By Brad Littlejohn
“The mixture of those things by speech which by nature are divided, is the mother of all error. To take away therefore that error which confusion breedeth, distinction is requisite. Rightly to distinguish is by conceit of mind to sever things different in nature, and to discern wherein they differ.”—Richard Hooker, Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie III.3.1
“These are the times that try men’s souls.”—Thomas Paine, The American Crisis
The Challenge Before Us
The past few months have not been kind to America or the American church. The coronavirus crisis, it has several times been observed, is surely a divine judgment—not necessarily a divine punishment (although God knows we have sins a-plenty), but a test that lays reality bare, that separates wheat from chaff, that throws into sharp relief the ugly fault-lines at the heart of our politics and churchmanship. And surely one thing this judgment has revealed is the astounding lack of judgment that characterizes so many of our leaders, the astounding absence of wisdom and prudence from our counsels.
While it is fashionable to point the finger at the failures of judgment in politics and media, the church has acquitted itself little better. Back in March, many hoped that the pandemic would provide a rare opportunity for the church to powerfully witness to the watching world: to show what it means to live in freedom from fear, to sacrifice self for neighbor, to pool resources to care for the needy and unemployed, to walk patiently and steadfastly in light of eternity, rather than being tossed to and fro by every gust of the cultural moment. Many churches seized the opportunity to show the love and humility of Christ in a dark time. Many chose a different path.
Last week, Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA, a megachurch pastored by the Baptist leader John MacArthur, put out a statement declaring its intention to defy California health restrictions and resume indoor, in-person worship services; the ongoing pandemic, the church deemed, was of less danger than the creeping threat to religious liberty represented by California’s restrictions. Thankfully, Grace Church’s statement was free of the rancor and resentment that have sadly characterized so much Christian discourse since the pandemic began. With the exception of an ill-conceived Addendum, the elders stuck to theological reasoning and restrained rhetoric. Unfortunately, their unsound reasoning fails to provide useful guidance for churches at this challenging time and constitutes a departure from centuries of magisterial Protestant teaching.
Note that I am not challenging (or not yet, at any rate) their conclusions. I leave open for now the question of whether their determination to resume indoor services is right—I will return to this question toward the end. In times of trial and crisis, however, we are particularly apt to reason in reverse: to begin with a desired conclusion and then construct an argument that will yield it. But the false principles adopted in the process will remain long after the present crisis, continuing to rot away at our teaching and witness. This is truer still if we find ourselves in positions of leadership and prominence, as John MacArthur does. We live in an age almost entirely bereft of sound political theology or thoughtful Christian moral reasoning. Lacking such tools, our preferred method of problem-solving is to follow a prominent Christian leader. There are no doubt thousands of church leaders across this country who will be galvanized to action by the Grace Church statement without pausing to closely consider its reasoning or implications. The results could be ruinous for the American church’s public witness at a time when the church is facing impending attack on many fronts to its freedom and integrity. Rev. MacArthur no doubt believes he is taking a courageous stand. I fear that he is rather a confused shepherd, leading countless sheep straight into the line of fire.
When There is No King in Israel
Before analyzing the Grace Church statement, it’s only fair to acknowledge the well-justified anger and confusion that gave rise to it. Our nation is suffering from a profound vacuum of genuine political leadership; if that wasn’t evident before, it has become painfully clear in recent months. Over and over I have been reminded of the refrain from Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Truly, there are precious few kings in America today, men of wisdom, courage, and discernment who can command loyalty and trust. You won’t find one in the White House, and while there may be a smattering in governor’s mansions and city halls, most of our citizens have become sheep without a shepherd; an army of technocrats and suits who look good on camera are no substitute for leadership. In such a situation, there is little option but for every man to do what is right in his own eyes, and only the most unsympathetic moralist would despise Everyman for getting it wrong sometimes.
Not only that, but our leadership has gone out of its way to forfeit trust at key junctures of the crisis: failing to clearly communicate the virus suppression strategy at the outset (so that people would later complain that leaders were “moving the goalposts”), not merely tolerating but enthusiastically endorsing violations of their own orders so long as these were done in the name of social justice, and enacting a patchwork of confusing and apparently arbitrary and self-serving restrictions that put disproportionate burdens on certain citizens and institutions. Indeed, there is no doubt that our public leaders have demonstrated that, for them, religious worship is just a curious form of private recreation, to be among the first things sacrificed at the altar of public health. California in particular, where Grace Church is located, has imposed particularly onerous restrictions that have justifiably provoked the anger of many faithful Christians. Later on, I will say something in partial defense of some of these policies, in the spirit of Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 127, which calls on us to honor our authorities, “bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.” For now, however, it is important to recognize that people are confused, they are frustrated, they are angry— and they have good reason to be.
Unpacking the Reasoning of Grace Community Church’s Statement
However, doing theology while confused, frustrated, and angry does not often turn out well, and the Grace Church statement is a case in point. Let us first be clear about what the statement does not attempt to do.
It does not attempt to make a constitutional argument that California’s current restrictions on worship constitute an illegitimate violation of the First Amendment (although it does reference the possibility of such an argument in passing). Nor does it attempt to make a narrower legal argument that, while some restrictions might be valid, these particular restrictions are overly burdensome or arbitrarily applied in a way that constitutes an injustice. In either case, this would be a question for jurists, and the proper procedure would be through the courts. If the case were sound and the courts failed to provide redress (as, arguably, the Supreme Court failed last week in Calvary Chapel v. Sisolak), there would then be an important question about the legitimacy of civil disobedience—a question for political theorists and ethicists.
It does not attempt to make a theological or historical argument that would discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate regulations of the life of the church by the civil magistrate. Needless to say, this question has been a subject of long debate and careful, searching arguments throughout church history, and there is a wealth of material and historical precedent available to Grace Church in seeking to know when and where the rights of the church are being unjustly transgressed. It does not attempt to make a prudential argument for why, in the present case, the restrictions are either needless or will do more harm than good (although there is some gesture in this direction in the Addendum). It does not propose criteria whereby Christians in other settings might judge if, when, and where they were faced with similar threats to their God-given rights and responsibilities, and if, when, and where they might be justified in resisting. It does not, in short, make any kind of particularistic argument based on the specific circumstances of the state of California or the current crisis.
Instead, the statement frames its appeal in the most universal of possible terms:
“Christ is Lord of all. He is the one true head of the church (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). He is also King of kings—sovereign over every earthly authority (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14; 19:16). Grace Community Church has always stood immovably on those biblical principles. As His people, we are subject to His will and commands as revealed in Scripture. Therefore we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”
Consider the import of this last line: you are either for Christ or you are against Him. Obedience to Christ requires disobedience to the magistrate. Therefore, all Christians everywhere whose governments interfere with their worship are bound to disobey. Herein lies the great danger. The elders of Grace Church are prepared to elevate their stance on this particular question to the level of a spiritual dictum that would bind the consciences of all Christians. They are prepared to raise a devilishly difficult ethical and political question to the highest level: fidelity to the Word of God. Should their arguments fail to support such a bold conclusion, their pronouncements would amount to a violation of the Third Commandment: invoking the name of God to baptize their private opinions. This is one of the great standing temptations to the modern American church, one to which we have frequently yielded.
Why Sphere Sovereignty Won’t Answer Our Questions
You might think that this is too harsh a reading of the statement. Perhaps they are only seeking to apply the Scriptures to their own particular situation, to give an account of their own actions as an earnest endeavor to show Christian faithfulness in a challenging time. Perhaps they would grant all manner of nuances that might justify other churches in other jurisdictions in acting very differently. If so, however, none of these nuances are evident in their statement. Rhetorically, it is sure to be read as a global call to arms. Let’s consider the theological basis of their argument.
“However, while civil government is invested with divine authority to rule the state, neither of those texts (nor any other) grants civic rulers jurisdiction over the church. God has established three institutions within human society: the family, the state, and the church. Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected. A father’s authority is limited to his own family. Church leaders’ authority (which is delegated to them by Christ) is limited to church matters. And government is specifically tasked with the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community. God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church. The biblical framework limits the authority of each institution to its specific jurisdiction. The church does not have the right to meddle in the affairs of individual families and ignore parental authority. Parents do not have authority to manage civil matters while circumventing government officials. And similarly, government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders.
When any one of the three institutions exceeds the bounds of its jurisdiction it is the duty of the other institutions to curtail that overreach. Therefore, when any government official issues orders regulating worship (such as bans on singing, caps on attendance, or prohibitions against gatherings and services), he steps outside the legitimate bounds of his God-ordained authority as a civic official and arrogates to himself authority that God expressly grants only to the Lord Jesus Christ as sovereign over His Kingdom, which is the church. His rule is mediated to local churches through those pastors and elders who teach His Word (Matthew 16:18–19; 2 Timothy 3:16–4:2).”
The reasoning here at first glance looks compelling. Indeed, it appears to reference a concept that has in recent decades become deeply established in the Reformed and broader evangelical consciousness—Abraham Kuyper’s “sphere sovereignty”—as well as a concept with a longer and more venerable pedigree, Martin Luther’s “three estates.” And indeed, it is undeniable that there is a biblical basis for distinguishing between three different institutions and authorities that regulate our earthly lives—the family, the state, and the church. So far, nearly everyone can agree—from Greek Orthodox to Anabaptist to Dutch Reformed.
However, as soon as we attempt to go a step further and define with any sort of precision the respective limits of each authority, we are on rather shakier ground. Indeed, we might well doubt whether there is any way to define strictly in advance for all times and places the appropriate boundaries of the three institutions. Scripture does not outline such boundaries for us, unless one wishes to become a theonomist and argue that the case law of the Old Testament constitutes a comprehensive and perpetual blueprint for society. Even most theonomists, however, would be forced to acknowledge certain key shifts from Israel to the Church, and from the structure of ancient tribal society to that of a complex modern society. The Roman Catholic Church is prepared to argue that its infallible canons determine and regulate the appropriate boundaries between church and state, but as these claims are based on an authority unaccountable to Scripture, Protestants have uniformly rejected them. (Indeed, the rejection of these boundaries was one of the central features of the Protestant Reformation, to which the Grace Church statement misleadingly appeals for support.)
One reason these boundaries are so difficult to define is that the domains of family, church, and state are not mutually exclusive, as the “sphere” metaphor misleadingly implies. On the contrary, they overlap constantly and in complex ways. True, there is a dimension of the church’s life that is totally independent from the state, and indeed from the family: its ministry of the Word and sacraments, or what the Reformers called the “spiritual government.” Even this, however, becomes subject to the constraints of the “temporal government” as soon as we move from the abstraction of the Word to the concrete human forms of preaching and gathering. Yes, we must worship, but when? How often? For how long? And where will we gather? Will we sing, or chant, or merely speak? Will we use musical instruments, and if so which? Who will preside? Will we celebrate the Eucharist from one cup or many, with one loaf or many wafers? Will we receive it standing or sitting or kneeling? Weekly or quarterly? From one hand or many? On a very few of these questions, we have direct Scriptural guidance that tells us what we must do. On many, we have plausible Scriptural or historical arguments that might incline us in one direction or another. On others, we have nothing to guide us but our discretion, mediated by custom and circumstances.
The Magistrate’s Authority “Around Sacred Things”
These latter two categories, things on which Scripture is inconclusive or entirely silent, the Reformers called adiaphora, “things indifferent;” they considered them part of the “temporal kingdom,” subject to human wisdom rather than divine fiat, variable by time and place rather than universally binding, things pertaining to worship but not in themselves constitutive of worship. Now, in saying these things belonged to the “temporal kingdom” or “temporal government,” the Reformers did not mean that they necessarily belonged to the civil magistrate to decide, although in an era that prized religious uniformity and teetered constantly on the brink of outbreaks of religious violence, many were happy to entrust many such decisions to the magistrate (or at least to seek his authority to confirm and enforce them). Even then, however, many preferred for church leaders to have the freedom to order even these adiaphora according to their own biblically-informed judgment. However, they recognized that, as temporal matters, it was at least possible for them to be subject to the civil magistrate. Accordingly, they developed a standard distinction between the ius in sacris (right in sacred things), which the civil magistrate never possessed, and the ius circa sacra (right around sacred things), which he did possess, at least in principle. Given that the civil magistrate is charged with upholding peace, order, and justice, with protecting life and property, we can quickly see that many cases might arise in which he cannot carry out his task without butting up against “sacred things.”
Let’s consider a few examples, some more obvious, some less. The magistrate cannot ban a minister from preaching the Gospel; but if the minister commits a crime, he may certainly be detained and imprisoned, which may mean that a particular congregation has to go without a preacher for a time. Indeed, he might even be detained and imprisoned for something he says in his preaching, if he was inciting a riot or speaking treason (although these are not things that we worry about nowadays, blessed as we are to live in a time of unprecedented tranquility). The magistrate should not ban the observance of the Eucharist; however, one can imagine (in an earlier era, at least), a society without any domestic wine production whose wine imports were cut off by a trade embargo prompted by crucial national security concerns. In this case, churches might be obliged to alter their eucharistic practices, just as they might be obliged to alter their baptismal practices (or even suspend baptisms altogether) in case of a critical drought that led to strict water conservation regulations. In wartime, if the enemy is conducting nighttime bombing missions, the magistrate might order that all evening worship services be conducted only in candlelight, so as not to present a target, or only in daytime, or perhaps only in rural parishes out of harm’s way. If a church catches fire in the middle of a service, no one would deny that the fire marshal can order the congregants to evacuate. Presumably, we could also all agree that, if the building was damaged, he could declare it unfit for use until extensive repairs were carried out, forbidding the congregation from gathering there for worship until it was fully brought into compliance with safety standards. We might think such compliance onerous, and such codes overly draconian, but in principle this would not be a case of Caesar trying to lord it over Christ. To be sure, if the fire marshal continually refused to grant a certificate of occupancy, no matter what renovations were done, and did this for all the churches in his jurisdiction, month after month, we might suspect that some kind of tyranny or religious persecution was afoot—more on this below. But it should be evident that, despite the church’s authority under Christ to devote itself to worship, every particular church is subject to the civil magistrate’s regulation of that worship insofar as that regulation is an appropriate means toward the pursuit of the magistrate’s God-given ends of maintaining peace, order, and justice, of protecting life and property.
Indeed, the church has historically recognized infectious disease, or “pestilence,” to be one of those times where this authority may need to be invoked. Consider Richard Baxter, writing more than 350 years ago:
Question 109: May we omit church-assemblies on the Lord’s day, if the magistrate forbid them?
Answer: 1. It is one thing to forbid them for a time, upon some special cause, (as infection by pestilence, fire, war, etc.) and another to forbid them statedly or profanely.
2. It is one thing to omit them for a time, and another to do it ordinarily.
3. It is one thing to omit them in formal obedience to the law; and another thing to omit them in prudence, or for necessity, because we cannot keep them.
4. The assembly and the circumstances of the assembly must be distinguished.
(1) If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him. 1. Because positive duties give place to those great natural duties which are their end: so Christ justified himself and his disciples’ violation of the external rest of the sabbath. ‘For the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.’ 2. Because affirmatives bind not ‘ad semper,’ and out-of-season duties become sins. 3. Because one Lord’s day or assembly is not to be preferred before many, which by the omission of that one are like to be obtained….”
It is important to grasp the logic of Baxter’s three reasons here. First, he points out that the duty of public worship is logically preceded, and thus morally superseded, by the demand to protect life. There are times when public safety must take precedence over religious observances, and since the civil magistrate is charged by God with upholding public safety, he can in principle make this call. Second, Baxter points out that there is a fundamental asymmetry between divine commands and divine prohibitions. When God forbids adultery, no conceivable situation or subsequent human command could justify disobeying this prohibition. This command is binding “ad semper”—always. But when God commands us, say, to give to the needy, we are not commanded to be giving at every moment; indeed, that would be impossible. Sometimes we ought not give, if we need to preserve limited resources for other God-given responsibilities. So, if we are commanded by the magistrate to do that which God forbids, we must obey God rather than man. But if we are forbidden by the magistrate, for a time, to do that which God generally commands, we may obey man without disobeying God. Thus, the opposition which Grace Church seeks to create between God and Caesar in this case is misleading and incoherent. Third, Baxter notes that if meeting this Sunday would make it more likely not to be able to meet for many other Sundays, then it is ridiculous to insist on our obligation to gather for worship. That is in fact precisely analogous to our current situation, in which public health directives limiting gathering for a time are intended to enable virus suppression and thus make it easier for us to resume meeting without disruption in the future.
And lest we should be tempted to denounce Baxter as a mere boot-licker of the establishment, we should remember that he was in fact a notorious Dissenter who was ultimately ejected from his pulpit for nonconformity and suffered several stints in prison for his convictions.
The Anabaptist Turn
With all this in mind, it should be apparent that the Grace Church statement makes an unsustainable logical leap when it jumps from the general distinction of family, state, and church authorities to the conclusion: “it has never been the prerogative of civil government to order, modify, forbid, or mandate worship. When, how, and how often the church worships is not subject to Caesar,” and “Therefore, when any government official issues orders regulating worship (such as bans on singing, caps on attendance, or prohibitions against gatherings and services), he steps outside the legitimate bounds of his God-ordained authority as a civic official and arrogates to himself authority that God expressly grants only to the Lord Jesus Christ as sovereign over His Kingdom, which is the church….Jesus drew a sharp distinction between those two kingdoms.”
In fact, something almost as dangerous as Caesar’s tyranny lurks behind this statement. For while Grace Church asserts the sovereignty of the Lord Jesus Christ alone over the church, it goes on to vest this sovereignty in merely human authorities, the pastors and elders: “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).” Pastors and elders have indeed been vested by Christ with spiritual authority, but not with sole jurisdiction over the temporal life of the church; this is shared with the laity, both in the congregation and in positions of civil authority. To assert otherwise is to see the institutional church as itself an autonomous, self-governing temporal institution totally exempt from civil jurisdiction, as first the Roman Catholic Church and then the Anabaptists sought to contend. Although modern Baptist theology differs from 16th-century Anabaptism, there is significant overlap when it comes to ecclesiology, as evident in GCC’s statement, “We teach the autonomy of the local church, free from any external authority or control, with the right of self-government and freedom from the interference of any hierarchy of individuals or organizations.” So we perhaps should not be surprised that it has arrived at Anabaptist conclusions in the present case. However, they are wrong to cloak their conclusions in the guise of the Reformation’s “two kingdoms” doctrine, which was in fact framed in direct rejection of such ecclesiology.
To be clear, there is a time when we must obey Christ rather than Caesar. If Caesar seeks to prevent the Church gathering in any form, indefinitely, we must obey Christ rather than Caesar. If Caesar bans the preaching of the Word and allows only a short list of state-approved doctrines to be taught from the pulpit, we must obey Christ rather than Caesar. If Caesar demands that we refuse to uphold basic natural and biblical morality in our teaching, ministerial qualifications, and church discipline, calling good “evil” and evil “good,” we must obey Christ rather than Caesar. But if none of these things is yet in question, we are certainly not bound to disobey Caesar. By insisting that we are, the leaders of Grace Community Church have themselves stepped well beyond Scripture and historic Protestantism, wrongly binding the consciences of believers and undermining the church’s public witness.
Rights and Wrongs
At this point, the attentive reader of the signs of the times may object: “Very well. You have proved your point that in principle the state of California might prohibit church gatherings for a time, or limit attendance numbers, or require outdoor worship, or even ban singing in worship, as a public health measure in time of pestilence. In principle. But that hardly means that the present regulations are justified or justifiable. And if they are not, do we not have a right to resist?”
To adapt our earlier analogy, what is a church to do if the local fire marshal is imposing strict building codes on churches, but not other entities, and thus unfairly forcing churches to remain closed? What is a church to do if the fire marshal seems to be taking a ridiculously long time to grant a certificate of occupancy, out of a sadistic pleasure in abusing his power or a conscious hatred of the Gospel? At some point, would not the church have the right to defy the authority?
The short answer is “Yes, it might.” If we see orders imposed without any defensible rationale, or regulations that unfairly discriminate against religious organizations and gatherings, or arbitrary and inconsistent enforcement regimes that come down hard on churches while treating other violators with indulgence, all of these might provide grounds for complaint: beginning with respectful remonstrance, escalating to lawsuits, and perhaps concluding with open disobedience. Our Protestant forefathers were understandably nervous about elaborating on such a right of civil disobedience in an era when political authority was fragile, rebellions frequent and violent, and the threat of anarchy more urgent than that of tyranny, but over the centuries, the church has increasingly recognized that unjust laws, or unjust enforcement of laws, may call for some form of civil disobedience.
However, even in cases of serious oppression, we should generally be content to assert such resistance as a legal right, not a spiritual obligation. Since Scripture is silent as to exactly when, where, and how long a magistrate can regulate the temporal aspects of the church’s life, it will be very hard to point to any particular regulation as an abuse that creates a Christian duty to resist. Rather, it will be a judgment call, in which we will have to lean heavily on the standards of justice enshrined in the laws and customs of our society, which will give us some handholds for discerning when regulations are “arbitrary” or “unduly burdensome.” Indeed, even if we do conclude that we are under an oppressive regime that justifies resistance in principle, resistance may not be justified in practice. One must apply something akin to “just war” criteria and ask whether one is likely to do more harm than good by the protest; will you win over your enemies or alienate your friends? Will you overturn oppressive laws or simply provoke an even more oppressive response? These are difficult questions that must always give us great pause before undertaking actions like those of Grace Community Church. Sometimes, of course, all that is needed is someone to take a courageous stand, and tyranny crumbles on the spot. Everyone likes to style themselves the next Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, Jr., but history rarely judges so kindly.
The great difficulty in such cases—and particularly when church leaders assert themselves as the prophets of resistance—is that, in general, the situation calls for far more expertise than merely that of the theologian. One must know a great deal about the legal context, as well as the nature of the public threat that is the rationale for the regulations. One must know about the decision-making process of the authorities and must be able to observe not just what is happening, but what might happen or what would have happened if different policies had been pursued. All of this generally requires knowledge well beyond the pay grade of an elder, pastor, or ordinary citizen. (Indeed, incidentally, this is an excellent argument for the value of denominations; there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors, and folly in any single church’s leadership presuming sufficient wisdom to adjudicate such difficult questions.)
Three Different Arguments for Resistance
The present situation highlights the difficulty of arriving at reliable conclusions about which regulations are warranted, rational, and not arbitrary. Consider: there are perhaps three main grounds on which one might object to California’s current Covid restrictions. First, one might contend that the public health threat is exaggerated and no entity (church or otherwise) ought to labor under such burdensome restrictions as are currently in place. Second, one might grant that there is a serious problem, and restrictions are legitimate in principle, but complain that churches are disproportionately restricted compared to other businesses operating under more limited regulations. Third, one might grant that the legal regulations are perhaps reasonably fair as stated, but that when it comes to enforcement, our governors and mayors seem much more trigger-happy toward churches, synagogues, and funerals, and more indulgent toward Black Lives Matter protestors or other favored groups. Let’s take each ground in turn.
The first line of argument is raised in the ill-considered Addendum to the Grace Church statement. There, they acknowledge that they did initially voluntarily go along with the restrictions out of an abundance of caution, but now the scales have fallen from their eyes:
“When the devastating lockdown began, it was supposed to be a short-term stopgap measure, with the goal to ‘flatten the curve’—meaning they wanted to slow the rate of infection to ensure that hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. And there were horrific projections of death. In light of those factors, our pastors supported the measures by observing the guidelines that were issued for churches….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 is an excellent example of the dangers of church leaders presuming on an expertise that goes beyond their competence as expounders of the Word. They provide no evidence for their assertions that “those original projections of death were wrong” and “the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared.” One can only guess what projections and data they have in mind. There remain many unknowns about the virus, and projections continue to be a matter of complicated guesswork, but to my knowledge, the original projections of the death toll we might have expected without the drastic mitigation measures remain substantially unaltered, and the virus’s death toll in the US has in fact already well outstripped what most projected would happen when we began lockdowns in March. As mitigation measures have bought us time to improve treatments and protect vulnerable populations, the virus has indeed become less dangerous, but underlying estimates of its initial mortality have remained broadly unchanged. The leaders at Grace Church also seem to fail to realize that preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed is not a one-time action but requires ongoing mitigation, and the most cost-effective forms of mitigation are those that keep infection rates from ever getting close to overwhelming levels. Even if one agrees with their contrarian assessment of the public health threat, however, it is worth asking what could make them so confident in their assessment that they are willing to base such a bold act of defiance on it.
It is surely relevant to the epistemic situation to consider that nearly every developed nation on earth has adopted rigorous measures (in many cases, far more rigorous than our own) to suppress the virus and most have endeavored to bring cases to a much lower threshold than we have in the US. Moreover, these draconian policies are not limited to the liberal West, but appear in Communist China, democratic South Korea, and Islamic Saudi Arabia. Perhaps they are all wrong about the seriousness of the virus and the leadership of Grace Community Church is right, but it is difficult to see how one could have enough confidence in this guess to meet the high bar of justifying civil disobedience.
What if the restrictions are unfairly targeted toward churches—the second possible ground of objection? This has indeed been a frequent complaint, with Christians loudly denouncing the hypocrisy of governments that allow abortion clinics, liquor stores, or casinos to open and not churches. This complaint is perhaps more justified. However, in the spirit of Westminster Larger Q. 127, which calls on us to honor our authorities, “bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government,” let me offer a brief defense even of policies that might seem so odious. While abortion clinics are an abomination that should not be open at any time, we live under a legal regime that has long treated them as an essential medical service. As such, there is nothing surprising or arbitrary about them being permitted to remain open alongside other essential medical services; indeed, it would be surprising and arbitrary if the opposite were the case. Liquor stores might seem to be non-essential by any standard; however, our society had a very bad experience the last time it tried to shut down the sales of alcoholic beverages a century ago, and that no doubt informs current policies. If lawful liquor sales were suspended, many alcohol-buying customers would find unlawful ways of acquiring liquor, with consequences probably more dangerous than allowing socially-distanced liquor stores to remain open. Casinos, like abortion clinics, probably should not be legal at all, but if they are, they can make a plausible claim to be able to operate if they can prevent large numbers of people from congregating; in fact, sadly, the most lucrative parts of their business are those which entice individuals to spend hours alone staring at a screen. Gathering in large groups, on the other hand, is almost part of the definition of a worship service. There is no doubt that some statutes, like the Nevada order that was unsuccessfully appealed to the Supreme Court, have been unfair, allowing other types of businesses to open so long as they abide by certain restrictions, while not even providing churches the opportunity to demonstrate that they can abide by those restrictions. But many policies that seem at first unfairly burdensome to churches turn out, on closer inspection, to have at least plausible rationales, and we should be slow to conclude that they are tyrannical or intentionally anti-religious.
What about the final argument, then—that, while perhaps legitimate in principle, the restrictions are being unfairly enforced in practice, so that churches are being held to a higher standard of obedience than other groups? The widespread protests that began in late May dramatically undermined the standing of civil authorities; many not only turned a blind eye to blatant violations of the policies which they had previously strictly enforced, but even praised those who took to the streets. In the face of such apparent hypocrisy, it is not hard to understand the indignation of many churches that have patiently borne burdensome restrictions. Here, too, there is a judgment of charity to be extended to our mealy-mouthed public leaders: the current cultural environment has made it almost impossible to effectively denounce certain forms of “social justice” activism without simply pouring fuel on the fire. Even basic order was hard enough to enforce in late May and early June—much more so stay-at-home orders. However, there is a more fundamental problem with this line of argument, which seems to amount to little more than the angry child’s “Well, she hit me first!” If the social-distancing restrictions are otherwise justified (see 1 and 2 just above), then it is hard to see why churches would want to be exempt from them just because others were wrongly exempted. If there is a genuine public health concern here, then we might be understandably angry that other groups are able to ignore regulations with impunity, but the right course of action would be to call for uniform enforcement, not our own exemption from prudent health measures.
All of that said, I do think that we must insist that our governing authorities recognize that public worship is not merely some curious past-time that folks in flyover country do because they don’t have access to superior brunches. There may be good reasons for curtailing Sunday worship in a public health emergency, but they had better be good reasons, and our leaders should make it a priority to lift them as soon as possible. To the extent that churches and pastors are lodging a protest of this sort, they deserve our loud support.
Legalism and Liberty: Why All This Matters
So, why does all this matter? Why, as some have asked me when I’ve raised concerns, can’t we just allow space for individual Christians and churches to make difficult decisions to try and be faithful in their particular contexts? Well, I would contend, this is precisely what John MacArthur and Grace Community Church have not done. Whether or not they intended to, they framed their particular congregation’s response to a particular set of burdensome regulations as the biblical duty of all Christians in response to any attempt of civil authorities to impose regulations that impinged on the church’s public worship. In so doing, they elevated a difficult prudential question to a gospel issue, tacitly accusing the thousands of pastors who formed different judgments in different circumstances of cowardice and unfaithfulness. Again, perhaps this is not what they meant to do. But this is what their words did, from a very prominent pulpit, and they should own the consequences. This is the most significant issue, and it is one that I focused on in Part I of this essay.
There are other concerns, of course. Inasmuch as this is a prudential issue, we have to weigh the important benefits of resuming ordinary public worship with the real concerns over the health and lives of our brothers and sisters and neighbors. Even those relatively unconcerned about the virus need to be sufficiently aware of their context to realize that being seen to flout restrictions and precautions could permanently damage their local witness. And those who are so loudly blowing the trumpet of religious liberty need to be able to look more than a week or a month down the road to see the real threat to our Christian freedom. Especially given the recent Bostock Supreme Court decision, we may not be far off at all from the day when public officials, claiming a grave danger to the mental health of gay and transgender people, demand that churches cease their discriminatory teaching, hiring, and church discipline practices. When we, faced with such an unacceptable demand, insist that it is in fact our religious obligation not to budge, how will they respond? “Oh, just like it was your religious obligation to gather in crowds of 1000 and sing, whatever the risks to public health?” Surely, we cannot be so short-sighted. If we abuse our liberty now, we may not have the opportunity to use it later.
Throughout the past few months, I have been constantly reminded of a remarkable letter that the Swiss Reformed leader Heinrich Bullinger wrote during the height of the Elizabethan Vestiarian Controversy in 1566. This dispute, arcane and silly to our modern eyes, but deadly serious then, concerned the Crown’s right to insist that all Church of England ministers wear certain vestments when presiding at services. When asked by dissenting ministers what he thought of this intolerable affront to Christian liberty, Bullinger offered a threefold response. First, he said, this was clearly not what we would call “a gospel issue”; it was rather a question of adiaphora, of “a mere civil thing,” in his words. So it was at least in principle subject to civil authority; indeed, to say otherwise, he thought, would be Romish or Anabaptist. Second, however, did he himself think the cause was good in this case, or that ministers should be obliged against their will? Probably not, he conceded. He wished that the bishops would leave more room for conscientious nonconformity. Third, however, he did not recommend civil disobedience. Why? Because in his circumstances, it would be imprudent; by setting themselves up to be deprived of their positions, faithful ministers would simply bring the churches into greater bondage: “Do you set your churches at liberty, when you minister the occasion to oppress them with more and with greater burdens?” Save your ammo for another fight, he counseled. And whatever you do, do not insist that all other Christians do likewise: that way lies legalism, not Christian liberty.
So it is in our own crisis. By rashly insisting that we are duty-bound to assert our liberty, we find ourselves not the prophets of liberty, but new Pharisees, adding fresh burdens beyond what Scripture will bear. Perhaps it is time, as Hooker warned the neo-Pharisees of his day, “to reconsider your previous actions and to re-evaluate the cause you have taken in hand, to examine it point by point and argument by argument with all the diligent precision you can muster, putting aside the gall of bitterness which has filled your minds and searching out the truth with humility. Consider that you are but men and that it is not impossible for you to err. Impartially sift your hearts, and see whether your opinions have been fed by force of argument or unchecked passion. If truth is anywhere manifest, do not smother her with flattering delusions, but acknowledge her greatness and think it your best victory even when she triumphs over you.” (Laws, Preface.9.1)
And what about in the meantime? “In the meantime, shall there be no doings? Hardly! There are the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Mt. 23:23). These things we ought to do; and these things, while we contend about less, we leave undone. Happy those whom the Lord comes and finds doing them instead of quarreling about doctors, elders, and deacons” (Laws II.8.1)—or, we might say, about masks, social distancing, and occupancy limits.
May the Lord grant us all wisdom and faithfulness during this trial.
Note: This post has been slightly edited to clarify GCC’s relationship to the Reformed Baptist and Anabaptist traditions.