A Time for Civil Disobedience? A Response to Grace Community Church’s Elders

Article
07.25.2020

For more on this topic, listen to Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman’s conversation. Then read Jonathan’s follow-up reflection piece: “Further Reflections on Recent Conversations about Christian Freedom.”

* * * * *

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.

Four additional things are worth mentioning in case you did read his piece. First, it’s true that MacArthur’s church cannot meet, but Christ’s church can meet. Right now, members of his church can meet outdoors. There is nothing sacrosanct about the particular and present forms of our congregations. You might say my counsel to Pastor MacArthur is similar to my counsel to the pastor who thinks his church has to go to multiple service or sites: “why does that new congregation have to be called your church? You can plant, no?” Likewise, is there any biblical reason why your church or mine cannot split into several churches or take some other form? Along these lines, I appreciate J.D. Greear’s and the elders of Summit Church’s decision to turn the 12,000-member Summit Church into hundreds of house churches for the remainder of the year, even if I would structure things a little differently than him. Also, one possibility being discussed by the Capitol Hill Baptist Church elders is whether they should turn their church into several autonomous congregations should DC restrictions eventually make sufficient indoor room for doing so. For now, they’re meeting in a field. Grace Church, on the other hand, is insisting on maintaining its present form. That’s a potentially legitimate decision to make, but it’s not the only decision a church can make.

Mind you, I’m not saying Christians need to embrace this as the new normal and that we should give up on having larger gathering spaces and larger churches. I am saying that, at least in this moment, a church could decide to do something besides all gathering together without selling out to Caesar.

Second, Christians have long worked to accommodate government restrictions on gatherings, both when those requirements have seemed fair and when they don’t. Churches in coastal cities during World War Two accommodated evening black-out requirements in case enemy planes hit the coasts. Those churches didn’t insist the government had no right to “restrict our worship.” Churches in China today sometimes do well to disobey the government and gather underground, but sometimes they’re wise to comply with government restrictions, or at least government enforcement measures, such as keeping their non-state sanctioned congregations relatively small. As my Chinese pastor friends tell me, the police know about their hundred-member congregations, but they won’t bother with them until they reach 200. And so my friends keep planting new churches. My point here is not that the Chinese Communist Party has a right to limit the church to 200. They don’t. My point is that my pastor friends are making calculated, wisdom-based judgments about what will best preserve the witness of the gospel over the long-run, and not just their church. In other words, just because you think God will ultimately vindicate your decision to disobey the government on the last day doesn’t mean it’s wise. You might have other options that avoid undue attention.

Third, addressing this matter of what’s wise or “beneficial” (see 1 Cor. 6:12), I personally wonder if defying government orders for the sake of a pandemic is the most judicious opportunity to exercise those muscles. The politics of LGBT tells me our churches may have more occasions to defy government requirements in years to come. Do we want to spend down our capital on pandemics? Right now, the guidelines restricting churches also restricts restaurants, movie theaters, museum, gyms, funeral homes, non-essential offices, shopping malls, barbershops, and more. As those restaurant and gym owners cast a glance over at our churches, will our refusal to abide by the same restrictions which are causing them financial distress help the witness of the gospel, especially if we could find other ways to comply, such as meeting outdoors? Again, all these are judgment calls. My point is merely, let’s leave room for churches to make different decisions à la Romans 14.

Fourth, and this is my most wonky point, MacArthur draws a strict line between the jurisdictions of state, church, and family. I, too, affirm the separation of these jurisdictions and have written amply on the topic. Yet here’s what we need to keep in mind. Those jurisdictional circles, to some extent, overlap whenever it’s the same people who are bound by those distinct jurisdictions. After all, each of those authorities can possess a claim on a person, no matter what building the person is standing in.

For instance, does God give parents the authority to discipline their children? Yes. But that discipline can cross a line and become abusive. At that point, the state says to the parents, “Hold on, your child is also our citizen, and you’re abusing her. We will now intervene.” To be sure, states can call something abuse that isn’t and go too far, but most of us agree on the occasional need to intervene.

Likewise, churches should observe state-established fire codes, building codes, zoning restrictions, historical-preservation-society codes (if you’re on Capitol Hill), and more, all of which impinge on and limit our gatherings. Yet most of us have not stopped and said, “This is hindering our worship” or “This is the state exercising authority over church practice.” Rather, we understand the state is doing its job even there. We understand that we are not ancient Israel. And though in one sense all space is sacred for a Christian because all space is under Christ’s lordship, in another sense no space is sacred, at least in a Temple-like way; and the government’s authority also extends everywhere inside its borders.

All that to say, it’s not immediately evident to me that a government’s original orders back in March and now again in July are, in MacArthur’s words, “an illegitimate intrusion of state authority into ecclesiastical matters.” One could argue they are doing their job by seeking to maintain peace, order, and the preservation of life, as hundreds of people gather, potentially infect one another, and then scatter into the wider community.

I’m sympathetic with Grace Community’s concern about the indefinite elongation of this time. Still, if the state does have the authority to tell church leaders, “If you try to bind the consciences of church members by telling them they should attend a gathering that could physically harm them, we will intervene,” then we should be patient even as that time extends for a while. Christians have endured the inconveniences of persecution and pandemics for years, even decades, before.

What’s implied in MacArthur’s statement is that his elders don’t believe there is a real threat with Covid-19. Again, that is a judgment call they are allowed to make. And that judgement call presumably stands behind their subsequent judgment call to disobey the government. Once more, my goal here is not to necessarily disagree with much less condemn either judgment. My goal is to open up a little space of Christian freedom for other churches to make different judgments, and then to encourage all of us to exercise patience and charity with one another and our churches as we make different decisions.

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.

* * * * *

Jonathan wrote a follow-up to this, which you can read here.

By:
Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.