Thoughts on Grace Community Church’s Decision to Remain Open

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.

The Indestructible Community

A little less than 2,000 years ago in Palestine, a new community was born from the mixed clay of Jew and Greek, bond and free, rich and poor. Against all odds, that community exists today in very similar form to what it looked like in Acts 2:42ff. Prematurely, philosophers of the 20th century declared the death of God, only to die themselves while He lives on. The demise of Christ’s community is also prophesied by many, and yet as our community of Christ gatherers met together yesterday I am pleased to announce that many flags of this world will fall in tatters to the ground before the cross of Christ ceases to be raised.

gray cross near tall green trees

Soldiers form tight knit bonds based on survival. Clubs form friendships based on common interests or even social status. Political parties adhere based on a shared philosophy of government. But the Church has outlasted armies, clubs, and governments. Rather, the church has conquered them! For our soldiers go to war accompanied by chaplains and prayers. Our taxes are paid with bills stating In God We Trust. And our clubs meet together because it is the self-evident truth that God has made mankind in His image.

The Church has not walked through fire and flood because its members longed to survive, but because so many gave their lives willingly. The church has not grown under the benevolence of any single form of government, but under tyranny and totalitarianism as well as democracy and republic. The Church fits no single demographic but declares all men (and women) equally image bearers of their creator, and all the redeemed to be co-inheritors of the grace of God.

How has this happened? What binds a community together in such a way that it stays the same while the world around changes? In Acts 2:42, we see that the early believers “continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship…” The deeper a shared body of truth, the more fast the bonds will hold in any given community. Living in the divided States of America, we see that there is a huge battle over the narrative of our nation. What does it mean to be American? While a nation can tolerate a pretty large diversity of opinions and still manage to cohere, there must be some body of truth that everyone holds to be, as our founders put it, self evident. This is no longer the case in America (perhaps more about that another time) and so we live in a divided nation.

But the body of Truth held by the Church remains unchanged since the teaching of the apostles. No new teaching are needed except the old teachings, which only need to be recovered from the dust of neglect, as in the case of the Reformation, or from the abuse of a self-serving “priesthood”, as in the case of – again – the Reformation. But if an apostle of Jesus Christ showed up at your church today, he ought not hear anything new. The world is always chasing after the novel and thereby loses its identity. The Church delivers the same message it has received and thereby retains its identity.

The early church also devoted itself to fellowship, that word that has about it the scent of fried chicken in our fellowship halls. But the word goes deeper than that and points to a sort of partnership, as though the fortunes of one are tied to the fortunes of all. There is a mutuality in the church, and this mutuality defies the demographic units that the pollsters and the media and the politicians like to divide everyone up into. The Church weeps with those who weep, and rejoices with those who rejoice.

I believe that a hundred years from now the community of Christ will still be going strong – minus some of the weirdness we have added to it in my lifetime. That which cannot be shaken will remain and that which can be shaken will disappear.  I hope in a 100 years the distorted emphasis on music is gone. That is, I hope we recover the reality that a church that does not sing well but loves the Lord is infinitely more pleasing to Him than a church that sings well (or has a few people on stage who sing well) but is filled with a crowd instead of disciples. I hope we look back at this era of Christianity and lament how we chopped families up into age groups when they got to church, especially considering that there are few places left in society where the family is allowed to be together. I hope we shake our heads at our foolishness in thinking that churches needed to be fun and exciting at the expense of being truthful and joyful. I hope the community of Christ in 100 years shakes their heads at our foolishness in thinking that some sort of formula could be more effective than the gospel of Jesus Christ in transforming lives. And I hope you see by these critiques (whether you agree with them or not) that to the love the Church is not to overlook her faults, but to desire Her purity and beauty.

The Certainty of Faith

We are living in uncertain times. Daily updates regarding the economy, Covid-19, politics, and social issues not only threaten to overwhelm us, they frequently conflict with one another. It’s not uncommon for people to just give up trying to sort it all out. This in itself creates tension in the human soul because we long for certainty. We want to know, and if we can’t know, we want a probability percentage, ie “What are my odds, doctor?”

man jumping on rock formation

Wiser men than I have explored the question of how we know what we know. The philosophical term is epistemology, which sounds kind of like something you yell at an umpire when he makes a bad call. In our day the question goes largely ignored because we have fallen under the enchantment of science. Rather, we have fallen under the enchantment of scientism, which is a religion instead of a discipline.

Science gives us the impression of being firm under our feet when in reality it is like a ship’s deck as it hovers over the waves. Faith is like the good brown dirt of solid ground beneath our feet. Of course, good solid earth may not seem quite so unshakeable during an earthquake, so even this metaphor falls short. But it’s a start.

Covid-19 has shown us the true nature of science, which divorced from a larger theological framework really is just a matter of probability. Based on the amount of time this virus has been around, we don’t know what to do with it. The unknowns, despite the clamor of those who are holding to the politically correct narrative, are overwhelming. How does it transmit? We don’t know. Can children transmit it? We don’t know. Does this drug or that drug help? We don’t know. Is isolation better or is developing a herd immunity better? We don’t know. So what we think we know for certain today may change drastically moving forward based on our observations. We are basing what we “know” about Covid-19 on what we have seen it do up until now, but it’s possible there are larger patterns that we are missing because we have only observed it for a short time.

So let’s apply that same principle to the motion of the sun. We say “it’s as certain as the sunrise”. How certain is the sunrise? What if the 6000 years of recorded human history we have has been part of a much larger pattern and tomorrow, the sun will suddenly behave in a complete “new” way. That would probably end up killing the human race, but it’s possible. How probable? Well, now we’re not talking about certainty anymore; we’re talking about probability.

The things that science claims to know for certain are actually basic things that people have always known, plus a few things. It’s very convenient for me that medical science figured out that leeching is not always the best method of treating an illness, but there’s no doubt that people always knew the difference between being healthy and being sick. The things that “science” gets wrong are the new things. Climate change is clearly happening; it is clearly changing so rapidly that every prediction scientists have made has been wrong. And not wrong by a smidge, but by a smodge (this is a new word I made up that rhymes with smidge. It means a lot).

The old traditions knew of the sun and the moon and stars. And the old pagans were more reasonable than our modern scientists, who think that repetition is somehow a self-sustaining reason for the sun to come up in the morning. Personally, I think it makes more sense that a Titan is pulling it behind his chariot; blind process resulting in harmonious order is a lot less likely. The pagan knew in his bones that someone was dragging the sun up every morning, so when Christianity came along and the light of Truth shone on them, paganism gave way to Christianity. In that way Christianity is closer to paganism than the modern world, because in the modern world men no longer know how to know: we have anchored our thoughts to a tornado and wonder why we are so anxious.

In the end, probability can never approach the certainty of faith. If you are ever going to know something for certain, then you are going to have to know it by faith. And because the modern world doesn’t understand this principle, we cannot be reasonable about Covid-19. If I know that the sun hangs in the heavens at the command of Almighty God, then I have some footing for addressing a virus. It does not bother me that there was a day when the sun stood still (Joshua 10:13), and if it did so tomorrow I would know that there is Someone beyond the sun up to something that probably doesn’t concern me. But if I believe that the sun only comes up in the morning because it always has, then I have no idea what to do with a virus that has never come up before.

Does it matter what we believe? Of course it does, and that is a book well worth reading. But until men rediscover the faculty and reality of faith in a world that derides it, we will never know what it means to know. In the end, the words of God by the prophet Isaiah come ringing down the ages to the children of the 21st century:

If you are not firm in faith,
    you will not be firm at all


Have you been feeling tired lately? I joke that I’ve been tired for the last 6 and half years, which is the age of my eldest. Parenting will no doubt wear you out, but so will change. Change is exhausting.

pug covered with blanket on bedspread

When I started my current job in March of 2017, I was coming off of an eight year run at my last employer where I pretty much did the same thing every day. I had beat my mind and body into subjection of the routine that my life demanded to the point where very little thought was needed to go through the day. Like all jobs, there were occasionally stressful situation. But the daily grind had wore down the bumps to the occasional jolt instead of an incessant rattle.

I started my new job at a youthful 36 years of age. I was in the same industry and had a mentor to show me the ropes. Nevertheless, the change was draining. My entire workflow had changed and my mind and my body needed time to adjust. At one point I remember telling my wife that it would be 18 months before I could even tell if I was doing a good job or not. That turned out to be an accurate prediction.

Call it routine or habit, but don’t disregard it. Routine sounds as boring as orthodoxy, but both are indispensable. Imagine doing everything in your day as if it was your first time. First time operating the Ninja coffee maker. First time getting the temperature right in your shower. First time driving. The concentration needed would sap your energy to the point you would flop into bed at 6PM, only to have to think about the best way to arrange the pillows for sleep comfort!

Of course routines are a double-edged sword in that good habits yield good things and bad habits yield bad things. But no one should doubt the necessity and the power of routine.

So when we had to cancel our church gatherings, the move to online Bible studies, Zoom meeting, Youtube, etc… was a definitive break in my routine. Over the last 15 years of pastoring, I am typically absent 1-2 Sundays at most during the year. Sunday is my busiest day and certainly the most draining. My expectation was that without the pressure of sermon preparation and delivery, Sunday would be relaxing. Not so, my friends. The new “skillset” required for pastoring changed overnight.

But even beyond that somewhat predictable energy drain was another phenomenon that proves the power of routine. Sunday (for me) has an emotional flow. In the morning I am focused and purposeful, which culminates in a couple of intense hours of interpersonal activity, leading to a time of meditation (ok, call it a nap if you like!) in the afternoon. And then on Sunday evening I sometimes struggle to fall asleep as my brain is wired from the events of the day. So imagine my surprise when that emotional sequence took place without the accompanying physical events that typically cause them. My mind and body had developed a weekly routine that continued to affect my inner life even when Covid-19 came along. Routine had wired me to “feel” a certain way on Sundays. Talk about power.

Those of us in ministry felt the energy drain that the deviation from routine required. But so did parents who suddenly found themselves homeschooling. So did employees who were having to figure out how to do their jobs from home. So did students who were suddenly told they needed to learn math from, of all people, their parents! Then add on to this the uncertainty of living with a virus rampant in our society with daily doses of new (and often conflicting) data to process, and Presto! You’re exhausted.

So be patient and be kind. We are all tired.

But I have some good news for you: change is possible. New routines can be created and new habits sown. Now might even be a good time to stop and think about the habits that needed to change before Covid hit. The mechanics of this is described in Scripture as putting off the old man and putting on the new man. If you struggle with anxiety, you are to put off the thoughts that lead to worry and put on the thoughts that lead to trust. Your mind needs a new routine.

And there’s more good news: God doesn’t intend for his children to be tired forevermore. There remains a rest for the people of God.

Covid-19 Vs the Economy

I think we all foresee the coronavirus having a negative impact on our economy. But to be fair, anything more substantial than a gust of wind could have a negative impact on our economy. That’s because our economy is perpetually in the ICU, convulsing at every germ that a healthy immune system would dispatch with the efficiency of a thirsty southerner with a glass of sweet tea.

Covid-19 is basically stress testing us. And it has discovered quickly that we are not anchored deeply into sound financial practices. We are actually barely tethered to the torn corner of a paperbag that managed to get stuck under a rock. And the reason I know this is because people are excited about getting free money from the government.

Don’t get me wrong…I like free money. It’s just that I have a sneaking suspicion that there is no free money. Something tells me that wealth is actually created by hard work, commerce, savings, and a numerator and denominator that reflect more is coming in than is going out. Wealth can’t be printed down at the local government aid office. And when the guys up top find no problem with a national debt that’s got so many 0’s in it we have to borrow comma’s from China, it makes sense that their solution to any economic problem is to spend more money that we don’t have. Hey, we were never going to pay back the first trillion anyway!

And why do we tolerate this? Why do we live in isolation so that we might not burden anyone with our germs, and yet we are perfectly willing to burden our children and grandchildren with our debt? The reason we tolerate this is because we are collectively guilty of the same thing. We are up to our necks in student loans, auto loans, home loans, personal loans, furniture loans, credit card loans, etc… that we think this is a strategy for long term economic health, when it’s really more like our economy is flat-lining and the economic EMT’s are rushing in with experimental drugs, shock paddles, and aggressive radiation treatment. Cut the fed rate! Sure, it might kill the kidneys, but hopefully it will kill the cancer. Bail out the guys that are “too big to fail”! Yeah, it might damage the lungs, but at least we’ll get a few more beats out of the heart. This is not health: this is desperation.

So what I’m talking about is less the impact of the coronavirus: it’s the state of our economic immune system. And while most of us feel – rightly so – that we are small fish in a big ocean being tossed about by the whim of every current, I would remind you that even the sharks and whales can’t predict where and when the next storm will arise. The only reasonable way to live is by having some principles that will help you weather the storms.

Absolutely go support small businesses. Don’t let your favorite coffee shop go out of business! Help those who are laid off. But the broader picture here is that we need to do better for 10 years down the road. We need to be more economically healthy for the next crisis (because it will come!). How do we do that?

First, get your own house in order. Pay your bills on time and have some money in savings. Have a budget that keeps you in the black. Save up for a big purchase instead of borrowing for one. This one hurts me as much as it hurts you. But we will continue to tolerate leaders who take us deeper into debt if we have not worked hard to live without debt.

Second, give. The best thing about having your house in order is that you get to give. But you will also find that one of the steps toward getting your house in order is to become a giver. Randy Alcorn once said something like “not giving to God didn’t keep you out of debt, and not giving to God won’t help you get out of debt.” Good advice.

Third, we should strive for sound financial stewardship in our churches. Not every dollar that comes in should be predestinated toward a line in the budget. We should have liberty to give freely during times of prosperity, but not be so committed that our budget cannot handle economic downturns, pandemics, and even the loss of members.

Fourth, teach your children about money. They’re going to be voting soon.

So the government is going to give you free money. The government is going to bail out the airlines. Money shall pour forth from the fountain of government and everything will be free! Funny…I didn’t think Bernie Sanders was president yet. My bad.