Mandatory Masks, “Shelter at Home,” and (Anti-) Social Distancing
A Christian worldview analysis and a brief theology of the state
Dear friends and supporters:
During the COVID-19 crisis, many biblical Christians have been resistant to the ethics and legal guidelines dictating mask wearing, “sheltering at home” (euphemism for virtual house self-arrest), and (anti-)social distancing, even if the reluctance is more intuitive than reasoned. In this brief e-newsletter, which lays out a Christian worldview response to these COVID-19 edicts (hereafter CE), I aim to show how this resistance is entirely justified.
Biblical Christians (there shouldn’t be any other kind, but there are) are governed in their view of civil disobedience by a biblical theology summarized in this statement: if the state requires what the Bible forbids, or forbids what the Bible requires, Christians must disobey; but Christians may not disobey an evil state merely on the grounds that it is evil.
An incident in the Bible of the state’s requiring what the Bible forbids is the ancient Pharaoh’s command that the Hebrew midwives kill all male Jewish newborns. A modern example is China’s recently rescinded one-child policy.
A biblical example of the state’s forbidding what the Bible requires is the apostate Jewish leaders in the early church demanding that the apostles not preach in Jesus’ name. A contemporary example is laws against “hate speech,” which include preaching against homosexual acts.
Nonetheless, Christians may not disobey laws within evil regimes merely on the grounds that the state is evil. For instance, one may not drive 95 miles an hour through a school zone simply because government schools teach Darwinism. The Bible presupposes political order, not chaos, and even an evil state serves God’s good purposes when it maintains order.
Within this broad principle, CE would not seem on their face to be subject to legitimate Christian civil disobedience. After all, they appear not to be forbidding what God requires or requiring what he forbids. Two considerations, however, will show this initial reaction to be less than persuasive.
Immoral law versus illegitimate law
First, it is vital to distinguish between immoral law and illegitimate law. Immoral law denotes civil law that requires citizens to violate God‘s law. Some laws, however, while not immoral, are illegitimate, that is, they exceed the jurisdiction of civil government, or at least that aspect of civil government that issues them. This brings up the question of the locus of civil authority.
The locus of civil authority
In Romans 13, the classic passage on civil government in the new covenant, authority was vested in the Roman Caesar. This is why a few years before, when Jesus was asked about civil obedience, he responded: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk. 12;17). A few generations before, during the Roman Republic, the locus of civil authority was divided, by no means evenly, between the the caesars and the Roman Senate. The Senate was a long-lived Roman institution, and survived into the years of the Empire, but its authority was greatly diminished by the time Jesus Christ was born. In effect, Caesar himself was the civil authority.
Conversely, in modern constitutional republics like the United States, the locus of authority is more widely diffused. In fact, it was intentionally diffused in harmony with a Christian worldview. The Founders, even the unbelievers among them, were shaped by a Christian mindset, and this includes the doctrine of Original Sin, which doesn’t magically disappear when individuals assume political office. In fact, sin often intensifies precisely among politicians, a truth captured in the Christian Lord Acton’s famous line “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Therefore, the U. S. Founders fashioned a system of diffuse political authority, checks and balances that would deconsolidate the sin. They knew that purging sin in the present world is an impossibility, and purgation via politics creates the most dangerous political order of all, so they fashioned a system that would most mitigate the effects of sin. This is why classical liberalism, the political philosophy undergirding most modern constitutional republics, is likely the most Christian political order possible.
This diffusion of the locus of authority, a deconsolidated political order, has significant implications for law, and specifically for the CE we’re presently considering.
While CE might not be immoral (but see below), they could very well be illegitimate. In the U. S. Constitution (10th Amendment), powers not delegated by the Constitution to the federal government are reserved to the states. This includes police power. The states are left to decide, usually by means of their legislators, how and where that state power may legitimately be exercised. This is not an easy task.
Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw wrote (Commonwealth v. Alger, 1851):
It is much easier to perceive and realize the existence and sources of [the police power] than to mark its boundaries, or prescribe limits to exercise.
What is especially telling in the case of CE is that, to my knowledge, no legislatures, either federal or state, decided. All CE were declared by the executive (governors), and in some cases mayors. In any case, the measures were not granted legislative due process. Even were legislatures to grant the executive extraordinary power to issue CE, and some clearly did not, opposing these measures, the issue is deeper still: every citizen is an occasional politician.
In constitutional republics, the locus of authority includes citizens themselves. This was a remarkably new factor in human history, and it has contributed to vast human freedom. Citizens are themselves political authorities. This does not imply pure democracy, which the U. S. Founders feared and abhorred, but it does mean that while individuals delegate decision-making to representatives, they can never delegate their entire authority.
As dubious as it might sound, this means that citizens enjoy a limited say in which laws they will and will not obey. The fact that this truism can be twisted to justify wholesale rebellion doesn’t invalidate it. Though there are no guarantees in a fallen world, this arrangement tends to protect against both political tyranny and social anarchy.
Because the West has gradually abandoned individual responsibility for sociopolitical security, it has lost a sense of the vital role of human agency in crises. That is, every person (children and the mentally infirm are exceptions) must decide for himself how to navigate in such times during which the crisis is not created by human coercion, like theft or robbery or murder or rape or war, coercive human actions for which political recourse is fully appropriate. Viruses, while often dangerous, do not conform to this category of human coercion.
This suggests that I am responsible for my own health, not everybody else’s. If I prefer wearing a mask, that’s my choice. If I want to closet myself in my house, I may do that. If I am convinced that 6 feet from any other human is a safe proximity, that’s how far I can position myself.
Alternatively, if I want to eat unmasked at restaurants, drive across the county visiting all sorts of population-dense places, and hug and shake hands with friends, I am free to that that too. Churches are free to encourage congregational singing and recitation and hand-clasping and embracing and passing the peace.
An immediate objection is: “If that is the social policy, it means that I must put myself at great risk for infection with COVID almost wherever I go. I deserve the right to frequent where, and live as, I want without undue anxiety over infection.”
But this is actually just another way of arguing: “I want the liberty to go where and do what I want, and in so doing deprive other people of that same liberty. They must conform to my view of risk in order to live their lives.”
Individual responsibility suggests that always and everywhere, I am responsible for my own actions (and inactions). COVID-positive individuals should be quarantined, but COVID-free or asymptomatic individuals are free to go where and do what they want within the bounds of the moral law, and businesses are free (for example) to demand temperature-taking as an entrance criterion. These are apolitical considerations.
You may not delegate responsibility for your health. In the language of Thomas Sowell, you may not rely on surrogate decision-makers. Human agency may not be violated simply because you or I are troubled by somebody else’s.
One striking difference between our Christian forebears and us is their repeated emphasis on prayer and our comparative de-emphasis of it. They prayed frequently and fervently. We pray infrequently and languidly. They called prayer meetings. We call staff meetings. They had revival and reformation. We have apathy and apostasy. A leading reason for these distinctions is that they were inclined to believe what God said about prayer. We are often less confident in God’s word when it comes to his promises about prayer. A blunter way to say this is: we commit the sin of unbelief. Prayer changes things. When we pray, we are asking God to change things. And when he answers our prayer, he does change things. This brings us to a most telling fact that we don’t often consider: if we are perfectly willing to accept the way things are as God's unchangeable will, we will never be people of prayer.
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The Bible does require quarantining the symptomatic plague-infected population (Lev. 13). It says nothing about the asymptomatic population. Because we now know that the asymptomatic can carry viruses like COVID-19, the Bible implicitly places the onus not on the (allegedly) unhealthy but on the healthy to protect themselves and their children in their ordinary social intercourse, since it does not empower the state to enact policies that treat the entire population as asymptomatic.
The choice of healthy citizens to engage in close contact with healthy or asymptomatic individuals during an epidemic can scarcely be deemed within the jurisdiction of political executives. State police powers are legitimate to protect against immediate, dire emergencies, but the possible asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 to people who take the risk of sustained human contact does not constitute an immediate, dire emergency. Moreover, the fact that most masks have been proven not to protect against viruses suggests that these directives are unwarranted.
Who is Caesar today?
Because in present constitutional republics political authority is divvied up between citizens, the representatives, and the judiciary, the biblical command to render to Caesar is not a command to obey every law that does not conflict with the Bible. The question before us is: who is Cesar in the present situation? The answer is: a diffuse locus of political authority. Citizens must take seriously the health and lives of those in their own family and churches and sphere of social intercourse and in general obey laws that do not conflict with the Bible. They may not disobey on secondary or unimportant grounds. But while they must disobey immoral laws, they may consider whether to disobey illegitimate laws.
And this includes CE.
Romans 13 and the Christian worldview
When Paul wrote Romans 13:1-7, the civil magistrate was anything but Christian. The Roman Empire hadn’t yet turned its persecution into later Neroian frenzy, but it still penalized Christians. The fact that Paul holds up this particular civil magistrate as God’s minister tells us something about the value God places on sociopolitical order.
Paul is not, of course, laying out the criteria for an ideal state, but the Christian responsibility even to a pagan state. He reminds this magistrate that his calling is to punish external evildoing and, by doing this, reward the righteous. By what standard? For Paul, that standard is the law of God (Rom 1–2). Because of God’s creational revelation inscribed in men’s hearts, even ungodly civil magistrates can partially reflect a righteous political order. But note that Paul does not authorize the state to protect citizens under any conceivable condition, including epidemics, though, fully aware of the Old Testament, he knew about the old covenant quarantine laws.
If you’ll think about it, Paul is offering a significantly limited view of the role of civil government, largely reducible to what the U. S. Founders called the protection of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This principle does not include in any obvious way the legal requirement of masks, virtual house self-arrest, and standing 6 feet away from every other human.
Second, some CE have come to violate biblical law. An obvious example is the recently revised directive by California governor Gavin Newsom that forbids congregational singing, chanting, and recitation.
Canceling church culture
This is a prime example of how the state can cancel church by forbidding its inherent practices while slyly claiming it saves room for religious liberty. Congregational participation, particularly in the form of singing and Bible reading, constitute essential aspects of public Christian worship. Even churches that deny the retention of the sign gifts (tongues, prophecy) recognize the underlying structure of church order that Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 11-14. This order includes congregational music, prayer, and vocal congregational ministry. Church requires audience participation. Sunday morning religious zoom meetings can be very beneficial, but they are not church.
It is true that some churches reduce public worship almost entirely to actions and words performed on the stage or platform. For this reason the California CE will harm many traditional and liturgical churches much more than contemporary-styled and non-liturgical churches. If you believe that church is a spectator sport, you can still have a public meeting.
Of course, we couldn’t call that worship. Below is a snippet from a letter I received from a faithful California pastor:
He’s right. California churches must now decide: to hold public worship under these conditions is not to worship.
They can comply with the political directive, or they can worship God publicly.
You cannot do both.
What the church cannot be
A multitude of even conservative Christians look on the coercive cancelation of public worship as a boon to the church. A frequent response to the increasingly onerous restrictions of public worship is something like: “This is OK. In fact, it’s good for the church. It gets the church out of its Sunday meetings and out of the building and out into the world where it is supposed to be. Be the church wherever you are!”
This sentiment betrays a misguided and potentially catastrophic misunderstanding of the church. The church is the ekklesia, the gathered community. It is the gathering in Christ’s name that makes it unique — the assembled community, not the dispersed community.
Where there can be no assembly, no congregation, no gathering, there can be no church.
These CE, therefore, forbid what the Bible requires and therefore cannot be obeyed.
Criminalizing the cultural mandate
There’s a second, broader point to be made with respect to the shelter-at-home order. This CE savaged the economy; destroyed millions of jobs and incomes; impoverished employees most vulnerable to economic downturn like those in high-human-contact vocations like waiters and waitresses, flight attendants, chefs and cooks, hairdressers, and cosmetologists.
What today we call gainful employment or “holding a job” is actually an essential aspect of the cultural mandate, the requirement found in Genesis 1:28-30 that man and woman exercise dominion over the rest of God’s creation. Man cannot do that if he is locked in his house, at least, for people whose livelihood is not solely the electronic transmission of digits. Therefore, this lockdown order violates the biblical requirement of the cultural mandate. Of course, in unique, immediate emergencies, the Bible does permit a political curb, such as in wartime or in time of plague.
But the CE are not narrowly focused, as the Bible requires, but comprehensively apply across the board. This, then, is a violation of God’s law that must not be obeyed.
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The unique COVID-19 edicts are, at least in leading instances, both illegitimate and immoral from the standpoint of a Christian worldview: (1) they generally exceed the jurisdiction of the executives issuing them; and (2) they forbid what the Bible requires.
For that reason, Christians are warranted not to obey them.
My mother’s memorial service nearly three years ago was in itself memorable. My granddaughter Haley and daughter Peace joined my wife Sharon (pianist) for a special musical number:
Next week’s tentative title is “Immanentizing the Eschaton: The smashmouth wokeness warriors champion a poisonous utopian and Gnostic heresy,” and the following week’s is “The Christian Counterpunch: turning the other cheek to cultural evil is not a virtue.” This “Culture-Change” e-newsletter just keeps growing, thanks to God’s grace and to your promotion. I’m humbled by both.
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Founder & President
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List of Coronavirus-related posts and podcasts:
“What the COVID-19 Drama Has Revealed About Our Institutional Character”
COVID-19 and Legality: An Interview with Jeffery J. Ventrella
COVID-19 and Economics: An Interview with David L. Bahnsen
COVID-19 and Theology: An Interview with Brian G. Mattson
“COVID-19 and Our Crisis of Liberty”
“Thinking Christianly During Covid”
“COVID-19, Politics, Church, and Culture”
(Dr. Ardel Caneday and I address vital questions. This was a succinct, wide-ranging conversation discussing everything from the interpretation of Romans 13, radical 2-kingdom theology, the nature of the church, whether the church should cancel public worship,￼ whether the civil magistrate is bound to God’s law, the Founders’ view of human nature, the diabolical basis of coronavirus fear, and much more. The password is: 1j$@^=S#)
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Andrew, it appears you have triggered an interesting discussion on the proper time and circumstance for civil disobedience from a Biblical perspective. I think at the heart of it I am in general agreement with you. I did a little research on Governor's authority across the country during times of crisis. These vary from state-to-state anf commonwealth to Commonwealth. The authority given to Governor's during special periods of times like these has been established by the States Constitution and then supported by various laws and case law historically. In some States these are subject to legislative review. it would be my humble judgment then that I must obey them. The exception, as you point out very well is when those orders or edicts are in direct violation of God's word. The prohibition against worship services would in my judgment constitute a reasonable and valid act of civil disobedience. Even under those circumstances however, I believe we should take all reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of our congregants. Thank you so much for bringing this issue to light and as always your thorough treatment of the subject.
"Because of God’s creational revelation inscribed in men’s hearts, even godly civil magistrates can partially reflect a righteous political order. "
I think you meant to write "ungodly".