It has been said so often that it has become a cliché: “We live in unprecedented times.” Never has the entire world essentially shut down and never has the church, worldwide, been held from gathering for so long. Many Christians in the midst of this crisis are trying their best to think through their response in a biblical way. What does Romans 13 mean in a world with COVID 19? I will state that my conviction is that the government does not have the power to shut down churches. That is an authority given to the elders of local churches, not the state. However, the purpose of writing this blog is to talk about how the church should react to each other when there are disagreements within the church body. Let me be clear; good biblically minded Christians will wrestle through Romans 13 and come to a different conclusion than me. This is not an issue that should separate us. I believe that Romans 14 has much to say to this situation. Members of the church need to show grace, no matter what side of the issue you fall on. Consider verses 1-4:
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
Verse 3 calls us to not despise one another if we disagree on a conscience issue. These are not gospel issues and we are not to infer motive to a fellow believer who disagrees with us. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” Notice he addresses both sides demonstrating that showing grace should be given by both sides of the argument. What is important is that the things Paul brings up here are not of first importance. The essence of the gospel is of first importance (1 Cor 15:1-11). Within the church our unity is based on Jesus Christ who died, was buried and rose on the third day. Our response to COVID 19 and the government lockdown need not divide us.
We are called to love one another (1 John 4:21). Part of loving our brother or sister is to assume the best of each other, that is how we believe all things (1 Cor 13:7). In the situation we find ourselves, grace is a two-way street. If you are of the conviction that the lockdown is wrong, and Romans 13 does not hold sway, you need to show grace to those who are either still working through this biblically or those that have come to the opposite conviction. You are not in an elite category of Christianity. You are convinced. Excellent! Live out your conviction, argue your position well, and show grace to those that disagree (Romans 14:3). Similarly, if you see Romans 13 as commanding the church to follow the government lockdown or believe the virus to be an imminent threat, you are not to pass judgement on those who disagree. You are convinced. Excellent! Live out your conviction, argue your position well and show grace to those that disagree (Romans 14:3). This is not an issue that should divide us. The pastors of the church are called to shepherd the flock, this is a solemn task in the best of times. We want you to know that we love you and want what is best for you, no matter your stance. We do ask that you also think the best of us through this time and give us a level of preference over officials that you have never met (Heb 13:17).
There could come a time when the church might meet in disobedience to the government mandated lockdown. Let me be clear. Those that follow their conscience by meeting together should by no means look down on those that stay home and watch the service on their screens. Likewise, those that decide to stay home should not look down at those who meet. Assume the best and follow your conscience.
As a final point, Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” We should not cease to debate hard topics where we disagree, but rather we need to discuss in a respectful way. This is how we can help one another think through these things. But as we do it, both sides need to show grace. Even before the lockdown, I have been consistently praying for church unity. Unity does not mean that we all think the same, but it does mean that we show love to one another as we hold fast the things of first importance, follow our conscience, and pray for one another.