One of the discussion points throughout COVID-19 is whether the Government guidance requires Christians to choose between human laws and God’s Law. The question is about whether or not we are being prevented from obeying the call to gather together and if so whether or not the command to love your neighbour trumps that Biblical command.
Some people however are pushing it further. The nature of their argument is that we should not just refuse to obey laws that go against God’s law and require us to sin. Rather, we only have to, and probably only should obey those rules and commands that are made within the remit of the given authority. The argument is that the Government has no sphere of authority within the church or family. So, any attempt to move into those spheres counts as tyranny.
The basis of this approach arises out of something called Lex Rex. At 8ts simplest Lex Rex is simply about The Rule of Law. It means that all kings and early powers are subject to the Law and not the other way round. The basis for that is in Deuteronomy. This was the argument made by puritan thinkers for their resistance to Charles I and the basis for the idea of “separation of powers” which began to be followed in Western Constitutions. (The rule of law) argues that there are three spheres of authority. There is the Crown/Government, the Church and the Family. Each ruler has authority in and only in their sphere.
Lex Rex is not a bad attempt at political philosophy although the application developed is not the only approach that people have argued for over the years. For example, it could be argued that the Government in Parliament, rather than being a separate form of civil government to the family is in fact the equivalent of a gathering of the heads of families, tribes and clans. Whether or not you hold to Lex Rex as a good model of government, it is important to be clear that this is not something explicitly taught in Scripture. In fact the risk is that we get involved in eisegesis (reading things into (eis) the text as opposed to exegesis (reading things out (ex) of the text when we go down this route.
Have a look at Romans 13: 1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-25. You will notice that there are no exception clauses. I am not told that the emperor has limited jurisdiction, he is supreme. I am not told that I can ignore rules that I consider outside of the emperor’s power, or indeed my boss/master. In fact, we are to submit to our masters whether they are good or unjust. It is so clear that these letters were written into tyrannical contexts.
Those verses have been so helpful over the years for believers living under harsh, despotic rule where the rulers have been opposed to God and the Gospel. Personally, I have had the privilege of knowing believers from some such countries. I have had the deep and humbling privilege of visiting them in China and in Egypt. Now, the reality is that as well as creating obstacles for Christians in relation to church, such regimes often bring in other draconian rules. The Chinese Government didn’t just have a habit of closing unregistered churches, they would close and demolish unregistered businesses overnight. The Egyptian military would hold military parades that shut main streets down and would set up roadblocks and check points where they chose. When we suddenly start claiming that our government’s rules on COVID are somehow tyrannical we make a mockery of the experience of persecuted believers. Amnesty International haven’t got people in Tehran writing letters to Boris Johnson begging him to let Dave Williams be free of his face mask.
Of course, the irony is that whenever people start protesting about so called tyranny and persecution here in Britain they forget they would not dare to protest in such a way if we genuinely lived under tyranny. Perhaps a little perspective is needed?
One of the major problems with the Lex Rex approach, as used today, that these spheres of competency and separate. To some extent this makes sense in a “Christian” country where the Government, family and church are all seen to be Christian, reporting overtly to the same overall master. Even then, it misses the point that these spheres overlap and are in contact with each other. The Church has something to say to Governments, Christian leaders have an opinion when things touch on ethics. That’s the point. If the Government asked me to murder someone and the church told me I should not, it wouldn’t be because the Government had stepped into the church’s sphere, it would be because the church elders have the authority to bring God’s Word to any situation. Similarly, the elders have the authority to teach parents how to look after their children and children how to respond. God’s word brings instruction on how we are to conduct ourselves in the workplace. Wesley, Newton and others joined forces with Wilberforce and Clarkson to speak outside of their sphere and call for the abolition of slavery.
Indeed, not only did the slave trade fall outside of the sphere of the church, it could also have been seen as outside the sphere of the state and within the realm of family and household. Stopping the trade was seen as ridiculous, unreasonable and a deprivation of freedoms.
Coming to the role of the State. Of course, the Government should not and cannot interfere in the governance of the church. The Government should not be choosing our church leaders or determining our doctrine for us. However, the State’s authority clearly does not stop at the church door. You are still subject to the law of the land when you go into the building. Matters such as Charity Law, Employment Law, Building Regulations, Health and Safety as well as safeguarding must still be adhered to. And in the home, a father is still subject to the Law of the land and cannot claim a special jurisdiction over his son that exempts him from following the law.
I guess the best example I can think of is in the workplace. When I worked in the Aerospace Industry, I had a few team leaders reporting to me. Each team leader had a number of employees under them, production engineers, estimators and administrators. Under whose authority were they? Well they were under the authority of their team leaders but also under mine. Yes I did have the authority to step in and countermand an instruction from their team leader. But also, I could be countermanded by my boss and he by his.
The idea that we can sit at home picking and choosing which Government laws we consider reasonable to obey and which we consider unreasonable and so okay to ignore. We are called to submit to those in authority whether we like it or not, whether they are good or not and whether we consider it reasonable or not. The only exception is when we are asked to disobey God in order to obey man.