My heart goes out to churches in places where COVID-related health orders have made it impossible to “gather in a normal way,” to use a phrase from Grace Community Church’s (GCC’s) “Statement from Pastor and Elders.”
True, gathering that way is only “normal” in the sense of “what we’re used to as a megachurch, in modern times, in the most prosperous nation on earth.” But if we consider the conditions they actually have to meet under, to gather legally, it’s much easier to feel their pain. Outdoor temperatures in parts of LA County, California (where GCC meets), reached 121 degrees a couple weekends ago.
Can they really comply with God’s command to obey the local authorities—including health orders banning indoor gatherings—and also obey God’s command to gather for worship?
I believe they can, and in a previous post I laid the principles groundwork for a comply and resist response, rather than assuming churches must comply or resist. Here, I want to look at GCC’s case for it’s noncompliant-resistance response. Tyler Robbins’ evaluation posted here several weeks ago. I’m looking at it a bit differently, though we land in similar places.
One Case for Noncompliant Resistance
In August, GCC’s elders issued a statement subtitled A Biblical Case for the Church’s Duty to Remain Open. The purpose was to explain and support their decision to continue to meet indoors in disobedience to LA County’s ban on indoor gatherings (a ban that—I hasten to repeat—applies to bars, restaurants, and most other indoor gatherings).
The statement has just shy of 3,000 words, and probably 90-plus percent of it is exactly right. This is because the statement focuses on obedience to Christ as the Head of the churches—which is not in dispute among those who believe obedient resistance is the biblical approach. The bulk of the statement doesn’t address the question of whether the health orders are truly a case where obedience to Christ requires disobedience to the authorities.
I’ll be focusing here on the parts that are most relevant to that question.
“Duty to Remain Open.”
- First, the statement’s title, A Biblical Case for the Church’s Duty to Remain Open, unhelpfully frames the issue right from the start. There is no NT command for churches to have buildings at all, much less buildings that remain “open.”
- Second, Does “duty to remain open” mean “duty to never close, even temporarily?” Does it mean “duty to never close permanently”? If it means temporarily, the statement comes nowhere supporting the claim that such a duty exists. If it means permanently, the statement is pointless. Nobody is proposing permanent building closure.
“Therefore we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”
- There is no “moratorium on … weekly congregational worship.” The ban in LA County is on indoor gatherings, with no special targeting regarding gatherings for religious purposes. This spin on the situation has been repeated often in the Christian news media. (But the mainstream media are worse, as we all know, and that makes it OK, right?)
- Meeting inside a building is not included anywhere in “our Lord’s clear commands.” We have “clear” biblical precedent for the church meeting outdoors in Acts 3:11, and 5:12.
“Insofar as government authorities do not attempt to assert ecclesiastical authority.”
- John MacArthur has consistently taught that there is one exception to the biblical command to obey the authorities (see Part 1). This statement introduces an additional exception.
- This is a second exception—and it threatens to nullify Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 entirely. The statement develops this idea a bit further, but not in a way that adequately defines its boundaries.
“… neither of those texts [Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2] (nor any other) grants civic rulers jurisdiction over the church. God has established three institutions within human society: the family, the state, and the church. Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected. A father’s authority is limited to his own family. Church leaders’ authority (which is delegated to them by Christ) is limited to church matters.”
- There’s a noticeable absence of Scripture references in this section of the statement.
- In reality, these spheres overlap: the law says a father can’t abuse his children or kill them. There have also long been many things states do not permit churches to do, such has exceed building capacity, have too few properly-marked exits, break agreements with employees, transport persons in unsuitable vehicles using unlicensed drivers, advocate violence, and more.
“God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church…. no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters…. When any one of the three institutions exceeds the bounds of its jurisdiction it is the duty of the other institutions to curtail that overreach.”
Here, the problems begin to really pile up!
- First, the ambiguity of “practice”—on what basis is a temporary (though unquestionably long and burdensome, at this point) within the scope of a biblical idea of “practice” that the state does not have authority over? The statement does not address the boundaries of “practice” at all. For example, why does use of the building during a pandemic come under this umbrella of state-authority exclusion, while requirements for disabled parking, ramps and elevators, and restroom codes do not? Objection: “Building codes aren’t about meeting, and meeting is outside the sphere of state authority.” If simply being inside the building for a service is “about meeting,” isn’t every feature of the building itself also “about meeting”? The scope of “practice” here seems arbitrary.
- “Ecclesiastical matter.” As above, what’s included in this term? If the NT doesn’t tell us to use buildings, how can use or non-use be an “ecclesiastical matter”? If we can fit that square peg into that round hole, what else can we claim is “ecclesiastical”?
- “Duty… to curtail.” So, not only do we have three completely distinct spheres, but there’s a duty to actively fight boundary violations? This is a hefty claim. A bit of biblical support seems reasonable. The statement offers none.
“Said another way, it has never been the prerogative of civil government to order, modify, forbid, or mandate worship. When, how, and how often the church worships is not subject to Caesar.”
- Again, what’s included in “when, how and how often”? If we define this sphere broadly, why have churches accepted so much government regulation in other matters? If we define it narrowly, it doesn’t really apply to a temporary suspension of use of a building for purposes of public health… along with restaurants, bars, and many other venues.
“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.” (In the statement’s addendum.)
- What these cancellations “signal” is that major events require lots of planning and phased preparation, and you can’t have a big event in a couple of months if you can’t arrange parts of it right now.
- What these cancellations also show is that the health orders are not aimed at controlling what churches do.
While the GCC statement speaks accurately of the authority of Christ over His church, it doesn’t deal adequately with the fact that the same Christ ordained the governing authorities and commands us to obey them. It fails to establish on biblical grounds that a temporary ban on indoor gatherings is outside the state’s sphere of authority or within the exclusive authority of the church. It certainly doesn’t establish that the indoor-gathering bans issued by leaders in California and LA County are an “attempt to subvert sound doctrine, corrupt biblical morality, exercise ecclesiastical authority, or supplant Christ as head of the church.”
This presumption of hostile intent expresses an attitude and tone problem that surfaces frequently in the statement. Our fight is not with flesh and blood (Eph 6:12), and the weapons of our warfare are not carnal (2 Cor 10:4). We are called to “strive for peace with everyone” (Heb 12:14), and that spirit really needs to be the starting point in working through these challenging times.
Churches should keep in mind that a question on the minds of many owners of restaurants, cafes, and other temporarily-closed businesses is, “If we can’t gather, why should churches be allowed to gather?” Many of these businesses will never recover. They can’t do their thing over Zoom or Teams or video streaming. How does our attitude toward government regulation make us, and our Savior, look in the eyes of the communities we’re called to reach?
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (ESV, 1 Cor 9:19–23)
(Still to come: a post responding to objections to the comply-and-resist approach, and some practical alternatives for churches in locations where indoor gatherings are banned or severely limited. Photo: Maya GM.)
Aaron Blumer is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in small-town western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. In his full time job, he is Information Coordinator for a law-enforcement digital library service.