John MacArthur has been one the best known and most respected pastors in American evangelicalism for many decades. Recently he has been in the news for defying an order by California governor Gavin Newsom that requires churches to temporarily refrain from holding normal services within their buildings in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. At the time of this post’s publication, MacArthur is currently being threatened with arrest and fines, and is garnering support in a polarized political environment from Franklin Graham and leading conservative political activists. Many Christians assume that MacArthur is being persecuted for his Christian faith. While Governor Newsom does have a long track record of hostility towards biblical Christianity, his order mandates a broad but temporary closure of establishments that also includes churches. In any case, Peter commanded Christians to submit to the very worst of all the Roman emperors—Nero (1 Pet 2:13-17)—so we must ask whether Pastor MacArthur has a legitimate biblical basis for defying Governor Newsom’s order.
In an article posted on the website of Grace Community Church, MacArthur argues from the Bible that the government does not have the right to ban churches from meeting for services, or to limit the number of people who can gather at one time, or to ban singing in church services. While some of MacArthur’s supporting arguments are problematic, I don’t know of any pastors who would disagree with the major points listed above, as applied in generic circumstances. However, the main article does not address the issue of the context in which the closure orders have been issued, which is the COVID-19 pandemic. An Addendum by the elders of Grace Community Church states, “It is, of course, legitimate for Christians to abstain from the assembly of saints temporarily in the face of illness or an imminent threat to public health.” However, they go on to assert, “the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared,” and it is this evaluation of the danger posed by COVID-19 that led the church to reopen. This is a reversal of the church’s earlier policy; in an article published on May 23, the church leadership wrote in response to a court ruling that kept churches in California closed, “the Ninth Circuit decision is sadly the law of the land in California, and we gladly submit to the sovereign purposes of God. . . . the elders of Grace Community Church desire to delay our reopening and leave it in the hands of God.”
First of all, it must be stated that MacArthur and the leadership of Grace Community Church are mistaken in their scientific and political evaluation of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they ought to know better. The overwhelming consensus of medical experts is that COVID-19 is a deadly disease, and wherever there have been outbreaks of COVID-19 the intensive care units of hospitals have quickly filled to capacity with critically ill patients—something that does not happen with influenza outbreaks. Patients who recover often do not recover fully—they can have long-term or even permanent damage from the disease, which affects the body differently than the flu. Further, COVID-19 is so contagious that even asymptomatic carriers who do not wear masks will spread it to virtually everyone who spends time in proximity to them. Contrary to the conspiracy theories, government leaders around the world would not shut down large sectors of their economies unless they were convinced it is absolutely necessary to do so. Further, churches meetings are being prohibited as part of a general ban on indoor gatherings for public health reasons; the government is not targeting churches for their religious beliefs. Very liberal governors have also closed bars, theaters, sports arenas, and gyms—establishments that they surely do not want to drive out of business. These closings are intended to be temporary, not recurring or permanent.
Is compliance with an order for churches to temporarily stop meeting because of a pandemic contrary to Scripture? Before addressing that question, it should be noted that the government order only prohibits large gatherings of people indoors. As Jonathan Leeman notes on the 9Marks blog, some other large churches have chosen to hold outdoor services, or even to split into dozens of house congregations until the pandemic is over. (See also this CT article.) Most churches are using technology to livestream preaching online and to hold interactive Sunday School classes or small group discipleship via a video conference tool such as Zoom or Skype. MacArthur’s presentation of the issue as an either/or choice between holding regular services inside the church building or not meeting at all presents a false dichotomy (“Christ or Caesar”). MacArthur has rejected the other options, not because he believes they are unbiblical as temporary measures to help contain a pandemic, but because he disagrees with the government’s assessment that large indoor gatherings pose a serious public health risk, calling it “lies and deception.” Apparently if MacArthur was convinced that COVID-19 is a deadly disease, he would have complied with the governor’s order to refrain from holding church services. Here MacArthur is usurping the prerogatives of the state, as it is the role of government officials to decide how deadly a disease is, and what measures should be taken to stop its spread; if every man could decide for himself what should be done, the result would be anarchy and a public health disaster. The government of course makes mistakes, but Christians are still called to obey the government as long as the government does not require Christians to act contrary to Scripture. In this case, the government is allowing for alternatives to meeting inside a church building. (It should be remembered that a church is people, not a building.) MacArthur’s congregation is also defying the government’s requirement to wear face masks indoors because, in MacArthur’s view, “they understand the reality” of the risk posed by COVID-19. This is simple rebellion against the government.
MacArthur argues that the state does not have authority over the church or family, but that these are three spheres of separate authority. However, the New Testament teaches that churches and families are to submit to the state (Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-17), except in those rare cases where the government commands believers to disobey God (Acts 5:29)—and even then, Christians are to follow Christ’s example of nonresistance (1 Pet 2:21-25). In reality, churches comply with government regulations and requirements all the time—building codes, occupancy codes, blight ordinances, and so forth. In addition, it is the job of the government to intervene when criminal activity or activity that adversely affects public health and safety is occurring within churches or families; thus, the government has some legitimate oversight of churches and families. I would argue that the government is within its biblical rights to temporarily order church buildings to close during a pandemic, or even to order “non-essential workers” to quarantine at home. Disputes over whether the government is acting within its constitutional rights should be resolved through legal processes, without civil disobedience.
MacArthur has stated that pastors who are keeping their church buildings closed are not “shepherding their people,” and that the pandemic will “reveal the true church,” in spite of the fact that his own church only recently reversed its closure policy. By “shepherding their people,” MacArthur is apparently referring to preaching to thousands of people in a giant auditorium, as he does on Sundays. However, it is hard to understand how people who watch MacArthur preach on live video are being fed any differently than those who are sitting in the auditorium. One could also argue that a small group or Sunday School class that meets via Zoom or Skype and actually interacts on a personal level is being shepherded in a way that a pastor preaching to thousands of people cannot do. Of course the New Testament directs churches to assemble in person, as there was no way to meet via video conferencing in the first century AD. Under normal circumstances, believers should assemble physically in the same place and meet face to face in order to do such things as corporate singing and communion, which are difficult or impossible to do remotely. However, often circumstances are not normal, and when technology is used well it can come close to replicating many aspects of in-person church. In addition, in other countries and cultures where churches face strong government persecution, Christians often gather in small house churches or even meet in secret locations in order to avoid arrest, and this is not unbiblical compromise.
It is ironic that the article on the Grace Community Church website lists one of the reasons for reopening as: “The unity and influence of the church has been threatened.” Yet the article also contains such polarizing affirmations as: “pastors who cede their Christ-delegated authority in the church to a civil ruler have abdicated their responsibility before their Lord” and “our prayer is that every faithful congregation will stand with us in obedience to our Lord.” The truth is that the pressure MacArthur is placing on other pastors and churches to reopen is likely to cause church splits, as congregations divide between those who believe that COVID-19 is a serious threat and those who think it isn’t. Some pastors are preaching that the Bible requires everyone to physically attend church every time there is a service, regardless of the risk, and that merely watching the service online is disobeying God. This sort of legalistic preaching is likely to kill many people physically, as well as causing great spiritual damage to congregations and to the church’s reputation.
Quarantines provide great opportunities for spiritual growth that are being missed by those who insist on business as usual. (See the excellent Quarantine Blessings video by Rick Griffith.) Many Americans ran out of patience after only a few weeks of staying at home and began to resume their normal activities as much as possible, ignoring the risks posed by COVID-19. However, being in quarantine is a great way to learn such virtues as patience and discipline, and to rest from one’s regular business while engaging in quieter activities. Pastors and churches would do well to take advantage of this change in circumstances to grow in new ways, rather than insisting on unbiblical defiance of government orders to temporarily stop meeting indoors.