Ortlund: Should Churches in California Defy Government Restrictions? A Response to John MacArthur

Originally posted by Gavin Ortlund on 08/02/2020 at https://gavinortlund.com/2020/08/02/should-churches-in-california-defy-government-restrictions-a-response-to-john-macarthur/amp/?__twitter_impression=true. Reposted by permission.

“Yesterday John MacArthur released a video update to his church family. As is well-known, Grace Community Church has chosen to defy the state order issued by Governor Newsome banning indoor worship services. At 10:35-10:50 of the video, MacArthur states:

Churches are shutting down—large churches shutting down until, they say, January. I don’t have any way to understand that other than they don’t know what a church is, and they don’t shepherd their people.

He further intimates that pastors and church leaders who choose not to resist the Governor’s order lack the courage to direct the church to her calling in this time.

As a fellow minister of the gospel here in Southern California, I want to articulate why I believe cooperating with the current restrictions is not necessarily a cowardly desertion of our calling, but may instead reflect the path of wisdom, responsibility, and love. My motive in writing is not to attack MacArthur, who is my brother-in-Christ, but from sincere concern about the impact of his views on other pastors and churches.

Let me begin by saying that I stand with MacArthur in affirming the vital importance of corporate worship, as well as the importance of standing up for religious liberty. Moreover, I believe that there are certainly times to disobey the government, and I would gladly give my life for the sake of gathering to worship, if it ever became a capital punishment.

However, it seems to me that the current situation is more complicated than MacArthur’s perspective allows. To my mind, there are at least four biblical values that should inform our decision-making in this situation:

  1. the importance of worship (Hebrews 10:25)
  2. love for neighbor (Mark 12:31)
  3. obedience to government (Romans 13:1-7)
  4. maintaining a good witness (Colossians 4:5-6)

What concerns me about defying the state order right now is that it seems to prioritize 1 at the expense of 2-4. Regarding (2), one way we can love our neighbors is by helping to stop the spread of a dangerous and highly infectious disease. Gathering for worship without requiring masks or practicing social distancing or adjusting the elements of worship (e.g., reducing/discontinuing singing) risks causing a significant increase in transmission of the virus, particularly in the case of a mega-church. It is not merely those in attendance who are potentially affected by such a decision, but the entire community with which attenders subsequently interact.

Failing to take actions to slow the spread of the virus does not help our witness to the world (4). As the church, we want to be seen to care about the welfare of our communities, and to be helpful citizens who are willing to do our part to serve the common good. We want to make it clear to the watching world that we are not just concerned with defending our rights, but that we are willing to lay down our rights for the sake of others.

Regarding (3), I do believe there are times to engage in civil disobedience, as well as times to practice nonviolent civil protest. However, I don’t see civil disobedience as the appropriate response to the current restrictions, because the restrictions are temporary and purposeful. We are not being singled out for our religious beliefs; we are being directed to participate in a broader effort throughout our entire society, and throughout the entire world. (To the extent that restrictions are or become unfair to churches or religious groups as compared to secular entities, we should certainly speak out against that. I think engaging in protest before outright disobedience is often the wiser path, but I wouldn’t ever want to take civil disobedience off the table. That would be the choice I would make if the current restrictions were to continue indefinitely.)

Putting these four values together is complicated, and I have no one-size-fits-all answer for every situation. Our church has chosen to meet outdoors, while providing video options for those who choose to stay home. We’d rather be inconvenienced by the outdoor heat and noise than risk violating values 2-4. But I recognize that that may not be the best option for every church.

My main concern is not so much with MacArthur’s position—I think this is a complicated and unprecedented situation, and it is important to show a measure of grace to other churches following different policies. My main concern is with the judgment he passes on those who don’t defy the government restrictions right now.

To claim that those complying with the government restrictions “don’t know what a church is and … don’t shepherd their people” is both unhelpful and unkind. It oversimplifies a complicated situation, and places further pressure on already-burdened pastors whose consciences lead them differently. I worry the statement will breed suspicion, reinforce pride, and stir up dissension.

I suspect that a major part of the reason MacArthur and the leadership at GCC would apply values 2-4 differently to this situation is that they don’t regard COVID-19 as an actual threat. For instance, in the addendum to their statement, GCC clarified that “guarding public health against serious contagions is a rightful function of Christians as well as civil government,” and stated that this is why they followed the original government orders in March. What led GCC to change positions from March to July is that they now believe that “the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared.”

So in principle, MacArthur and GCC seem to recognize the possibility of jurisdictional overlap between the state and the church. For instance, if, hypothetically speaking, the government had evidence that there was a bomb under the sanctuary of a church, I’d bet that just about everyone would recognize the government has the right to lock down the building, even if it was Sunday morning. In general, I know that MacArthur has a deep respect for value (3) identified above, respect for government. He has even stated that the founding of the United States of America was disobedience to Romans 13. It’s difficult for me to understand how MacArthur adjudicates when to follow Romans 13 and when not to follow this passage.

I don’t share MacArthur’s perspective that COVID-19 is not a real threat. However, I hold my views about the virus loosely. I am not an epidemiologist, and I suspend judgment about exactly what the long-term effects of this pandemic will be. So let’s suppose that I’m wrong (as, evidently, GCC would likewise have been wrong to close down in March of this year). My point here is simply this: such a potential error does not necessarily constitute a bowing down to Caesar. It would be an error in the application of principles 2-4 listed above, based on a particular judgment drawn about the nature of COVID-19. And my burden is this: Christians can and should disagree about the severity of COVID-19 without questioning each other’s commitment, courage, or pastoral care. We must remember that the same Scripture that calls us to gather for worship also calls us to accept other Christians amidst our differences (Romans 14:1-12). This, also, is a biblical mandate. So is our love for one another (John 13:34).

Our church will continue to worship outside, at least for the time being. Christ has commanded us to gather, but He said nothing about doing so indoors. So this option enables us to be obedient to Christ while also giving due consideration to the well-being of our neighbors and the edicts of the authorities over us. Again, my heart goes out to churches that do not have this option, and I pray God gives them wisdom to know how to proceed. I will not be quick to judge them, whatever they decide. Although I do not agree with those calling for civil disobedience, my main goal is not to criticize their decisions but to encourage and defend those whose consciences lead them differently.

My concluding appeal is this: let’s be very careful before engaging in civil disobedience. There is a time for it. But it should be a last measure, when conscience absolutely requires it, when no other pathway, however inconvenient, lies available to us by which we can honor both Christ and Caesar. And let us be keenly wary of the danger of lionizing civil disobedience for fleshly reasons.

Christ, not Caesar, is head of the church: and when the two conflict, we must obey Christ. But when we seek to avoid undue defiance of Caesar, we also act in obedience to Christ.”

-Gavin Ortlund, https://gavinortlund.com/2020/08/02/should-churches-in-california-defy-government-restrictions-a-response-to-john-macarthur/amp/?__twitter_impression=true

Lord From Sorrows Deep I Call (Psalm 42)

Lord, from sorrows deep I call
When my hope is shaken
Torn and ruined from the fall
Hear my desperation
For so long I’ve pled and prayed
God, come to my rescue
Even so the thorn remains
Still my heart will praise You

Storms within my troubled soul
Questions without answers
On my faith these billows roll
God, be now my shelter
Why are you cast down my soul?
Hope in Him who saves you
When the fires have all grown cold
Cause this heart to praise You

Should my life be torn from me
Every worldly pleasure
When all I possess is grief
God, be then my treasure
Be my vision in the night
Be my hope and refuge
Till my faith is turned to sight
Lord, my heart will praise You

And, oh, my soul, put your hope in God
My help, my Rock, I will praise Him
Sing, oh, sing through the raging storm
You’re still my God, my salvation

-Words and Music by Matt Papa and Matt Boswell


Calvin: Six Ways Prayer Grows Us

In the Institutes, Calvin suggests six ways prayer
contributes to our growth in Christ:

1. It inflames our hearts with the desire to seek, love, and serve God;

2. It trains us to expose the secrets and desires of our hearts to God;

3. It promotes gratitude;

4. It leads to meditation on God’s kindness as a result of His having answered our prayers;

5. It produces even greater joy in those things that we have obtained through prayer; and

6. Finally, it serves as a personal confirmation of God’s providence.

-John Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.3.

Beale: Revelation—A Word For Today

“In Revelation 1:3 John declares that the one who takes to heart the words of the prophecy will be blessed. The message of Revelation, as it unfolds, is not designed to provide fodder for intellectual speculation about the end times but is rather a series of commands addressed to the present-day lives of all who read it.

Prophecy in the OT generally had two time references: it was a forth telling of God’s word for His people in the present, and a foretelling of events to happen in the future. Revelation maintains these two features of prophecy. Those who read and those who hear and obey its message will be blessed. That the book has an ultimate ethical aim is borne out by the conclusion in 22:6-21, which is an intentional expansion of the prologue in 1:1-3, and especially of the ethical emphasis of 1:3. The prophecy of v.3 is not a set of predictions but, in the biblical tradition, a word from God calling for obedient response in the lives of believers.

The reason those who hear the prophetic words must heed them is now given: for the time is near. Here John echoes the words of Jesus in Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God at hand,” where “at hand” has the meaning of “about to arrive” or “is now arriving.” The two clauses are parallel: the time Jesus spoke of is now fulfilled and the kingdom has arrived. The connection between for the time is near and quickly in v.1 indicates that in v.3b John is developing further the “inaugurated” latter-day perspective on the OT (especially Daniel 2) which v.1a conveys.

The connection between the two clauses is highlighted by the conclusion of the book, where 1:3a is reiterated in 22:7b (“blessed is he who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book”) and introduced by a repetition of 1:1a in 22:6 (“to show to His bond-servants the things which must shortly take place”). John views the death and resurrection of Christ as inaugurating the long awaited kingdom of the end times that the OT books (such as Daniel) predicted and that will continue to exist throughout the church age. He sees the end-time kingdom of Daniel as having arrived in the person of Jesus Christ.

His prophetic words will speak into the heart of the present, not simply the distant future. To claim to have benefited from Christ’s past redemptive work entails an acknowledgement to submit to Him as Lord in the present.”

-G.K. Beale, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, 37-38.

Strachan: Pride vs. Humility

“Unfortunately…lack of pretense is in short supply today. Our sinful hearts struggle to embrace humility. Most people need no coaching on ‘Ways to Maximize Your Pride.’ Narcissism comes naturally to us….

…When our thoughts run to ourselves and our self-sufficiency, we need to dwell afresh on Christ… We remember the order of the Kingdom of Heaven: It is the lowly who inherit the earth. No one has ever ridden into the throne room of God on the wave of pride that surges in every human heart. Only the humble and the weak will see the Lord. Let us root out our pride with intensity…”

-Owen Strachan, Always in God’s Hands, 195.

Edwards: Obedience

“We should travel on as a way of obedience to all God’s commands, even the difficult, as well as the easy, commands. We should travel on in a way of self-denial, denying all our sinful inclinations and interests. The way to heaven is ascending; we must be content to travel up hill, though it be hard, and tiresome, and contrary to the natural tendency and bias of our flesh, that tends downward to the earth. We should follow Christ in the path that he has gone; the way that he traveled in was the right way to heaven. We should take up our cross and follow him. We should travel along in the same way of meekness and lowliness of heart, in the same way of obedience, and charity, and diligence to do good, and patience under afflictions.”

-Jonathan Edwards, Sermon: The True Christian’s Life, A Journey Towards Heaven (Hebrews 11:13-14.

One in Christ

Members of one another
Yet we don’t all work the same
One has grace to give and one to pray
When one member is hurting
All the others feel the pain
Others can rejoice and it’s our gain

We are all in one body
We are called to one hope
And we drink of one Spirit
We are one in Christ

Bearing with one another
In humility and peace
We will walk into the hope as we’ve been called
Faithfully we will labor
For the splendor of Your bride
Growing in the leadership of Christ

Father send us Your Spirit
To instruct us in Your Word
And give us gifts to use for others good
Let us join with Your Helper
Who empowers us to sing
The mercies and the triumph of our King

-Nic McLean