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Setting the World on FIre
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by Phil Johnson (and friends)ome friends and I collected common questions that have been raised regarding the recent statement from John MacArthur and the Elders of Grace Community Church, titled "Christ, Not Caesar, Is Head of the Church." Here's our FAQ in its current form:1.Why did you consent to the original government order, citing Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2?¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ The elders of Grace Church decided to follow the recommended procedures set forth in the original government order, not because we believed the state has a right to tell churches when, whether, or how to worship. To be clear, we believe that the original orders were just as much an illegitimate intrusion of state authority into ecclesiastical matters as we believe it is now. However, because we could not possibly have known the true severity of the virus, and because we care about people as our Lord did, we believe guarding public health against serious contagions is a rightful function of Christians as well as civil government. Therefore, we voluntarily followed the initial recommendations of our government. 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.¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ When the devastating lockdown began, it was supposed to be a short-term stopgap measure, with the goal to "flatten the curve"—meaning they wanted to slow the rate of infection to ensure that hospitals weren't overwhelmed. And there were horrific projections of death. In light of those factors, our pastors supported the measures by observing the guidelines that were issued for churches.¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ But we did not yield our spiritual authority to the secular government. We said from the very start that our voluntary compliance was subject to change if the restrictions dragged on beyond the stated goal, or politicians unduly intruded into church affairs, or if health officials added restrictions that would to attempt to undermine the church's mission. We made every decision with our own burden of responsibility in mind. We simply took the early opportunity to support the concerns of health officials and accommodate the same concerns among our church members, out of a desire to act in an abundance of care and reasonableness (Philippians 4:5).¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ But we are now more than twenty weeks into the unrelieved restrictions. It is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared. Still, roughly forty percent of the year has passed with our church essentially unable to gather in a normal way. Pastors' ability to shepherd their flocks has been severely curtailed. The unity and influence of the church has been threatened. Opportunities for believers to serve and minister to one another have been missed. And the suffering of Christians who are troubled, fearful, distressed, infirm, or otherwise in urgent need of fellowship and encouragement has been magnified beyond anything that could reasonably be considered just or necessary. Major public events that were planned for 2021 are already being canceled, signaling that officials are preparing to keep restrictions in place into next year and beyond. That forces churches to choose between the clear command of our Lord and the government officials. Therefore, following the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, we gladly choose to obey Him.2.Are you saying that pastors who choose to follow the government guidelines are thereby guilty of abdicating their responsibility before the Lord and violating the God-ordained spheres of authority?¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ To be clear, 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 independently conclude that the recommended regulations are the best course for the present time. Our point is that these decisions are the church's call to make, not the state's.¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ How elders make their 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. Given the size, health, age, and location of their congregation, as well as how the virus has affected their own community, some pastors and elders may decide to suspend fellowship for a bit longer. Our statement was not intended to target faithful pastors and elders striving to exercise their own independent discretion and navigate their own congregation's needs. Our desire was simply to equip and empower such faithful men—not cause them trouble or bind their consciences to choices we are making.¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ With that said, it is not a Christian liberty issue for elders to farm out to the state their God-given authority to make such decisions. That is abdication. Pastors and elders who allow the government to dictate the size of their gatherings—or whether they can meet at all—give authority to the government that God has given only to Christ as the head of the church. If church leaders have ceded Christ's authority to the government, which God never gave nor intended government to have, it is our prayer that they would repent of that and reaffirm that Christ and not Caesar is the head of the church. The statement calls other faithful congregations to join us in recognizing that God has committed to elders the authority and responsibility to make these decisions, and they should not forfeit to the state that authority and responsibility in contradiction to God's design.3.Are the spheres of church and state as distinct as the statement implies? Doesn't the church submit to government fire codes and zoning restrictions? If so, why not likewise acquiesce to these public health restrictions?¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ While it is true that the church is subject to fire codes and zoning restrictions, those are routine civil, not spiritual, matters, so the state exercises legitimate authority enforcing them. But the government's authority in civil matters associated with the church does not give it authority in spiritual matters, which are the lifeblood of the church. Attendance caps, singing bans, and distancing requirements (especially those that are established arbitrarily and by executive fiat) have the effect of suppressing or eliminating the congregational worship that is an essential element of church life. Therefore such orders fall outside the jurisdiction of civil authorities.4.Why did you ask for signatures on this statement?¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ We wanted to find a way for other pastors and church leaders who agreed with our perspective—but who were perhaps apprehensive about reopening—to have a way to express their support and solidarity.5.Why haven't the elders of Grace Church enforced social-distancing rules and the wearing of masks?¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ The medical community has widespread and dogmatic disagreement on the effectiveness of both of these restrictions. We do not believe it is within the elders' purview or responsibility to resolve that disagreement or act as enforcers of such a hotly debated policy dispute—especially when government authorities themselves have declined to enforce those rules during countless mass demonstrations with crowds much larger than any of our worship services have ever drawn. Instead, we leave it to each individual to be "fully convinced in his own mind" whether or not to follow these guidelines. We gladly welcome anyone to Grace Community Church and leave those choices to each individual, in the spirit of Romans 14.6.What if officials intervene in our services or force us to comply?¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ The threat of even the most severe consequences from government has never stopped faithful people from submitting to the authority of God's Word. And we know that any opposition we receive will be within the will of our Lord, and for the good of His church. We simply desire to gather peacefully and reverently in worship of Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:2), free from the prohibitions of the state. We also understand how desperately the world needs the church, because we are (in Jesus' words) "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world" (Matthew 5:13-14)—an absolutely indispensible influence for truth and righteousness in society. Of all people, we understand how desperately the world needs the Gospel, a spiritual priority far more important than any physical threats which can kill the body but are unable to kill the soul. If the governing authorities feel the need to assail us for that, we will trust the Lord, rejoice, and glorify God for the privilege of suffering in the name of Christ (1 Peter 4:12√ĺ16; cf. Philippians 1:27√ĺ30).7.Is Grace Church open for anyone to attend?¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ Yes. Please feel free to join us for worship.8.Must we meet in the tent, or will the worship center be open?¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ We trust the members of our congregation to be mature adults, so they and their families are welcome to sit wherever they feel comfortable. We have ample outdoor seating available, and have uniformly observed that congregants have been respectful of those wearing masks and/or seeking to social distance.9.What if I don't feel comfortable returning?¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ We understand that we are in unprecedented times, and that the information from governing authorities and health officials changes each day. If you are not comfortable returning to worship, please feel free to take advantage of the live stream and other alternatives. We love you, we miss you, and we are eager to welcome you back when you are able to join us (1 Pet 1:22), but we recognize there are some of our members for whom this is the right decision—especially if you are sick or experiencing symptoms of the virus, are at high risk of complications due to age or other health conditions, or have regular contact at home with someone who is at high risk.¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ While you're away, please continue to reach out to your fellowship group pastors, Bible study shepherds, and other fellow members. We are eager to learn of and meet your needs.10.When will fellowship groups, children's ministry, the nursery, and student ministries resume?¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ ¬ As soon as we can work out the logistics.Phil's signature
. . . and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.by Phil Johnsonavin Ortlund has written a blogpost titled "Should Churches in California Defy Government Restrictions? A Response to John MacArthur." Time won't permit me to go through his entire post, but I want to clarify one point that Ortlund gets wrong, because it's a crucial one, and I've seen it repeated several times on Twitter. (I've even had a couple of angry emails from people who think John MacArthur said what Ortlund claims he said.) Since it's the starting point of Ortlund's blogpost, much of what he writes in the piece hinges on his misunderstanding of a partial quote he has pulled from MacArthur.Ortlund writes, for example, "To claim that those complying with the government restrictions 'don't know what a church is and . . . don't shepherd their people' is both unhelpful and unkind" (italics added). MacArthur made no such blanket statement, but Ortlund seems to believe that's what he meant, and Ortlund feels personally targeted by it.Here's what John MacArthur did say, with a little bit of context:Churches are shutting down. Large churches are shutting down until (they say) January. I don't have any way to understand that—other than they don't know what a church is and they don't shepherd their people. But that's sad. And you have a lot of people in Christianity who seem to be significant leaders who aren't giving any strength and courage to the church. They're not standing up and rising up and calling on Christians to be the church in the world.—John MacArthur (2 August 2020)As the context plainly shows, Pastor MacArthur was talking about pastors who are doing what Andy Stanley and JD Greear have done—namely, they have stopped gathering as a church and made small home groups a long-term substitute for congregational worship.MacArthur's remark was not about masks and social distancing. It wasn't aimed at churches that have continued to gather the flock by moving their services outdoors or off site. And let's be clear: That would exclude Gavin Ortlund from MacArthur's censure. In his blogpost, Ortlund himself says, "Our church has chosen to meet outdoors." Wonderful. He is to be commended for that. But would Pastor Ortlund not actually agree that it would reflect an unbiblical notion of what the church should be if he had given up on the duty spelled out in Hebrews 10:25‚ÄĒwhich (by the way) Ortlund himself lists first in his list of "four biblical values that should inform our decision-making in this situation"?No one who is making a good-faith effort not to forsake the regular assembly has any cause to feel insulted by John MacArthur's comment. I'm convinced that no one who is listening carefully to what Pastor MacArthur is saying (and what he has said‚ÄĒrepeatedly‚ÄĒabout Grace Church's response to the indefinite extension of the quarantine in California) has any cause to feel targeted‚ÄĒunless they are arguing that long-term closure of churches is the right response to the pandemic.I admit, it did surprise me last week when Jonathan Leeman, Editorial Director of the 9Marks ministry, indicated he appreciated JD Greear's approach, implying that canceling congregational worship for the rest of the year is a viable (perhaps even better) answer to the quarantine than John MacArthur's decision simply to open the doors of the church and allow the congregation to come. Leeman himself had previously written an excellent article, "The Church Gathered," defending the priority of the congregational assembly.In the discussions currently taking place in various Internet forums, it seems there is no shortage of church leaders who, faced with the pragmatic difficulties of the recent pandemic, have adopted the view that it's just fine for a pastor to make plans not to gather the flock at all for the better part of a year. Those who think that way ought to feel the sting of John MacArthur's rebuke. The prevalence of such thinking among evangelicals is a disturbing reality, and one that shouldn't be glossed over or downplayed just because someone's feelings might accidentally get hurt.MacArthur was absolutely right in what he said. Those who think closing churches for the remainder of the calendar year is a good plan frankly don't have a biblical understanding of what the church is to be. The fact that so many in current positions of church leadership don't see that sets up a scary scenario for the future of the evangelical movement.Phil's signature

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