Grace Community Church, pastored by John MacArthur, has issued a public statement which explains their refusal to comply with a California ban on the assembling of church services. The statement is titled Christ, not Ceasar, is Head of the Church and can be found here. As someone who has benefited from MacArthur’s writings over the years, I had been wondering what Grace would do when I heard about this ban. Below are a few observations.
This is a significant statement for a number of reasons. The first is that the senior pastor of Grace is a well known Christian who has held to orthodox Christianity through a number of decades and has seen his share of theological controversies. The second is that the statement was clearly planned and crafted by the eldership of the church with the intent of presenting a clear and compelling biblical case for their decision. And lastly, it is significant because it was issued publicly, is live on their website, and contains a link that allows people to sign their agreement that a church’s ability to gather is not dependent on government permission. The influence that God has given to MacArthur and to Grace through their writings, radio ministry, seminary, conferences, and example means that this decision will be known and discussed by many people.
The statement, while not bombastic or inflammatory, is clearly written as an act of public defiance towards the State’s order. So call it a theological statement or an act of civil disobedience, the intent is to show that Caesar and Christ cannot be simultaneously obeyed in this particular instance. To obey Caesar would be to disobey Christ. The sub heading of the statement reads “A Biblical Case for the Church to Remain Open”. So it is a statement that definitively says something and what it says is in defiance of civil government.
The statement takes great pains to point out that this is not, in the strict sense, a political statement, even though it has political ramifications. Grace is not appealing to any government law or document but to the commands of Christ. As such they are not framing this in terms of civil liberties or Constitutional rights. I have been following various responses to the government restrictions on churches over the last several months and there is a difference between the approach of a postmillenialist versus a dispensationalist. The post-millenialist is seeking to usher in the kingdom via the Church while the dispensationalist believes that only Christ can bring the kingdom. Grace stays true to their dispensational theology in that they maintain a strict distinction between the laws governing the Church and the laws governing a nation. I believe this is why they have not bothered at a church level to address the legislative actions of the state of California but have decided to obey the law of Christ (as they see it) and to suffer whatever legal consequences come their way. Personally, I think that churches may also pursue a legislative solution as has happened in Michigan and now also California. But if the courts side with the State, as happened recently in Nevada, the churches must then still decide whether to obey Caesar or Christ.
One element that I am very appreciative of in the statement is the clear distinction they draw between the different spheres of government (family, civil, and church) and that each of these has a boundary. “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.” This is an example of the kind of clear thinking that so many of us have appreciated about their ministries over the years. But because Grace has generally been very consistent in their teachings regarding obedience to the civil magistrate, there has been a question about why this issue is different and why, after initially closing per the government mandate earlier in the year, they have no decided to defy the order. An addendum has since been issued to explain the change, and this is probably the part that would most likely receive an accusation of being political.
The reason for the change is that Grace had never consented to the intrusion of government into their Ecclesiastic affairs, but that part of their affairs includes a concern for the well being of people. As such, they voluntarily ceased gathering as a temporary means to contain the spread of the virus, but since that time the projections have been so erroneous and the restrictions so endless that it is time to assert their right to open. Because we live in a politicized world, approaches to the virus have largely split down party lines. The political left seems determined to ensure that it continues to dominate the news and be a big deal while the political right wants to open up and move on with life. Since Grace’s perspective aligns with the political right, and since Evangelicalism has often aligned with the Republican party, there will probably be accusations that this is a political move rather than an ecclesiastical decision. That type of criticism is unavoidable in the current climate.
There are (at least) three responses to this statement that revolve around the issues of authority and wisdom. 1) This is NOT a gospel issue and as such Grace has no biblical right to defy the order (No Authority). 2) This IS a gospel issue but due to public health Grace should not gather but should follow the prevailing wisdom (Authority but not Wisdom), 3) This IS a gospel issue and Grace is right to evaluate the risk with the wisdom which God has given to them (Authority and Wisdom).
In a 2018 interview on Ben Shapiro’s Sunday Morning Special, MacArthur makes the following statement regarding civil disobedience: “An illustration in the New Testament: the apostles go out, they preach Christ, and the Jews arrest them and say stop. And so they said, ‘You judge whether we obey God or men.’ And they went right back out to preach Christ. Freedom of speech, for us, is freedom to preach the truth of Christ, even when the society says that’s against the law. And then, you don’t get an army. You go to jail. They went to jail, they took the consequences.” The only quibble I have with this statement is that many of them did NOT go to jail, or they broke out of jail. Paul escaped the hands of the authorities on multiple occasions and Peter was broke out by an angel. But the point remains: one must obey God rather than men. So what is the boundary of a “gospel issue?” Many have argued that since churches can continue to broadcast services online that there is no gospel issue. I think that is an overly narrow way of defining a gospel issue and I support the view that requiring churches not to sing or to not gather is an infringement on the church’s authority.
For the sake of time I will not address the wisdom of this decision. I have written a lot about Covid-19 and the issues surrounding it. Knowing the ministry of Grace, I am willing to be charitable in my assessment that this decision was carefully weighed and the issues of spiritual well-being versus the dangers of the virus were discussed at length.
On the whole, I find myself in agreement with Grace’s position and am glad that a prominent, biblically faithful church has taken this stance.