A bad argument from a good man

Grace Community Church, where John MacArthur serves, has released a statement announcing its intent to defy California’s latest rollback of church gatherings due to concerns of a resurgent COVID-19.

The statement is a disaster.

If MacArthur wishes to defy the California government, he needs to do better than this. Here are some relevant excerpts:

As pastors and elders, we cannot hand over to earthly authorities any privilege or power that belongs solely to Christ as head of His church. Pastors and elders are the ones to whom Christ has given the duty and the right to exercise His spiritual authority in the church (1 Peter 5:1–4; Hebrews 13:7, 17)—and Scripture alone defines how and whom they are to serve (1 Corinthians 4:1–4). They have no duty to follow orders from a civil government attempting to regulate the worship or governance of the church. In fact, pastors who cede their Christ-delegated authority in the church to a civil ruler have abdicated their responsibility before their Lord and violated the God-ordained spheres of authority as much as the secular official who illegitimately imposes his authority upon the church.

He continues:

History is full of painful reminders that government power is easily and frequently abused for evil purposes. Politicians may manipulate statistics and the media can cover up or camouflage inconvenient truths. So a discerning church cannot passively or automatically comply if the government orders a shutdown of congregational meetings—even if the reason given is a concern for public health and safety.

MacArthur explains:

When officials restrict church attendance to a certain number, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the saints to gather as the church. When officials prohibit singing in worship services, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the people of God to obey the commands of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. When officials mandate distancing, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible to experience the close communion between believers that is commanded in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. In all those spheres, we must submit to our Lord.

Unfortunately, MacArthur made no substantive case, here.

In the New Covenant, without a Yahweh-mandated theocracy, we find precedent for defying the State in the Book of Acts. That volume shows the Church (1) being ordered to not preach the Gospel because the quasi-civil authorities do not like the Gospel, and (2) the Church refusing to obey (Acts 4:15-20).

In order to take advantage of this precedent, the Church must argue a local jurisdiction is acting in a way that fits the pattern. Specifically, persecution or otherwise discriminatory treatment because of religion. Of course, Luke is not on hand to take us into the minds of civil authorities, so we must use a “reasonable person” standard.

So, you must separate government directives into two broad categories of impetus for our context; (1) public health, and (2) persecution or otherwise discriminatory treatment because of religion. In order to trigger civil disobedience, a church must make a plausible case Scenario #2 is happening. In this, MacArthur has not succeeded.

He’s essentially advocating civil disobedience whenever a church disagrees with civil authorities. In fact, on his argument, why should any Christian ever obey his government? This logic is a blank cheque for anarchy, for those looking for it. I expected better from MacArthur.

What about Nevada?

Consider the situation in Nevada.

The Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) declined last week to hear arguments from Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley alleging religious discrimination by the State of Nevada. Calvary Chapel sought to hold services with 90 people, with appropriate social distancing. However, Nevada restricts churches (and certain other institutions) to 50 people flat. But certain other public facilities, including casinos, are limited to 50% of the fire code capacity. Clearly, these are different metrics. When SCOTUS declined to hear the case, it let the lower court decision stand. In Justice Alito’s dissent, he noted:

The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or black-jack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance. But the Governor of Nevada apparently has different priorities.

Claiming virtually unbounded power to restrict constitutional rights during the COVID–19 pandemic, he has issued a directive that severely limits attendance at religious services. A church, synagogue, or mosque, regardless of its size, may not admit more than 50 persons, but casinos and certain other favored facilities may admit 50% of their maximum occupancy—and in the case of gigantic Las Vegas casinos, this means that thousands of patrons are allowed.

That Nevada would discriminate in favor of the powerful gaming industry and its employees may not come as a surprise, but this Court’s willingness to allow such discrimination is disappointing. We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility.

If I were in Nevada, I would give serious consideration to defying the State’s order. To return to California, if Grace Community Church feels it’s in an analogous situation, it should explain. Perhaps it cannot.

In short, MacArthur (et al) has made a bad argument. No doubt, some evangelicals will gleefully post it as though Christ has spoken and the matter is settled.

It is not settled.

Perhaps there is an argument to be made that churches can defy the California governor. John MacArthur just hasn’t made it. No Christian should rely on this statement as a basis for defying his State government. We must do better than this.

Return to California

In response to questions about what, precisely, has changed to warrant this reaction, Grace Community Church released a clarification appended to the original article. It reads, in part:

But we are now more than twenty weeks into the unrelieved restrictions. It is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared.

This appears to be the beginning of an argument for civil disobedience based on government incompetence. But, again, the examples from the Book of Acts show us quasi-civil authorities who order the Church to not preach the Gospel because they doesn’t like the message. We have no example of the Church disobeying civil authorities simply because it disagrees with public policy. If Grace Community Church believe otherwise, it ought to prove its case.

Still, roughly forty percent of the year has passed with our church essentially unable to gather in a normal way. Pastors’ ability to shepherd their flocks has been severely curtailed. The unity and influence of the church has been threatened. Opportunities for believers to serve and minister to one another have been missed. And the suffering of Christians who are troubled, fearful, distressed, infirm, or otherwise in urgent need of fellowship and encouragement has been magnified beyond anything that could reasonably be considered just or necessary.

To be sure, this is hard. Every pastor feels it. But, is there really nothing that can be done? A full, corporate worship service in your auditorium is the only solution to this problem? You can’t do visitation? You can’t have smaller gatherings in homes? You can’t have outdoor services?

Major public events that were planned for 2021 are already being canceled, signaling that officials are preparing to keep restrictions in place into next year and beyond. That forces churches to choose between the clear command of our Lord and the government officials. Therefore, following the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, we gladly choose to obey Him.

If MacArthur believes California is doing this to deliberately target religious institutions, then he must provide evidence. If he has none, then he’s encouraging any Christian on earth to disobey the State whenever he disagrees or otherwise finds civil authority inconvenient. This is puzzling coming from MacArthur, who believes (rightly, in my view) there was no biblical warrant for the Colonies to revolt against the British!

This is a terrible document. Too many Christians will accept it uncritically. Some of them will do so because they’re anxious for theological cover, any cover, to justify what they already want to do. Others, perhaps some of the same, will be moved by conspiracy theories or animated by political animus. Given MacArthur’s stature in the evangelical world, the bad arguments here are particularly disappointing. Even worse, MacArthur encourages you to “add your signature to the statement,” regardless of whether California’s civil context is your own.

I shall close with a summary from Phil Johnson, of Grace Community Church, made in the context of a dispute with Mark Dever about a 9Marks article which disagreed with the decision:

This is not an argument that triggers Scenario #2. Again, I say it’s possible there is an argument to be made for civil disobedience in California’s context. MacArthur just hasn’t made it.

Read the statement here.

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