Do Christians have to obey their governmental leaders when such leaders issue specific declarations about: 1) where you can and cannot go, 2) what you should wear on your face, and 3) how far away you should stay from other people? What if you don’t agree that such directives make sense?
The short answer is that Christians are instructed by God to obey governmental directives, unless those directives are contrary to whatever instructions God has already given us in his Word. Romans 13:1-5 is to the point:
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…. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
Notice a few things about Romans 13:1-5:
- Christians are commanded to be subject to the government.
- The reason the Apostle Paul gives for the command is that God is the one ultimately responsible for establishing governments.
- Christians should obey the government, not simply because they are afraid of consequences, but for the sake of conscience.
Are there exceptions? Yes. Following are a few clear biblical exceptions. You should disobey a governmental directive:
- If your government instructs you to kill someone (Exodus 1:15-21).
- If your government instructs you to engage in false worship (Daniel 3).
- If your government instructs you not to pray (Daniel 6).
- If your government instructs you to stop sharing the gospel (Acts 4:17-20; 5:27-29; 5:40-42).
In other words, if a governmental leader instructs you to do something contrary to what God has already instructed in his Word, you not only have permission, but you have an obligation to disobey.
Barring such cases, however, when the authorities God has placed over you instruct you to do something that does not contradict the Word of God, obedience to those authorities is required.
Let us grant, however, that there are some complex decisions that will still confront us, that is, situations where it is not immediately obvious what God might require of us. For example, during the first days after the shelter-in-place directive was issued, some Christians wrestled to weigh the Bible’s requirement that Christians meet together for worship (Hebrews 10:24-25) against the Bible’s strong theme of preservation of life. Most Christians eventually saw the wisdom in forgoing corporate worship (temporarily) for the sake of preserving as many lives as possible.
Or, to offer another example, the mayor of Los Angeles has almost daily encouraged Angelinos to check in on vulnerable neighbors, despite the fact that such exception is not explicitly stated in the Los Angeles County shelter-in-place order. (I am so glad that he encourages people to do so!) But some compassionate Christians might find themselves asking about what constitutes a “neighbor” (how far away do they live?), or even what it means for someone to be “vulnerable” (only physical? what about psychological? spiritual?). Many Christians—even mature Christians who are glad to submit themselves to the will of God—may struggle to weigh the relative value of small-scale acts of compassion, like caring for neighbors, against the less-tangible large-scale compassionate act of trying to keep this virus from spreading more generally.
The main point of this post, though, is to remind all of us who are Christians of what the Bible teaches and models about civil disobedience: unless we have biblically-derived reasons for doing something contrary to what the government has ordered, we should seek to faithfully carry out whatever has been directed, even when doing so makes us uncomfortable or appears unreasonable.
 Note that Paul wrote Romans 13:1-5 less than 20 years after the rule of Caligula and during the time of Nero, both despotic rulers.