unclean by touching a corpse (he was, after all “half dead” – 9:30). In so doing they “keep” a rule and miss the entire essence of the law (v 27).
Similarly, while our default should be to submit to Covid rules there will be situations where we should not. Not all of these situations will be life or death: we all (legislators included) agree that we’d keep a friend from choking even if it meant breaking social distancing rules. Rather, some situations are what I am now calling “Donkey in a Ditch” scenarios. (I know it should be “ox in the well”, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so well!) These aren’t the times we break the rules just because we disagree with them/don’t think the government has the right to impose them/find them inconvenient. These are the times when each of us, in our own consciences, looks at the needs of another individual and decides to break a Covid rule for the sake of that person.
We will all have slightly different definitions of what counts as a ‘donkey in the ditch’ – and this is where I see some of the blackest sin in my heart exposed. Either I self-righteously judge others as law breakers, or I resent people’s refusal to put an individual’s needs above what I see as their obsession with keeping every tiny little guideline.
Praise God, Romans 14 comes straight after Romans 13. Romans 14 helps us with our hearts and with caring for the hearts of others. In these awful, strange times we all need to do what we are fully convinced is the right thing, considering our motivations, standards and goals very carefully. But if others think differently we should not force them to do as we do, because if it goes against their conscience it would be wrong for them. Once more, it’s all about the heart. We need to be careful about our attitude towards those who disagree with us:
“Why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgement seat.Romans 14:10
This prompts me to try to assume good motives behind other people’s actions. It forces me to accept whatever decision people make about this or that rule without pressuring them to do what I think is right. I’ve got to stop mentally calling people “idiots”.
We probably all naturally fall more easily into one of the two camps: self-righteous, details-obsessed, law keepers or grumbly, rebellious, defenders-of-our-own-freedom-at-all-costs. I’ve managed to be both, sometimes simultaneously. For what it’s worth, I’ve come up with a framework for deciding how, when and if I should break or rigidly stick to a rule in this crazy time that has made criminals of us all.
- Motivation: Is this a selfish decision? Am I acting in anger, or for convenience or in love?
- Standard: Have I considered Romans 13 & 14? Have I considered other Biblical imperatives? Could my action pressure someone else into doing something that makes them feel uncomfortable (whether breaking or keeping rules)?
- Goal: What am I trying to achieve? Am I willing to take on myself whatever consequence or punishment the government might impose on me as a result? Or, have I considered the potential unintended negative consequences that could result from my submission to the rule? Who will get glory? Who will mainly benefit? Who could be harmed?
I think that the Lord may be using these times to shine a light on all our hearts to show up some of the dusty neglected corners where sin skulks unnoticed. It’s a very uncomfortable process but it will bring us benefit in the end. My hope in writing this is that it will help us all (myself included) have a little more charity and patience with our brothers and sisters, and that we will still have some friends left at the end of it!