Several days after the decision by Grace Community Church to go back to holding services, several Australians have also decided to wade in and to provide their own thoughts and critiques.
The Pastor’s Heart, an Australian evangelical1)With a moderate Sydney Anglican bent, which is understandable, all things considering. podcast series, held a special episode where the host, Anglican Pastor Dominic Steele, was joined by Lionel Windsor, a New Testament lecturer at Moore College, and the Senior Pastor of Northmead Anglican Church, Adrian Russell. You can watch the clip here:
In all, I thought it a fair and charitable treatment of the decision by MacArthur and the Elders of Grace Community Church to continue meeting despite the restrictions placed by California’s authorities.
However, one minor quibble I had was about something that Lionel Windsor raised (I should add that Lionel is a friend). Specifically, between 10:00 and 10:50, Lionel adds that MacArthur’s position was derived from the Radical Reformation rather than the Magisterial Position (i.e. Calvin, Luther, Bullinger). I believe this to be an incorrect assessment.
This is not only because we need to remember that one can hold to a ‘Reformed’ position that was not necessarily developed during the Magisterial Reformation but could derive from a subsequent, related, time such as the 17th Century, where understandings of Two Kingdom theology were considerably more fleshed out than the earlier sketches by Calvin.2)Whilst Luther also held to a 2KT model, Calvin was considerably more developed on this subject than Luther. MacArthur calls himself an independent and, like both Congregationalists and Baptists, he holds to a certain understanding that is more closely derived from ecclesio-political concepts that were developed in 1600s Britain than the Anabaptists which decried any and all government restriction as being an infringement of liberty.
While Calvin is not always the clearest theologian to grapple with, it is generally known that whilst Calvin did involve the magistracy on matters such as the appointment of ministers and the enactment of punishment, he also believed there were actual and very real limits to their power as exercised within the church (One thinks of his disagreements with the Genevan Senate on communion and excommunication). The authority of the State was “only to the regulation of civil and moral righteousness.“3)T.H.L Parker, Calvin: An Introduction to His Thought (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1995), pp. 156-157 This was done through the protection of the outward service of God, through regulating and forming civic morality, and by ensuring both peace and social tranquility. 4)Ibid, 158. Calvin did not believe in a theocracy: “The difference therefore is very great; because the Church does not assume to itself what belongs to the magistrate, nor can the magistrate execute that which is executed by the Church”.5)Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, XX.III.3 The two spheres are distinct though cooperative.6)Of specific help on this is Paul Helm, Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), pp. 126-128
The development of this distinction was continued throughout the rest of the 16th and into the 17th century. I have quoted George Gillespie elsewhere, a Commissioner to the Westminster Assembly (and an establishmentarian) who likewise continues to clarify that the role of the government was external focused, and whilst there was still some limited involvement and internal interplay, Gillespie understood that the government was restricted to the duty of externally helping the church, freeing it from restraints in its practice, to enact punishment unto heretics, and other things pertaining to the outward man. However, he notes, “we dare not approve [the magistrate] going beyond the limits which God hath set him.”7)George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1985), p.123. This specific understanding was to dominate Presbyterian thought for centuries, and it was most prominently seen in the American expression of it as articulated in the 1788 revision.8)It’s worth reading Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, p. 317.
Independents, or Separatists, further demarcated the overlap between the two, but generally understood this to be logical outworking of the distinctiveness of the two spheres articulated by Calvin and other Reformation predecessors. This understanding being evident in the writings of Roger Williams, William Walwyn, and, of specific note, John Owen.9)Most notably seen in John Owen, Of toleration; and the duty of the magistrate about religion (London: Printed by Matthew Simmons, for Henry Cripps in Popes head Alley, 1649.); M. Sommerville, ‘Independent Thought, 1603-49’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis. University of Cambridge (1981). Note particularly pages 190-93. As such, when the GCC statement goes on to say: “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.” This is not language typical of that born out of the Radical Reformation, but rather is language that not only rightly acknowledges the God-given role that the magistrate serves but also notes the limitations of the office to impose mandates on the practice and operation of the church.
I suspect Lionel’s Anglicanism is being used as the lens as to how he evaluates the decision undertaken by Grace Community Church, which is understandable (after all, we all have a specific ecclesiological lens), but let’s be sure not to discount, or miscategorise, a legitimate Reformed expression because it doesn’t quite match up with our own.10)For note, I’m not saying that this was Lionel’s intention. Lionel is one of the most charitable and affable blokes I know, but this is certainly how it could be perceived.
The Australian Evangelical Onslaught
Two other blog posts also appeared. One by Murray Campbell in Victoria, the other by Stephen McAlpine in Western Australia. Both well-known Australian evangelical bloggers and both with less than friendly or, even, charitable words for the decision taken by Grace Community Church.
In Murray’s article, titled Giving Jesus a bad name, which aptly sets the tone for an article which focuses largely on the actions undertaken by GCC. After, rightly, pointing out the hatred that will be reserved for Christians by followers of this World, Murray goes on to say:
However, not all opposition to Churches and Christians is because of the Gospel or because we are doing what is right. Sometimes Christians are called out publicly because we are acting in foolish ways and even sinful ways. It can be difficult to always distinguish between foolishness and sin, partly because we are not privy to peoples’ hearts. Actions and words are however powerful communicators, and they can usually adorn the Gospel or confuse the Gospel.
Like in every crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is not only witnessing the best and worst of humanity, but we are also seeing the best and the not so good of Christians.
Take, for example, Grace Community Church in California…
Now, I like Murray. We have maintained a friendly relationship and speak from time to time (I fondly remember both of us flanking John McClean on a panel in a conference in Melbourne a few years ago.) Yet, whether Murray intended it or not, the perception readers can take from this is that the actions of Grace Community Church, though being bound by their conscience and attempting to be faithful to what they perceive the Word of God to be saying, has erred. They have given Jesus a bad name, they are “acting in foolish ways and even sinful ways“. Now, again, when one expresses all of that, and then states “Take, for example, Grace Community Church…“, everything that has been mentioned previously is then applied to the example.
Murray then goes on:
Was it necessary for Grace Community Church to recommence their services at this time? Does their decision show love to their neighbours?
In addition, throughout the different stage of lockdown, there have been examples of churches flaunting the rules. The number of cases is tiny, but we already know that the media love to name and shame a Church when possible. Why give them a reason?
Some of the examples I’ve cited above are not necessarily Christian behaving sinfully, but they are unwise. They may not represent many Christians but it does mirror far too many.
The argument is, as has oft been repeated, that physically meeting is naughty and unloving. That to do so also makes the church appears foolish in the eyes of the world.
Yet, I can’t help but see two specific holes in this argument. The first is the assumption that the only way to love one’s neighbour is to cease meeting. This is assumed to be the correct understanding, with no other other legitimate readings being possible. No charity is extended to those who take a, so-called, ‘foolish‘ position. As I have argued elsewhere, specifically point two here, I do not think this is fair. Yet Murray, again whether he intends it or not, places himself as the arbitrator of what is correct and wise and what is wrong and foolish.
Secondly, Murray focuses quite significantly on how Christians (and the Church) are perceived by doing such practices which puts them in opposition to the government. Personally, I think that pitting practices of the church which have a clear and legitimate basis (regardless whether we think they should be acted upon) against how we are perceived by the World to be inherently problematic.
A fully robust doctrine of total depravity evidences that the world will disagree with the ways of God in general11)Per Murray’s citation of John 17:18-25 but also Romans 1:18-32 regardless of how we may operate. Attempting to become less offensive to worldly sensibilities, though it may ‘reserve’ our social capital, by seeking to conform to the rhythm of world during this time may actually be the opposite of what we ought to be doing. It is quite possible that the church continuing to physically gather during such dismal times, entrusting themselves to God as the Sovereign ruler, evidences a hope and difference that is not seen anywhere else in this world—and by not gathering, we are losing this opportunity. We are hiding our lamp under a basket.
I am concerned that not only does closing the shutters on our physical services demonstrate a more significant care and attachment to this world, but a fundamentally weak ecclesiology (i.e. we don’t quite understand the nature of the church as it is meant to be in this world.) and a weak trust of the God’s Sovereignty. I am not saying this is the case for all churches which have decided to close, but I am legitimately worried that these are real issues lingering in the background. Being a student of history, I am absolutely convinced that the significant part of the history of the church evidences that we are acting in a fashion that is contrary to our spiritual predecessors, which I have touched upon in a article from earlier in the year.
Moving on to Stephen McAlpine’s John MacArthur: A petulant teen slamming doors in his parents’ house. I could simply point out that this is someone writing from the armchair of his comfortable and remote Western Australian home, which is considerably different to the dynamics of California, where churches for the past decade have encountered significant challenges and vitriol coming from even their own elected officials. But of course, what would MacArthur know about facing “overbearing control” that wise Stephen McAlpine does not?
Now, I’m being a bit tongue in cheek here. I don’t like this language, I find it uncharitable, and I only use it to make a point. I actually agree with many of Stephen’s points, which I have stated in my post yesterday. I believe that wisdom in light of contemporary circumstances should correlate with decisions to continue to physically meet. Consequently, when McAlpine states: “Nothing particularly biblical or necessary about a barn the size of a small city that seats thousands upon thousands of people.” I agree.
While there are some bits I disagree with (i.e. the general ‘evangelical’ consensus that not closing is naughty and not loving your neighbour), I find that any wisdom that McAlpine has to share is generally washed out by his largely uncharitable tone. Perhaps, mostly welcomed by those who already dislike MacArthur anyway.
That also said, after writing this, I had a brief twitter exchange with Stephen after writing the above, and I will say this, Stephen is right to be annoyed with the statement when it states: “Pastors who cede their Christ-delegated authority in the church to a civil ruler have abdicated their responsibility before their Lord and violated the God-ordained spheres of authority.” In light of the overall statement, it could easily be read that all of those churches which do not follow the same path of Grace Community Church are sinning. (It can especially seem that way when there is also a request to solicit affirmation of Grace Community’s position.)
However, we should always attempt to read well, which means reading it in full context and meaning and not standalone. Mike Riccardi, one of the Pastors of Grace Community Church, posted the following helpful clarification on Facebook:
“Hi Mike — Can you please expand on this section? ‘In fact, pastors who cede their Christ-delegated authority in the church to a civil ruler have abdicated their responsibility before their Lord and violated the God-ordained spheres of authority as much as the secular official who illegitimately imposes his authority upon the church.’“I have been trying to work through all of this as I serve the church. So would you say that pastors who choose to follow the government guidelines and take the medical authorities at their word to be guilty of abdicating their responsibility before their Lord and violated the God-ordained spheres of authority?”
Good question. No. We’re not trying to tie “faithfulness” to a particular evaluation of the severity of the virus or the best way to take precautions in response. For many churches, elders will decide that the regulations recommended are the best way to go. What the section you quoted means is: that’s the church’s call, not the state’s.
Pastors and elders who say things like, “The government has told us how many can assemble this week, so we must comply,” or, “The government said it’s ok to protest but not worship, so we’re protesting and not worshiping,” are the ones who come under the censure of that statement. That would be to give authority to the government that God never gave it, nor intended it to have.
[Added now:] So, how elders make their sovereign decisions on whether and how to meet is a Christian liberty issue, and not every faithful congregation will make those decisions exactly as we have. But, elders farming out to the state their God-given authority to make those decisions is not a Christian liberty issue. *That* is a faithfulness versus sin issue, and that is what the statement calls other faithful congregations to join us in: recognize that God gives you as elders the authority and responsibility to make these decisions; don’t cede that authority and responsibility to the state in contradiction to God’s design.
While the initial statement could have been worded considerably better, I will personally interpret the statement in light of this clarification. Evidencing that Grace Community Church do see how or whether to meet is a matter of liberty, but are rightly pushing back against the acceptance of the authority of the State to dictate the practice and operations of the church. I hope we can all charitably accept this, even if we might theologically disagree.
The key issue with much of the discussions on this topic is that there is too much dogmatism, we’re not allowing people to follow through with their consciences as they are bounded by Scripture and are instead hounding them for not ending up on a position which matches our own. In such polarising and partisan times—where the persecution of the church is likely going to ramp up over the coming decades—the worst thing Christians can do is attack each-other on things where there are legitimate interpretative positions and where there should be charity and understanding applied.
27 July, 2020 – Caesar and Civil Disobedience: Points for Reflection
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||With a moderate Sydney Anglican bent, which is understandable, all things considering.|
|2.||↑||Whilst Luther also held to a 2KT model, Calvin was considerably more developed on this subject than Luther.|
|3.||↑||T.H.L Parker, Calvin: An Introduction to His Thought (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1995), pp. 156-157|
|5.||↑||Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, XX.III.3|
|6.||↑||Of specific help on this is Paul Helm, Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), pp. 126-128|
|7.||↑||George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1985), p.123.|
|8.||↑||It’s worth reading Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, p. 317.|
|9.||↑||Most notably seen in John Owen, Of toleration; and the duty of the magistrate about religion (London: Printed by Matthew Simmons, for Henry Cripps in Popes head Alley, 1649.); M. Sommerville, ‘Independent Thought, 1603-49’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis. University of Cambridge (1981). Note particularly pages 190-93.|
|10.||↑||For note, I’m not saying that this was Lionel’s intention. Lionel is one of the most charitable and affable blokes I know, but this is certainly how it could be perceived.|
|11.||↑||Per Murray’s citation of John 17:18-25 but also Romans 1:18-32|