On Friday, July 24 John MacArthur and his fellow elders published a statement in which they informed their civic leaders that they intended to disobey the State of California’s moratorium on weekly congregational worship.
This caused a bit of a “dust-up” as Jonathan Leeman from the 9Marks para-church organization wrote an article in response titled, “A Time for Civil Disobedience? A Response to Grace Community Church’s Elders“, followed by some exchanges on Twitter with Phil Johnson of Grace Community Church, followed by an unscheduled 9Marks podcast from Jonathan Leeman and Mark Dever titled, “A Conversation about Grace Community Church’s Statement on Civil Disobedience,” followed by another article today by Jonathan Leeman titled, “Further Reflections on Recent Conversations about Christian Freedom.”
Leeman’s stated purpose for writing his article was that he feared other churches may get the impression from MacArthur’s statement that they also needed to start holding congregational worship services in defiance of government moratoriums so that they were in compliance with Scripture. Leeman simply wanted to carve out a little room for churches to exercise freedom of conscience.
Perhaps Leeman is being totally honest, though I fail to see the need for the Baptist boys at 9Marks to get all worked up about this, after all, aren’t they frequently making the point of how every Baptist church is totally autonomous from every other church? My thought is there is at least some concern on the part of the 9Marks cadre that they will come out looking as weak compromisers with the State when compared to John MacArthur’s strong biblical stance of defiance of the State. At the end of the day Leeman and Dever attempt to convey that all is well between the two camps, but I doubt you will be seeing both Dever and MacArthur participating in the same conferences in the future. Together 4 the Gospel seems to have been torn asunder.
I have no dog in this fight, I am simply an interested observer. I would say that I think much of this is driven by money. We all know when the church isn’t “gathered” the budget isn’t met. Dever initially made a big deal of the fact that they wouldn’t be “gathering” or using any type of technology to broadcast sermons, but if you listen to his early thoughts on the COVID pandemic it’s clear he thought that they would likely be allowed to “gather” in 3 or 4 weeks. As time went by with no sign of Big Brother relenting on their restrictions, Dever had a change of heart and started “gathering” outdoors on the property of another Baptist church.
Below is a partial quote of the statement by John MacArthur and his fellow elders. At the end of the quote you will find a link to the article.
A Biblical Case for the Church’s Duty to Remain Open
Christ is Lord of all. He is the one true head of the church (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). He is also King of kings—sovereign over every earthly authority (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14; 19:16). Grace Community Church has always stood immovably on those biblical principles. As His people, we are subject to His will and commands as revealed in Scripture. Therefore we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.
Some will think such a firm statement is inexorably in conflict with the command to be subject to governing authorities laid out in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Scripture does mandate careful, conscientious obedience to all governing authority, including kings, governors, employers, and their agents (in Peter’s words, “not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable” [1 Peter 2:18]). Insofar as government authorities do not attempt to assert ecclesiastical authority or issue orders that forbid our obedience to God’s law, their authority is to be obeyed whether we agree with their rulings or not. In other words, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 still bind the consciences of individual Christians. We are to obey our civil authorities as powers that God Himself has ordained.
However, while civil government is invested with divine authority to rule the state, neither of those texts (nor any other) grants civic rulers jurisdiction over the church. God has established three institutions within human society: the family, the state, and the church. Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected. A father’s authority is limited to his own family. Church leaders’ authority (which is delegated to them by Christ) is limited to church matters. And government is specifically tasked with the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community. God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church. 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. Parents do not have authority to manage civil matters while circumventing government officials. And similarly, government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders.
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. Therefore, when any government official issues orders regulating worship (such as bans on singing, caps on attendance, or prohibitions against gatherings and services), he steps outside the legitimate bounds of his God-ordained authority as a civic official and arrogates to himself authority that God expressly grants only to the Lord Jesus Christ as sovereign over His Kingdom, which is the church. His rule is mediated to local churches through those pastors and elders who teach His Word (Matthew 16:18–19; 2 Timothy 3:16–4:2).
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.
…Notice that we are not making a constitutional argument, even though the First Amendment of the United States Constitution expressly affirms this principle in its opening words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The right we are appealing to was not created by the Constitution. It is one of those unalienable rights granted solely by God, who ordained human government and establishes both the extent and the limitations of the state’s authority (Romans 13:1–7). Our argument therefore is purposely not grounded in the First Amendment; it is based on the same biblical principles that the Amendment itself is founded upon. The exercise of true religion is a divine duty given to men and women created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27; Acts 4:18–20; 5:29; cf. Matthew 22:16–22). In other words, freedom of worship is a command of God, not a privilege granted by the state.
By John MacArthur, “Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church”
Below is a short video clip from the beginning of Sunday morning’s worship service at Grace Community Church. While I fully agree with their Scriptural interpretation as well as their First Amendment rights to hold church services, I don’t think they are acting wisely in their manner of gathering. Clearly they believe that masks and social spacing are not needed. I pray they have no huge outbreak of COVID in their congregation. As news broke this morning of both the Miami and Philadelphia baseball teams having multiple players who have contracted the virus (in spite of their best efforts to prevent this from happening), one can’t help but wonder whether GCC members may get hit hard. If I were a member of their church I would not be attending their services yet.
Below are two clips taken from a recent conversation between Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman concerning John MacArthur and his fellow elder’s decision to disobey the State’s moratorium and hold church services. The entire conversation may be heard here.
In the next clip, Mark Dever states that he told a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church who thought it was sinful to not gather for church services that he should then resign his membership and join a church that was meeting together. Additionally, what follows is a quote from Leeman’s article, “A Time for Civil Disobedience? A Response to Grace Community Church’s Elders:”
“Let’s make sure we don’t “pass judgment on one another” (Rom. 14:13), but instead “accept one another” (Rom. 15:7). This attitude should characterize the conversation between Christians, between churches, and even between church leaders and members as they come to different conclusions, as challenging as that might become. We must “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification,” even if that means you decide to leave one church for another (14:19), because you’ve become convinced your leaders are making the wrong call. Go in peace, charity, and grace. God’s kingdom is bigger than any one of our gatherings.”
On a personal note, I will say that I think both Dever and Leeman are disingenuous in their remarks. I was a member of United Christian Church of Dubai. The pastor, John Folmar, was an assistant pastor to Mark Dever prior to taking the senior pastors position in Dubai. Folmar and Dever are good friends. I quit UCCD because I thought Folmar holding up a book authored by CJ Mahaney from the pulpit and heartily recommending it to the congregation was sinful. I resigned my membership. I was not allowed to “go in peace, charity, and grace.” Quite the opposite. I was placed on the “Care List” and was not removed from membership for 6 1/2 months. Additionally, on the 9Marks website, they have articles such as, “Pastors, Don’t Let Your People Resign into Thin Air.”
Below is a brief quote from Jonathan Leeman’s first article written in response to the statement from Grace Community Church. The link to the complete article may be found at the end of the quote:
Before your church follows John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church and begins to gather in defiance of governmental orders this Sunday, hold on! Stop and think with me for a moment.
In case you missed it, MacArthur provided a wonderful statement affirming: Christ’s lordship over governments; our duty to disobey governments when governments forbid worship; and the government’s lack of jurisdiction over a church’s doctrine, practice, and polity. Plus, pastors do well to learn from MacArthur’s example of courage. In years and decades to come, we may have many opportunities to defy governmental incursions.
I also respect the decision of the Grace Community elders to “respectfully inform [their] civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction” and that “faithfulness to Christ prohibits [them] from observing the restrictions they want to impose on [their] corporate worship services.” That might be the right decision. I believe it’s a judgment call, but if they feel bound of conscience to gather their church, then they should gather (see Rom. 14:14, 23).
Yet I’d also like to add, civil disobedience may not be the only legitimate or moral course of action at this moment.
By Jonathan Leeman, “A Time for Civil Disobedience? A Response to Grace Community Church’s Elders”
Then, today, Leeman wrote his “Further Reflections on Recent Conversations about Christian Freedom.” Below is a quote from the article.
Aside from what the authors of this statement may or may not believe, the statement itself makes no provision for the possibility that a Christian might choose another path and still be counted as faithful. It does not say, “Churches and elders will come to different conclusions, but we believe we are free to disobey the government and even feel compelled to do so.” And the point of my article, stated at the beginning and end, with four points in the middle trying to carve out the possibility, was to say, “This is not the only way of potential faithfulness.” So with the follow-up podcast.
Our response, in short, was to say that there is a difference between “We’re free to do this!” and “You have to do this, too!” The first insists on a political freedom, which is their right to insist upon. The second takes away a spiritual or Christian freedom, which is not their right.
So, again, why raise these points now, good saints have asked? We’re not, finally, so much interested in addressing the decision of Grace Church once more. Rather, we want to draw attention to the growing pattern by Christians across the political landscape, ironically, to close down Christian freedom by binding the consciences of others in pursuit of our political agendas, agendas which are often good! This is a drum we’ve beat before and will continue to beat.
To the best of our ability, 9Marks has stood for and will continue to stand for Christian freedom, particularly in matters of political judgment. Not every political matter belongs to the domain of freedom. Abortion does not. Racism does not. Worshipping God and gathering as churches does not (and, yes, that’s political!). But how we approach those issues, and what strategies we take, as well as the vast number of other issues that fall under the headings of pastoral and political judgments, do fall into the domain of Christian freedom.
Two Christians or churches can agree on the call to submit to government in Romans 13 and make different judgments about when and how to apply it.
By Jonathan Leeman, “Further Reflections on Recent Conversations about Christian Freedom”
For further thought: