A Respectful Corrective to John MacArthur’s Post on Reopening Churches

John MacArthur published an excellent comparison of the authority of Christ verses the authority of Caesar, subtitled, A Biblical Case for the Church’s Duty to Remain Open in the context of the coronavirus. I encourage everyone to read it.

I believe, however, that his presentation may not adequately recognize the authority God gives to civil government. What follows is something I first posted in a discussion within the Chesapeake Presbytery of the PCA …

John MacArthur’s statement exalting the direct Lordship of Jesus Christ over the God-delegated authority of the civil government is well said. I especially appreciated how he did not base the argument in his church blog on the First Amendment of the Constitution, but rather, “on the same biblical principles that the Amendment itself is founded upon.” I also agree that the issue involved, that of gathering for worship, is so central to the Christian faith that it warrants principled action.

However, while I agree that civil authorities may not negate the role of elders, I am concerned that the blog is unbalanced so as to negate the role of civil authorities. Let me explain.

It is true that the civil magistrate may not regulate Christian worship. But it is also true that,

… rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

Romans 13:3-4

That is to say, in addition to God’s command to his people to congregate in worship, he has also specifically authorized civil government to enforce good conduct and oppose those who would do wrong to other citizens.

The Westminster Confession develops this.

It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever …

WCF 23.3

In other words, it is the duty of civil government to protect all its citizens, such that no one should suffer abuse or violence (e.g., be exposed to Covid-19) because of the irresponsible exercise of religion. Suppressing abuse and injury in our society is the government’s God-given job.

My concern over the blog post arose with the added explanation that his church temporarily shut down not because the civil government said so, but because the elders thought that there might be a national health emergency. Now they don’t think the emergency is that serious, so they’ve decided to open up.

I agree that the elders have the authority to determine church practice, but I disagree with the notion that the church’s elders have the authority to decide whether or not a public threat exists. While elders decide the church’s policy, it is the civil government’s responsibility to determine national threats to its citizens.

The conclusion, therefore, is that regardless of our own medical or political opinions, the church should respect the government’s grim assessment of public plague, or pandemic, as we decide how we function. This is no different than submitting to regulations concerning sanitation or traffic or child safety. We have found ways to follow Christ while taking all those regulations seriously. Let us remember that for several generations after Pentecost, the church managed to prosper in small home groups, and that aggressive house visitation by elders, outdoor assembly and other measures can supplement our virtual interactions. Let’s take care not to confuse our responsibilities with our convenience.

The arguments for physically congregating are strong, however, and perhaps we would be justified in rejecting government regulations. Yet even if so, we may not act as if the pandemic did not exist. Elders are shepherds of the church, not the arbiters of public welfare. Suppressing wrongs done to one another in society is a job God gave to civil authorities. He expects us to duly honor that role as we follow the ultimate Lordship of Christ wherever that leads, even if it should lead to civil disobedience.

6 thoughts on “A Respectful Corrective to John MacArthur’s Post on Reopening Churches”

  1. Thanks Glenn for this post. I recognize there is a fine line between this pandemic i.e., government’s responsibility to at times take extreme measures to protect its citizens, and our ability to worship together as one body in Christ. While I struggle at times with what might be thought of as government’s over reach into the religious side of our lives I don’t see any abuse of them telling us we must reject God or things of that nature. This is a temporary moment in our lives unique to this day and age of course and I am convinced this will only be temporary or until a until a cure is found or this pandemic fades away.

    1. Glenn Parkinson

      In the meantime, I’m praying that this frustrating situation will not be wasted, and that God will use the experience for our good. Perhaps we can learn some new skills or adapt some traditions to be more effective in the future.

  2. Pastor Glenn, I appreciate your respectful comment on Pastor John MacArthur’s blog post about reopening churches despite governmental restrictions during this pandemic.

    Achieving a proper civil government/church relationship can be complicated both because civil authority can be misused, and because for churches to unnecessarily resist civil authorities may send a misleading message about Christ.

    I believe you have drawn the line in the right place, in the right spirit. I believe that Pastor MacArthur overstates the authority God has given the church when he says, “God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church.” I concur with this view as relates to doctrine and polity, but churches have long accepted that civil authorities have some legitimate concerns in the area of our practices.

    For example, we routinely accept the authority of the fire marshal concerning building occupancy limitations and of the health officer over hygiene in our kitchens. I view reasonable COVID-19 limitations as an exercise of the same kind of authority.

    Thank you.

  3. Hank Gundlach

    Not sure that the verses from Romans or the quotation of the WCF are applicable to the civil authorities determination of the gathering of the saints to worship. Further, these same principles of submitting to civil authorities in matters of the practice of our Christian faith is a very slippery slope. We are not far in this evolving nation from the civil authorities pronouncing other areas of our walking in Christ as hateful practices in themselves and inspiring violence toward non-believers. I tend to agree with Pastor John, dear friend.

    1. Glenn Parkinson

      Thanks for the input. I agree that the direction of our society is very concerning. As I said in the blog, I do not oppose civil disobedience when there is genuine oppression.
      I suppose that the reason I’m not concerned about an anti-Christian bias in this case is that the rules impact any sort of similar gathering the same way. If churches were singled out, I would see it differently. Almost the entire economy – including the national idolatry of sports – is impacted. That’s why I see the motive as a genuine public health concern. It is reasonable for the government to try to protect society at large from people who would gather irresponsibly during a pandemic. Such gatherings impact the general welfare, not just those who gather.
      Of course, it is perfectly appropriate to debate and try to influence governing authorities as to what policies are, in fact, reasonable. I’m just addressing the authority God gave them for the public good. I’m not claiming that I think they are exercising it well.
      And I reiterate that when local prohibitions are not applied equally and fairly, I support churches seeking legal relief, and as a last resort, civil disobedience.

      1. Hank Gundlach

        The law hasn’t been applied equally, in fact it’s been very indiscriminate. Gathering of the Saints and their welfare is as important as social, mental health, and human services that were permitted unabated except with core precautions such as distancing and wearing masks. Allowing the civil authorities to dictate what is safe and appropriate for worship and faith is an extreme precedent in my opinion, so I stand with John MacArthur on this one good friend!

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