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. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. Rom. 13:1-5
Of all people, Christians have good reason to know that the governing authorities can be good or bad, but remain the governing authorities either way. Jesus stood before Pilate and died unjustly. St. Paul appealed to Rome and died unjustly. Luther’s Catechism includes “…devout and faithful rules, good government…” in the list of things that constitute the daily bread for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. But, like other things in the list such as good weather and health, we pray for it, then take what God gives us gratefully whether it was what we were hoping for or not.
When to obey or disobey secular authorities has always been a matter of some debate among Christians. In Acts 5:29, the Apostles explain that they disobeyed the order not to preach the Gospel (even after having been arrested for it) because “We must obey God rather than men.” But we also have the 4th Commandment telling us not to anger the authorities but to obey and honor them. Throughout Christian history it hasn’t always been clear when to disobey or submit to unjust authorities, or even when the authorities were really being unjust. From the book of Acts to the Reformation to modern times, the relationship between church (God’s eternal, right hand kingdom) and the secular authority (the temporal kingdom of the left) has been a matter of strong debate and disagreement.
In these strange times, more and more controversy has surrounded state governors issuing edicts about the manner in which churches may or may not offer Holy Communion. This, to say the least, has sparked a fair amount of debate among clergy charged with administering the Sacrament. Who does the governor think he is to tell me how distribute spiritual, eternal things? That’s the kingdom of the right, and none of the governor’s business! On the other hand, who does that pastor think he is disobeying laws about physical, temporal things like eating and drinking? Public health and preventing the spread of contagion are clearly matters of the left hand kingdom and therefore the governor’s God-given task to oversee. If our spiritual practices put other citizens at physical risk, that clearly falls under the governor’s responsibility to the public.
The Sacrament attaches the spiritual and eternal Word and promise of Christ’s body and blood to the physical, worldly elements of bread and wine. That connection between the spiritual and the biological means that the left and right hand kingdoms can’t help but collide when a spiritual practice causes a bodily danger. The Church must obey God rather than men when it comes to shepherding souls with God’s Word and Sacraments. But the secular authority is still the authority when it comes to public policy concerning temporal lives and the spread of contagion. So we’re trying to be good Christians and good citizens. But again, it isn’t always self-evident how to do that. In this case, the dual spiritual/biological nature of the Sacrament itself brings together the two kingdoms that govern spiritual/biological Christian people who are citizens of an eternal kingdom and various earthly realms.
What can you do? First, be patient. I, frankly (and I know Pastor Stock shares this sentiment with me), have little patience for governors telling me how to administer Communion. I feel like telling them they better back off. But I also have to remember that they are trying to do their job of keeping people safe, that this pandemic is a new thing for them, too, and that they are doing their best. If anyone thinks being governor is an easy job or that they could do it better, I suspect such people are kidding themselves. We all need to put the best construction on things, endure difficulties, and not let disagreements spiral needlessly out of control.
Second, pray. If nothing else, Governors Holcomb and Pritzger and President Trump and the other authorities under them need and deserve our prayers. There are so many people and situations to pray about, but please include the leaders of both Church and State in your prayers. All of us are making it up as we go along in this unforeseen situation, and we’re all bound to make a few mistakes.
Third, make sure we keep our priorities in order. Presidents, governors, and health commissioners are legitimate but not ultimate authorities. We must, like every generation of Christians in the history of the Church, make clear that when it comes to pastoral practice and spiritual matters, we will gladly take into account but not be ruled by secular leaders. Spiritual matters are outside their authority and competence. We can accommodate much for the sake of good order, but what the congregation does is more essential, not less so, than any business or government.
Lastly and most importantly, be not afraid, but rejoice and be glad in this joyous Eastertide! Don’t worry about things outside your control, because your Lord is risen and nothing is outside His control. No temporal, worldly situation can matter more than that. Be assured that you will be served, by hook or by crook, with God’s Word and Sacraments. Maybe not in the manner or frequency you’d like, but still adequately. We will figure it out. We are in good hands.
Easter means there is nothing this world can do to you. You are a citizen of an eternal kingdom. Rejoice in hope, be patient in affliction, be constant in prayer (Rom. 12:12), because it is in doing those things that you most meaningfully shout to the world, “He is risen indeed!”
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana