Submitting to the Government, Loving Your Neighbor, and Masks
Nowadays it’s difficult to have a conversation without folks shouting at you or getting angry that you may have a different perspective from their perspective. Western society has, over the years, increasingly viewed opposing ideas as threats or dangerous instead of seeing the marketplace of ideas as a critical piece to a free, sane, and safe society. Furthermore, our overindulgence on social media, click bait articles, and Facebook debates has not aided us well in fostering critical thinking. It’s actually solidified identity politics. We aren’t reading books or journals anymore. We aren’t reading well thought out articles or trusted field experts. And sadly, as Christians, we aren’t thinking biblically about the current state of our society as is evidenced by passages turned clichés like;
“love your neighbor, wear a mask”
“Romans 13 says submit to the government”
I have over the last several months wrestled with how Christians repeatedly get swept up into various narratives and commit to those narratives at the cost of relationships without consideration to whether those ideas or narratives are even biblical. There is a worldview we’ve embraced in the name of ‘loving neighbor’ and ‘submitting to government’ without any consideration as to whether we have properly interpreted and applied those particular verses well.
So, I want to ‘show my work’. This work will include articles, statistics, and journals I’ve read, but I will also demonstrate a proper application of both Romans 13 and Matthew 22 to Christians living in America.
Why Write This Article?
I anticipate the rebuttal, ‘isn’t it divisive to write about this topic?’ or ‘isn’t this a distraction to pastoral ministry?’ Over the months as I’ve read, watched the media, and engaged in various conversations I am convinced this is a theological issue. I am not writing politically (although the content of this article has political ramifications), I am writing as a pastor.
The Scripture’s testimony about itself is that it is sharper than a two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12). This means that how it’s handled is of the utmost importance. When handled poorly, it is used to manipulate and if we’re not careful, we may be disobeying Scripture when we think we’re actually obeying it.
Now, I know I have members in my congregation, friends, and co-workers who may or will disagree with me on my take on this particular issue. Selfishly, my prayer and hope is that you won’t ‘cancel’ me. I love you and I’m for you. In fact, that’s a primary reason for this article. I’m not interested in debates or choosing a political side. As a pastor I’m obligated to be truthful and to effort in rightly dividing the Word. As a Christian, I’m obligated to fear God. Therefore, I write in that spirit.
Before you read any further, it is important for you to know that this is my view and my view does not necessarily reflect the view of the elders I serve with, the members of my congregation, or anyone I affiliate with on Broad Oak Piety. So, don’t blame them, blame me.
Toward a Better Interpretation of Romans 13
Let’s begin with working through how to apply Romans 13 in our cultural context- that is to say, America. Below is the passage:
13 “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will [a]bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.” (Romans 13:1-7 NKJV)
These are the words of the Apostle Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit written during the peak of the Roman Empire where emperors were often deified and expected to be worshipped. It was a time of hereditary rule (your right to rule was familial): Augustus, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Domitian. You may recognize some of these names for the immense persecution they wreaked on the early church. And again, these Emperors weren’t elected, nor had any term limits and the things these men did to keep power were often wicked and detestable. In the Roman Empire, the emperors exhibited immense power and were not governed by any sort of constitution or held accountable by the people they governed.
And Paul writes about how God’s people are to interact with a government including the one like he was under. And to put it succinctly; God’s people were to live submissively in so far as the emperors did not require disobedience against the Lord (which they did). Therefore, the model we see in the New Testament is to resist governing authorities if what they are requiring of you is a violation of God’s revealed word- the Scripture.
For example, this makes emperor worship an obvious law to be resisted. The saints in the New Testament experienced martyrdom for their steadfastness in their peaceful civil disobedience. They were willing to disobey the governing authorities in their pursuit of faithfulness to God and submit to the punishments handed down to them for their obedience to God. People in Paul’s day were subjects and Romans 13 makes clear that to resist the governing authorities on anything that does not violate Scripture is to resist God Himself. The governing authorities in this society consists of the emperors; the Roman Empire.
Now, there are many different types of government systems: democracies, republics, dictatorships, autocracies, oligarchies, monarchies, etc. Without spending an entire article defining the different types of governments, I want to spend time defining the government structure of the United States of America.
Here in the United States we are a representative democracy. Our government is elected by our citizens and our country is made up of a union of 50 sovereign states. The Constitution of the United States establishes and maintains this type of government. In fact, government officials swear to uphold the Constitution when they take office (many of which swear on Bibles). This means that the United States of America is not ruled by emperors. Our President, governors, senators, congress men and women do not rule over us. The Supreme Court of the United States does not rule over us. In our particular country, the Constitution of the United States is our governing authority. It is the rule of law. It is a document drafted by citizens to ensure a free society. The citizens are responsible to uphold it, and those serving in the public sector are responsible to uphold it. Upholding it is their solemn duty.
Now, why does this matter? It matters because Romans 13 is important. Romans 13 is important because God spoke the words of it through Paul. If I am expected to submit to the governing authority placed over me by God (and I am), then I better know who that governing authority is. In our case, this is the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, as a Christian I am obligated to know what it says and submit to it so long as it does not require me to disobey God.
Now given our current cultural climate, there are several Amendments in the Constitution that we need to look at. After we look at these Amendments, we need to ask ourselves the question “Who is rebelling against Romans 13, really?”
Freedoms, Petitions, Assembly
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
My Comments on this Amendment:
The Constitution of the United States dictates that there can be no official ‘religion’ and that no law (and let’s use the word mandate because we see that utilized quite a bit) can prohibit religious gatherings, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the ability for people to peaceably assemble, or the ability for people to complain or seek government assistance.
According to the U.S. Constitution, we can, in this democracy, worship who we want, when we want, and where we want as private citizens. Furthermore, people according to this Amendment can gather peaceably anywhere they want let’s say, a restaurant or a bar, or a store, or a salon or a private Christian school, or my home to name a few places. Certainly, there are proper channels and permits that have been required for things such as peaceful protests, but the government cannot pull some rule out of the sky and say, ‘you cannot do this’. Gathering peacefully cannot be prohibited by the President or a Governor without good reason without violating the ruling authority of these United States.
Now read the three amendments below with me:
Rights in criminal cases
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb, nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
My Comments on these Amendments: Now, there is this issue here of “public danger” (Amendment 5) and the powers not forbidden to states and not granted by the Constitution to the Federal government (Amendment 10). And this begs the question, can say a governor temporarily suspend amendment 1 or 14 in light of Amendments 5 and 10?
Can we be deprived of our right to assemble and our right to life, liberty, and/or property in the interest of public health? Does the present danger (COVID-19) warrant a suspension of gatherings?
For now, there are three ways primarily that we can measure our government’s response to COVID-19. First by defining what a pandemic is, second by understanding whether or not COVID-19 is a pandemic and third, understanding what the U.S. Government can do in regards to isolating and quarantining its citizens.
And please pay attention: I am not arguing that we ‘cling to our rights’ in regard to issues of conscience (1 Cor 9 &10). What I am arguing is that if the government does not have the constitutional right to shut down peaceful assemblies and they do anyway, they are violating Romans 13. If I then as a United States citizen go along with that, Iam also violating Romans 13.
This for me is an issue of actual obedience to Romans 13.
Does the Constitution allow for a Pandemic to be considered “Public Danger”?
So, can a pandemic be labeled as a ‘public danger’ (Amendment 5)? Yes, if there is a pandemic, there is a clear public danger and the government is within the boundaries of the Constitution to address is. No problem here.
What is the Definition of Pandemic?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a pandemic as “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people”
As of July 28th, the total number of cases for COVID-19 in the United States is 4,280,135. Out of those infected, it is said that 147, 672 people have died with COVID-19. Admittedly, I do not know if those who’ve died did so as a direct result of the virus or if they died having tested positive with the virus but died due to other complications.
Initially (March 16th), Dr. Neil Ferguson’s team at Imperial College in London published a 20-page report projecting the death toll for the United States to be around 2.2 million people and the assumption implicit in that report was that 81% of the American population would be infected (roughly 0.9%).
The U.S. Government initially acted based on Dr. Ferguson’s projections, with President Trump and Dr. Fauci and Brix often giving these statistics in press conferences without citing Dr. Ferguson even a month after the report.
Since the report, these projections have proven to be grossly miscalculated: 81% of the population has not been infected and the death toll, if we take these statistics at face value, is 0.03%. This is a significant difference.
Now, here is the only comment or rather, question I want to pose: Is our Government’s response measured?
Now, what are some past pandemics? Context is important and past pandemics can help ground us. There have been epidemics such as the bubonic plague where the estimated death toll was 10% of the world’s population. Or the Black Death that took the lives of 50-60% of Europe’s population or the Spanish Flu which affected the lives of around 500 million people from the South Seas to the North Pole with a fifth of those dying. These are past pandemics and I think comparing those to COVID-19 should be done. Then we should ask ourselves, is the government's response measured?
But let’s even suspend that conversation for a moment. Shouldn’t we take precautions to ensure we are not spreading COVID-19 no matter the data? Absolutely, yes. And regardless of the data can the government utilize Amendment 5 of the U.S. Constitution and label this virus as a ‘public danger’ and take steps of isolating and quarantining? Yes, and the federal government really does have the power to isolate and quarantine citizens for public health reasons. They derive that authority from the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
But this begs the question, how does the government define isolation and quarantine, and are they abiding by those definitions? Consider the definition below from the Center for Disease Control (CDC):
Isolation and Quarantine
"Isolation and quarantine help protect the public by preventing exposure to people who have or may have a contagious disease.
Isolation separates sick people with a quarantinable communicable disease from people who are not sick.
Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick.
In addition to serving as medical functions, isolation and quarantine also are “police power” functions, derived from the right of the state to take action affecting individuals for the benefit of society.”
Isolation separates sick people. Quarantine separates and restricts the movements of exposed people. This is how it’s always been.
Now, is this what our government is doing? Absolutely not. Stay at home orders have been issued all across the United States on healthy people. Everyone is being treated as either (a) sick or (b) exposed. These measures have been labeled as ‘self-isolations’. Furthermore, 14-day self-quarantines are being imposed by various states and fines are being administered to the healthy citizens if they do not comply because we can all be asymptomatic.
Businesses are being shut down or on their best days, threatened and micro-managed by the all watching eye of the U.S. Government. Churches are closed. Livelihoods are being placed in jeopardy as if there is no Constitution; no governing authority. Everyone is being treated as sick or exposed. The unemployment rate across the states is at an all-time high. A staggering 26-27 million people are presently unemployed here in the U.S. These are some consequences of sinful governing and irresponsible journalism. Our nation is behaving lawlessly.
So, I come back to my original question(s) in this section: Who or What is my governing authority if I am a U.S. citizen? The answer is the U.S. Constitution. Is our Government presently operating within the boundaries of the Constitution? No. Is our Government in disobedience to Romans 13? Yes.
Loving Your Neighbor and Masks
34 But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
37 Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40 NKJV)
Here Jesus is summarizing for us the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are divided into two tables: the first four commandments speak to your relationship with God and the back six speak to how your relationship with God affects your relationship with people. Biblically speaking, you love others by loving God.
But I want to speak to this issue of mask wearing because Christians and non-Christians alike have said ‘love your neighbor’ as if that needs no definition about what love is and if my cloth, unwashed face covering is actually an act of love.
The first question will help us answer the second question. What is love? Biblically, God is love (1 John 4), and if God is love that means that the way in which I love should be God-centered and holy. And if my love is to be God-centered and holy, that means it must be grounded in truth. In other words, my wearing of the mask better really be a loving act. Good intentions do no one any good. This act of mask wearing must be effective it is to be loving. Now, before we discuss matters of science. Let me speak to what I’ve observed over the months.
Science aside, I think cloth mask-wearing is the most visible sign I’ve ever seen of virtue signaling in our culture. From inconsistencies of not always keeping the mask on in public, to wearing it below the nose, to touching it, to removing it and sneezing, to its being something that looks like it was grabbed out of a gross gym bag. It is easy to wear a mask and call it ‘love’ and ridicule people on social media who are not tying a dirty rag around their faces.
Before face masks (and COVID-19) for that matter became politically charged issues leading to the November elections, there were published, peer-reviewed, reputable scientific studies on the effectiveness of the types of masks everyone is wearing and requiring. Folks aren’t wearing say the N95 masks that actually filter out airborne particles. We are wearing shirts and underwear on our faces. Or, best-case scenario, we are wearing the dental or surgical masks used in hospitals and dental offices. Are these effective? Two studies, one from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the other from the well-respected BMJ, a peer-reviewed medical journal. Instead of me giving you my interpretation of these studies, allow me to give you their words on the effectiveness of cloth and/or surgical masks:
Center for Disease Control (CDC):
“Respiratory etiquette is defined as covering the nose and mouth with a tissue or a mask (but not a hand) when coughing or sneezing, followed by proper disposal of used tissues, and proper hand hygiene after contact with respiratory secretions. Respiratory etiquette is often listed as a preventive measure for respiratory infections. However, there is a lack of scientific evidence to support this measure. Whether respiratory etiquette is an effective nonpharmaceutical intervention in preventing influenza virus transmission remains questionable, and worthy of further research.”
“Disposable medical masks (also known as surgical masks) are loose-fitting devices that were designed to be worn by medical personnel to protect accidental contamination of patient wounds, and to protect the wearer against splashes or sprays of bodily fluids (36). There is limited evidence for their effectiveness in preventing influenza virus transmission either when worn by the infected person for source control or when worn by uninfected persons to reduce exposure. Our systematic review found no significant effect of face masks on transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.”
“Results The rates of all infection outcomes were highest in the cloth mask arm, with the rate of ILI statistically significantly higher in the cloth mask arm (relative risk (RR)=13.00, 95% CI 1.69 to 100.07) compared with the medical mask arm. Cloth masks also had significantly higher rates of ILI compared with the control arm. An analysis by mask use showed ILI (RR=6.64, 95% CI 1.45 to 28.65) and laboratory-confirmed virus (RR=1.72, 95% CI 1.01 to 2.94) were significantly higher in the cloth masks group compared with the medical masks group. Penetration of cloth masks by particles was almost 97% and medical masks 44%.”
“Conclusions This study is the first RCT of cloth masks, and the results caution against the use of cloth masks. This is an important finding to inform occupational health and safety. Moisture retention, reuse of cloth masks and poor filtration may result in increased risk of infection. Further research is needed to inform the widespread use of cloth masks globally. However, as a precautionary measure, cloth masks should not be recommended for HCWs, particularly in high-risk situations, and guidelines need to be updated.”
The CDC findings were published this past May shockingly (the data was probably submitted last year sometime before COVID-19). The BMJ published their findings in 2015.
Both CDC and BMJ found cloth and surgical masks ineffective to stop the transmission of a virus. The BMJ went as far as to caution against their use because the unsanitary nature of them can lead to infections.
So, let’s return to this issue of love. Is it love or virtue signaling to wear a mask that is ineffective to stop the spread of the virus? Is it loving to your neighbor to shame them into wearing a mask that reputable, uninfluenced studies outside of this polarizing season say can lead to infection? Who exactly is it that is unloving?
There is one caveat on this issue of mask-wearing that I need to speak to as it relates to loving my business-owning neighbors. Whether constitutional or not, some of my close friends are being threatened by our Governor (Northam) in that they will be fined or shut down by the Virginia Department of Health if they do not require masks. For my friends who own businesses and are scared, I love them by wearing an ineffective, cloth mask. If businesses have chosen, based on their own conscience to require masks I will comply if I choose to shop there.
But I refuse to twist Scripture and toss science out of the window and champion an ineffective mask as some symbol of love. It’s a distortion of the biblical model of love and dishonest.
If you’ve labored this far with me, I’m grateful for your engagement and attention span to this lengthy article. My hope is that we think theologically and scientifically about the current state of things. I am obligated by Romans 13 to submit to the Constitution of the United States so long as it does not put me in a position to rebel against God by violating His Word.
As a Christian, I am compelled to love my neighbor, and wearing a cloth mask is not the symbol of love and in many cases is quite unloving.
My hope is that this article is helpful. I deeply love those of you who may disagree with me and I do not want conflict or friction in my relationship with you, but my love for God, for you, and my growing concern of the misapplication of Romans 13, Matthew 22, and a disregard for honest depressurized medical research and statistics compelled me to write pastorally about where we are presently. I hope this article has been read in that spirit.