When Christians Disagree: Respecting the Purity of Each Other’s Motives8 min read

by Dan Stone
When Christians Disagree: Respecting the Purity of Each Other’s Motives<span class="wtr-time-wrap after-title"><span class="wtr-time-number">8</span> min read</span>
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It is important to note that the intent of this blog is not to suggest where “authority” lies (as it relates to American civics), but to encourage Christians who may disagree to respect the purity of each other’s motives and the sincerity of each other’s beliefs.

That you and I differ in our ideas of the best form of government is well known to us both: but  we have differed as friends should do, respecting the purity of each other’s motives…John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 17 July, 1791.

Since March 2020, Christians in America have been struggling with how to respond to government mandates. Depending on the locality, city, or state of residence, varying degrees of lockdowns, business closures, school closures and crowd gathering size limitations have ranged widely. In response, whether it has been individual Christians or churches (or para-church organizations), or small businesses owned by Christians, there have been a variety of responses to these government mandates. Questions that previous generations of Americans have never had to wrestle with have become very divisive. Questions such as:

What is “essential” or “life sustaining”?

What are the risks/rewards of keeping churches, schools and businesses open vs. the risk of virus spread?

Leaders have had to make decisions that will affect the well-being of others, be they employees, customers, parishioners, etc.

Why is there Resistance to Government Mandates, Especially Among Christians?

Most other countries have faced similar circumstances during 2020. Yet, in other cases, there is seemingly less resistance to government dictates. Why is America different? Of particular concern for Christians, why does it seem that many are genuinely opposed to many of the recommendations from  some of the health experts, and especially opposed to following government mandates?

A look at our form of government may hold the keys to further understanding the opposition we see.

America is unique in the scope of human history in the sense of being the first nation to create a form of government (a Constitutional Republic) that has:

  1. lasted this long, and
  2. been the model for many other countries since then.

This does not exempt us from the biblical dictates of submitting to the governing authority, but the significant question is: “to which authority are Christians to submit?”

Let me explain.

The Biblical basis for Authority and Government

God created spheres of authority. The first was the family (Genesis 1:28, 2:24), the second and third are the church (Acts 2:42, Acts 11) and state (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2:13). The Bible does speak to the purpose and scope of authority of civil government, and we teach this at Dayspring Christian Academy. The God-ordained function of government is to punish evil, protect from theft (theft of property, life, etc.), and promote good (Romans 13:1, 3-4 and 1 Peter 2:13-14). When the New Testament was written, the governing authority was a dictatorship, and the Roman government certainly did not act in accordance with what the Bible outlines; but the principle is clearly there that authority in and of itself is God-ordained. For example, Romans 13:3 says if you don’t want to be afraid of authority, do good. Does this mean that Paul was telling the Romans that if they didn’t want to fear the brutal Roman dictatorship, all they had to do was “do good”, and government would act rightly towards them? I don’t think so. It seems clear he was laying down a principle for them and future believers to follow.

Federal Authority in America

In the United States of America in the 21st century, we obviously don’t live under Roman rule. We have a Constitutional Republic which, at the Federal level, has three branches of government: the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. Each branch has delegated powers; each branch is supposed to stay within its delegated powers. The powers of each branch are defined by the Constitution first, then in laws and judicial rulings that have played out over our history.

What If Constitutionally Delegated Powers Are Overstepped?

When one actor or a group of actors in a branch oversteps the delegated powers, are Christians obligated to obey? In other words, if the executive branch oversteps the authority it is given in the Constitution, or in Federal law, or by the courts; are the people obligated to obey simply because the executive authority declared something? This is where some are saying “No, the government is acting outside its constitutionally delegated powers and we are therefore not obligated to obey.”

In other words, the Constitution is the higher governing authority and those who are elected or appointed to fill the positions or offices must stay within the framework of the laws. Our system is a system of laws, not people. The law is the authority, not the person.

Conflict in Authority

It is similar in most states, but specifically in Pennsylvania, that we have three branches of government, each with enumerated powers. One of the legal bases on which the Governor and Secretary of Health are standing on is the Emergency Declaration Act of 1955. This act gives them certain powers to take executive action during a contagious disease pandemic. However, section 12 of the PA Constitution gives the state legislature (the General Assembly) the authority to suspend laws. Pennsylvania’s legislature did that back in the summer of 2020. The courts weighed in, but it often takes time to make sense of all the legalities.

Meanwhile, some township supervisors, sheriff’s offices, etc. have said that they will or won’t enforce certain orders. So, Christians are left having to decide who to obey, the governor or the legislature. Sometimes, the state or federal courts make it clear. Sometimes, the courts make it even more confusing. Scripture says to obey those that are in authority. So, when we have local authority, then state authority, then Federal authority, there is room for Christians to disagree, given individual circumstances, on which authority should be obeyed and how best to honor God in the process.

Christians may find a similar comparison helpful. In a church setting, it would be like a pastor acting outside the church’s constitution/bylaws and the people of the congregation questioning “Should we obey you in this when you are acting outside the laws of our church?”

Obey the Mandate When the Law is Not Followed?

Finally, there is the issue of the laws and mandates. In Pennsylvania, laws are supposed to be passed in a very specific way: the proposed law passes through the two houses of our state legislature (referred to as the General Assembly) and then signed into law by Pennsylvania’s Governor. So, when the Secretary of Health issues a mandate for mask-wearing for everyone over the age of 2, it calls into question the legality of the mandate. When the Governor considers certain businesses to be “life-sustaining”, but not others, all while knowing livelihoods depend on business being open, it is appropriate to pause, consider and research if this within his constitutional authority to dictate. Can the government withhold one person’s ability to put food on the table while allowing others to do so?

We have seen the Supreme Court of the United States now strike down three states’ ban on church gatherings (New York, California, and New Jersey). Were the Christians who were defying their governor’s mandates sinful up until the point of the SCOTUS rulings? In some states, people are asking if it is legal for their governors to mandate how many people they can have in their private homes. In PA, a travel ban was enacted surrounding the holidays that lasted through the end of February. Does Federal Law allow for state governors to issue restrictions on interstate travel? Additionally, there are also interstate commerce rules at play. The list of questions could multiply, times 50 states, times thousands of counties.

Abundant Opportunity for Introspection, Conversation, and Love

These kinds of things are why we are a wonder to other countries. Their governments make rules and their people pretty much must follow. Our system of local, state, and federal authority and the interplay at each level makes America much more complicated.

Of course, there are many people, some Christians even, whose hearts are rebellious and hard and simply don’t want to obey authority. But, for those that are thoughtful and prayerful, there is a lot here to wrestle through on “which authority” do we obey and “if that authority operates outside its delegated powers, do we have to obey?” America’s uniqueness provides God’s children an opportunity to give each other room to have these discussions. As God’s children, we can also realize that good-hearted, thoughtful and conscientious believers might come to different conclusions, and that is okay.

In the words of James Madison, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.” As believers in the love and grace of Christ Jesus, we have the responsibility to not ask a fellow believer to violate his/her own conscience. The fact is that Christians fall on many sides of this issue. Rather than viewing those with opposite views as sinful, we can continue to honor them in word and deed. The differences of perspective should serve to strengthen our relationships, our churches, and our communities as we unite for a common purpose: to represent Jesus well to a world in desperate need of a Savior.

At Dayspring Christian Academy, students learn about our Constitutional Republic in-depth, empowering them to reason through tough issues like these through the lens of the Bible. With God’s Word at the center of all learning, students are prepared to be citizens of excellence and godly character, wherever the Lord takes them. If you would like more information about Dayspring Christian Academy, or to schedule a private tour, please contact Karol Hasting, Admissions Director, at 717-285-2000 or email khasting@dayspringchristian.com