One of the things that troubles thoughtful Christians about resisting the orders to mask up is that it seems too darn convenient on a personal level. It seems like we are saying that you should obey the authorities above you so long as you agree with them, but as soon as they tell you to do something distasteful or otherwise irritating to you, the immediate call is to man the ramparts. Every man to his tents, o Israel! So are we not just scofflaws who want to have the reputation of being dutiful citizens?
No, not at all. But there is still something profoundly right about this concern. Submission that only submits when it agrees is not actually submission at all. To say that you will submit to an authority above you only to the extent that, and only in so far as his decisions are correct is actually to crown yourself king of the universe. It is not submission at all.
So how are we to tell the difference between godly submission to lawful authority that cheerfully obeys, even when it disagrees, on the one hand, and godly resistance to unlawful requirements on the other? Keep in mind that such resistance could be directed at unlawful authority simpliciter, or the unlawful acts of a lawful authority.
The Meaning of Limited Government
All thoughtful Christians understand that there is only one actual form of unlimited government, and that is the government of the infinite Almighty. Only God occupies that throne. His authority is complete, infinite, pure, unbounded, and omnipotent. The only limitations that God experiences, if you want to call them limitations, are those that arise from His own nature and character. God cannot lie, for example, because of who He is (Num. 23:19 ).
The authority that God possesses is a communicable attribute. In contrast, His aseity, His omnipotence, and His infinitude are incommunicable attributes. He cannot bestow them on a creature. But He has other attributes that are communicable, attributes like love, and justice, and kindness . . . and authority.
But whenever a creature receives authority from God, whether it be as a king, or a father, or a husband, or a minister, that authority is, in the very nature of the case, bounded and limited. It always bumps into other jurisdictions, both above and to the side. God is obviously above, but there are usually other human authorities that outrank him also. And off to the side, there are peers with equal authority in other places. At some point South Dakota becomes North Dakota.
So no creature has absolute authority. And this means that whenever we acknowledge the true authority of a creature, we are in that moment simultaneously acknowledging that there is a place where his authority ENDS. There is no way to grant authority to a creature, biblically speaking, without in the same breath acknowledging the necessity of this built-in limitation.
So these are the two basic limitations that all forms of creaturely authority must submit to. The first is the vertical limitation as indicated by the phrase under God. The second is the horizontal limitation that is seen in the existence of other creaturely authorities. There are boundaries above, and there are boundaries to the sides.
Lord Acton famously said that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We all of course agree with this, but if we wanted to qualify it in order to make it a bit more precise, we would say that the only true absolute power is incorruptible by definition, and that the kind of power that corrupts is the kind that God grants to fallen creatures. Because these creatures are sinful, they always want a little bit more than God gave them. Cotton Mather once said that if you tied an animal up, he would know the length of his tether by morning. This is why our desire for more than we ought to have has a tendency to ratchet up.
Now taking the three basic governments as our field of study, the authority of a father and husband is a genuine authority, but it is not an absolute authority. It is bounded, limited. The authority of a civil ruler is genuine authority, but it not an absolute authority. It is bounded, limited. The authority of church elders and pastors is a genuine authority, but it is not an absolute authority. It is bounded, limited.
Okay, great. But bounded by what? Limited in what way? Are the boundaries posted, and can we read the limitations? By what standard?
John Knox used the example of a father who was taken by a fit, and who wanted to burn his house down. If his sons restrained him, preventing him for doing something like this, are they doing so as dutiful sons or as rebellious sons? The answer is obvious–dutiful sons. This kind of resistance can be offered to a genuine authority. Under certain circumstances, it must be offered. The fact that his sons restrained him did not amount to a denial that he was their father.
The ruler might be a spurious leader, like Athaliah, and rejected on that basis (2 Kings 11:14). Or the ruler might be the Lord’s anointed, like Saul, and resisted in certain of his unlawful requirements (1 Sam. 24:10). David didn’t have to turn himself in just because Saul, the Lord’s anointed, wanted him to.
What Usurpation of Authority Looks Like
The ruler abusing his authority will always tell you that he is not doing so. He is therefore not to be trusted as a reliable guide on these matters. He will always say that this is not what he is doing, even when he is doing exactly that.
The fact that Athaliah called it treason (2 Kings 11:14) did not make it treason. Of course she would say that.
I want to give you a few silly examples so that you might see the principle. If you live in Idaho and the governor of Arkansas tells you that you have to mask up on the streets of Boise, you may disregard him. You may disregard him even if he tells you that you may not disregard him. You aren’t breaking the law; he is. If the mayor of London tells the citizens of Baltimore that they must drive on the left side of the street now, they may disregard him. They may disregard him even if he says they may not disregard him. They aren’t breaking the law; he is. Now these examples are easy to see because of lines on the map. We all easily understand that the governor of this place is not in charge of that place.
But once we grasp this principle, we can move into a necessary discussion of a standard feature of all limited constitutional governments. It has to do with where the restraints are located, not at the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, but rather within the offices of the government itself. It has to do with the internal constraints. To simplify this point, we put the governor into office, and we point to two buttons on his desk. We say to him, “you may press the red button, but you have no authority to press the blue button.” The Constitution of Your State says, without ambiguity it says, “there will be no blue button pushing.” Now, does the governor have the authority to wake up one morning and announce to the world that he is the master of all blue buttons?
I will help you with this difficult question. The answer is no.
So bring all of this a little closer to home. Suppose the governor of your state proclaimed a “state-wide blue shirt day” next Tuesday, and all citizens not complying would be faced with a misdemeanor fine of $150. He signs the executive order to join together to “fight leukemia.” Now what? Although he is the lawful governor of your state, duly elected and lawfully sworn in, this is an unlawful order. He has no authority to require something like this.
If the governor of your state required you to wear a bicycle helmet whenever you were outside to protect you from falling cancer, would you do it?
Some Narnian Civics
This is what constitutional government is. This is how it works. This is what it means. Civil rulers may not touch the blue buttons. If you don’t believe me, we may settle this question with a short visit to Narnia.
Here is King Lune explaining to Shasta why a sovereign must obey the law. This is why Shasta must become king, whether he wants to or not.
“No. The King’s under the law, for it’s the law makes him a King. Hast no more power to start away from thy crown than any sentry from his post.”The Horse and His Boy
And what happens when Caspian wants to abdicate his throne so that he can go off and have adventures at the rim of the world?
“Most certainly,” said Reepicheep, “his Majesty cannot.”
“No, indeed,” said Drinian.
“Can’t?” said Caspian sharply, looking for a moment not unlike his uncle Miraz.
“Begging your Majesty’s pardon,” said Rynelf from the deck below, “but if one of us did the same it would be called deserting.”
“You presume too much on your long service, Rynelf,” said Caspian.
“No, Sire! He’s perfectly right,” said Drinian.
“By the Mane of Aslan,” said Caspian, “I had thought you were all my subjects here, not my schoolmasters.”
“I’m not,” said Edmund, “and I say you can not do this.”
“Can’t again,” said Caspian. “What do you mean?”
“If it please your Majesty, we mean shall not,” said Reepicheep with a very low bow. “You are the King of Narnia. You break faith with all your subjects, and especially Trumpkin, if you do not return. You shall not please yourself with adventures as if you were a private person. And if your Majesty will not hear reason it will be the truest loyalty of every man on board to follow me in disarming and binding you till you come to your senses.”
“Quite right,” said Edmund.The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Reepicheep speaks for every loyal son of Narnia when he says, “You are the King, and that is why we shall tie you up.”
At the same time, real submission means that you obey when you profoundly disagree with the decision being made. Trumpkin didn’t believe in the Horn, and didn’t believe that blowing it would bring them any help at all.
“Thimbles and thunderstorms!” cried Trumpkin in a rage. “Is that how you speak to the King? Send me, Sire, I’ll go.”
“But I thought you didn’t believe in the Horn, Trumpkin,” said Caspian.
“No more I do, your Majesty. But what’s that got to do with it? I might as well die on a wild goose chase as die here. You are my King. I know the difference between giving advice and taking orders. You’ve had my advice, and now it’s the time for orders.”Prince Caspian
There is a difference between a foolish decision made by a lawful authority, but one which he has the authority to make (like blowing the Horn), and an unlawful decision (like abdicating the throne for the sake of adventuring).
But notice how Trumpkin is no mindless follower. He doesn’t obey orders blindfolded. He obeys orders he disagrees with wholeheartedly, but he knows exactly where his obedience would leave off.
“We should not have Aslan for a friend if we brought in that rabble,” said Trufflehunter as they came away from the cave of the Black Dwarfs.
“Oh, Aslan!” said Trumpkin, cheerily but contemptuously. “What matters much more is that you wouldn’t have me.”Prince Caspian
The Creed of a Free Hobbit
So let us not stop with Narnia. There are civics lessons to be obtained in the Shire as well.
‘All right, all right!’ said Sam. ‘That’s quite enough. I don’t want to hear no more. No welcome, no beer, no smoke, and a lot of rules and orc-talk instead.’The Return of the King
‘This is what it is, Mr. Baggins,’ said the leader of the Shirriffs, a two-feather hobbit: ‘You’re arrested for Gate-breaking, and Tearing up of Rules, and Assaulting Gate-keepers, and Trespassing, and Sleeping in Shire-buildings without Leave, and Bribing Guards with Food.’
‘And what else?’ said Frodo.
‘That’ll do to go on with,’ said the Shirriff-leader.
‘I can add some more, if you’d like it,’ said Sam. ‘Calling your Chief Names, Wishing to punch his Pimply Face, and Thinking you Shirriffs look a lot of Tom-fools.’The Return of the King
We have been drifting on this lazy river of serfdom for so long that we have forgotten how free men, the kind who actually understood their freedom, would have responded to this kind of centrally-organized tin whistle tyranny. I like to imagine Patrick Henry coming back to visit us all for a fortnight. First he would put his foot through the side of all the posted officiousness, and then he would spend the rest of his time thrashing us for having put up with this stuff for so long.
One Last Thing
So all this has been for those Christians who believe that the masking mandates are something we must submit to because a lawful authority has required it of us. Please note that I have not been arguing this point on the basis of a personal quirk of mine. I am not making this point because my left eye is twitching again. A circuit court has struck down the masking order of the governor of Kentucky on just this sort of reasoning. In other words, this is not just Narnian civics, but also basic American civics.
There are two basic issues in play. One is that a governor (or mayor) does not have the authority to create a state of emergency simply by declaring one. He may respond to a state of emergency by declaring one, but he does not have the authority to make the asteroid appear.
Second, assuming that a genuine medical emergency exists, a governor (or mayor) has the authority to quarantine the sick. He does NOT have the authority to quarantine the general populace. That is the blue button he doesn’t get to push. If a political authority has the authority to lock down anybody who might be sick, then he has the authority to lock up anybody. And he can take away his freedom for as long as he might be contagious, which is a mighty long time.
And a reminder to all. I am no COVID denier. It really was a genuine medical crisis, particularly in certain places. About 42% of all COVID deaths occurred in three states, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. A political response from the political leaders there was required. Ideally it should have been a competent response, instead of the one they got — but a vigorous response really was demanded.
Here is a study on the efficacy of masking by the general public. The study is from April, and so some will say that in COVID terms this was centuries ago. What about all the latest data? I would reply that a study from April is a study from before the moment when masks became a political flag.
And for your reading pleasure, here is another one.
Okay, Wait, This is the Last Thing
If you have been tracking with the arguments I have been presenting here, thank you, and please keep doing so. Please be as cheerful and as difficult as you can be with the purveyors of all this mayhem, by which I mean the politicians — who do not love you. But at the same time, please remember NOT to make life difficult for people caught in the middle of all this — shopkeepers who are trying to keep their businesses afloat, for example, or church leaders who have been otherwise faithful in these crazytoons times of our ours. Many of these people do love you.