“If the State were to encroach on the preaching of the Word, prayer, or forbid the administration of the sacrament this would not be tolerable.”Trey Jasso
My respect for John MacArthur has been long established as he was a friend of R.C. Sproul and a defender of Biblical Inerrancy. Therefore, in my opinion, he is a minister who deserves my respect. I have been asked about his recent statement (Christ, Not Caesar, Is Head of the Church) wherein he stated in no uncertain terms, that he planned to resume in-person worship and defy the Governor’s order. Some of his statements are well stated and true and I wholeheartedly agree and say, “Amen”. That being said, there are other statements with which I would disagree and they give me pause.
POINTS OF AGREEMENT
First I’d highlight some points of agreement, Christ is Lord of all. The church is the kingdom of Christ (WCF 25.2) and there “is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ.” And these points are not in question, there is no debate and no dispute. They are affirmed in our prayers, worship, confessions, hymns, literally everywhere.
And we affirm that God has ordained all government and earthly authorities of which there are three. Dr. MacArthur points to Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 and rightly says we are to submit to those God-ordained authorities, even those that are “unjust/unreasonable.” MacArthur cites 1Pet. 2:18 which reads: Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. And we recognize that God has established three institutions in society. Each of these has their spheres of limits and duties. They are the family, state, and church.
Thus as we recognize the right authority of Christ, we also recognize the authorities he has put in place. And though we have Christian liberty we cannot use our liberty as a ground to usurp the authority of those institutions unless they make a law commanding us to go against the law of Christ and in that case, it is no law at all. The Westminster Confession is helpful:
And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another; they who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of GodWestminster Confession of Faith 20.4
DISAGREEMENTS AND QUALIFICATIONS
I could go on about the agreement but that is not the point of this post. There are some points of disagreement or qualifications that need to be made. These block texts are from John MacArthur’s statement found on Grace Community Church’s (GCC) website
However, while the civil government is invested with divine authority to rule the state, neither of those texts (nor any other) grants civic rulers jurisdiction over the churchChrist, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church
This needs to be qualified. Churches are not autonomous entities. They are part of a community and clearly, the State does have a certain say in the worship and practices of a church. When the Reformed churches discuss worship we generally organize worship into elements and circumstances. Elements are those which God alone determines and what he says must be part of his worship these are: word, sacrament, and prayer.
Circumstances of worship however are left to the general wisdom of the Elders of the church using either what Scripture explicitly says or what may be deduced by the “good and necessary consequence.” The Westminster Confession says:
there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observedWestminster Confession of Faith 1.6
To give an example of what this looks like. Just over 20 years ago, this congregation bought a building but after we bought it we could not use it for worship until the building was up to code. While the building was under construction, we worshipped in the parking lot. The worship service happened with all the elements as determined by God with the circumstances according to the wisdom of the Elders under the guidance of Scripture.
The biblical framework limits the authority of each institution to its specific jurisdiction.
The church does not have the right to meddle in the affairs of individual families and ignore parental authority.Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church
This is not entirely accurate because while there are three spheres (family, church, government) they do touch and even overlap. The family is its own institution, but there is an overlap of the church into the family. Insofar as the family is under the authority of a church, that church has a certain reach into the family but it is not exhaustive. The church is not going to meddle in the affairs of particulars (bedtime, diets, etc.) but there is the accountability of the parenting and the marriage. If a spouse is abusive, abandons their family, or is adulterous who initiates discipline and works to bring repentance, reconciliation, and restoration? Who shepherds them? Matthew 18 speaks about bringing the unrepentant sinner to the Elders if they will not listen. The State intervenes in the family to an extent as well as they protect and preserve the family.
And therefore the State has a certain type of authority over the church. Churches exist in a context. They are in a mission field. The church is not autonomous and able to operate without accountability. Consider the megachurch and small church pastors who committed fraud, tax evasion, or even worse child abuse such as the scandal of the Roman Catholic Church. Employment laws, food handling laws, and noise compliance laws, all of which must be followed. The State determines the building, water, and electrical codes. Fire codes require sprinkler systems, extinguishers, and fire doors to be installed. ADA requires some parking spots to be designated for handicap parking, etc. And even the number of persons allowed for a worship service is determined.
Therefore, in response to the recent state order requiring churches in California to limit or suspend all meetings indefinitely, we, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction, and faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services.Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church
As support, he cites Jesus speaking to Pilate “You would have no authority over me, unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11) But in this context, Jesus was in Roman custody and he submitted to it. Yet we know that God was working in and through this evil act of injustice. God was using the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for the good and salvation of all humanity. As it turns out, Pilate and the Jews, meant it for evil but God was using this crucifixion of the Son of God for good.
Speaking of pastors and elders, he says again the leaders have “no duty” to follow orders from a civil government. If the State were to encroach on the preaching of the Word, prayer, or forbid the administration of the sacrament this would not be tolerable. And while wearing a mask, social distancing, or requesting worship to be outdoors is inconvenient, it’s not unbiblical, not any more than any of the other safety ordinances listed above.
I believe GCC has been exposed to some serious weaknesses in the megachurch model. The relocation and changes in the worship service are too difficult for their church. And I would argue they are making their decisions more as a megachurch than as a congregation. Perhaps the most difficult part of the health orders were the restrictions on attendance. This restriction on attendance made it impossible for the megachurches to meet. Restricting worship to 100 for the megachurch of thousands makes worship impractical. If they limit attendance to 100, then literally thousands of people cannot attend the service. And this is because these megachurches are built around a celebrity pastor who rather than planting more churches, elects to grow their “brand”.
Pictures were posted of their recent worship services. I saw one person in the crowd wearing a mask and there was no social distancing. They weren’t seated every other pew, they were shoulder to shoulder. Only the first three rows were roped off, not sure why. It’s one thing to bring worship indoors because it’s too difficult to accommodate the size of the congregation but to blatantly have no regard for any of the health orders came across as reckless and irresponsible.
I have observed from advocates and those likeminded of GCC make comments such as, “I am willing to take the risk” or “If I die, I die.” Because in their thinking they are the only ones who are assuming the risk. In Reformed theology, however, there is a sense of duty to our brother and sister in Christ. Our members are our neighbors. We love them and care for each other imperfectly. We take vows to care and pray for each other and if need be, we give up our rights to accommodate our brother and sister. That is part of being in a covenant community, it’s not about me, it’s about Christ who has redeemed for Himself a people, of which we are all part.
R. Scott Clark has written some helpful thoughts on Grace Community Church that can be found here