A Bad Argument from a Good Man


Grace Community Church, where John MacArthur serves, has released a statement announcing its intent to defy California’s latest rollback of church gatherings due to concerns of a resurgent COVID-19.

The statement is a disaster.

If MacArthur wishes to defy the California government, he needs to do better than this. Here are some relevant excerpts:

As pastors and elders, we cannot hand over to earthly authorities any privilege or power that belongs solely to Christ as head of His church. Pastors and elders are the ones to whom Christ has given the duty and the right to exercise His spiritual authority in the church (1 Peter 5:1–4; Hebrews 13:7, 17)—and Scripture alone defines how and whom they are to serve (1 Corinthians 4:1–4). They have no duty to follow orders from a civil government attempting to regulate the worship or governance of the church. 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.

He continues:

History is full of painful reminders that government power is easily and frequently abused for evil purposes. Politicians may manipulate statistics and the media can cover up or camouflage inconvenient truths. So a discerning church cannot passively or automatically comply if the government orders a shutdown of congregational meetings—even if the reason given is a concern for public health and safety.

MacArthur explains:

When officials restrict church attendance to a certain number, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the saints to gather as the church. When officials prohibit singing in worship services, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the people of God to obey the commands of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. When officials mandate distancing, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible to experience the close communion between believers that is commanded in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. In all those spheres, we must submit to our Lord.

Unfortunately, MacArthur made no substantive case, here.

In the New Covenant, without a Yahweh-mandated theocracy, we find precedent for defying the State in the Book of Acts. That volume shows the Church (1) being ordered to not preach the Gospel because the quasi-civil authorities do not like the Gospel, and (2) the Church refusing to obey (Acts 4:15-20).

In order to take advantage of this precedent, the Church must argue a local jurisdiction is acting in a way that fits the pattern. Specifically, persecution or otherwise discriminatory treatment because of religion. Of course, Luke is not on hand to take us into the minds of civil authorities, so we must use a “reasonable person” standard.

So, you must separate government directives into two broad categories of impetus for our context; (1) public health, and (2) persecution or otherwise discriminatory treatment because of religion. In order to trigger civil disobedience, a church must make a plausible case Scenario #2 is happening. In this, MacArthur has not succeeded.

He’s essentially advocating civil disobedience whenever a church disagrees with civil authorities. In fact, on his argument, why should any Christian ever obey his government? This logic is a blank cheque for anarchy, for those looking for it. I expected better from MacArthur.

What about Nevada?

Consider the situation in Nevada.

The Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) declined last week to hear arguments from Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley alleging religious discrimination by the State of Nevada. Calvary Chapel sought to hold services with 90 people, with appropriate social distancing. However, Nevada restricts churches (and certain other institutions) to 50 people flat. But certain other public facilities, including casinos, are limited to 50% of the fire code capacity. Clearly, these are different metrics. When SCOTUS declined to hear the case, it let the lower court decision stand. In Justice Alito’s dissent, he noted:

The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or black-jack, to feed tokens into a slot machine, or to engage in any other game of chance. But the Governor of Nevada apparently has different priorities.

Claiming virtually unbounded power to restrict constitutional rights during the COVID–19 pandemic, he has issued a directive that severely limits attendance at religious services. A church, synagogue, or mosque, regardless of its size, may not admit more than 50 persons, but casinos and certain other favored facilities may admit 50% of their maximum occupancy—and in the case of gigantic Las Vegas casinos, this means that thousands of patrons are allowed.

That Nevada would discriminate in favor of the powerful gaming industry and its employees may not come as a surprise, but this Court’s willingness to allow such discrimination is disappointing. We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility.

If I were in Nevada, I would give serious consideration to defying the State’s order. To return to California, if Grace Community Church feels it’s in an analogous situation, it should explain. Perhaps it cannot.

In short, MacArthur (et al) has made a bad argument. No doubt, some evangelicals will gleefully post it as though Christ has spoken and the matter is settled.

It is not settled.

Perhaps there is an argument to be made that churches can defy the California governor. John MacArthur just hasn’t made it. No Christian should rely on this statement as a basis for defying his State government. We must do better than this.

Return to California

In response to questions about what, precisely, has changed to warrant this reaction, Grace Community Church released a clarification appended to the original article. It reads, in part:

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.

This appears to be the beginning of an argument for civil disobedience based on government incompetence. But, again, the examples from the Book of Acts show us quasi-civil authorities who order the Church to not preach the Gospel because they doesn’t like the message. We have no example of the Church disobeying civil authorities simply because it disagrees with public policy. If Grace Community Church believe otherwise, it ought to prove its case.

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.

To be sure, this is hard. Every pastor feels it. But, is there really nothing that can be done? A full, corporate worship service in your auditorium is the only solution to this problem? You can’t do visitation? You can’t have smaller gatherings in homes? You can’t have outdoor services?

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.

If MacArthur believes California is doing this to deliberately target religious institutions, then he must provide evidence. If he has none, then he’s encouraging any Christian on earth to disobey the State whenever he disagrees or otherwise finds civil authority inconvenient. This is puzzling coming from MacArthur, who believes (rightly, in my view) there was no biblical warrant for the Colonies to revolt against the British!

This is a terrible document. Too many Christians will accept it uncritically. Some of them will do so because they’re anxious for theological cover, any cover, to justify what they already want to do. Others, perhaps some of the same, will be moved by conspiracy theories or animated by political animus. Given MacArthur’s stature in the evangelical world, the bad arguments here are particularly disappointing. Even worse, MacArthur encourages you to “add your signature to the statement,” regardless of whether California’s civil context is your own.

I shall close with a summary from Phil Johnson, of Grace Community Church, made in the context of a dispute with Mark Dever about a 9Marks article which disagreed with the decision:

This is not an argument that triggers Scenario #2. Again, I say it’s possible there is an argument to be made for civil disobedience in California’s context. MacArthur just hasn’t made it.


I am curious to know if Dr. MacArthur and the GCC elders acted upon legitimate legal counsel. I presume they did.

My initial thought when I read their statement was - what about building codes, fire codes, and general civil codes that churches follow when they build their buildings. Reading that statement, it would be very easy to reason your way out of needing to follow them because the civil government has no authority over the church.

This is a very divisive issue, even amongst Conservatives, but the church has a lot of people watching to see if we maintain a consistent walk even when things are not going our way.

[8] He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 ESV)

I have to agree that the case is not well made.

The government incompetence angle is definitely the weakest argument for disobedience. … but I want to suggest that maybe that’s not the argument they intend to make there. Maybe the point is more along the lines of “we were willing to comply with these regulations voluntarily for public health, but there no longer seems to be any reason that’s necessary.”

… which is also not factually strong, but it’s better than “We can disobey the gov. iI we see them as incompetent.” But if that’s the point, it certainly could have been more clearly stated.

A couple of things that have been driving me a little crazy through this whole thing, as far as “conservative” Christian response goes:

  • the presumption that if rules/orders hinder church routines, authorities are acting maliciously out of unbelief and “targeting churches”
  • the trend toward depicting/viewing defiance (the Bible word is rebellion) as a badge of Christian authenticity

Both of these attitudes are unbiblical… and that fact ought to be obvious.

“Honor all men… honor the king” is the opposite of the first item. Romans 13, Titus 3:1-2 and numerous other passages are the opposite of the second.

So what’s going on here? I think Wyatt Graham is in the right ballpark on this:

“We have allowed the secular political discourse to renew our minds so that we can only see liberal versus conservative, control versus freedom.”

I have so much to say on this topic, I’ve found it frustratingly impossible to organize it into some coherent writing, at least not in article/essay form.

Maybe two statements sum a lot of it up for me:

  • the Right is now just as ideologically/ethically/theologically messed up as the Left—though obviously in some very different ways (as well as some only seemingly different ways)
  • a whole lot of conservative Christians haven’t figured that out yet

It’s a grave mistake to grab first for the “Right vs. Left” culture war lenses when looking at social and political issues, claims about diseases and safety, etc. If that was ever a good idea—I’d argue it wasn’t—it sure isn’t now. What we have now are two vast, powerful conduits of confirmation bias, one on the Left and one and the Right, and failing to reject both leads even to misuse of the Scriptures to justify what are at bottom, unbiblical, politically-driven perspectives and actions.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Just came across this also at 9 Marks. An excerpt…

Right now, members of his church can meet outdoors. There is nothing sacrosanct about the particular and present forms of our congregations. You might say my counsel to Pastor MacArthur is similar to my counsel to the pastor who thinks his church has to go to multiple service or sites: “why does that new congregation have to be called your church? You can plant, no?” Likewise, is there any biblical reason why your church or mine cannot split into several churches or take some other form? ….Also, one possibility being discussed by the Capitol Hill Baptist Church elders is whether they should turn their church into several autonomous congregations should DC restrictions eventually make sufficient indoor room for doing so. For now, they’re meeting in a field. Grace Church, on the other hand, is insisting on maintaining its present form. That’s a potentially legitimate decision to make, but it’s not the only decision a church can make.

If there’s a way to obey the gov w/o disobeying Scripture, that’s what we do. I think 9 Marks is too genial on this point. While complying, seek legal redress, if indeed there is a legal issue. This is the application of how Paul used his Roman citizenship, for example.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

[Aaron Blumer]

A couple of things that have been driving me a little crazy through this whole thing, as far as “conservative” Christian response goes:

  • the presumption that if rules/orders hinder church routines, authorities are acting maliciously out of unbelief and “targeting churches”
  • […]

Both of these attitudes are unbiblical… and that fact ought to be obvious.

While in general I’d agree with this, I think the first thing you mention is actually sometimes worth considering — consider Nevada allowing up to 50% of previous capacity for casinos, but not allowing the same for churches, rather only a small hard limit instead of a percentage.

How churches in Nevada should react to this is a different matter, but it would be easy to make the case that this is targeting churches (or at a minimum treating them unfairly by treating them more harshly than businesses that Nevada wants to keep open). Roberts didn’t think so, but the other 4 “conservative” justices thought it worth hearing the case.

I agree that Christians should do their part to “honor the king.” We do have a harder line to walk to evaluate when to obey God rather than men. We can’t just disobey our government when we find it incompetent, but in our system, when men in government act against a higher law of the land, it then becomes a case of which authority is the highest. Obviously, it’s not our place to act as the judges to determine that, but we certainly can use the courts, and continue to do so even if we sometimes lose.

Dave Barnhart

This issue is tearing apart people and organizations which used to be (still are?) friends. For example, there has been a sustained back and forth between Dever, Leeman and Phil Johnson on this issue that is not altogether nice.

JMac can do as he wishes. His congregation is not accountable to any other Christian institution or person on earth. It’s accountable to God. I believe his motives are sincere. I believe he want to do what’s best. I just think they haven’t made a valid argument for their course of action. Perhaps one can be made; I just don’t think they’ve yet made it. My comments are not an angry screed, but a firm disagreement from afar. I hope they’re interpreted that way. I hope we can learn from one another.

At the beginning of the service yesterday, JMac’s congregation gave him a standing ovation and he clearly nearly cried as he began to read scripture then opened with prayer.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Tyler, thanks for your thoughtful article. IMO, and this is only my opinion. The government lost all moral authority to rule in our lives during COVID when it allowed mass protests and has done lttle or nothing to stop mass rioting. For the government to decide what is essential or non-essential by no objective standard is ludicrous.

That may be a good point of favor of a better argument that JMac did not make. But, once you go there, you have to decide on what basis you will ever listen to local and State government again. You also have to consider what “moral authority” the Roman government had in Peter’s life (1 Peter). I’m not presenting myself as the guy with the answers. I’m just the guy saying JMac’s argument doesn’t seem to cut it.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

James White is live on his Dividing Line podcast right now, explaining that it’s “beyond dispute” that “political forces” are using COVID-19 as a pretext to destroy freedom in the USA and “ensure 2016 is the last contested election.” This, he believes, is why it is appropriate for JMac to defy the State of California. He then described the State of California as a corrupt, one-party government of “socialist communists” which sanctions evil and, thus, has lost any claim to allegiance.

This epitomizes a problem I see so often from people who don’t work in government = an imputation of evil motives and dark intent to a monolithic “government,” without any attempt to distinguish between local, state and federal. It reads the worst motives into opponents hearts, and assumes “liberals” are evil. There can be no good motives from “government,” there is only a sinister cabal of shadowy figures who wish to destroy America and the Christian church. White says California is not concerned with public health, and declares the idea that it so concerned as “naivete.” To him, “the government” is the Governor, and he implicitly impugns the motives and integrity of every public health employee in CA city, county and state government.

White then went on to deride people who wear masks in public as “the masked-up, subservient ones.” He dismisses Jonathan Leeman as a “Capitol Hill, 9Marks, beltway Big Eva” man who is “deeply influenced by critical theory, woke theology … been involved in some of the protests.”

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

I’m not following …:

  • Anti-vaxxers (I know a coven of them and they have influenced a church’s COVID plan)
  • COVID deniers (or COVID minimizers (“just like the seasonal flu” or “60,000 die in car accidents but we don’t ban cars”)
  • Doctors who are quacks. I had one in my congregation. He was a quack then. Now on the mission field and still a quack! (He sends disinformation to his contact list - again this week on Hydroxychloroquine )
  • Conspiracy theorists. I’ve had “Plandemic” shared by one on my FB page. Also those who see COVID as a sign that the rapture is around the corner!
  • Trump-nuts who have filtered all COVID related news through the importance of his re-election. If I hear one more time that Trump is a Cyrus I’m going to scream! Meanwhile get your Trump-Cyrus coin!
  • The cancer numbskulls who have advised me to drink a certain tea or eschew certain foods to stop my cancer (really irritates me that they know more than my doctors’ know!)
  • Pastors who don’t follow state-health car advisories (and perhaps don’t even read them!)
  • Lawbreakers

Tyler: White is such a squandered talent to me. There are plenty of talk radio guys already. I don’t know why he feels the need to be a political talking head now. Used to listen to him every day but never anymore.

Jim: couldn’t agree more. So exasperating to deal with it all.

Ah yes, Big Eva. The amorphous bogeyman into which we can cast anyone who doesn’t see things the way we do. And they say fundamentalist militancy is dead!

Inconsistency in one point, or even many, doesn’t turn “the powers that be” into “the powers that only wish they were.” Christians have always believed in the rule of law, and the idea that we get to disobey as soon as we feel the legally authorized leaders have lost their moral authority is just another way of saying ”anarchy.”

Incompetence and loss of moral authority are what elections and protests are for, under our laws.

I grew up hearing variations of this principle, and repeated it often to my own kids: nobody else’s wrongdoing is ever a reason to do wrong yourself.

About White. That’s sad. Probably the hardest thing for me from 2016 on through impeachment and now COVID, is disappointment in so many leaders I expected better from. Those who even know who I am are probably also disappointed in me. That doesn’t make us both right or both wrong. … the times have have brought many of us to ideological hills we’re willing to die on, so to speak. Mine do not require backing a politician or a political party, though, and that’s a significant difference.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

[josh p]

Tyler: White is such a squandered talent to me. There are plenty of talk radio guys already. I don’t know why he feels the need to be a political talking head now. Used to listen to him every day but never anymore.

Jim: couldn’t agree more. So exasperating to deal with it all.

I actually agree with White’s political positions more often than disagree, but that’s not the point. I’m a news junkie; I’ve got better sources for this stuff than him.
Get back to debating cults and Muslims, explaining Gnosticism and Manichaeism. That was great. And very useful for the church.
This, not so much.

I’m not convinced my MacArthur’s, et al arguments either. But here’s a thought that occurs to me.

As in this article, are we putting to much stock in the intentions of those who would seek to halt the preaching of the gospel?

What I mean is, don’t we observe in Acts that much of the antagonism to the apostles from the rulers was as much as, if not more, about civic order vs disturbance as it was about persecution? One could make a good argument that the Roman rulers had a legitimate and laudable concern for public order and safety, as well as the economy. The apostles were, after all, “turning the world upside down.” Recall the riots that occurred in places like Ephesus.

There seems to have been relatively little concern about the specific doctrinal content of Christianity as such, setting aside Jewish opponents, of course. That would come later, but not in the apostolic age. Should the early church have acceded to this “public health” concern, obeyed the rulers, and restricted their preaching?

My point is, I suspect the apostles might think you are setting too high a bar for “civil disobedience” when it comes to the fulfillment of operations in God’s Kingdom.