Magazines 2021 Mar - Apr Subject to governing authorities

Subject to governing authorities

08 March 2021 By David Guretzki

Being faithful in messy situations

Years of organizational leadership have convinced me to avoid making policy decisions during a crisis. Policy is not best formed when fates of organizations or individuals are at stake. That’s when we make unbalanced decisions, forcing us to readjust at the next crisis.

The same could be said about theology. Good application of theology always needs to consider the present context, not the present crisis.

Crises have tremendous theological value because they help us sharpen our thinking. For example, the establishment of the doctrines of Christ and the Trinity were products of crisis. Yet the road to orthodoxy was littered with premature theological reactions and counter-reactions. That it took 400 years to settle on the Trinity should give us pause when making major theological conclusions in the midst of a relatively short (if seemingly eternal) two-year crisis like the one we are in.

Today a theological question is threatening to divide an already fractured church: What does the biblical imperative "be subject to governing authorities" (Romans 13:1) mean, especially amid an everchanging, sometimes contradictory, stream of federal, provincial and civic dictates?

Responsible interpreters of Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13 would agree neither text teaches Christians unquestioningly to obey the secular authorities at all times.

We need to approach this theological crisis with humility and open hands, even in disagreement.

Peter’s famous "We must obey God rather than humans" (Acts 5:29) illustrates the principle that someone can disobey even while remaining subject to the authorities – providing we don’t skip the part where Peter and his accomplices willingly, cheerfully even, were flogged for their resistance. I hope we can agree that subjection to the authorities and civil disobedience are not mutually exclusive.

In theory we see Peter’s act of civil disobedience as a model. The authorities said, "Don’t preach in Jesus’ name," and Peter says, "Sorry, we must and we will." But a straight line from Peter’s context to ours is not easily drawn.

Some leaders are calling for various forms of civic resistance or disobedience to restrictions on church ministry activities, while others call for peaceful compliance with the public regulations as one of the most practical ways we can love our neighbours in an unusual set of circumstances. Both sides have theological legitimacy.

So what’s the answer? Who’s right?

In lieu of an irresponsible, one-size-fits-all solution, I offer some theological advice along the lines of where I started. While current crises unavoidably force us to make theological decisions today, let’s not presume we must be obligated to these conclusions tomorrow. Even theological decisions that make biblical and rational sense during a crisis sometimes need to be repented of at a later date. Remember how creedal disputes in Church history sometimes lasted centuries?

To those advocating forms of civil disobedience: Make doubly, no, triply sure you’ve exhausted all other avenues before taking that route. Even the Apostle Paul sought to appeal his case before the judiciary of his day. The blessing of living in Canada is that these rights of appeal are still open to us and we should exercise them whenever possible.

To those who’ve sought to be subject to the authorities: Make sure your consciences are clear that in abiding by the regulations, you do not too quickly let yourself off the hook from your own spiritual and moral responsibility. Radical love for God and neighbour, especially for neighbours less fortunate than us, often calls us out of the zone where we feel safe.

Either road chosen has costs to be counted.

Civil disobedience will almost certainly mean punishment or penalty, and we mustn’t complain if in the end the cost is more than we counted on bearing.

Obedience to government directives also has costs, although they may not be as obvious. By now we have all heard stories of how directives have hampered our ability to personally care for and be with those suffering the most during this crisis. When government directives are leaving harm unaddressed, a Christian response of inaction labelled as obedience may further the harm.

At this time we need to extend abundant grace to others who take a different route than we do. I believe there are legitimate ways to argue both sides. We need to approach this theological crisis with humility and open hands, even in disagreement. I pray our differing conclusions on these critical matters today will not become new hindrances of fellowship tomorrow.

David Guretzki of Ottawa is executive publisher of Faith Today and serves The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as executive vice-president and resident theologian.