The coronavirus pandemic has thrust the followers of Christ on the horns of a dilemma. Scripture clearly calls the people of God to assemble regularly for public worship, which includes the proclamation of God’s word and the administering of the ordinances. The writer of Hebrews says,
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb. 10:23-25, ESV).
Scripture commands believers to meet together on a regular basis to hear the proclamation of Scripture, love one another, pray, worship, give, minister, among other things. The command to publicly assemble is self-evident. Yet, during the COVID-19 crisis, we are faced with a situation that does not allow us to carry out the aforementioned commands. Additionally, Americans have been asked to forgo church attendance in order to practice social distancing. Most states are mandating this controversial move. President Trump is asking that Americans participate in his “Coronavirus Guidelines,” which include listening to state and local authorities and avoiding gatherings in groups of more than ten people.
Scripture is clear on the matter of obeying governing authorities: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1–2, ESV).
Here is where the challenge lies: Shall we obey God (Heb. 10:23-25), or shall we obey our state and federal authorities (Rom. 13:1-2)? The biblical answer is a resounding … “ Yes.” Obeying God and obeying the governing authorities, then, is an act of paradoxical obedience. A paradox is a statement or proposition that appears to self-contradictory but, in the end, proves to be true. So obeying God and obeying the government are not at odds.
I understand that some zealous Christians are protective of their right to peacefully assemble. I understand the concern that their Constitutional rights are being infringed upon. I understand their desire to obey the command to gather for public worship. But assembling for public worship in most states at this time is simply not possible. Anyone who runs contrary to the governmental authorities, then, not only disobeys the authorities that God has placed over them; they also disobey God! I offer four principles of paradoxical obedience for believers who find themselves in an awkward position during the Coronavirus crisis.
1. Maintain a spirit of charity with all people, especially our leaders.
J.C. Ryle writes about the nature of our responsibility:
The charity of the Bible will show itself in the general spirit and demeanor of a believer. It will make him kind, unselfish, good natured, good-tempered, and considerate for others. It will make him gentle, affable, and courteous, in all the daily relations of private life, thoughtful for others’ comfort, tender for others’ feelings, and more anxious to give pleasure than to receive. True charity never envies others when they prosper, nor rejoices in the calamities of others when they are in trouble. At all times it will believe, and hope, and try to put a good construction on others’ doings. And even at the most, it will be full of pity, mercy, and compassion.
The next time you fire your “evangelical missiles” at one of our elected officials, ask yourself, “Does my response model charity?” “Am I showing proper respect to the authorities that God has placed over me?” “Am I putting a ‘good construction on others’ doings, or am I putting words in the mouth of my opponent?” As we grow in paradoxical obedience, our responses will come into alignment with what God requires in his word.
2. Maintain your commitment to doing good.
We understand that good works never save. Indeed, we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But “faith” as the Reformers said, “is never alone!” “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Once again, Ryle provides much-needed insight:
Believers if you would have an increase of happiness in Christ’s service, labor every year to do more good. Look round the circle in which your lot is cast, and lay yourself out to be useful. Strive to be of the same character with God; he is not only good but ‘doth good’ (Ps. 119:68). Alas, there is far too much selfishness among believers in the present day. There is far too much lazy sitting by the fire nursing our own spiritual diseases, and croaking over the state of our own hearts. Up; and be useful in your day and generation! Is there no one in all the world that you can read to? Is there no one that you can speak to? Is there no one that you can write to? Is there literally nothing that you can do or the glory of God, and the benefit of your fellow-men?
Far too many Christians have failed to heed Ryle’s timely counsel. Instead, they engage in pettiness and surly behavior. Much of this activity is taking place online, where face-to-face interaction is avoided, and cowards hammer away on their keyboards. Instead of sowing good seeds that build people up, these self-appointed “prophets” spew negativity, thus failing to contribute to a fruitful conversation.
In his epistle addressed to Titus, the apostle Paul exalted “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people or his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:13b-14). How can Christians demonstrate a commitment to doing good during the Coronavirus pandemic? We can begin by submitting to our government. Much to the chagrin of most people, submission is a good thing. Submission is a beautiful thing. Submission is modeled in the Trinity. Thus, we who are followers of Christ demonstrate a commitment for doing good by submitting to our elected officials.
We demonstrate a commitment to doing good during the pandemic by following the orders that our leaders have put before us by staying at home when possible, practicing good hygiene, and engaging in social distancing. Listening to our leaders, in turn, shows love to our neighbors as we protect them by putting these measures in place. As strange as it sounds, we genuinely love our neighbors by withdrawing from corporate worship during this season.
3. Maintain a strong Christian testimony in the midst of the pandemic.
The apostle Peter refers to followers of Christ who are “zealous for what is good” (1 Pet. 3:13). The Greek word translated as zealous refers to “a fervent proponent of something.” In this case, we are called to be enthusiastically supportive of things that can be classified as “good.” Peter marks out what the zealous believer looks like:
“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Pet. 3:14–17, ESV).
My fear is that we have worked diligently to defend the Christian faith, but we have failed to carry out the imperatives at the end of verse 15. That is, we have forgotten to be gentle and respectful, especially to political leaders with whom we disagree. Peter’s challenge for each of us is to faithfully proclaim Christ but to do so in a winsome way. Such a godly response will enable us to maintain a good conscience and serves an example to the watching world.
4. Maintain your ultimate allegiance to the Word of God. Scripture is our highest authority, not the Constitution of the United States.
Please do not misunderstand. I greatly value the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Alan Dershowitz recently remarked, “The two documents – different in context but inexorably linked by history and morality – are glorious foundations for democracy, liberty, and the rule of law. They must be read and reread by freedom loving people everywhere.” I applaud the zeal of Dershowitz and commend his desire to uphold and defend our founding documents. Yet, I fear that as Christians, we have forgotten where our true allegiance lies. Our highest authority is Scripture. While our founding documents, pave the way for our freedom (and are even grounded biblical principles), it is the word of God alone that sets people free.
Yes, we value the Constitution. Yes, we uphold the Constitution. But we first pay homage to Scripture, not the Constitution. Remember how Jesus responded to the Jews who put their trust in him: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32, ESV).
To Whom Do We Owe Allegiance?
Some have wondered out loud, “What if the current government ruling that restricts public worship is only a sign of things to come?” “What would obedience look like for faithful followers of Christ who are prohibited from public worship after the Coronavirus pandemic passes?” Peter and the apostles answer this question with stunning clarity: “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29). But during the pandemic, we rightly submit to the governing authorities and trust that they have our best interests in mind.
So “as sojourners and exiles, let us conduct ourselves with honor so that when evil doers speak against us, they may see our good needs and glorify God” (1 Pet. 2:11-12). “For we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, proclaiming the excellencies of him who called us out of the darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9, ESV). Let us commit ourselves to paradoxical obedience. By doing so, we make much of God. We glorify God, which is the grand end of our creation!
 J.C. Ryle, Practical Religion (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprint 1878), 161.
 Ibid, 244.
 Alan Dershowitz, The Constitution of the United States and The Declaration of Independence (Skyhorse Publishing, 2019), viii.