After President Trump declared houses of worship to be “essential” last month, Christian evangelist and pastor John MacArthur joyfully announced that full, normal services would resume at his Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California.
“In the response to the leadership of our president, we’re gonna go to church,” he said, adding “We’re going to sing our hearts out.” Communion would be observed as well, in a “thoughtful and careful” way.
That all changed with a ruling from the 9th Circuit, which struck down the exception for religious gatherings to Governor Newsom’s stay-at-home-order. While churches in California are now technically allowed to unlock their doors at 25% capacity per Governor Newsom’s revised orders, as of this writing, MacArthur’s church still has not announced plans for in-person gatherings on campus.
He and the other elders of Grace Community submitted to the Court’s authority and have not yet worked out how to open in compliance with the new rules. Grace Community Church’s May 23 press release reads: “Even so, for now, the Ninth Circuit decision is sadly the law of the land in California, and we gladly submit to the sovereign purposes of God.”
MacArthur is a wonderful faithful brother in Christ whose work has won many souls for the Kingdom of God. His influence can sway thousands of other pastors on any given issue. Given this, MacArthur’s off-cited “proof text” of Romans 13 and other relevant passages regarding God’s commandments and submission to civil authorities demand examination, not assumptions, so that church elders can properly discern whether they must leave their re-openings in the hands of the state instead or to make their own plans to ensure both obedience to God’s commands and the safety of their flock.
Romans 13 is the go-to passage for MacArthur and many other Christians who believe the civil authorities must be submitted to in everything. It explains that the governing authorities are appointed by God and His servants “for your good”:
Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13: 2-4)
John MacArthur interprets this passage and a similar text in 1 Peter 2 is complete obedience of Christians to all government authorities except when the state explicitly targets Christians for persecution. So, mission work in places where Christians are persecuted directly for their faith is righteous, but since the bans on gatherings are “for greater societal good,” as he argues, and not “the persecution of Christianity,” Christians must submit to the rules.
Now, I’m not a pastor, nor a Biblical scholar, but this application requires a leap of logic.
In MacArthur’s May 17 “Notes of Faith,” he infers this distinction between rules for the general welfare and rules targeting Christians from Acts 5:27-29, where Peter, having been charged strictly not to preach in Jesus’ name, tells the Sanhedrin that “we must obey God rather than men.”
Yet, the fact that Peter was rejecting an order directed specifically at stopping the spread of the gospel does not in any way imply that Christians don’t have to meet together (Hebrews 10:24-25) or partake of the Lord’s supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), as long as the government has some other goal in mind besides persecuting the faith.
Indeed, where is the distinction anywhere in Scripture that indicates our obligation to obey God’s commands is completely dependent on someone else’s motives for preventing that obedience?
Like the Great Commission’s command to “go into all the world and make disciples of all nations,” (which missionaries fulfill and MacArthur blesses), the command for believers to meet together is explicit in the New Testament.
The author of Hebrews tells us we must “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
If sending Bibles to North Korea and missionaries to China is righteous, how is violating government orders to obey God’s commands inherently unrighteous, if done in a health-conscious manner? Indeed, how are we to “make disciples of all nations” if we refuse to meet together for that very discipleship? Are Zoom meetings truly an adequate substitute for bible study groups? For how long?
Just as with shepherding a flock of actual sheep, when it comes to shepherding a church, discretion is required in. Elders aren’t in error for temporarily halting their in-person services so as not to seriously sicken attendants. Such an instance would not be “neglecting” to meet together, but deliberately pausing it out of imminent concern for physical health. They are not required to do so, however, simply because the government tells them they must. But by MacArthur’s logic, if the government permanently banned “non-essential” gatherings over 10 people to slow the spread of disease, Christians would have to give up church, since the moratorium would be for the “greater good” of society.
By what standard, however, do we measure God’s laws against man’s laws? Why are some deemed subordinate to man’s laws—such as gathering in church—but others, such as the Great Commission, are considered sacrosanct and supreme?
These biblical mandates aren’t mere suggestions. It follows then that should all need to see clear scriptural evidence that certain conditions oblige us to violate explicit commands of God out of deference; not to some other higher moral obligation like “loving thy neighbor,” but to earthly authority.
Because Paul says authorities are appointed by God to punish “those who do wrong,” MacArthur’s argument becomes even shakier.
As Phoenix pastor Robb Brunansky recently explained, if the authorities can never be disobeyed (except, as MacArthur argues, when it targets Christians), then all these Biblical mandates: communion, preaching the Word, corporate worship, laying on hands, baptizing, meeting together, must be categorized as wrongdoing.
After all, if the authorities say meeting for church is wrongdoing, and the Bible tells us their punishments are exacted on the wrongdoer, then meeting together would necessarily fall into that category. And if it doesn’t, if it’s clear the authorities are sinning against God in their demands, then why should we feel obligated to comply?
Rejecting the supremacy of governors’ orders over church-life doesn’t mean we throw caution to the wind. Wearing masks may well be prudent, as well as spacing out the seating in the sanctuary, and sanitizing the nursery sign-in screen.
Pastors must look after the physical wellbeing of their flock, but the ultimate authority on when and how churches meet is not the government. These decisions should be made by church leaders, prayerfully, and in accordance with Scripture and the leadings of the Holy Spirit. Whatever happens, His will for us is to trust and obey. The rest is in His hands.