John MacArthur is never one to shy away from controversy. Throughout his long ministry he has spoken out on a number of thorny issues. He has attracted both admiration from his supporters and derision from his opponents. Most recently, he has sparked a debate in the US by deciding the time has come to restart fully-gathered church worship, disregarding the state-imposed lockdown restrictions enacted because of the Covid-19 crisis.
MacArthur together with the elders of his church – Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California – issued a statement in late July saying the congregation will return to regular worship services. And indeed, that is what they have done. To them, it is a matter of obeying Christ rather than Caesar
But other US evangelicals, while sympathising with the principle, question whether this is the right judgment to make. They have argued that there are other ways for the church to meet for worship without breaking the law. The debate has reached the national broadcast media, with MacArthur appearing on Fox News to defend his church’s action.
In the church’s statement, which I recommend reading in full, MacArthur and the elders of Grace Community Church say, ‘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.’
While the statement affirms the duty of Christians to obey the governing authorities, it insists the state has no authority 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,’ says the statement. It added, ‘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.’
The statement continues, ‘Therefore, in response to the recent state order requiring churches in California to limit or suspend all meetings indefinitely, we, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, 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.’
The statement issued by Grace Community Church carries an addendum in which it says the church used its own authority to, initially, stop meeting for worship because, in those early days, no one was sure how severe the pandemic would be. Also, the lockdown was supposed to be temporary. But now the church has concluded, says the statement, ‘the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared’ and yet government officials are signalling they ‘are preparing to keep restrictions in place into next year and beyond’.
The statement has been sent to all pastors who have attended the Shepherd’s Conference. Grace Community Church is also encouraging people to sign up to affirm the statement and ‘Stand with us in support of the biblical mandate to gather for corporate worship’. Some people have interpreted that to mean Grace Community Church is calling upon all churches to gather and insinuating that those who don’t are sinning.
But the leaders of Grace Community Church say that’s not the case. In clarifying its position, the church affirms it is a sin for a church to cede any authority to the state which rightly belongs to Christ. And any church that has done so must repent before God. However, they make clear, any church may independently and voluntarily take such action as is recommended by the state. That is not a sin, so long as the church is using its own authority and judgment, not ceding that authority to the state.
The statement and the actions taken by Grace Community Church has attracted much discussion and some rebuttals from other evangelical leaders. Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman debated the matter on their podcast, ‘Pastors Talk’. Dever is the Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C., and Leeman is the Editorial Director of 9Marks and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, Maryland.
Writing after their podcast discussion, Leeman said the MacArthur statement was a wonderful affirmation of Christ’s lordship. And he said, ‘Pastors do well to learn from MacArthur’s example of courage.’ But he added, ‘civil disobedience may not be the only legitimate or moral course of action at this moment.’ Leeman said, ‘First, it’s true that MacArthur’s church cannot meet, but Christ’s church can meet. Right now, members of his church can meet outdoors. There is nothing sacrosanct about the particular and present forms of our congregations.’
Leeman went on, ‘Christians have long worked to accommodate government restrictions on gatherings, both when those requirements have seemed fair and when they don’t. Churches in coastal cities during World War Two accommodated evening black-out requirements in case enemy planes hit the coasts.’
Leeman also questioned whether this was really the right issue to defy the government over, especially because there may be some bigger religious liberty battles ahead, not least with the LGBT agenda. ‘Do we want to spend down our capital on pandemics?’ he asks. He also questions MacArthur’s assertion that there are strict lines separating the jurisdictions of church, state, and family. He says those jurisdictional circles may, to some extent, overlap.
For example, Leeman says, it is right to say governments shouldn’t interfere with family life, but what about cases of abuse? Shouldn’t the state step in to protect a child in those circumstances? Therefore, he says, one could argue it is legitimate for the state to step in and order churches to shut down during a pandemic for the preservation of life.
Leeman says he is sympathetic with Grace Community’s concern about the indefinite elongation of the lockdown restrictions. And he stresses that he doesn’t want to condemn or judge MacArthur. He says, ‘My goal is to open up a little space of Christian freedom for other churches to make different judgments, and then to encourage all of us to exercise patience and charity with one another and our churches as we make different decisions.’
Phil Johnson, Executive Director of Grace to You – which promotes John MacArthur’s teaching ministry – answered those who asked why Grace Community Church can’t just meet outside. He said only a portion of the congregation would be able to meet that way, plus the heat of California could risk the health of elderly members more than the virus. And above all, says Johnson, the state has no authority over the church.
Johnson also questioned the consistency of Jonathan Leeman’s argument. In a tweet, Johnson asked why Leeman had been happy to promote and participate in a Black Lives Matter-themed mass protest, yet seemed troubled by a church gathering for worship. Leeman responded, saying he does not support the BLM organisation, but wanted to affirm that black people are made in God’s image. Leeman also said his article was not a warning against gatherings per se, just a reminder of Christian freedom.
No doubt this debate will continue. And it may even get awkward and uncomfortable. But it is an essential debate to have, because most people on all sides of this controversy agree on this one thing: there are some really important religious liberty issues to come, and we’d better get our thinking straight: will we obey Christ or Caesar?
Mike Judge is editor and a director of ET, and pastor of Chorlton Evangelical Church, Manchester.