Christians, Coronavirus, Masks, and Governing Authorities

I took this picture just before the first time I wore a mask to enter a store. This cool looking mask was made by my daughter.

Unless you’ve lived under the proverbial rock over the past few months, you’ve probably heard all sorts of responses concerning the mask debate in relation to COVID-19. Masks have become yet another issue added to the long list of topics that Americans (and others) divide over.

  • “I’ll never wear a mask.”
  • “Masks don’t prevent the spread of the virus and are harmful to the wearer over time.”
  • “Wear a mask. What’s the big deal? It’s just a simple way you can protect yourself and others.”
  • “You want people to die. That’s why you aren’t wearing a mask.”

Some responses from either side can sound rather reasonable and others are clearly over the top and irrational. There is enough video evidence to show that people can easily get carried away. Perhaps you’ve also watched an overly zealous individual ranting at unmasked adults or children about their alleged desire to kill others.

I’m not an expert on infectious diseases or constitutional law, so I’m not giving out health or legal advice. I will simply state that I’m not opposed to private businesses requiring masks or not requiring masks at their establishments. Beyond that, I’m not getting into the politics of this issue in this post. So if you’re thinking about leaving a comment about how everyone needs to wear masks or why the government is being tyrannical by requiring masks, please don’t bother. That is not the point here. I’m a Christian who has long been deeply concerned about how the Bible is frequently misused to support one side or the other on contentious issues (see my ongoing series on Commonly Misused Bible Verses), and that will be my focus here.

Obey Your Governing Authorities

One of the responses to the mask issue that I keep seeing on social media or hearing from others is that Christians are commanded to obey their governing authorities. Thus, if you’re a Christian living in a state under a mask mandate, then you’re told that you need to obey it or risk damaging your Christian testimony. And for good measure, you might be accused of not loving your fellow man.

To be sure, Christians are commanded to obey their governing authorities. Let’s look at a few passages that provide this instruction.

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. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. (Romans 13:1–2)

Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. (Titus 3:1–2)

Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. (1 Peter 2:13–14)

These passages seem to be quite clear. Both Paul and Peter, two of the leading apostles, instructed their readers to obey governing authorities. Paul goes as far as saying that those who resist these authorities are resisting an ordinance of God and bringing judgment on themselves. Could this be any clearer? Well, yes, actually it could be. If you think this settles the matter on whether Christians must always follow their governing authorities, you need to read some more about the men who wrote these verses.

Is there ever a time when it’s right for a Christian to refuse to comply with certain governing authorities? Must we always follow whatever our government commands? There are at least two important issues to consider before you cite one of the above verses as proof that Christians are obligated to follow a mask mandate.

First, the men who wrote these verses did not always comply with their governing authorities. These actions were not hypocritical, because in these various situations they had an obligation to follow a higher law. Most Christians would agree with the idea that we should follow the laws of the land unless they directly conflict with one of God’s commands. For example, if your governing authority tells you that you are not permitted to tell others about the gospel of Jesus Christ, Christians generally agree that in such extreme situations, we must obey God rather than man.

Peter’s Example

That was how Peter and John responded to their governing authorities when they were given this order.

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, saying, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!”
But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:27–29)

Notice, Peter and the other apostles (Paul was not an apostle yet) told their governing authorities that they would not refrain from telling the people about Jesus because the Lord had commanded them to preach the gospel. Thus, if they were to obey these men, then they would be guilty of disobeying God. In fact, Peter and John had previously informed the “rulers, elders, and scribes, as well as Annas the high priest, Caiaphas…” (Acts 4:5–6) that they needed to follow God’s commands instead of the council’s orders.

So they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:18–20)

Peter, John, and the other apostles certainly believed there was a higher law than the one set forth by the council, and so they refused to obey the council’s order and continued to teach in the name of Jesus. They were also willing to face the consequences for their “civil disobedience,” which in this case involved being arrested, imprisoned, and beaten (Acts 5:18, 40).

Paul’s Example

After being beaten and imprisoned in Philippi, Paul and Silas were miraculously freed from prison when the Lord caused an earthquake to open the prison’s doors. After Paul led the Philippian jailer to Christ that night, the civil authorities sought to send him and Silas away privately and sent officers to convey that message. So Paul and Silas were told by governing authorities that they needed to leave the city quietly, but Paul refused to do so. Instead, here is what happened next:

But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us openly, uncondemned Romans, and have thrown us into prison. And now do they put us out secretly? No indeed! Let them come themselves and get us out.” And the officers told these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Romans. Then they came and pleaded with them and brought them out, and asked them to depart from the city. So they went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia; and when they had seen the brethren, they encouraged them and departed. (Acts 16:37–40)

Paul could have quietly obeyed the orders sent to him from the town’s rulers, but he knew his rights as a Roman citizen had been violated the previous day and he insisted that the town’s leaders recognize those rights before he left on his own terms. He went to Lydia’s house to encourage the believers there, and then he departed from the town.

A similar event occurred in Jerusalem as a mob sought to kill Paul near the temple (Acts 21:30–31). He was rescued by a Roman commander who brought him to the barracks and ordered that he be scourged. Paul once again appealed to his Roman citizenship, asking if it was lawful to scourge a Roman citizen who had not been found guilty of a crime. Upon ascertaining that Paul was indeed a citizen, the commander relented.

Paul later used his rights during a trial to appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:11). We see at least three different times in Acts when Paul appealed to his rights as a Roman citizen to prevent local magistrates from carrying out illegal orders.

Two Sides of the Modern Mandate Debate

You might be wondering how Paul’s example ties in with the mask mandate. In some cases, it may not be applicable, but in others it is directly applicable. Again, I’m not a legal scholar, but I do know that the U.S. Constitution is a higher authority than local rulers when it comes to the laws of the United States. Thus, if the Constitution guarantees certain rights, then local authorities do not have the power to override those rights. Furthermore, if mandates from lesser authorities contradict the rulings of higher authorities within that jurisdiction, then those mandates are not binding.

Before you jump to conclusions, I’m not claiming that the U.S. Constitution tells us whether we must wear masks or that we can never be made to wear them. That isn’t my point. There are certain states where governors have overstepped the authority given to them by the people of their state. For example, when the coronavirus shutdowns started across the nation, Wisconsin’s governor, Tony Evers, issued a “safer at home” order in the middle of March, and eventually he attempted to extend that mandate until May 26. The problem was that Wisconsin laws only permitted the governor to issue such emergency declarations for a maximum of 60 days. Thus, assuming for the sake of argument that it was legal for him to issue such a shutdown in the first place, the legal basis for Evers’ mandate expired on May 13.

Let’s assume that the Wisconsin Supreme Court had not stepped in and overruled Evers. Would Christians have the right to disobey their governor beginning on May 13? Some believers surely would cite Romans 13, claiming that we need to obey our governing authorities. The problem in this particular case is that the higher authority, the law in Wisconsin, was crystal clear that Evers had no authority to extend such a declaration beyond May 13. Thus, Christians in Wisconsin who defied the governor once the 60 days had passed would actually be following their governing authorities. Similar cases can be found in other states. When governors issue orders that are contrary to the laws that they are supposed to uphold, then Christians and non-Christians alike have every right to stand against unjust mandates. To follow Paul’s example, they are appealing to higher authorities and their rights as citizens.

I have seen numerous people telling others that they need to obey the law and wear the mask, but in many of these cases, there is no law requiring masks. These are often temporary mandates issued by certain authorities, and they were never passed by the state’s legislature. Thus, they are not laws. However, the legislatures in some states have given their governors the authority to enact such policies. So, unless those orders do not conflict with higher laws, such as the Constitution, then Christians (and others) in those states would be obligated to comply with the mandates.

Let’s try to summarize this. Just because a local authority issues a mandate, it does not necessarily mean that all people are instantly obligated to follow it, regardless of whether you think the policy is good. In this nation, we have different levels of authorities, from municipalities all the way up to federal. For the most part, local authorities have the right to enact laws for the people in their jurisdiction, unless those laws contradict the guaranteed rights under a higher law.

Appeal to Christians

Jesus taught His followers to love one another, love your neighbor, and love your enemies. That pretty much covers everyone. These principles must guide us as we attempt to discern how to properly respond to mask mandates and other changes that seem to attack the freedoms we cherish. One side will claim that wearing a mask is a form of loving your neighbor because you are trying to prevent the spread of the disease and are potentially saving lives. But on the other hand, there are certain health risks associated with frequently wearing masks, especially for some individuals. So, in these cases, to truly love these neighbors would mean not requiring them to wear masks. Additionally, mental health issues, drug overdoses, and suicides have reportedly skyrocketed during the shutdowns.

So, those who favor the shutdowns in order to love and protect our neighbors from the coronavirus are not always being very loving when it comes to those who have suffered greatly as a result of the shutdowns and mandates. In other words, issues like these are often quite complex, and if someone happens to disagree with you, it isn’t necessarily because they don’t care about people. It’s possible that they care deeply about people and have very good reasons for holding an opposing view. In fact, they might hold a position that is more in line with Scripture and with science.

Keep in mind that there are complex legal dilemmas at play in some cases. In other cases, the laws are rather clear. In all cases, Christians should seek to understand where people are coming from, show love and kindness to those who disagree, and refrain from misusing the Bible by quoting biblical passages that may irrelevant to the current situation.

Fun With English and Biblical Interpretation

Debates over pronunciation help us understand how and why languages change over time.

Let’s have some fun with this blog post while still making a serious point. English can be a frustrating language because it has so many exceptions to its numerous rules. Remember, I before E except after C or when sounded like A as in neighbor or weigh. That’s helpful, unless you want to spell words like foreign, counterfeit, feisty, and caffeine. Weird, isn’t it?

English can also be a lot of fun, particularly when you pay attention to how people from various locales say certain words. For example, say Louisville out loud. The way it is pronounced is a big deal in northern Kentucky. Around here, people generally say something like, “Luh-vuhl,” and it sounds like they are swallowing their tongue with each syllable. Those who articulate it differently are often “corrected.” Most of the English-speaking world says, “Loo-ee-ville” or “Loo-uh-ville,” realizing that it is named for France’s King Louis (Loo-ee) XVI, or perhaps known from the popular baseball brand, Louisville Slugger. And some of those who say “Luh-vuhl” carry their twisting of “ville” into other city names, so Nashville becomes “Nash-vuhl” and Greenville becomes “Green-vuhl.”

Part of the reason for these local-specific pronunciations is due to familiarity and the tendency to save time. We use contractions to shorten the amount of time it takes to say certain things (“cannot” becomes “can’t”). Similarly, people from a given area tend to shorten the way some local place names are said. For example, many people in my home state of Wisconsin call their largest city “Mu-wau-kee” rather than “Mil-wau-kee.” By dropping the “l” they essentially cut about half of a syllable. “Two Rivers” loses a whole syllable and is pronounced “Trih-vers.” My wife grew up in southeastern Minnesota where “Ro-ches-ter” becomes “Ro-chster” (try saying it with just a tiny hint of a vowel in the second syllable) and “Stew-art-ville” becomes “Sturt-ville” (thankfully, not “Sturt-vuhl”).

Regional accents often lead to words being spoken differently. In the United States, a person from Boston will likely sound very different than someone from southern Louisiana. And if it weren’t for radio and television helping to standardize our language, these two accents would likely become entirely different languages before too long.

Moving outside of the United States can lead to even greater differences in accents. Listen to the way New Zealanders pronounce many of their words. It seems like they don’t really like certain vowels, because they say them as quickly as possible, with the frequent exception of the long A and O sounds. Here’s a clip of Beauden Barrett, two-time world rugby player of the year and my favorite player, and two of his brothers discussing what it’s like to play together on the All Blacks. Pay attention to the way they say (or almost don’t say) many of the vowels.

Although Americans often confuse the New Zealand and Australian accents, Aussies tend to drag out many vowel sounds. Was there anyone more fun to watch and listen to than the late Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter? Listen how he drags out many of his vowels.

Ironically, perhaps no English-speaking people shorten their words as much as Australians do. Check out this video guide to Australian slang.

Bear with me for two more paragraphs with rugby examples before we get to the point. These language differences are some of the many reasons I enjoy watching rugby. Not only is it a great sport, but I get to hear announcers from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. I enjoy hearing their accents, particularly Australia and New Zealand (although I especially like one of the Irish announcers because he sounds like a pirate). But even more entertaining than the accents is hearing the words they choose to use that are different than how Americans would generally speak. A player who runs fast has “heaps of pace,” according to the Australian and New Zealand commentators. Instead of a “little bit” they often say a “wee bit” and “straight away” instead of “right away.” We can easily figure out what they mean because the words mean the same thing here in America, but we choose different phrases to convey the same idea.

The differences within a given language are not confined to simple pronunciations and the use of similar words. Idioms often develop in different regions that make little sense to outsiders who don’t take the time to learn something about that culture. Sticking with rugby lingo, if a player “throws a dummy” it doesn’t mean that he tossed a ventriloquist doll or a stupid person. It means that he faked a pass to fool the defender and actually never threw the ball at all. A “lovely ball” is a great pass rather than a ball that looks really nice. And if the commentator says, “lovely hands,” he is not saying that the big brute has beautiful hands, but he generally means that the player caught the ball and deftly passed it to a teammate before the defender(s) could react. Moving beyond rugby but sticking with Australia and New Zealand, if someone is “gutted,” it does not mean that they have been disemboweled, but that they are extremely disappointed.  And if they are “feeling crook” it does not mean that they feel like a criminal but that they are ill.

Importance of Recognizing Language Oddities

These differences can be a lot of fun to discuss. In fact, feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments below (or favourites if you’re from the U.K. or Australia). I do have a deeper reason for bringing these issues up though. The changes to a language did not begin with English. In fact, these types of modifications have happened throughout history to countless languages, and they can impact the way we understand our Bibles.

Michael the archangel is frequently shown defeating Satan (the dragon).

Many Christians have assumed that translators can and should simply translate the Bible from the original languages on a word-for-word basis. That is, one word in Hebrew should be translated into its equivalent word in English. But such an approach is impossible and would make it hard to understand the Bible. It’s impossible since there simply is not a one-to-one correlation between many Hebrew and English words or between many Greek and English words. Also, these languages use different conventions than English. For example, Greek frequently uses the definite article before proper names, so if we translated every word it would be very odd to read about “the Michael and the his angels” in Revelation 12:7 (or to keep the word order the same as the Greek, “the Michael and the angels his”).

Many verses would also read quite strangely because Hebrew and Greek have idioms that the biblical writers employed. To accurately interpret these colloquialisms, we need to recognize these for what they are. Let’s look at a few examples.

After Nabal foolishly rejected David’s request for assistance, David stated, “May God do so, and more also, to the enemies of David, if I leave one male of all who belong to him by morning light” (1 Samuel 25:22, NKJV, emphasis added). The translators of the NKJV have assisted the readers in two ways regarding the italicized words. First, they have helped us understand an idiom that could be confusing. Second, they have softened some crude language in that idiom. Here is how the KJV translates the same verse: “So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.” This strange phrase is a very literal translation of the Hebrew text and appears six times in the Old Testament. The first time I saw it, I thought it referred to a stupid person, similar to how Americans might refer to someone who spits into the wind. But that is not its meaning. Instead, it was just a strange way to refer to men, since men frequently stand while urinating.

Psalm 10:15 uses an idiom that is much easier to understand. Here the psalmist asks the Lord to “break the arm” of the wicked person. But the psalmist isn’t asking the Lord to literally break the person’s physical arm. Instead, “arm” is used metaphorically for a person’s strength, so the psalmist is asking the Lord to break the strength of the evil man so that he cannot oppress the weak any longer.

In the New Testament, prior to being cast out of a man by Jesus, a demon told Jesus to “Let us alone!” (Mark 1:24). Easy enough, right? Well, not if you interpreted the Greek phrase literally, which would read something like, “What to us and to you?” This is a Greek idiom that means something like, “Why are you bothering me since we have nothing to do with each other?” or to quote one of our own idioms, “Take a hike!”

The issue of accents comes up in the Bible as well. According to Judges, many people lost their lives in Jephthah’s day because they couldn’t pronounce a word in a certain way.

The Gileadites seized the fords of the Jordan before the Ephraimites arrived. And when any Ephraimite who escaped said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead would say to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No,” then they would say to him, “Then say, ‘Shibboleth’!” And he would say, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they would take him and kill him at the fords of the Jordan. There fell at that time forty-two thousand Ephraimites. (Judges 12:5–6, NKJV)

Imagine if every person from England who traveled to the United States was immediately questioned about how to pronounce schedule. And then we decided to kill them if they said “she-jule” instead of “ske-jule,” because we Americans know that “sch” makes a “sk” sound like in school, schooner, scheme, schism, and schizophrenia. But what about schmooze, schnauzer, schwa, and schlock? Perhaps the English shouldn’t die for not knowing how to properly pronounce English words. (Yes, my tongue was firmly planted in my cheek while typing that.)

Accents can account for variants in spelling, particularly when no standard dictionary is available for that language. It’s easy to see how a D can eventually be pronounced as a T, and vice versa. Think about how people say important. Is it im-por-tant or im-pour-dent? Look at some English from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and you’ll see what I mean. Authors often wrote phonetically, meaning that they spelled their words the way they sounded. Here are the first two verses of the Bible from the Tyndale Bible (1534):

In the begynnynge God created heaven and erth. The erth was voyde and emptie ad darcknesse was vpon the depe and the spirite of god moved vpon the water. (Genesis 1:1–2)

The same thing has happened in Hebrew and Greek. Textual scholar Daniel Wallace calls the Apostle John a creative speller because he spelled the same Greek word three different ways in the same passage. Also, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew over a thousand-year period. And during that time the language underwent changes. It even changed how it was written, switching from the proto-Sinaitic script to the Aramaic script around or during the Babylonian Exile. In fact, about half of the book of Daniel and a few chapters in Ezra were written in Aramaic.


There are many other issues involved in properly interpreting and translating the biblical languages. This article was intended to provide a fun background for starting the discussion on these important issues by comparing similar situations in English from our own time.

The various changes that have taken place in biblical languages do not detract from the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy. The Holy Spirit superintended the writing of Scripture so that it would be infallible in its original autographs, but He allowed the writers to use their grasp of a given language and its conventions. He did not dictate word-for-word to the biblical writer every single letter that ended up on the page. Instead, He prepared the writers and guided the process so that what they wrote accurately conveyed the precise message God intended us to have.