Obedience to God and Love of Neighbor in the Face of a Coronavirus: A Christian’s Mandate

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
March 26, 2020

Just this week, I spoke with a national reporter for a major newspaper who asked me why people, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, are almost universally asking some of the most urgent and important questions any human being could ask. I answered that God made all humanity in his image—and as image bearers, there are certain questions we cannot avoid.

During the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas rightly argued that human beings, made in the image of God, cannot not know God. We may deny God. We may deny that we know God. Yet, in reality, none of us can successfully deny to ourselves the existence of the Creator before whom we will one day give an account.

A crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic tends to jerk humanity into the most fundamental theological questions. Who would have thought just a couple weeks ago that many would be forced to shelter in place, restrict their movements to only the grocery store and a local pharmacy? As this pandemic continues to cast its shadow, humanity will be forced into the most basic yet most important questions any human could ask. Life and death are now, all the sudden, our daily conversation.

We are told that limiting the rapid spread of the coronavirus will require what The New York Times has called “harsh steps.”  Reporter Donald McNeil enumerated in two full pages the steps necessary to halt the coronavirus. But another article in the same daily newspaper ran with the headline, “Police Are Choosing to Tread Lightly in Dealings with Transgressors.” This particular article reveals that New York City Police are not being heavy handed (as yet) in cracking down on people refusing to comply with CDC as well as Federal, State, and local guidelines.

Stories come from across the nation of thousands upon thousands of Americans unwilling to take these orders seriously who continue to live their daily lives as if nothing is happening—indeed, the pictures from beaches and spring break trips seem to indicate that, especially among younger people, there is little thought given to what is at stake in this global crisis.

The Christian worldview offers a biblical approach and understanding to the responsibility not only of Christians but of all citizens to governing authorities. Moreover, the Christian worldview actually speaks to the crisis we now face and the issues of shelter in place and quarantine. Indeed, in Leviticus chapters thirteen and fourteen, Moses laid down laws dealing with leprosy—and the people of Israel had specific quarantine instructions put in place by God in order to protect the larger community and promote the common good.

While the Levitical instructions are not synonymous with the demands coming from American authorities, there are haunting similarities, especially with regards to the principles of love of neighbor that direct the injunctions in the biblical text.

The point is the stop of contagion. Israel had a responsibility to obey, and their obedience mandated the isolation of any infected person in order to protect the nation from a larger more serious threat that would have harmed the entire community. The same logic applies to what we face today, and that is why local, state, and federal authorities are calling upon the nation to adopt the same principles and practices in order to protect our society, our neighbors.

In the New Testament, Romans chapter thirteen offers more biblical imperatives, which when followed, benefit not only Christians, but all humanity. The Apostle Paul summons us all to obey rightful and just authorities who fulfill their God-created function as instruments of his common grace.

The only ground for disobedience to that authority is when the governing authorities demand an obedience that contradicts the Christian’s singular devotion to God. Most laws, however, never conflict with our worship of God. We are not in danger of bending our knees to Baal or Nebuchadnezzar when we obey the speed limit laws or pay our taxes. That same principle applies to the policies our government has initiated in response to this global pandemic.

Beyond this, Jesus was asked in Matthew 22:36-40: “What is the greatest commandment.” Jesus, in response, went back to Deuteronomy 6:4 and cited the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength.” In Matthew, Jesus commanded that we love God will all our heart and soul and mind.

But then, quite unexpectedly, Jesus said, “The second greatest commandment is like unto it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We should note that Jesus drew this from the book of Leviticus 19:18. The very same Book of Leviticus that included the quarantine of the diseased.

Love of neighbor means that we would not do anything to compromise, weaken, or endanger our neighbor—and that certainly includes our neighbor’s physical health. Applying all of these passages—Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Matthew, and Romans—we come to understand that faithfulness today means full and unwavering compliance with all rightful orders seeking to control the spread of COVID-19.

Interestingly, the command to “love your neighbor” ends with two words of enormous significance: “as yourself.” We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Often, we are told to not think about ourselves—that true virtue is found in self-sacrifice and having no regard for our own lives. That is true, but in this command from the words of Jesus himself, we are told to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Actually, endangering ourselves also endangers others. We regard our own lives, so we must regard the lives of others. We protect our lives, so we protect the lives of others. In the context of this pandemic, if we do not comply with the government’s guidelines and fall ill, then someone will have to take care of us. We will tie up resources, time, and put others at risk of catching what could be for some people a deadly virus. Furthermore, we are not able to contribute to the commonweal—to the larger community.

We must be thankful for those who are serving on the front lines against this virus, even as they willingly experience risk to themselves only in order to preserve the lives of others.

We endanger the entire society when we endanger ourselves. Christian responsibility in this crisis demands full adherence to every governmental measure calling for social distancing, sheltering in place, and limiting our travel for only the most essential needs. Christians especially ought to operate out of a far deeper imperative than anything coming from the letterhead of the CDC or from the White House. Our authority is the Bible. We are called to honor the gift of life.

Love of God comes first, and love of neighbor flows directly from that first love. As Jesus said, all the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments. And we are also commanded to obey rightful authority. With life and death, sickness and health, hanging in the balance, Christians should be clear-headed about our duty.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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