I thought three blog posts on the nature of church and state relations to the Coronavirus pandemic from early April to June, would have sufficed to cover the issue from a Biblical worldview. ‘Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s right (Mark 12)?’ That simple.
However, I wasn’t counting on a U.S. Governor or two and the Supreme Court of the United States stirring the ire of America’s evangelical “Truth Warrior”, Pastor and Author John MacArthur, to enter into the fray last week and bring the church into debate and controversy over the radical act of Christians practicing civil disobedience, as the result of governmental decisions to restrict corporate worship – including MacArthur’s own church in Southern California.
Pastor MacArthur and the rest of the religious community there had willingly accepted the lockdown or quarantine of churches, communities and business in mid-March when the pandemic’s initial wave hit full boar and news of infection cases, hospitalizations and fatalities dominated our national landscape, leading to the most dire of predictions among epidemiologists and government officials – since proven to be largely untrue, though COVID 19 remains a real and serious thing.
Although the idea of masks had not yet been mainstreamed as a mitigation guideline at that time, there was little doubt that COVID 19 was not your ‘grandfather’s flu’ and not to be trifled with. But that was then and this is now.
After four months of mitigation and cabin fever, and the reality that the ‘sky had not fallen,’ nor the rapture of the church and the Day of the Lord had taken place, California and Nevada’s recent orders scaling back church congregational meetings to no more than 50 worshippers if at all, was too much for dozens of churches out west to take.
Last Sunday, more than 3,000 congregants – many without masks, filled Grace Community Church’s sanctuary in the wake of their leadership’s statement or ‘declaration of independence’, being published on Friday, stating that the church would not comply with Governor Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus restrictions in the aftermath of a surge in COVID cases there, arguing that the government had overstepped its authority by regulating worship – a big time no-no.
In obedience to the Bible’s command to not forsake its assembling (Heb. 10:25), MacArthur argued that the state had “exceeded its legitimate jurisdiction” in severely limiting or suspending services. He may have a point there.
I personally stand with MacArthur – one of the most influential and impactful exegetes and expositors of at least the last generation, with an important caveat to tag onto my stance.
Pastor MacArthur relied on to little surprise, a biblical argument to make his case (“Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church) as to why he and his church’s leadership team could not “.. acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings.”
He could have made a justifiable case for opposing the state’s congregational bans on both practical and even constitutional grounds as well as the biblical, but chose not to, so I will.
- The Practical
John MacArthur did make the point that COVID circumstances had changed over the last four months, influencing their change of heart. What changed? In spite of a recent surge in positive test cases in his state among others, he stated in his Sunday sermon that the chances of those that are either hospitalized for a serious medical response to infection of the virus, or who die from it is incredibly slim.
Therefore, does the state’s restrictions match up with the math? In other words, should the church decide to gather and for that matter, should our communities and country remain open, closed or shuttered based on the mere possibilities of Coronavirus infections or fatalities, or the probabilities of such? That is a provocative question to wrestle with.
For example, in my home state of Florida- another “epicenter” of the pandemic, what is often ignored or underreported, is that currently, just over one in ten of the three million plus tests that have been taken have been “confirmed” as positive. Nearly nine out of every ten of those cases which have tested positive here, have recovered from the effects of the virus.
Nationally and remarkably, considering the media attention paid to the pandemic, only three percent of the near four and one-half million cases of the virus have resulted in death. In fact, if one goes as far as to tabulate the likelihood of the average American dying from COVID 19, the statistical probability stands at 0.05% or less than one-half of one percent of our population being at risk of dying from the virus.
Factoring in the confirmed test cases, hospitalizations and deaths of those that are elderly and/or have pre-existing health conditions (one-half of my state’s fatalities have come from nursing home facilities), the numbers drop even more significantly. Therefore, have those numbers or probabilities justified the states’ response to the pandemic?
- The Constitutional
Though Pastor MacArthur made the point that his church’s declaration and act of civil disobedience was not made from a constitutional perspective, he could have made a rather compelling argument, based upon the “free exercise” clause of our constitution’s first amendment right of religious freedom.
The founding fathers of this country drew clear and distinguishable lines of jurisdiction between the church and state, principles that safeguarded the liberty of places of worship to congregate and practice their faith as they see fit without government intrusion or regulation.
Is that freedom absolute? Admittedly it is not. The Supreme Court certainly made that clear in its controversial 5-4 ruling last week that rejected a Nevada church’s request to block the state government from enforcing a cap on attendance at religious services.
What I found most alarming in that decision though, as a Christian keeping a close eye on the issue of religious liberty, was what I believe to be the discriminatory nature of the decision, which allows large gatherings in casinos, restaurants, gyms and stores with little or no restrictions, to say nothing of the free exercise of protesters on our streets to congregate and in some cases, defame public and private property with or without facial coverings.
How essential are those meetings (Is Church “Essential?”)? Justice Neil Gorsuch in his dissenting opinion of the Nevada case, said it well when he wrote, “The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges… But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.” Echoing Gorsuch, justice Samuel Alito wrote, “A public health emergency does not give Governors and other public officials carte blanche to disregard the Constitution for as long as the medical problem persists.”
All that said, John MacArthur to his credit took his church with an exhortation to others, to the scriptures to ground his position to practice civil disobedience.
Rendering to Caesar and God
One challenge that any church leader and member must undertake, as MacArthur and his team of elders did I’m sure, is making the case of whether or not a congregational order like California’s, prohibits or temporarily restricts- too severely, the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- The Biblical
The tension which exists and leads to my caveat on Grace Church’s stance, is the clarity of the application between two equally scriptural commands which can be in conflict with one another. In one command, the Bible teaches clearly that Christians are to submit to the authority of God’s ordained institution of government at every level (Ro. 13; 1 Pet. 2), which would theoretically include Coronavirus oriented law and order.
And the other command is that the gospel and the entire counsel of God’s word is to be preached in the gathering of the local church (2 Tim. 3:16-4:2), and that furthermore, the function of biblical fellowship and discipleship is to take place personally and corporately in person.
The New Testament argues that God’s people grow by the means of grace he has provided the church, which includes the word, prayer and the interpersonal and relational fellowship of the body of Christ- the local assembly and community of faith, which is called to sing, pray and preach the word together, breaking bread and observing the ordinances of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42-47; Eph. 5:19; Col.3:16), all of which can be done at only the most minimal and temporary level online, through a video screen.
For the church to be the church and all that entails (including ministry, discipline, the love and support of the “one anothers”), the church must come together as intended, in the flesh (Ro. 16; 1 Cor. 16; 2 Cor. 3; 1 Thess. 5). MacArthur convincingly makes that case from the word of God.
However, as the 9Marks ministry of Pastor and Author Mark Dever countered in response to MacArthur’s church statement in particular, was the need for biblical nuance – yes, even Christian freedom or liberty to have a different conviction of conscience in applying the word to this extraordinary Coronavirus season of life and ministry.
Afterall, calculating the probabilities of COVID death are one thing and experiencing a fatality or it’s fatal risks within one’s own family, faith family or with a close friend is quite another. Public safety and health are legitimate concerns and a responsibility of the state as well as the church, which is to ‘love neighbors as ourselves.’
As to the exceptional circumstances given in scripture in justifying civil disobedience, a state’s lockdown or severe restrictions of gospel ministry may very well qualify. Don’t we support the ‘underground’, biblical church’s gathering for the same reasons in oppressive countries like China, Cuba and parts of the Middle East? MacArthur may have been right in appealing to the apostles Acts 4 stand, to render to God what is God’s, when they said they would ‘obey God rather than man’ when they defied the authorities order to refrain from preaching the gospel in public in Jerusalem.
The key however, is found in the words, “may have been right” which I have posited for the position that Grace church took, among dozens of others that have done the same. Whereas faced with the same government order and circumstances in my community and with my church, I may have voted amongst my fellow elders to take the same action as MacArthur’s church, I also see the ‘wiggle room’ or Romans 14 freedom to have concluded otherwise, in the wisdom application of this issue, which seems to have taken on the nature of that which is “disputable” according to the apostle Paul.
Based upon the biblical doctrine of conscience and its call for unity and love (Ro. 14; 1 Cor. 8 and 10), above even the right to exercise personal and in this case corporate freedoms when in doubt, I will not condemn a church for leaning on their decision to submit to their governing authorities.
While I personally remain in support of John MacArthur and his church’s stand of civil disobedience in California, I extend understanding, grace and peace to fellow disciples and undershepherds of the local church who have decided otherwise, while exhorting them at the same time to prayerfully prepare to engage with the state and the next round of rendering that which is God’s and that which is Caesar’s.