Episode #1: The Church, the State, and Covid-19

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Are Christians always obligated to obey the government? How do we assess restrictions on churches gathering for worship put in place by local governments? How much does Scripture really say about the Christian’s engagement with local and national officials? These and other important questions Cliff McManis and Derek Brown address on our first ever With All Wisdom Podcast.


Derek: Welcome to the With All Wisdom Podcast, where we are applying biblical truth to everyday life. I’m Derek Brown, pastor and elder at Creekside Bible Church in Cupertino, California, and also the academic dean at the Cornerstone Bible College Seminary in Vallejo, California. I’m here with Cliff McManis, pastor and elder at Creekside Bible Church and professor of Theology at the Cornerstone Bible College Seminary, and also the author of several books, all of which you can find at withallwisdom.org, together with a large and growing collection of resources for your growth in Christ-centered spiritual maturity. And you can also find the link to our podcast there. And since this is our first podcast, I want to take a moment to explain where the name “with all wisdom” comes from. In Colossians 1:28, Paul describes his primary goal in ministry. He writes then, “We proclaim warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”  

We want to follow the Apostle Paul in his aim of ministry and provide you, the listener, with resources that are grounded in the wisdom of God’s word, which will help you grow in spiritual maturity. One of the resources at withallwisdom.org is Cliff’s Book, The Biblically-Driven Church. This book is a thorough theology of the church that highlights the centrality of the word of God in church life, as well as the priority of the local church among other Christian institutions. In light of what we are going to discuss today, I want to read an excerpt from the book. This excerpt comes from pages 225 and 226, of the chapter entitled, “The Ministries of the Church Fulfilling Biblical Priorities.” Cliff writes, “A healthy church exists to worship God. This is what God wants and desires.” Jesus said, “true worshipers shall worship the father in spirit and in truth.” Such people, the Father seeks to be his worshipers. God is the true seeker, and the church needs to be sensitive to what He wants. What He wants is pure undefiled worship—this is the preoccupation of the early church. Regularly, they assembled together in praising God. The book of Hebrews commanded the church continually, to offer up sacrifices of praise to God. That is the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name; that needs to be the focus of the church today. The church is not a country club fraternity, social pub, or activist cell. The church is the household of God – the pillar in support of the truth, and God’s glory needs to be preeminent in everything. Such worship needs to regularly occur in the context of the formal community. When the saints gather together, Hebrews 10: 24-25 explicitly commands Christians not to forsake the assembly, meaning, it is wrong to ditch corporate worship. Unfortunately, this is in fact a habit for many Christians today. Now, Cliff, you published this book in 2016, but that last sentence about forsaking corporate worship has taken on fresh importance today, hasn’t it?

Cliff: It has—and in a way that I had never anticipated, and probably a lot of pastors and Christians and churches hadn’t anticipated either. And so Derek, that’s what I wanted to talk about today, that issue, and also, just search the scriptures a little bit together. I preached a sermon recently about three weeks ago, basically after seven months of dealing with this virus. It is called “Lessons learned from the pandemic.” So I wanted to talk about something that everybody’s been talking about for seven months…It never gets old. The coronavirus, COVID-19, the Wuhan virus, or whatever it’s called, and just try to glean some biblical principles. My point of emphasis is from a pastoral point of view and more of a church leader as opposed to merely academic or those kind of things. Hmm. So, I’ve got my Bible handy, and those listening, if they wanna follow along to a couple of key passages, I want to look to God’s word and get some guiding principles. But before doing that explicitly, here we are, we are actually going on eight months into this pandemic.

Derek: A lot longer than I think many of us thought it would go.

Cliff: Yeah, absolutely. And I think we’d all agree that it’s posed new challenges for us. I know you and I were pastors of a team of seven elders at our church, and it has posed challenges and questions we actually never even anticipated we’d have to be dealing with. Yeah?  

Derek: Yeah. That’s true.  

Cliff: New challenges have risen to the surface that’s like….Wow, where did this come from? Or what does the Bible say about this? So we’re, we’re going back to ground zero and searching the scriptures. Because we didn’t learn that one in seminary, right? And we’d actually never experienced this in a church before. So that’s what we’re being confronted with. So we’ve had to think through and deal with issues we’ve never considered before. And early on in this pandemic and challenge, I was confronted by this question that I started to pose to other local pastors…and here was the question. So in other words, think of what your typical faithful pastor at a Bible church may have given as an answer about a year ago to the following question, “Hey, Pastor, under what conditions would you completely shut down your church?” A year ago if somebody asked me that, I think I’d say, I can’t think of a condition under which I would ever just completely shut down the church. How about yourself?  

Derek: Yeah. And I just, it’s hard to actually consider that situation where you would be willing to shut down church altogether barring a nuclear war or something very, very significant where you were just forced…your building was taken away or something. But even then the desire to not want to close down or to still gather the saints together, I don’t think the answer a year ago would’ve been “no conditions.” Under no conditions would I have.  

Cliff: Yeah. That would’ve been my answer. No, there’s probably maybe a pastor out there somewhere who was saying, oh, no, I would’ve had conditions. I would’ve said that if there was a worldwide pandemic that threatened everybody’s life. But I can’t, I’ve never met that pastor. Yet, he’s honest. So pastor, under what conditions would you completely shut down your church? That’s the first question. Then we could add on to that…because that’s what we were confronted with in early March. Right? But then under what conditions would you shut down the church completely for weeks or even months? And that’s what it’s turned into. We’re going on eight months now, meaning, completely shut down. No gathering of the saints…. no singing… no communion. That’s a huge one. No communion, no baptisms. For many churches, no weddings, no funerals no fellowship, no singing or flock. For many, like us, a typical church, that means since people are being totally isolated and the church is shut down, no seeing needy single widows in your church. No visitation. How are they doing? I mean, there’s literally months that have gone by where we actually haven’t seen some of our elderly saints or widows. A year ago, that’s unimaginable. So that, that’s a good question to pose as we reflect back.

So early on in late March no, actually late February, early March, I was stymied by this whole thing. Where the president issued the 14 -day limitation of groups you could have at church. And then soon after that, here in California, was the 14 -day complete shut in where churches were completely shut down….and that threw me for a loop. I actually was confused and didn’t know what to do. So I did what the Bible says to do when you’re confused, you need wisdom, get a consultation from a multitude of godly counselors. So, That’s what I started doing. I started talking to, well, first of all, our local elders at our church mm-hmm. And we were kinda all in the same boat as like, wow, what should we do? What’s going on here? So I started calling local pastors and there’s, a big network of pastors I know just from being involved in the seminary and other ministries, like-minded men, talking to those pastors. They had the same challenges and struggles. They didn’t have the answers for the most part. They’re saying the same thing I am. I started talking to pastors literally around the country. I was zeroing in on ones that I really respected that I thought were wise, that have lived this life a long time. Seasoned pastors, just a couple examples.

Bill Barrick, Dr. William Barrick, who’s a retired Hebrew professor at the Master Seminary, but has been a shepherd and pastor his whole life, yea, and currently an elder down in Santa Clarita. I called him in early March and talked to him for about an hour on this issue and asked him all these specific questions. He’s got an elder team of, I don’t know, 10 plus guys. And they were in the same boat. They were split right down the middle; they didn’t know what to do. How do we do communion? Do we do communion? How long this is gonna go on? How do we fulfill our shepherding mandate? So he wasn’t much help other than the fact that he could sympathize with me. Right, because they didn’t know what to do either. So that same week I called Gene Getz. He’s kind of an elder of the elders. He’s been around as church planter, and high-profile faithful guy, godly man, 87 years old, and still has a vibrant ministry. And I got to talk to him for an hour, from Texas. That’s where he lives. Same thing. And here’s a guy that’s 87, been around the block a few times, and he’s saying, I have never seen anything like this. So that was really on the one hand, discouraging for me and very comforting to me. It’s like Gene, everybody, ….Gene Getz doesn’t know what to do. Then also, have a history with Grace Community Church down in Southern California. I know, several people there, and even several of the elders. So I was in conversation with them as well, and, early on, they were searching Scriptures as well, trying to figure out what to do. And the consensus was: this is unprecedented. And then pastors that I know literally around the world: same thing. So which reminded me, this is indeed a pandemic in terms of its reach to the uttermost parts of the world. So that was quite the challenge. So we were all in the same boat. Never seen this, unprecedented, not sure what to think on all of this, but there was a common denominator and a lot of pastors that I talked to, and that was early on, that they concluded, well, we need to submit to the government. Romans 13. In the context of, well, this virus is pretty deadly, so we need to refrain from meeting in groups, and so that means we need to shut our churches down. And that’s what the government’s saying, that’s what local counties are saying, health ordinances, etc. So the majority, I think of pastors I was talking to that I knew, that I respected, and just others that, you know, high profile pastors you see and read online, they’re all saying the same thing. We need to submit to the government. Romans 13.

So after a couple of weeks, actually, to be honest with you, early on, that didn’t set well with me. Because I thought, well, yeah, Romans 13, I believe it. It’s true, but that’s not the only truth in the Bible, right?, that plays into this scenario. And when I just kept hearing that, and only that for weeks and weeks and weeks spilling over into April and May, I began to get quite frustrated. So you know that because you and I, as elders in our church, as men, we began preaching on other passages that we thought were relevant, right, uh, to the situation. And so when I just kept hearing, submit to the government, submit to the government, submit to the government, I began to question really is that all we do? Is that the only verse? Do we submit to the government no matter what? Do we submit to the government in everything? Do we submit to the government indefinitely? They’re telling us our church is shut down in California and there’s no ending date. I literally began asking our elders and other pastors, so are we gonna submit and not open our church for weeks? Right. What about three months? To me, that was inconceivable. At the time, well, it’s turned into eight months almost in California now, which raised other important questions that we needed to address and think through the scriptures like, “What is the jurisdiction of the government?” Does the government have authority over the church? This is one that we talked about as local elders at our church. We preached on it. We had discussions with some of the members in our church. I was actually hearing some pastors and other Christians saying, yeah, that the government has authority over the church. And I would say absolutely not. So that, and by the way, even though my initial gut reaction was averse to this idea of allowing the government to tell us to shut down the church indefinitely, we still complied with that at our church. We shut it down, we went to a YouTube video and we shut it down for months. Canceled all our ministries and we didn’t open up again until late May. So we did comply initially heeding Romans 13.

But in retrospect, and even in the midst of this, I think there’s been much confusion among not just Christians on Romans 13 in its application, but I was actually surprised and disappointed. I thought there was a lot of confusion among pastors, and church leaders about Romans 13. Romans 13 verse one begins this way, apostle Paul says, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities for there is no authority except from God.” Then he goes on for another five verses. But this is an imperative, it’s a command. He’s writing to Christians. And the command is clear. Every person, that’s includes Christians, is to be in subjection to the governing authorities—for there is no authority except from God. In other words, Paul was saying, Christians, you must obey the law. You must obey the law. Now, I agree with that, but there is confusion of how this verse was being applied. And I think, there’s still confusion as to how this verse is still being applied in churches today. There’s actually an ongoing debate still among churches. And that’s one thing that surprised me, that rose above the surfaces. Now you have pastors who used to get along and agreed on other issues who are now at odds with each other over this issue. That’s kind of a new thing that we hadn’t seen. And there’s an ongoing debate as to how do we apply Romans 13? Are there other verses that are complimentary to it that should be taken into consideration? For example, I got an email this week from a local pastor and their elders, and they wrote out basically a position paper on this issue. How does the local church relate to the government in light of the Covid virus? It’s very lengthy, and they literally say in their statement that was sent to me and a whole bunch of other pastors, that they believe that Romans 13 is in play. But they literally say that Acts chapter five verse 29 is not in play. It is not relevant.  

Derek: That’s surprising. That’s surprising.  

Cliff: In Acts 5:39 is where Peter told the local authorities, we must obey God rather than man. Right. So that was alarming. That is, that actually shocked me. I think Acts five needs to be taken into consideration in this. So that was just this week. Last week I got a text message from several Christians who were on this text chain, and the headline that was sent in a text says, “Breaking News: John MacArthur gets a Win— Grace Community Church to stay open until 2021.” And the person, the Christian that sent it, sent it to a group of Christians as reason for rejoicing. Well, not everybody in that text chain was rejoicing. So when they got the text, here’s one response from a fellow Christian: “What a complete waste of time, emotional energy and legal fees.” So many better ways for us as Christians to be a witness to the world than to camp out on this disputable matter that will be over before the end of the year.” And what’s your first take on what you think they’re saying there? Because this is a text, so…  

Derek: Right. My first thought is that that’s discouraging because from my viewpoint, this isn’t a minor disputable issue – this is a matter of church being essential. The command Hebrews 10, that we can’t neglect the gathering together in that, MacArthur and the men down at Grace Community Church are standing up for something they believe is both biblical and something also protected in our constitution. So I don’t see it as a waste of time. So that’s, yeah. It’s discouraging, I think.  

Cliff: Yeah. No, I totally agree with you. I had to do a second take when I read the text because texts are often cryptic. Sure. There’s no, and you just got to interpret it correctly. So I did a double take. I was like, wait, wait a minute. It sounds like this Christian is not celebrating with Grace Community Church. And that the judge ruled in their favor. As a matter of fact, it sounds like they’re criticizing Grace Community Church saying that going to the courts over this issue with the city of Los Angeles is a waste of time, waste of emotional energy and a waste of money, and that there’s better ways that Grace Community Church and churches can witness to the world other than battling them in the courtroom. Yeah. so, and that was his interpretation. That surprised me because I found it to be discouraging, just like you said, that we should be celebrating. God through the judge has ruled in the favor of the local church. I agree with you also, they call it a disputable matter, which is out of Romans 14…and this is not a disputable matter. You got it. It’s I mean, Hebrews 10:24 and so many other places where God has called his people to meet, that is clear. That’s a mandate of the church. So anyway, there’s just two examples where I thought, well, maybe this debate is subsiding and the division over the church between fellow pastors is gone or behind us. But it’s not, it’s front and center and it’s as hot and heavy as it ever has been, so there’s still confusion. One of my goals is just to look at a couple of key scriptures and maybe clarify some of the thinking on this. How does the church relate to the government in times like this? So Romans 13, indeed we agree that it does say that Christians need to obey the law, but I think we’d need to dig a little deeper. One of the key things is we can’t just take one Bible verse and live by that and let that be our guide. Right. We’ve got to go beyond one scripture, Romans 13. So those who are already going to ask you, because you studied systematic theology specifically in seminary, and what do you think as a pastor or elder are the benefits of a systematic theology for church leaders, but also just Christians individually?  

Derek: Yeah. I think one of the things that, that was so helpful for me at seminary was learning or just relearning or have it reaffirmed that the claim to be biblical means that you’ve exhausted the scripture on a particular topic. And if you haven’t done that, you’re, you’re not ready to make the claim that whatever you’re saying is biblical. And that was, that was helpful because that’s what systematic theology is supposed to do. You’re taking all that scripture says on a particular topic or doctrine, and then you are gathering that together. You’re synthesizing it appropriately and then you’re applying it, and so I think in a situation like this, what’s been really insightful is when you came back. I remember this when we, you came back in, during the early months of the covid shutdown, that you would come back and say, well, it’s not just Romans 13. There’s a whole swath of biblical texts that are relevant here and that we need to take into account. And so what a systematic theology does is it puts all those relevant texts together, then applies them to your present situation. And so in a situation like this, it’s valuable for both the church leaders, especially, in Christ just the common Christian to have a good grasp on, for example, what does the Bible say about government? What does the Bible say about the church’s relationship to the government and so on. And systematic theology implies that you’re not driven by one text, that you’re taking in all that the Bible has to say, and so I found that to be particularly insightful and actually edifying as we wrestled through this as an elder team. And you would bring in these texts that, hey, we haven’t even thought of before. Wow. How insightful, how sufficient is the scripture. And I was just really encouraged that, that the scripture was providing us so many resources to think through this. And that’s what systematic theology is all about.

Cliff: Amen. You said a key phrase there that is going to be in keeping with what I want to camp out on here. And you said being biblical is exhausting everything the Bible has to say on a given issue. That’s an excellent definition. Exhausting everything the Bible has to say, which is synonymous with Paul in Acts 20 where he was committed to teaching the whole council of God. Which is the same thing as pastors. We can’t move on particular issues and call it biblical, unless we’ve been fully informed by all that the Bible has to say about it. So with respect to this issue and what the church should do in light of the pandemic and the coronavirus, we can’t just operate on Romans 13 alone. There’s more to it. It is relevant to the situation, but it’s not the only relevant verse. Romans 13 does not mean we always submit on every issue that comes down the pike from the government. There are times, and this is kind of a shocker to some people, and even when I preached on it at church, some Christians kind of raise their eyebrows and say, “Well, was that really the case?” And I propose that there are times that Christians should say no to various authorities. And we worked through that. But I think even the way people were dealing with Romans 13 weren’t considering some really fundamentally questions. Right. Like the following Paul says in Romans 13, one, we need to submit to the authorities, which means we need to submit to the law of the land. So I began asking people who either had questions on this, were confused on this or had a different view than I did. I’ve just simply asked them, okay, who, who is the governing authority? Who do we obey?  

Derek: Right. Right. Very fundamental. Who is Caesar?  

Cliff: Yeah. So I began asking exactly who is Caesar? Here’s answers I got from fellow Christians, even pastors: “Well, Caesar, where we live, is the governor of California.'” And that was their final answer. Okay. I’m like, no. Some would say, “Well, it’s the mayor of your city. It’s whoever’s in charge of your county.” Some were saying and are still saying, “Well, it’s local health officials.” So, in the email I got from a church of elders this week, in their position paper, the dominant authority that they’re proposing is, we need to submit to the local health officials who aren’t even elected officials. People who don’t even make law. As a matter of fact, they can make ordinances and injunctions that are against the law. Some said the president of the United States. A pastor/elder said Congress—that is who he thought was the ultimate authority. Some say the local sheriff, others say the US Attorney General. So most of the time, wasn’t getting the right answer. The ultimate law of the land of the United States is the Constitution. I mean, it’s pretty simple. How many people were saying that it’s kind of a no-brainer that that is the written authoritative law of the land. So that’s, and then not only that, you have the question of what if the various authorities that I just named contradict one another? Because that was happening. Right? Because we have the Constitution that says one thing in the First Amendment, and then you’ve got maybe a senator who’s saying something that’s actually contrary to the Constitution.

And then you’ve got your local governor who’s saying something contrary to the other two, or you’ve got a mayor in your city, contradicting his own governor of that state. So that was, that added to the confusion. So I just wanted to simplify it by just making two baseline foundational starting points for us as Christians. I think that would be helpful for us, for Christians, our baseline or our plum line or starting point needs to be number one: the law of God or scripture. That needs to be considered before local health officials. And then number two, in light of Romans 13 is here in America the law of the land. The highest law of the land that is binding is the Constitution. That’s where we need to start. And I think that would be very helpful. I say it starts with the law of God because scripture is clear when it talks about the local church and the church universal, that the church is the church of the living God and is the pillar and support of the truth. So talking about those two starting points that are our plum line here, thinking this through, you got the US Constitution and then you got the law of God. And one verse in particular I want to share, but first I’m just going to read. Going to the Constitution. Here’s the First Amendment. So in all my discussions and questions with all these pastors for the first two to three months, I don’t think I ever, well no, there was, there was one pastor who actually made reference to the Constitution. So that was refreshing. Wow. He actually studied political science in college before he became a pastor. So maybe that’s why it was fresh on his mind, but nobody else even said anything about the Constitution. So actually, just by way of reminder, here’s what the First Amendment says in the Constitution. So I’ll just quote portions of it. The first Amendment in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So that means even the federal government, the United States government or any other lesser governments in the United States, is not allowed to prohibit the free exercise of religion. So literally the government can’t tell us we can’t go to church. Right. They can’t tell us we can’t do church. There’s no kind of amendment like this for other institutions like, the liquor store. Or like Planned Parenthood. Or marijuana shops. They don’t have the special protection in the constitution. The highest law of the land, we do, as religious people and as churches. So the government is not allowed to prohibit our free exercise of religion. And it goes on. The government also is not allowed to prohibit or abridge our freedom of speech. That’s what we do at church. You and I as pastors, what do we do? We just talk. We preach the word. Hence the podcast.

And the government is not allowed to impede on that either. Still from the first Amendment it goes on. The government is not allowed to impede a bridge or prohibit the right of the people to peaceably assemble. What do we do at church? We assemble. The word church mentioned 114 times in the New Testament. The Greek word is ecclesia, which ironically literally means assemble. And here it is in the Constitution, “The government is not allowed to prohibit the right of the people to peaceably assemble.” What is it when we go to church—we’re peaceably assembling. It’s not a riot. It’s not a mob out on the street throwing bricks through the Starbucks window. Or burning down police stations. We are peaceable. So literally the right of the church to meet publicly, corporately is in the constitution and enshrined there, there is no exception clause, by the way. And then it ends with, “And the people, citizens of the United States have the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” which means, we have the right to sue the government, if they are prohibiting or impeding on any of these rights. Trampling on these rights. So that reminds me of the Apostle Paul. There were times where the Apostle Paul, quote, tried to sue the government, at least the local authorities by saying, “I appeal to Caesar.” He wants to take it to a higher court. Because he knew the law of the land, and they were in violation of it. Local authorities were violating the law. They were the lawbreakers, not Paul. And he took them to court. And he did several times. So that’s from a United States law point of view that we need to start there with. So the First Amendment is in the favor of the churches. Actually, we have court cases right now where that’s being litigated and discussed and verdicts are going to be rendered in 2021. That’s forthcoming. It may even go to the Supreme Court. Grace Community Church is in that phase right now. Grace Community Church in Southern California actually was dragged into court seven separate times during this covid crisis. That’s right, by basically the mayor and the city of Los Angeles along with the government of California. And in the end the judge ruled in favor basically of Grace Community Church. And the issue still at hand, that has to be fully litigated is the issue on the First Amendment. Has the city of Los Angeles overstepped the First Amendment rights and protections of Grace Community Church, really in all churches? So that is pending. That will have implications for all churches, especially in California. So we’ll wait and see how that goes. So Grace Community Church is well within their rights to be involved in litigation with the city of Los Angeles on constitutional grounds, but also on biblical grounds. From the precedent of Paul and others.

Then there’s the biblical perspective on this whole issue that I think is more balanced. And that’s Matthew 22. Instead of just going to Romans 13, not a whole lot of people we’re talking about, Romans Matthew 22, verse 21. And it’s interesting, it says in Matthew 22, this is towards the end of Jesus’s ministry that some Pharisees, I think along with the Herodians in chapter 22, they publicly were conniving to come to Jesus with a specific question to stump Jesus. To give him a question he couldn’t answer without looking like a fool. To discredit him. And the topic they chose was ideal because it’s one of the most difficult topics. Because it’s the one we’re dealing with. And it’s the question, basically it’s, they were asking what is the relationship between the church and state? And we’ve been grappling with that for eight months. That’s right. Pastors all over the world are, and there’s not a meeting of the minds on this or even to make it simpler. What’s the relationship between religion and politics? Two of the most hot potato questions and topics there are: religion and politics. And Jesus, because He’s, you know, incarnate deity, the God man, always gave the best and truest answer. And so, his answer to the Pharisees, “How does the church relate to government?” He said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God, the things that are God’s.” That was the perfect answer. That was a profound answer. And for us, I think that’s the perfect balance. It’s not just Romans 13. Submit, no obey to, the government… no questions asked. Actually Romans 13 is incorporated here in Jesus’ answer, Jesus believes in Romans 13. That’s right. Submitting to government. But he gives the complete picture and the complete balance. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars and render to God, the things that are God’s.

So there is a balance, there’s context, practical implications taken away from that, Matthew 22:21, for us as Christians. Matthew 22:21—there is a balance in this verse. It’s not just Romans 13. Right. There’s not just a one dimensional submit to the government. Also from this passage, take away, there is an area, there’s actually an area that the government doesn’t have jurisdiction. The other point, number three, the two statements: they are not equal God. In other words, government is not equal to God. Clearly, God is superior and government is to be obeyed in light of God’s law. In this passage the compliment to that is that God has inherent authority. Civil government has limited delegated authority. This is important because we heard at our church from some folks that we were talking to, that we’ve been teaching on it, preaching on it, and we still had some folks say, “Well, I believe government has authority over the church.” Even though we shared this truth that Jesus was sharing. No, God is the one who has sovereign authority. The government has limited delegated, prescribed authority. And then finally from this verse, we gleaned that civil authorities can use their power, they can usurp their authority, they can overreach their boundaries. And we’ve seen this. Time and time again, we have. I think it was last week that the Supreme Court of Michigan ruled that the governor of Michigan had overreached her boundaries of authority on this covid issue. So she got smacked down, and appropriately so, and because civil authorities are humans and sinners, they can abuse their power. As a result, they need to be held accountable and called out, I think, both from scripture, the church and also the constitution. They need to be held accountable. So in other words, there are times, there are times to say “no” to civil and secular authorities.

So I just want to share, this is the main passage I want to share just from the book of Acts. I’m going to Acts chapter four. This is just one example of the apostles who, as they founded the church and being obedient to Jesus, where they actually said “no” to the authorities. And that’s an important point because Peter is the main guy here leading the charge among the apostles in the church in a situation of saying “no” to the authorities. But Peter’s the same one who wrote in his epistle the same thing that Paul did, that we need to obey the governing authorities. So there are times where Peter said you need to obey the government. And there are times where Peter said you don’t need to obey the government. So it does come down to context. So, in Acts chapter four, just to set the context, chapter three, Peter and John basically do a miracle. They heal a man who couldn’t walk and they’re out by the temple. This is in public. There’s a huge crowd that saw that. So in chapter three, verse 11, it says, while the man who got healed was clinging to Peter and John, all the people ran together to Peter and John in the portico of Solomon. So it was a huge crowd. They were Jewish people. And so Peter used that as an opportunity to preach the gospel about Jesus Christ. He condemned them for crucifying, having Jesus crucified. But he also gave them the gospel and called them to repent. Many did. And while they were preaching that big crowd, chapter four, verse one says, “As they were speaking, this is John and Peter, to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard. And the Sadducees came up to the crowd and to the apostles.” Verse two: “greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.” Verse three: “And they laid hands on them and put them in jail. They arrested them.” Who arrested them? Well, verse one, the priests; and then also this interesting phrase, the captain of the temple guard, whoever that guy is. The best we can tell is he was not from the Romans, he was actually Jewish. He was actually kind of a chief or head priest. He actually had a team or company of Levites that he was in charge of over the temple. And they were specific Levites who were actually the guardians or the local police of the temple to keep order. So the temple had its own police force. And this guy was the sheriff of the local police force of the Levites around the temple. So he is kind of a policeman. He had local authority to arrest people. You’re supposed to arrest people only when you break the law. In verse three it says that these local authorities arrested the apostles, put ’em in jail. But the question is, what law did they break? Right, exactly. They didn’t break a law, they didn’t break a biblical law. They didn’t break a Roman law. Nevertheless, they still got arrested and thrown in jail.

So then they get interrogated by the Sanhedrin. So basically they’re subjected to a mock trial. The authorities end up realizing that, oh, they didn’t really break a law. So in verse 16 they decided in private, what should we do with these men? Because they don’t know what to do because they haven’t broken any laws. If they broke a law, they could say, well we could find them, we could beat them, we can keep them incarcerated. We can’t do that. It’s like, oh, what do we do? So they just make up a spontaneous ad hoc, illegitimate, really unlawful conjured up, discriminatory ordinance on the spot. In verse 17 they say, “well let’s warn them not to speak any longer in the name of Jesus and then we’ll let them out.” So here you have an example of local authorities making a spontaneous ordinance that is not in keeping in law, it’s actually in violation of the higher established law. And actually that’s a lot of what we’re dealing with here in California in our local city and all over the country. Governors, mayors, county officials, just spontaneously making up laws that are actually unlawful unto themselves. They violate the constitution. And yet you’ve got a lot of pastors and Christians saying, well, we need to obey these laws. Well, they’re not laws, they’re violations of the law. So they throw, they let him out of prison and then, they tell him to stop preaching. They don’t obey God. Say, we’re not going to stop preaching. Verse 20. Literally Peter says, we cannot stop speaking. They told him to stop speaking. He said, we cannot stop speaking. That’s an example of Peter saying “no” to local authorities. Verse 20, no, we’re not going to stop preaching. So they go out and preach and then they get arrested again, chapter five. And they put him in prison and God lets ’em out with an angel. So they go out and preach again. So they get arrested for a what, third time. Now in Acts chapter five they’re arrested for certain and they’re brought before the Sanhedrin. They’re beaten, they’re threatened no longer. So Acts chapter five, verse 28, the local authorities were saying, we gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name and yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. Verse 29. And Peter in the apostles answered, we must obey God rather than men. So that’s an absolutely key verse. Peter understood the truth of Matthew 22 when Jesus said it, that we need to render under Caesar due respect. But Jesus also knew the second part of Matthew 22, or Peter knew Jesus’s second part of that statement, that we also need to render under God the things that are God. So there are times where Christians have to say no to the authorities, including local authorities. And that’s what we’re being confronted with today.

So we have to really think that through. So I wanted to share that because a couple of these verses haven’t really been discussed much and haven’t been in the forefront, with a lot of the pastors that I’ve been talking to in churches as they’re issuing statements on their positions. And you could go on, the rest of the Book of Acts, you can see that Paul does the same thing. He says “no” to local authorities when they arrest him. And they literally say, you need to leave town. He says, “no,” I’m not going to. I’m a Roman citizen. I have rights, you can’t make me. He literally says “no.” That’s in Acts chapter 16 verse 37. So here’s some takeaway thoughts from these passages of scripture. I’d say that we don’t just live by Romans 13. We have to have a fully informed, as you said, systematic theology that’s well-balanced and exhausts everything the Bible has to say on these issues. And on this particular issue, I think Matthew 22:21 is actually the starting point in baseline, not Romans 13. And that’s Jesus himself giving the perfect balance: render to things that belong to Caesar or local civil secular government, and then also render to God the things that are God’s. We also first need to identify the ruling authority or the highest authority in the land before we start asking who we’re going to submit to. I think we also need to keep in mind that local capricious health ordinances are not laws. So that’s brought up some discussion. People are calling local, newly made health ordinances laws, but they’re not right. And actually a lot of these ordinances are against the law. They’re actually the ones breaking the law instead of us. And we need to call that out. And because it’s happening, that’s why we as Christians have the right to appeal to Caesar, and also to the scriptures, to the higher law. And there are times where we have to say “no” to our local officials, to the local authorities, to the governor and even at the federal level, and trust God really with the consequences. Which, you know, some people, some Christians are having a hard time with that. But I would ask them a couple of questions. Did Jesus ever say “no” to the local authorities? Did Jesus ever defy local authorities? There’s something to think about. Because we don’t think about, I haven’t read that people talk about that much.  

Derek: I haven’t heard that at all.  

Cliff: So can you think, off the top of your head, can you think of Jesus ever defying local authorities?  

Derek: Well, he certainly didn’t say everything to Pilate that Pilate wanted. So he didn’t answer all the questions that Pilate wanted.  

Cliff: So even going more local, because like some, for example, the Sanhedrin had local authority. The high priest had local authority. The Pharisees had some authority. The Sadducees had some authority. The temple guard had authorities, Jewish Levites. So he had all these authorities. And if you go through the gospels and think about did Jesus ever defy local authorities more and more examples keep popping up. For example, the authorities, the local authorities said, you can’t go around and pick seed on the Sabbath, and Jesus said, “yes” I can. So there’s an example of Jesus defying a local authority. You can’t heal a man on the Sabbath. And Jesus said, yeah, I can. So these are local authorities with their little petty ordinances and Jesus is saying “no” because of a higher law. So the answer to the question, did Jesus ever defy local authority? Did Jesus ever say no to local authority? The answer is “yes” many times and repeatedly. Always keeping a balanced Matthew 22:21. So I’ll close with this. This was kind of interesting on my statement, that local ordinances are not the law of the land. Each one has to be pulled out and vetted and put through the grid of the Constitution of the United States. So on August 28th, so more than a month ago, there’s a YouTube video where David Nassar, who’s the chaplain of Liberty University, he’s the campus pastor. And he does a lot of interviews and he does a 50-minute interview with Andy Stanley on the Covid issue at the time. And Andy Stanley there in Georgia or wherever his church is, big high profile megachurch, had just recently declared back there in August that they’re canceling church until January because of Covid. So that hit the headlines. That was kind of controversial. So David Nassar was asking about it and he said, yeah, and David Nasser said, it’s kind of interesting to see how all these churches and pastors are taking different approaches to Covid. And you’ve got the extremes. Like you Pastor Andy, you’re closing your church until January and then you got pastors like John MacArthur, California who are having church anyway, even though it’s against the law. And that jumped out at me. So John MacArthur, Grace Community Church, doing church against the law, and he got away with that statement—that statement is false. It’s fallacious, it’s not true. Grace Community Church, going to church, having church has never been against the law. It’s not against the law of the Bible. It’s not against the law of the Constitution. It doesn’t violate the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects their rights to meet at church. And specifically or literally after getting dragged into court seven times down there in Los Angeles, virtually the judge ruled in favor of Grace Community Church. Every single time. So every time they walked out of the courtroom, they had the legal right to keep doing church.

So they were never doing it against the law. And even right now with the last judgment that a judge made has given grace, community church, all rights and liberties to continue doing church until at least 2021. So right now they’re meeting and they’re doing it in keeping with the law. Not against the law. And the reason I point that out is because that’s a very popular video that’s being shown around the country, who knows, around the world. No one is stopping them to say, “Hey, wait a minute.” There’s a basic premise here that is totally unfounded and illegitimate saying that Grace Community Church is meeting against the law. And they’re not. So that’s just one example of a lot of the imprecision in thinking that’s guiding a lot of the conversation. I think that that contributes to a lot of the confusion that Christians are having on this issue.  

Derek: And thank you for walking us through that important and complex issue, Cliff, and tying all of the conversation to biblical texts. Thank you for joining us on the first ever With All Wisdom podcast. We will be back here soon. In the meantime, we would encourage you to head over to withallwisdom.org, where you’ll find a growing collection of resources to help you apply biblical truth to your everyday life. We’ll see you again soon.

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