California has experienced a huge surge of COVID-19 cases in the past month or so. In response they have placed further restrictions on gatherings and businesses, including restricting churches with capacity limits and no singing.
On Friday, California pastor John MacArthur, with his elders, posted this piece saying they “respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction, and faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services.”
First, I want to commend MacArthur and his team. Not enough churches engage in civil disobedience against the government, oftentimes letting political interests tempt churches into compromising their core values and commitments.
It was refreshing to see a large, conservative church say once again that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, and to reclaim the sense that the Church is fundamentally opposed to the ways that government and politicians do things, especially when they will obviously receive the scorn of a watching world and local government for the sake of their convictions. However…
Good Faith, Bad Faith, Insecure Faith
I really want to avoid whataboutism throughout this piece; yet, one cannot look at MacArthur’s letter without some confusion. This is a church and denomination that has given themselves so totally to one party in our political system, they have little integrity in saying they are now following Christ, not Caesar.
Their opposition to Caesar seems highly selective and self-serving to their own interests. There is nothing “hard”, “counter cultural”, or “courageous” here, as it virtue signals to their own comfortable political culture who will undoubtedly rally around them. This was not the hard, narrow path, but the broad easy one.
But there’s a deeper, more spiritual problem here. Their letter reeks of anxiety and insecurity: that their church, their finances, and the work of Christ are so fragile that they might fail and falter if this particular church does not meet in this specific time, place, and manner.
It betrays a fear of smallness and being humbled in the face of a pandemic and economic downturn. Rather than ask the hard question of why their hearts are so scared of smaller expressions of their church, and rather than humbly accepting the guidance of experts outside themselves, MacArthur and his church want to feel big again in the face of what they cannot control.
So why can’t they let go of the bigness? What makes their service so important that people must be put in danger? What is lost if they do smaller house churches or meet outside? Why is John MacArthur so important in the scope of eternity that this is the hill for him to die on?
I cannot know for sure what is going on in their hearts and minds. Forgive any sense of presumption on my part. But the sense I get, reading the letter, was not that a group of men and women studied the Scriptures and then came to this conclusion. Instead it feels like they didn’t like the restrictions and they went and found reasons that might support their rage.
But even those fall far short of clear, helpful wisdom and courage in this time.
Where they go wrong
I take seriously the idea of the Christian conscience, in which different churches, leaders, and individuals can come to different conclusions on different issues. However, I intentionally say they are “wrong” in this, because there are too many arguments offered in this letter that MacArthur must know are facile, weak, out-of-context, and over-reactive.
Theological Problems: Domains of Authority
To make their point, MacArthur delineates three spheres of human life–the family, the Church, and the State–and says that government orders like this exceed the jurisdictions of their civil “sphere” and are no longer legitimate.
Yet I’m sure they agree that each of these spheres overlap at certain points. Parents govern the family, yet the churches and the State can step in and exert discipline in times of abuse, conflict, abandonment, need, etc. Once a church incorporates, has property, and accepts tax breaks they are willingly submitting themselves in certain areas to the authority of the State. They must follow safety, tax, and labor laws, for example.
These regulations are not overstepping God-ordained bounds. The State has a responsibility to seek the welfare, flourishing, and protection of the people in their sphere. When a pandemic threatens the lives of those people, then the State is exercising its own rightful authority when it places limitations on churches.
Theological Problems: Church and Worship
They also appeal to a smattering of commands for God’s people to gather, sing, and love each other, and conclude that following these restrictions would mean disobeying such commands.
The only “gathering” command they cite is Hebrews 10.25, but the kind of “gathering” it’s talking about is any place Christians may encourage and spur one another to love and good works. You don’t need a 12,000 person gathering to do that!
Scripture never commands a certain number of people to gather at once, and there’s nothing that limits the church being the church in these regulations, albeit in creative ways. They can gather outside, sing in home-based worship times, serve the poor, listen to sermons, encourage one another, and gather in small groups (which is the historical and global norm for Christians anyway).
False Historical Equivalency
MacArthur compares this moment to great historical persecutions of the Christian Church and restrictions on Christian belief and practice. They point out times when governments have been allowed to overly-define and regulate certain practices and how those churches have lost their cultural distinctiveness.
But there is nothing about the specifically religious content or category of these acts that has brought about these regulations; no one can gather and sing in the way a 12,000-person church would. Unlike those historical examples, California is not regulating specifically religious acts as religious acts, and it is for a clear, temporary, needed reason for which the State has a real public interest.
Further, global and historical precedents abound here, where in times of war, plague, natural disaster, and upheaval churches happily complied with temporary government orders to not meet in some way.
There is literally no identifying marker of the Christian family that is prevented or limited in principle by these local regulations–just, temporarily, the “bigness” and precise location of them. That is hardly persecution.
Wisdom and Mission
In the midst of California getting its worst COVID-19 outbreak and death numbers, here is what MacArthur says:
Scripture says [Satan is] “the ruler of this world,” meaning he wields power and influence through this world’s political systems…. [G]overnment 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.
What? This is the most dangerous biblical interpretation in their whole piece. They give the most self-justifying argument for any church to have carte blanche in thinking the Holy Spirit told them “the truth” about any thing out there, no matter how dangerous or unlawful, and disregard such regulations and laws. There is no limiting principle here.
They ignore the history of common grace and God’s work through science and medicine, and say that they can decide when a government is “lying” about statistics and public health and can ignore such things freely. They thus overstep their own “sphere” of knowledge and authority into public health and do things that can be a severe harm, not only to their own people, but to the community as a whole.
This is an opportunity to live out our missionary call and model what it means to be good citizens. Even if they are right and the fears are overblown, should not every church be eager to err on the side of loving one’s neighbor, even to our own detriment, to ensure others get to live and flourish, whether they are our people or not?
A watching, skeptical world does not look at this as an act of bravery, fidelity, love, and self-sacrifice but as reckless, self-serving, political, and containing such a profound disregard for the good of the city and communities around MacArthur’s church. It is hardly the servant-leading missionary heart that Christ would have for his people.
And in the end, that is the tragedy here that should be top of mind for them. Even if the public health concerns are overblown, even if the progressive California government is too quick and happy to limit religious gatherings, MacArthur’s letter and decision to meet in defiance of orders puts his whole community in danger and misrepresents the heart of Christ, who willingly laid aside his own interests–even his lawful interests–for the sake of the people around him.
MacArthur purports to care about that. I only wish his leadership of his community would exemplify it.