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.