Sunday my wife and I were out, and as we drove along we saw a church gathering for worship. There were 100-150 people coming together for a service and picnic. Where we live churches have a religious exemption from orders barring gatherings over 10, so legally they were allowed to meet. However, our Governor has strongly encouraged churches to cease in-person worship temporarily as a sign of loyalty and love for neighbor. As I reflected on watching people enter that building I thought back to 2016-2017 when President Trump took office. I thought about how many of the churches which are still meeting were the first ones to throw out Romans 13 saying we as good Christians needed to submit to President Trump. Now three years later these are the same congregations claiming they do not have to submit to a temporary request from the government.
I am not surprised that some congregations are meeting despite the governor’s recommendations. There are a variety of reasons which compel such decisions. And though I do have serious theological disagreements with this congregation I am not singling them out as unique. If I am honest, though today it is this group unwilling to show Christian obedience, tomorrow it will likely be me. In fact, what I have come to see in the last five years is that like so many other areas, our displays of obedience to the government sometimes is influenced more by our political ideals than our religious ones.
I have been listening to C.S. Lewis’ book Perelandra and in it his main character is in a debate about obedience and makes the point:
“I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?”
What Lewis is pointing out is that obedience, true obedience, causes us to bristle. It is not obedience when I am doing what I want, which happens to be what the leader wishes. Obedience comes when I have to sacrifice my will to follow someone else’s desires. It is of little consequence if my wife and I agree on how to spend an afternoon or evening, but our disagreements will strain that marriage vow to “love, honor, and obey.” This is the test of our true commitment and relationship.
Obedience does not come naturally to us and the Benedictines saw it as one of the three great struggles of human existence. We each push to have our own way and only grudgingly accept the yoke others place on us. This, in part, is what Romans 12-13 combats. Paul wants us to recognize that our intent to submit to God also requires us to place ourselves under other authorities. I cannot imagine how difficult such words must have been for the first group of readers, sitting in the heart of the beast, to hear. But I do see how difficult such words are for us today. We call on others to submit to authorities when we cheerfully follow their lead and then turn deaf ears when the same authority happens to disagree with us.
The temptation that many Christians seem to fall into is using the label of obedience to mask selfishness. We say everyone needs to be obedient to government when it is favoring policies we like and the instant that same government falls into different policies we say we can revolt. I have used the above illustration because it is timely. The group of believers I saw walking into church would perhaps argue that religious duty compels them to meet citing Hebrews 10:25, or perhaps they would talk about 1st Amendment rights. But these are not valid arguments, they are not sacrificing “rights” nor are they willingly giving up meeting in the sense of Hebrews 10. Rather they are being inconvenienced by the government and choosing to rebel. I can think of many churches I praise especially highly because they cancelled. Churches which hate the notion of giving up Sunday worship and who have strong conservative political leanings, and yet submitted to the governing authorities. These have lived out Christian submission more so than I. They sacrificed their will for the authority of the government, and they found new and creative ways to worship. I applaud such congregations for being a light for the rest of the community about how to truly live under God’s rule. Submission is not an easy lesson to learn, may we all have an opportunity to grow into it in the coming weeks.