Anyone paying attention to the Christian sphere of social media in recent days will have likely either seen or read the statement that John MacArthur and the Elders of Grace Community Church have recently published. The gist was that as the “biblical framework limits the authority of each institution to its specific jurisdiction” So then, the relevant civil government, by intervening and imposing lockdowns and other restrictions, “have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction.” MacArthur and his fellow Elders have announced that they will not be adhering to the impositions any longer.
Jonathan Leeman in his article, A Time for Civil Disobedience? A Response to Grace Community Church’s Elders, published on 9Marks, pushed back. Through outlining the reasons as to why he believes adhering to current restrictions are a wise move at the moment, Leeman states that the current circumstances don’t appear to necessarily be “illegitimate intrusions”.
Now, having wrestled with this topic and having provided a historical-theological understanding of how churches have wrestled through pandemic and persecution elsewhere, I have an active interest in the real ecclesiological questions that are arising whilst ‘doing church’ in the current climate. While I am probably more closer to the general 9Marks position as how church looks and best practices during the current pandemic, I also believe that Grace Community Church have brought up relevant points that most people have not wrestled with particularly well.
I also acknowledge that I live in a different theological-societal context than my brethren in the United States. I am a member of the Confessional community in Australia which is a small part of the broader calvinistic evangelicalism that dominates ‘conservative’ Christianity here, and on a theological basis, my position would be a minority. As such, I would not be surprised if I receive a decent amount of pushback.
Nevertheless, here’s a few points I’d like to raise:
1. Obeying the Civil Magistrate and the Limitations of Romans 13
From the very onset of the pandemic and as churches wrestled with how to approach the practice of church, churches that were contemplating the idea to continue to physically assemble amidst lock-downs were hit by Christians with the verses Romans 13:1-5 and Matthew 22:39. They were taken to be self-evident prooftext that evidence a church shouldn’t meet because:
- To do so would be directly disobeying the government that God had appointed; and
- To do so would be failing to love one’s neighbour.
The issue specifically with utilising Romans 13 in this way is to directly concede the ability of the government to regulate the concerns and practices of the church. Even if one was to hold that there are certain exceptions where this can be the case, they have unthinkingly granted authority to the State over the Church and embraced a form of functional erastianism. Indeed, by simply citing Romans 13:1-5 here as being self-evident, we risk affirming that the State has the ability to make ecclesiastical decisions as to the regular workings of the church.
Now, this does not mean we can’t collaborate with the State to implement guidelines and best practices for the church, specifically if they don’t contradict or oppose Scripture. Pastors are exhorted to use wisdom, when working out how church can be conducted well in light of such trialing and difficult times. A laissez-faire approach to the pandemic is absolutely disastrous, uncaring, and outright foolish. If masks and physical distancing has been shown to reduce spread, then they are things we ought to consider. They do not violate our worship and would be, as Calvin would likely argue, adiaphora.
If it is recommended to avoid gathering in buildings, then likewise, as we know the gathered assembly being more than any specific building can gather elsewhere—we can preach and commune in the fields. There is nothing to say we can’t adhere to wisdom—even if it is from Caesar (A broken watch is certain to be right twice a day.)
But there is a difference in deciding to do these things simply because the State has said so and doing so because wisdom advises it. The former is to simply concede authority to Caesar where he has none, the other is operating in wisdom, seeking how to apply biblical wisdom and care that is, foremost, God-honouring to the running of the local church. This may seem to some like splitting-hairs, but the theological foundations undergirding our decisions absolutely matter.
After all, we shouldn’t only do things because we believe they are right (using our corrupt imagination), but because they are the right thing to do in accordance to Scripture. We are beholden to the Word of God as authoritative not only over our own individual conscience but also in the structuring and ordering of His church. Thus, when we scrutinise the ecclesiastical ordering of the assembly as revealed, then, we can visibly see that it is not Caesar but God who directly regulates, through the Word (Operation) and Polity (Execution), how we are to conduct the internal affairs of the church, and it is not through the agency of the magistrate. This is particularly witnessed through Acts 4-5 in how the apostles dealt with the Sanhedrin.
We would do well to remember that the Sanhedrin, or council (Acts 5:21), had a level of jurisdiction, as designated by the Roman authorities, over administrative, political, and even certain judicial aspects of Israel.Emil Schürer, Fergus Millar, Geza Vermes, History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 377. Thus, when the apostles were initially arrested by the Sanhedrin in Acts 4, they were commanded “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). Despite the very real authority that they carried, Peter and John replied in verses 19-20: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” When the apostles were arrested in Acts 5 for preaching Christ, they were again brought before the Sanhedrin who reminded them that they had been commanded “not to teach in this name.” (v. 28), to which Peter and the apostles responded “We must obey God rather than men.”
Now, of course, all would agree that this sets the premise as to how the priortisation of obedience must look. First to God, then to the earthly rulers. Calvin rightly puts it: “that obedience which we have shown to be due the authority of rulers, we are always to make this exception, indeed, to observe it as primary, that such obedience is never to lead us away from obedience to him, to whose will the desires of all kings ought to be subject, to whose decrees all their commands ought to yield, to whose majesty their scepters ought to be submitted.“Calvin, Institutes, Book IV, Chapter XX, No 32.
This is the general Reformed understanding of the interplay between the church and the magistrate. Probably best summarised by the Divine Right of Church Government (1646), in that the magistrate may protect the church and assist in the outward decisions of the church, but it was not to “spiritually, inwardly, formally act any power in the church.“Jus divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici: or, the Divine Right of Church-Government (London: R.W., 1654), p. 77. It had no authority to hinder the church or decide as to its regular operations. George Gillespie, a Scottish Commissioner to the Westminster Assembly, likewise affirms this in the 45th of his 111 Propositions Concerning the Ministry and Government of the Church (itself a summary of Chapter 8 of his Second Book of his Aaron’s Rod Blossoming), when he states that the magistracy had authority over “the outward business or external things of the church“.George Gillespie, 111 Propositions Concerning the Ministry and Government of the Church (Edinburgh: Evan Tyler, 1647), p. 13. They had the authority and duty to help the church, freeing it from restraints in its practice, to enact punishment unto heretics, and other things pertaining to the outward man.George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1985), p.123. However, what about inward things? Only the church had the authority over such, including over the carrying out of the ordinances, church discipline, ordination, and the assemblage of the faithful.Ibid. Gillespie ends the chapter by cautiously stating “we dare not approve his [the magistrate] going beyond the limits which God hath set him.”Ibid.
Whilst I have no doubt many would agree with the above, you should, hopefully, also be able to understand why citing Romans 13:1-5 here is not so straightforward. If the government has the God-given authority to shut down and regulate the practice of the church, then this verse can be employed. If it does not, then we cannot seek to utilise it, without conceding such authority where it doesn’t belong.
Yet, the relevant question boils down as to whether the current limitations and restrictions places the church legitimately at variance with the ruling authorities. Certainly, if there are policies which enforce health guidelines (i.e. recommended physical distancing, masks, restricting unwell people), I don’t believe these necessarily conflict with the ability of Christians to assemble on the Lord’s Day. Out of a desire to care for our fellow congregants (and the wider community), such health practices shouldn’t be shunned out of a knee-jerk reaction. Remember, we are called to “consider others as more important than yourselves” (Phil 2:3), including giving up a bit of comfort, if it helps others.
Yet, what about when restrictions forbid the ability to assemble altogether? What is obeying God rather than men here? While I will deal with that more in point #3, I will to say that it is my own personal belief that the saints are instructed to physically gather on the Lord’s Day, and that the State has no ability to prevent this. Now again, there may come circumstances when due to wisdom we skip meeting for a brief time i.e. If the church is either battling widespread infection or likely to be at risk of such. As we would encourage those individuals unwell or at risk to stay home, so too this could happen in a … Continue reading. However, I do believe that whenever possible, the saints are to physically gather subject to the wisdom and discernment of the eldership—not due to the commands of the State.
On this point, I want to emphasise that Romans 13:1-5 is not the silver-bullet to be thrown out against Christians who continue to gather during such times. Caesar has no say over what belongs to Christ—as the Grace Community Elders have rightly noted.
2. Loving Neighbour and Loving God: The Tension
The other verse which has been overly pushed is Matthew 22:39. The idea is that to continue meeting is an unloving act towards our neighbours. After all, 1 Peter 2:12 tells us to “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles“. Are we doing so by possibly exposing the wider community to the risk of COVID-19 through not being closed?
This may seem compelling at first, and it can apply guilt to those who are leaning towards a continued opening of the church. However, whether this text is appropriate in its application comes down to as how one understands both the role of the church within society and whether closing is actually the best way of loving our neighbour.
Rather than starting with ‘how can we love our neighbour’, I think we need to first understand ‘how can we love God?’ Holding to the Regulative Principle as I do, I believe that the best way we can love our neighbour is by understanding how God would have us show demonstrate the greatest love to them which is through his chosen vehicle—the church.
Rather than to reiterate what have mentioned elsewhere, I hope you will charitably forbear with me as I quote the relevant portion:
Yet also, the question may also arise—what if closing the church is better for it shows that we are loving our neighbour? To this, I would also push back, for our forefathers of the faith saw that loving our neighbour truly can only rightly occur through loving God first. Loving God, in this case, I would argue, from historical-theological precedent, is to continue faithfully gathering as we have been called to do, format varying. We need to recognise that a role of the church is that it is also charged with being a medium of God’s work on Earth, namely through the proclamation of the gospel and all that that entails (Matt. 28:16-20; Acts 1:8). In this world of darkness, the gathered church is called to be a city on a hill, actively reflecting the light of Christ into the world (John 3:19; 2 Cor. 4:4; Matt. 5:14-16). Cancellation of the assembly, or even relegating the service to ‘online’, is to the very real spiritual detriment of those to whom otherwise would have been fed through God’s appointed channel of the local body. Further, and perhaps most crucially, it ‘closes’ the main presence of gospel proclamation. This hospice of the spiritually ill shut. Indeed, it would be a sad day, if a person wanting to hear the words of eternal life was to come and find the doors of every church locked, the saints not assembling.
We do have an onus to love our neighbour, and Christians must do this, and look at ways that we can physically assist in the community that does not have us cease gathering, but the first and foremost way we can love our neighbour during this time is to call nation to repentance and the Good News of Jesus Christ. Perhaps, just perhaps, COVID-19 is an exhortation to the church to boldly preach repentance once again.
There are many who believe that the greatest good for the community, vis our neighbours, is to continue gathering (regardless of what or where the venue is) in order to provide a place where the beacon of hope is held high during such dismal times and where those who are world-weary can find the ailment to their condition. For people who hold to this premise, which includes myself, we believe the flip-side that by not gathering we withhold this means of grace to our congregants but also fail in our duty to ‘love our neighbours’ by not having our (physical or figurative) doors open.
Indeed, it likely should be acknowledged, that recognising the time we’re in which is not only physically concerning but spiritually such, the church has a solemn duty to exercise its prophetic role in proclaiming the spiritual realities (i.e. sin and repentance) not only on an individual basis, but corporately into the public sphere. Both the Early Church Fathers and the Reformation churches generally understood such times to be sovereignly wielded by God to chasten believers and to call upon those—through the church—who are not believers to both repentance and faith. The unwillingness of the church to view these things as such (and to be silent on making such announcements publicly) is a considerably new development. A question we should be reflecting on regarding this is—why is this the case?
However, not to further digress, that does not mean that meetings should occur without any consideration as to the circumstances we are operating in. Like mentioned in the first point, this is where wisdom should be used to ensure that the best precautions are applied. However, to go back to the the main premise, the gathering of the saints is something which is instructed by God, and as adhering to his instructions is the best way of loving Him—and because it is understood that the physical gathering of the saints carries out the main functions of gospel proclamation—it can then be understood that this is an optimum way of loving our neighbour in accordance to how God has instructed us to do so.
Of course, it could be (and has been) raised that churches staying open provide a danger to the community. But the question is, are we prioritising the physical wellbeing over the wellbeing of the soul. This may be a false dichotomy, granted, but this is a question we all need to wrestle with, specificially—what is driving our decisions? Are we living like those without such hope?
Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage between 248 AD to 258 AD, who shepherded his flock during eponymously-named ‘Plague of Cyprian’, which lasted 15 years, challenged his congregants, by reminding them of the following:
“That is not an ending, but a transit, and, this journey of time being traversed, a passage to eternity. Who would not hasten to better things? Who would not crave to be changed and renewed into the likeness of Christ, and to arrive more quickly to the dignity of heavenly glory, since Paul the apostle announces and says, “For our conversation is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change the body of our humiliation, and conform it to the body of His glory?
“It is for him to wish to remain long in the world whom the world delights, whom this life, flattering and deceiving, invites by the enticements of earthly pleasure. Again, since the world hates the Christian, why do you love that which hates you? and why do you not rather follow Christ, who both redeemed you and loves you?”Cyprian of Carthage, On the Mortality in A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe (Eds.), Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix Vol . 5 (Christian Literature Company, … Continue reading
Now, this is not to specifically call out those who use Matthew 22:39 to condemn churches which are continuing to meet. Although, I have noticed professed Christians target Grace Community Church uncharitably with quips like “Virus to You” and that the decision is “So, so stupid”. However, it could contrarily be understood that the churches which have closed for the sake of ‘love of neighbour’ have incorrectly understood Matthew 22:39 and instead of reading it in the interpretative light of Matthew 22:37-38 have added an anthropocentric tint to it, adding an undue focus.
Yet, this is a time where Christians ought to be charitable towards each other, regardless of the position they take instead of firing unsavoury pot-shots across the bow. We must each be persuaded of what Scripture has to say and be guided by our conscience. To wrap up on this point, Matthew 22:39, likewise, isn’t a silver bullet that some people tend to think it is. If anything, it’s use often in these ‘debates’ is entirely uncharitable.
3. Legitimate Models of Church During COVID
But of course, the suggestion may be raised of using online mediums such as Zoom to facilitate the continuation of the assembly. On this point, I am firmly in the 9Marks camp, I do not believe that ‘online church’ can actually be deemed church. Whilst I appreciate the role that this medium allows in aiding communication in ways that are genuinely helpful to the church body, we need to recognise both the inherent propinquitous nature of the church as well as the reality that attempting to do ‘church’ online is a fairly modern and novel idea.
Of course, this does not mean that because something is ‘new’ that it is necessary wrong. Granted. However, the paramount question must be as to what constitutes a legitimate Lord’s Day gathering? From what I have observed too many jumped into the ‘online’ format without necessarily wrestling whether this was a theologically-legitimate choice or equivalent, and while I am aware that there are many who would, rightly, concede that the utilisation of such mediums are a poor substitute for the proper physical gathering, a de facto equivalency and legitimacy has been granted by naming these as ‘online services’ or ‘online church’.
This is problematic, not only because, as I have mentioned previously, it gives authority and legitimacy to churches that are only online. However, further, by legitimising the use of this medium and calling it ‘church’, we embrace a form of quasi-gnosticism where the physical element of the gathering becomes a optional component. Now, we do understand the ubiquitous nature of the ecclesia invisibilis, however the visible expression is as constituted by the local body, which is inherently physical. It is made up of individuals who are physically covenanted together and accountable to each other (Romans 12:5), who seek to speak God’s promises to one another, seek to spur each other on through the enactment of the ‘one anothers’, and who are collective partakers of the means of grace that is received during the weekly gathering.
One could argue that many of these things can be done through an online medium. We can hear the word preached, we can pray and sing together. However, just as talking to your parents on the phone is the not same as actually visiting them in person, so too online gatherings present only a mere shadow of actual church by losing the propinquitous element.
The local church, as epitomised through the weekly gathering, is something that, as an embassy of Christ’s kingdom, is seen and felt. When outlining the nature of church, Scripture evidences an expectation that such is done physically. When talking about the order and structure of worship, Paul uses language “when you come together” (1 Cor 14:26), the Greek συνέρχομαι conveying a physical gathering. Likewise, we are called to greet each other physically (Rom 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20, 2 Cor 13:12, 1 Thess 5:26, 1 Pet 5:14). This is also why the Lord’s Supper cannot be undertaken ‘online’, the language (1 Cor 10:16-17 c.f. 1 Cor 11:24) relating to it indicates that this is a very real physical affair. The common loaf is intending to be an expression of the unity, or commonality, that participants share through their common saviour.On this specific point, I must direct the reader’s attention to this excellent article by Garry Williams: … Continue reading
Yet, of course, it could be conceded that they did not have the internet then, and some would argue that ‘online church’ is an appropriate and valid contemporary application of the text. However, two questions to this must be subsequently raised. The first is to whether we have the authority to move from the ‘physical’ gathering that is exhorted in Scripture and, secondly, whether it is legitimate to move gatherings to a medium that empty meaning out of intentional practices.
However, sadly, often when the structure and order of worship changes, notably on areas which are otherwise textually clear, it is often done in a way which is intended to accommodate practices to the creature, not to conform ourselves to the commands and will of our creator. Now, this is not to say there may not be legitimate differences—things deemed adiaphora—but that does not mean that all differences are, indeed, legitimate. Again, I am not against churches using the internet to keep communication open for members, but let’s not treat it as a valid substitute for the Lord’s Day gathering.
So then, what avenues could remain open for Christians? Again, it depends on the specific circumstances that surround the specific church. If, for a time, it may be wise to halt assembling (notably for reasons specified under Point #2), then that could be understandable. However, given the high prominence within God’s word upon the saints physically gathering—which our ancestors in the faith believed to be important despite the circumstances—then this should never be seen as the first avenue to peruse, regardless of what the Government decrees (See Point #1).
What about in a situation where the government places a capped number on the amount who can gather within your church building? This must be wrestled in a way which is wise, acknowledging any health risks and out of care for the congregation, but also in a manner which understands the rightful order of obedience, first to God and then to man. If you are in a place of significant or high risk, perhaps consider that the capped number is a wise way to prevent specific outbreaks. Such capping does not stop the saints from gathering, even if the assembly may take a form different than what people are used to. A splitting of the church into multiple, autonomous, congregations might be a preferable option.
Nor should we shy away from smaller groups, as J.D. Greer of Summit Church, a 12,000 member church in North Carolina, has adopted and I have argued previously, house churches are a theologically healthy approach and one that has significant historical precedent throughout Church History. This is a helpful model that could be utilised even during times where the government restricts all gatherings. Coupled with ensuring that health precautions are taken for the best of all members, this could be a consideration for many churches, particularly those in medium risk areas.
However, for the sake of wisdom, out of both being health conscious and out of duty to be good citizens under Caesar (as much as we can be), we should err from simply deciding to run church the same way as we did prior to the pandemic when other avenues of doing physical gatherings are before us. To continue to do so, shows a lack of flexibility and care that biblical wisdom calls for. So too deciding to implement no precautions which are medically advisable, like physical distancing or even masks, is foolish, and, as Luther rightly called it, “rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague.” Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: Devotional Writings II, Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (Eds.), Vol. 43 (Fortress Press, 1999), p. 134.
We may continue to physically gather because Christ, not Caesar, is Lord over the church, but that doesn’t mean we do so without any consideration as to the circumstances we find ourselves in. Before rushing into anything, let us commit to prayerful deliberation instead of presumption, and ensure that we have wrestled with both Scripture and conscience, extending charity to those who we may find ourselves disagreeing with.
|↑1||Emil Schürer, Fergus Millar, Geza Vermes, History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 377.|
|↑2||Calvin, Institutes, Book IV, Chapter XX, No 32.|
|↑3||Jus divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici: or, the Divine Right of Church-Government (London: R.W., 1654), p. 77.|
|↑4||George Gillespie, 111 Propositions Concerning the Ministry and Government of the Church (Edinburgh: Evan Tyler, 1647), p. 13.|
|↑5||George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1985), p.123.|
|↑8||i.e. If the church is either battling widespread infection or likely to be at risk of such. As we would encourage those individuals unwell or at risk to stay home, so too this could happen in a corporate sense. Such, I believe, would be covered under “duties of necessity and mercy” – 2LBCF 22.8|
|↑9||Cyprian of Carthage, On the Mortality in A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe (Eds.), Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix Vol . 5 (Christian Literature Company, 1886), p. 474-475.|
|↑10||On this specific point, I must direct the reader’s attention to this excellent article by Garry Williams: https://www.pastorsacademy.org/blog/nova/can-we-celebrate-the-lord’s-supper-in-lockdown-no./|
|↑11||Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: Devotional Writings II, Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (Eds.), Vol. 43 (Fortress Press, 1999), p. 134.|