Submission to Earthly Authority: Christian Freedom and Responsibility
How comparisons to employment law and deference to office might help Christians better understand each other on church lockdowns and bring a sense of peace
Over the past year, provincial governments in Canada have used their power to restrict to varying degrees the church’s corporate, in-person worship of God for the stated purpose of slowing the community spread of COVID-19. The multiplicity of public policy and legal issues arising from different provincial responses to COVID-19 has resulted in much tension and division within the Reformed community.
I’ve tried to wrap my mind around how ministers, elders, and other faithful Christians – who honour Christ as Lord, love their neighbour as themselves, have a very high view of the authority of Scripture, and presumably look at the same data on COVID-19 – can come to different conclusions on the right way forward for their local church. My hope with this article is to help Christians understand a little better the decisions of other Christians with whom they disagree, to recognize that in some cases there is more than one right way forward, and ultimately to help you find peace, as I did, by understanding the idea of office. (I offer this with some trepidation, hearing the words of Jeremiah 6:14 ringing in my ears.)
Perhaps the reason for the hotly debated differences of opinion is because there is no one right way forward, at least from what we know today. Perhaps God, through His Word, provides liberty for Christian office bearers to proceed with different options in the face of dramatic curtailments of freedom of assembly and freedom of religion. I arrived at this possibility by contemplating a different scenario altogether: that of three 21st century Canadian Christians employed by an abusive or overbearing non-Christian employer.
A horrible boss and three Christian employees
I don’t think there is one right answer to the question of how a Christian employee should respond to a horrible boss. Consider what Peter writes to Christian slaves in 1 Peter 2:18-20:
Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. …[I]f you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.
Paul writes something similar to Christian servants in Colossians 3:22-24:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
Imagine then, three different Canadian employees: Christopher, Chris, and Kristoff. They each have harsh employers. They work 5-10 hours of uncompensated overtime every week, their bosses change their work schedule regularly with very little notice (if any), their superiors regularly harass them on the job, and from time to time their employers insist they work on Sunday. Each of the men has made respectful requests for compensation, for notice, for respect, and for accommodation, but nothing much has changed.
Christopher, Chris, and Kristoff are each married with children at home. As such, they have from God the office of husband and father, with responsibilities to provide for their wives and children: not only physical needs (shelter, food, clothing, etc.) but also spiritual needs (leading family worship, giving moral guidance, instruction, and discipline) and also emotional and mental needs (tender love and affection to both their wife and children). For Christopher, Chris, and Kristoff, the harsh work environment is having a detrimental effect on their families’ health and on their own mental health.
All three men hear from their wives and children that their employment situation is affecting their familial responsibilities. (“Chris, home life is difficult when you’re not around. I struggle with disciplining the kids, and Jonny is outright defiant when you’re not around.” “Dad, I wish you were around more. We never get to play together anymore, and when I want your advice, you’re too tired to talk.”) Each of the three men seeks spiritual counsel (“Pastor, what would God have me do in this situation? What does Scripture teach about what I owe my employer and what I am responsible for toward my family?”) And all three men seek counsel: they visit lawyers who explain their employment rights in law (an employee in Canada has a legal right to be compensated for overtime, has a right to reasonable notice for scheduling changes, has a right to have their religious practices accommodated and has a right to a harassment-free work environment).
What should Christopher, Chris, and Kristoff do? They need to make a decision. Paul writes, “obey in everything those who are your earthly masters” (Col. 3:22). Keep in mind that, in the time Paul is writing, slaves were treated much worse than how Christopher, Chris, and Kristoff are being treated. But Paul also writes, “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph. 5:28) and must “bring their children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). How do these employees balance these apparently competing callings from the LORD?
Christopher decides to proceed with legal action against his employer while continuing to work diligently. Chris takes a different approach; he decides to shrug off the illegal treatment he is suffering and to continue “working heartily” for his employer, not for the employer’s sake but for Christ’s sake (Col. 3:23). And Kristoff is convicted that he must take a stand and immediately refuses to obey his employer’s demands for uncompensated overtime work, Sunday work, or unexpected scheduling changes, even if it means he might get fired. Which man is making the right decision?
Assuming that Christopher, Chris, and Kristoff have given due consideration to their calling from God for their responsibilities at home, have sought Godly counsel with open bibles and heartfelt prayer, and have weighed their options carefully, all three responses (legal action, refusing to obey unlawful orders, or continued submission) are permissible for a 21st century Canadian Christian to make. It is not for their lawyer, pastor, friend, wife, or children to judge in the end because the lawyer, pastor, friend, wife, or child does not have the offices (and the authority and responsibility that comes with those offices) of employee and father and husband.
A few non-negotiables and a whole lot of variables
I recognize a limitation of this analogy is that, in a modern context, an employee can tender their resignation and find a new boss (though that was not so easy in the time of Peter and Paul), finding a new civil government is not so easy. That said, while it is open to Christopher, Chris, or Kristoff to take legal action against their employer, to refuse unlawful demands from their employer, or to continue working under the same harsh conditions, as Christian employees there are certain things that are not open to these men.
First of all, the manner in which these men must act is non-negotiable. In whatever decision these men make, they must remain respectful of their employers and they must not be vindictive or vengeful if they seek any legal redress.
Second, a decision to proceed with legal action or with refusing certain work on the job should be preceded by multiple respectful requests for consideration, accommodation, or change.
Third, these employees must carefully balance their responsibilities to the people God has entrusted to their care. A father cannot make a decision deaf to the pleas of his child, and a husband cannot make a decision blind to the impact on his wife. But he must make the decision, carefully weighing and balancing the concerns of those for whom he is primarily responsible.
Fourth, his decision must not be made hastily, but rather in prayer, after searching scripture and seeking good counsel from other godly men. One bad day at work will rarely justify quitting without notice or launching legal action.
But aside from these non-negotiables, the variables that must be weighed could be as diverse as the number of employees in the church. Some variables might include the severity of the problems at work (are the uncompensated overtime hours a couple here and there, or dozens of hours every month?). Another consideration is the age and number of your children and how each of them is coping with your absence and sudden changes in work schedule. When the boss insists on your working on Sunday, is it for emergency work or work that could easily be completed on any other day? What are the costs and implications of legal action and the chance of success? What is the likelihood of getting another job? Is the job market good or not? Do you want to stay in your field of work or not? Will you end up trading the stress of a bad work environment for the financial stress of unemployment? What about the relationships you currently have with other employees and the missional opportunities you’ve had with them? What are the financial implications of your decision for your family and for your obligation to work hard to provide for the poor? How is your mental, spiritual, and physical health impacted by your employment conditions? How close are you to retirement? What options are there for your spouse to work? How available are brothers and sisters to lend a hand? And I’m sure you, dear reader, can think of myriad other questions to weigh in the balance when making such a decision.
Lessons that can carry over to churches under varying restrictions
So, are there lessons to carry over to a local church, struggling under restrictions on corporate worship? The analogy is limited and imperfect, I admit, and I will be making some assumptions in the comparisons that follow, but I think it can be helpful for Christians to better understand the decisions made by church office bearers, even if they don’t agree with the decisions.
First, office-bearers (whether elders, fathers, or premiers) are the ones who are responsible ultimately to God for their decisions in the areas in which God has made them responsible. We are all office-bearers. For many offices, there is responsibility for some people, and responsibility to other people (or offices). When the church needs to officially interact with the civil government, it is the elders of the church who are responsible to the civil government, not the members. When the needs of the families of Christopher, Chris, and Kristoff need to be communicated to a harsh employer, it is the father/husband who is responsible to the employer, not the children. But these elders are also responsible to God for the spiritual care of the flock entrusted to them by God and these fathers/husbands are responsible to God for the spouse and children entrusted to their care by God. These duties must be balanced carefully.
Second, like a father checking in with his wife and children on the impact his work environment is having on them, so church office-bearers must check in with their flock on the impact that the civil government’s decisions are having on them. Thankfully, from everything I’ve been hearing lately, most elders are taking their office and calling in this regard seriously. It must be an exhausting task, and these men deserve our prayers.
Third, like an employee owes respect to their employer, the office-bearers representing a local church owe respect to the civil government. Likewise, just as an employer must treat his employees fairly and with respect (Eph. 6:9), so the civil government also owes the church protection as the embassy of Christ’s kingdom (see Belgic Confession, art. 36). To add another analogy, as children must respect the lawful decisions of their father (Eph. 6:1-3), so the church should respect the lawful decisions of the civil government, but just as fathers ought not to exasperate their children (Eph. 6:4) so the civil government ought not to exasperate their citizens.
Fourth, like Christopher, Chris, and Kristoff’s children must respect the decision of their father, so the members of a local church must respect the decision of the elders (the exception being where the child or the church member is convinced that the decision is sinful and would lead them to sin). Respect does not necessitate agreement – but more on that below.
Fifth, just as we understand that, in today’s context, the unqualified commands of Paul and Peter to submit to employers are not absolute (“submit in everything” says Paul, and “submit even to harsh masters” says Peter, but today no pastor should tell a female employee to tolerate sexual harassment from her boss), so also the unqualified commands of these same apostles to submit to civil governments are not absolute. (Paul demonstrates this with his own interactions with the civil government in Acts 16:37-40; 22:22-29; 25:10-11.)
Sixth, like Christopher, Chris, or Kristoff consulted their pastor, their families, and their lawyer and then had to weigh their options, so the elders of the local church have three major considerations to investigate and weigh. Each category requires careful discernment and there is an incredible number of factors to balance in making their decisions:
I. How do the various commands of God speak to this situation? At least six of the ten arise in this situation: trust in God alone, worship him as he directs and instructs, honour the Sabbath day, honour the civil government, do not recklessly endanger your own or others’ lives, do not participate in either fear-mongering or conspiracy theories.
II. How to tend the spiritual health and well-being of the flock (and tightly tied to that, their emotional, mental and relational health and well-being)? Included in this are considerations on how to ensure the unity of the body of Christ, what risks lie in the general age and physical health and well-being of the congregation, and creative ways of adjusting corporate worship that is still biblical and palatable (small group worship, for example).
III. Consider professional opinions on the legality of limits (the fact that a civil government passes an unconstitutional law does not necessarily justify civil disobedience, but should be a factor to be weighed in the balance). Consider the legal and financial costs of challenging the civil government, consider all aspects of the church’s witness in the neighbourhood, community, and to the civil government, how other institutions or segments in society are treated by the civil government (restaurants, gyms, businesses and stores), and so on.
IV. Because these variables will be different from congregation to congregation, Article 74 of the Church Order becomes all the more practical in this situation: “No church shall in any way lord it over other churches, no office-bearer over other office-bearers.” That means that an elder in Ontario should not be insisting on only one correct course of action for churches in British Columbia, for example.
The peace that comes from respect for office
As I said in our 2020 fall tour speech, if you are a parent or an elder, ask yourself: Does the particular demand of the civil government (or your employer) impinge on something that’s core to what you are responsible for, your duties of office, such that it becomes difficult or impossible to faithfully fulfil your responsibilities of office?
The attitude here is not, “You can’t tell me what to do!” Rather, our attitude is, “God has called me to these particular duties, and I am primarily responsible for these. Your order or restrictions are impeding my ability to do what I ought to do, what I am called to do. So please stop! Please relent! And if you won’t, I will obey God rather than man.”
Our starting point is the absolute lordship of Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:18) and humble respect for the authority he delegates to each office he has instituted.
To write personally now, there is a peace that can come from recognizing the offices that God has instituted and the authority and responsibility of the persons who occupy them and then trusting their final decisions to God in prayer. I got this peace right around Christmas. I have strong personal opinions on how the civil government has treated corporate worship, and as a constitutional lawyer, I have even stronger professional opinions about the constitutionality of some aspects of these lockdowns. It has caused me lots of frustration, disappointment, and even anger.
But when the second lockdown was looming, the elders of my local church communicated clearly and plainly how they would respond to what was coming. These men would give the civil government’s edict due consideration (as they ought to), but then these men would make a decision on what God requires of them for the congregation entrusted to their care. Even though the elders made a decision that was different than the one I would have made or preferred, that was okay. I finally was at peace. In fact, I actually received their communication with joy. And I got that peace because the elders made clear how seriously they take their office and responsibility and how they exercised their authority to make decisions for the local church. I was eager to bow to that authority.
To be at peace does not mean giving up on your convictions. Rather, it means surrendering your wisdom and convictions and your anger and disappointment to the loving providence of God, understanding that we are not and cannot be responsible for all things. And as the situation evolves, you can continue to make your views known in a respectful way.
This sense of peace I want to share with you. So, consider the examples of Christopher, Chris, and Kristoff above. And if you have said your piece to your elders, and if the elders have heard you, acknowledged you, and still come to a different decision than you would, be at peace. They are the ones with the responsibility to make that decision, not you. They will one day be commended for it, or have to answer for it, so pray earnestly for them. And pray that “everyone may carry out the duties of his office and calling as willingly and faithfully as the angels in heaven.” (Lord’s Day 49).
Practical plans to promote peace (Heb. 12:14) as brothers and sisters in Christ
Pray, pray, pray. Pray that elders and civic leaders would have wisdom from above to make decisions that are truly for the good of the people in their congregation or in their province/region. And in your prayers, remember that you are a member of Christ by faith and a sheep in the flock of Christ. So listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd. His sheep hear his voice. We pay so much attention to other voices that His voice becomes still and small. When praying, do so with an open Bible, to hear the voice of the Shepherd.
Peace won’t come by banning any talk about COVID restrictions, but by talking about the restrictions in a better way. Start conversations, letters, phone calls, or Facebook responses with what you agree with, not what you disagree with. Ask questions – lots of them! – to understand the other person and where they are coming from. Don’t just try to understand their ideas, conclusions, or their intellectual reasoning. Try to understand the human person, their hurt, worry, relationships, fears, desires, loss, risk, and so on.
Related to this, seek out other perspectives, particularly from people you respect. Personally, I’ve been challenged by those who I respect most having different opinions than I have. I’m not about to dismiss those people now, simply because it looks like I might disagree on this one new issue. Read the material of people you disagree with and use Scripture as the standard by which to evaluate your brother or sister’s opinion, not the CBC, Globe and Mail, National Post, or Rebel Media.
As much as possible, where there is disagreement, interact face-to-face. Human communication is very complex and so much is lost in communication when we only use written words.
Get your creative juices flowing. Contribute constructive ideas for how to cope in the meantime. Some people have taken to phoning through their church directory. In some provinces like Ontario where normal corporate worship is effectively prohibited with a 10-person limit, small groups have gathered together in reasonable numbers to watch the live stream service. This small gathering is a huge improvement (speaking personally) over sitting on the couch at home with just my immediate family. Thinking bigger and more outside the box, consider getting your church to write an official proposal to the local health authority offering your church building as a field hospital should the hospitals in your region be overwhelmed with COVID patients (perhaps with a corresponding assurance that when you meet to worship in greenhouses and barns, that you will continue to maintain safe and responsible practices).
And, writing as I am for ARPA Canada, channel your energy and disappointment into constructive dialogue with those who can change the limits imposed on the church: your provincial representatives. We live in a constitutional democracy, so engage repeatedly and respectfully. Engage your premier, the public health officer, your provincial representative, your mayor, and your councillors. Send them thank you cards, Christmas or Easter (or Valentine’s Day?) cards, encouraging notes, and also urgent pleas for defending corporate worship. Get to know them as human beings, not impersonal bureaucrats. Do this individually and do this as church leadership (and let your congregation know when you do it as church leadership so that those who are concerned know that you are acting).
Through all of this, always “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10). My hope with this article is to help Christians understand a little better the decisions of other Christians with whom they disagree, to recognize that in some cases there is more than one right way forward, and ultimately to promote peace, both personally and within the family of Christ.
 I note five assumptions I’m making as I compare the employee example with the church lockdown example. If there is disagreement with any of these assumptions, this analogy might not be helpful. I’m willing to be challenged on these assumptions by readers.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has presented at least some level of threat to public health and safety;
- The pandemic presents a difficult and complex problem that is not easy to manage, which the civil government must address to some degree;
- The limits on corporate worship have been, from a Biblical and global church perspective, excessive (though to different degrees, depending on the province);
- Some or most of our secular governments are ignorant of the importance and priority of corporate worship in the life of the Christian compared to the importance and priority of other activities in society, and this ignorance is partly the fault of the church; and
- Churches in every province have demonstrated a willingness and ability to worship together in a safe and responsible way, and in fact churches were doing so before any provincial government issued a lock-down order in March, 2020.
André Schutten is the Director of Law and Policy for ARPA Canada.