Yesterday John MacArthur released a video update to his church family. As is well-known, Grace Community Church has chosen to defy the state order issued by Governor Newsome banning indoor worship services. At 10:35-10:50 of the video, MacArthur states:
Churches are shutting down—large churches shutting down until, they say, January. I don’t have any way to understand that other than they don’t know what a church is, and they don’t shepherd their people.
He further intimates that pastors and church leaders who choose not to resist the Governor’s order lack the courage to direct the church to her calling in this time.
As a fellow minister of the gospel here in Southern California, I want to articulate why I believe cooperating with the current restrictions is not necessarily a cowardly desertion of our calling, but may instead reflect the path of wisdom, responsibility, and love. My motive in writing is not to attack MacArthur, who is my brother-in-Christ, but from sincere concern about the impact of his views on other pastors and churches.
Let me begin by saying that I stand with MacArthur in affirming the vital importance of corporate worship, as well as the importance of standing up for religious liberty. Moreover, I believe that there are certainly times to disobey the government, and I would gladly give my life for the sake of gathering to worship, if it ever became a capital punishment.
However, it seems to me that the current situation is more complicated than MacArthur’s perspective allows. To my mind, there are at least four biblical values that should inform our decision-making in this situation:
- the importance of worship (Hebrews 10:25)
- love for neighbor (Mark 12:31)
- obedience to government (Romans 13:1-7)
- maintaining a good witness (Colossians 4:5-6)
What concerns me about defying the state order right now is that it seems to prioritize 1 at the expense of 2-4. Regarding (2), one way we can love our neighbors is by helping to stop the spread of a dangerous and highly infectious disease. Gathering for worship without requiring masks or practicing social distancing or adjusting the elements of worship (e.g., reducing/discontinuing singing) risks causing a significant increase in transmission of the virus, particularly in the case of a mega-church. It is not merely those in attendance who are potentially affected by such a decision, but the entire community with which attenders subsequently interact.
Failing to take actions to slow the spread of the virus does not help our witness to the world (4). As the church, we want to be seen to care about the welfare of our communities, and to be helpful citizens who are willing to do our part to serve the common good. We want to make it clear to the watching world that we are not just concerned with defending our rights, but that we are willing to lay down our rights for the sake of others.
Regarding (3), I do believe there are times to engage in civil disobedience, as well as times to practice nonviolent civil protest. However, I don’t see civil disobedience as the appropriate response to the current restrictions, because the restrictions are temporary and purposeful. We are not being singled out for our religious beliefs; we are being directed to participate in a broader effort throughout our entire society, and throughout the entire world. (To the extent that restrictions are or become unfair to churches or religious groups as compared to secular entities, we should certainly speak out against that. I think engaging in protest before outright disobedience is often the wiser path, but I wouldn’t ever want to take civil disobedience off the table. That would be the choice I would make if the current restrictions were to continue indefinitely.)
Putting these four values together is complicated, and I have no one-size-fits-all answer for every situation. Our church has chosen to meet outdoors, while providing video options for those who choose to stay home. We’d rather be inconvenienced by the outdoor heat and noise than risk violating values 2-4. But I recognize that that may not be the best option for every church.
My main concern is not so much with MacArthur’s position—I think this is a complicated and unprecedented situation, and it is important to show a measure of grace to other churches following different policies. My main concern is with the judgment he passes on those who don’t defy the government restrictions right now.
To claim that those complying with the government restrictions “don’t know what a church is and … don’t shepherd their people“ is both unhelpful and unkind. It oversimplifies a complicated situation, and places further pressure on already-burdened pastors whose consciences lead them differently. I worry the statement will breed suspicion, reinforce pride, and stir up dissension.
I suspect that a major part of the reason MacArthur and the leadership at GCC would apply values 2-4 differently to this situation is that they don’t regard COVID-19 as an actual threat. For instance, in the addendum to their statement, GCC clarified that “guarding public health against serious contagions is a rightful function of Christians as well as civil government,” and stated that this is why they followed the original government orders in March. What led GCC to change positions from March to July is that they now believe that “the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared.”
So in principle, MacArthur and GCC seem to recognize the possibility of jurisdictional overlap between the state and the church. For instance, if, hypothetically speaking, the government had evidence that there was a bomb under the sanctuary of a church, I’d bet that just about everyone would recognize the government has the right to lock down the building, even if it was Sunday morning. In general, I know that MacArthur has a deep respect for value (3) identified above, respect for government. He has even stated that the founding of the United States of America was disobedience to Romans 13. It’s difficult for me to understand how MacArthur adjudicates when to follow Romans 13 and when not to follow this passage.
I don’t share MacArthur’s perspective that COVID-19 is not a real threat. However, I hold my views about the virus loosely. I am not an epidemiologist, and I suspend judgment about exactly what the long-term effects of this pandemic will be. So let’s suppose that I’m wrong (as, evidently, GCC would likewise have been wrong to close down in March of this year). My point here is simply this: such a potential error does not necessarily constitute a bowing down to Caesar. It would be an error in the application of principles 2-4 listed above, based on a particular judgment drawn about the nature of COVID-19. And my burden is this: Christians can and should disagree about the severity of COVID-19 without questioning each other’s commitment, courage, or pastoral care. We must remember that the same Scripture that calls us to gather for worship also calls us to accept other Christians amidst our differences (Romans 14:1-12). This, also, is a biblical mandate. So is our love for one another (John 13:34).
Our church will continue to worship outside, at least for the time being. Christ has commanded us to gather, but He said nothing about doing so indoors. So this option enables us to be obedient to Christ while also giving due consideration to the well-being of our neighbors and the edicts of the authorities over us. Again, my heart goes out to churches that do not have this option, and I pray God gives them wisdom to know how to proceed. I will not be quick to judge them, whatever they decide. Although I do not agree with those calling for civil disobedience, my main goal is not to criticize their decisions but to encourage and defend those whose consciences lead them differently.
My concluding appeal is this: let’s be very careful before engaging in civil disobedience. There is a time for it. But it should be a last measure, when conscience absolutely requires it, when no other pathway, however inconvenient, lies available to us by which we can honor both Christ and Caesar. And let us be keenly wary of the danger of lionizing civil disobedience for fleshly reasons.
Christ, not Caesar, is head of the church: and when the two conflict, we must obey Christ. But when we seek to avoid undue defiance of Caesar, we also act in obedience to Christ.