“For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
— 1 Peter 1:20-22
Last week, Grace Community Church. a large and influential church publicly informed their Governor that enough was enough. They were no longer going to comply with the order not to assemble. At the bottom of their post, they asked others to sign their statement to “Stand with us in support of the biblical mandate to gather for corporate worship.”
This week, after further consideration, Dr MacArthur made clear that they were taking steps to make sure that those who were vulnerable were able to come. They will be setting up 1000 chairs outdoors for people who do not wish to be in a building. They will provide face masks.
Thoughtful Evaluation for Future Action
This action gives us opportunity to think about civil disobedience.
What I offer here is an evaluation of what is a very difficult task for any body of elders. Nothing we do is ever without flaws.
I cannot begin to imagine the challenges of a congregation of 3000+. I have been to Grace and attended Shepherds Conference many years ago there. The sanctuary is immense. The campus is small for a church its size (it is part of densely populated L.A.). The complications of other means of gathering such as breaking up the church into smaller groups, keeping social distancing, etc are great. I would assume the elders tried to think through all of those details.
Is this the beginning of many more calls to obey God and not man? I have been collecting examples of coercion and repression for 6 years. Most of my examples are in the secular realm, related to the First Amendment. But it seems clear to me that we are not far from a time when individual Christians may be called to disobey the laws of man which call them to sin against God. Churches will face the same.
How do we do this in a way that is pleasing to God?
God establishes human authority
Begin here: Romans 13 says it most clearly. God has final authority. He appoints subordinate human authorities to act on his behalf in matters of law and justice. Therefore, God expects his people to obey all human authority. It does not matter if we agree with them or trust them or think they are schnooks. Obedience to those in authority is obedience to God.
God delights in authority structures. From marriage to family to state to schools to . . . you name it, God orders the world of men through people who have a responsibility and authority to make decisions and to enforce them. Order and structure preserve us from destroying each other.
Christian are to honor God’s appointed authorities
Christians vale authority structures. We are not anarchists. We know order is a good thing in a world of sinners. We know that:
bad government is better than a good mob any day.
God opposes the violent protesters, the thugs, etc. They are not on his side.
But Christians insist no human authority has absolute authority. Totalitarian states hate Christians.
God versus the State
God alone is the final Lord of who determines right and wrong, truth and error. God appoints authorities to govern the world of mankind. What happens when they conflict?
The rule of the church has always been, we are called to obey God and not man (Acts 5:29). Yet civil disobedience is valid only when the command of any authority requires an individual Christian or a church to disobey God’s explicit command.
Notice, I defined this carefully. This is the right of God to give the final commands which we are obligated to obey. It is not the right of our conscience to have the final say. The reason for disobedience must be objective and verifiable. It must be much more than “To me, this is wrong.”
Disobeying while honoring
Christians have disobeyed the State. They have faced imprisonment or death or poverty when they did so. But they have not disobeyed in a way that foments revolution.
Our disobedience should be measured, even a last resort.
Every means of appeal should be pursued before the disobedience takes place.
We do that because we treasure order, even flawed order.
Our disobedience must also be narrowly defined. It has to do with specific commands, not attempts to de-legitimize the state. We can have no partnership with those who seek to undermine authority structures.
Civil disobedience is narrowly defined. It is never be a usurpation of other legitimate authority carried by the State. It is never simply a broad critique of the corruption of the state (all human authority is corrupted in some measure)
GCC and Civil Disobedience
I would not dispute the right and responsibility of the elders at Grace Church to consider the Scriptures and to take action they believe is faithful to the Word of God. They believe they have been prohibited from gathering. That, they insist, is contrary to the command of God.
They are right to state clearly that the State is not the final authority over the church. They are right not to focus on Constitutional issues. They argue from Scripture.
GCC is not strident or revolutionary. They could have been, but they were not. The recent update from the church is gracious in tone and pastoral in demeanor. This does not sound like a rebellion. (Some of their followers made comments quite contrary to this principle, things like “Grace Church tells off the State.” That is never the tone for godly civil disobedience. That is not the attitude of the GCC elders.)
So far so good. This is a good example for us to follow.
Was this the last resort?
Part of respect for authority is not being disobedient until all means of redress are exhausted. Did they write to the Governor? Did they think of organizing a peaceful protest of masked Christians in Sacramento? I do not know if they did or not. I hope so.
Is this persecution?
At one point in their statement they speak of times when Christians have had to deal with government intrusion. But as they develop this, they move to the term “persecution.” To be candid, I laughed out loud.
This is persecution? Perhaps it is over-reach. Perhaps intrusion. But to call this persecution is an insult to the persecuted church. I will let my friends who endured all night police interrogations under communism know that we think we are being persecuted because the state thinks large public gatherings, including church, are a health hazard and ask us not to meet.
Is this the only form of faithfulness?
Not all elders and churches agree with GCC. Other churches, including ours, concluded that gathering at the same time in a livestream is an acceptable form of gathering. Churches in California have gathered outdoors or found creative ways for in-person meetings for worship. Many of them do it while keeping social distancing guidelines.
But the GCC post says: “Stand with us in support of the biblical mandate to gather for corporate worship.”
This statement created a double bind. A double bind is a classic form of coercion. It gives you two options: agree with us and be counted faithful, disagree with us and be deemed unfaithful. Notice, the third option of disagreeing and being faithful is excluded.
It is also vague. I read their sign here statement many times. I could not sign it, but then I thought I should sign it. Do I think this is the only way to be faithful? No. Do I affirm the command of God to gather? Yes. That is the mark of a double bind.
When we act like God add to the commands of God
Implicit in the statement is the judgment that if your church chose to meet outdoors, in ways you did not meet before, in order to honor the State’s public health directives, you are unfaithful. I do not think I am making this up. It is what Dr MacArthur says in his update — he cannot believe there are churches that will not do what they have done. Dr MacArthur comments on them: “I don’t have anyway to understand that, other than they do not know what a church is and they don’t shepherd their people.“(Minute 10:36 on update).
There is more to this than the command gather. There is more to it than the doctrine of the church. Gavin Ortlund discusses that here.
The sweeping judgment is wrong. Sadly, it affects other churches. People who watch his update (he said they have tens of thousands of viewers) will take his word for it. They will assume that their pastors or elders who do not insist on reopening do not understand what the church is.
I am not alone in this critique. See the posts here and here and here. The first was written by a scholar of the Reformation. The latter two were written by one of the finest scholars in the USA regarding the relation of the church and State.
The role of the State and GCC’s confusion of issues
Government has broad powers when it comes to public health. Churches comply with their rules all the time.If you have a food service kitchen, you submit to all kinds of law for public health.
The State gave a number of rules about public health. GCC elders concluded that one of them, the prohibition of assembly, was contrary to God’s word. That is entirely within their right as elders. The State cannot usurp the Lordship of Christ over the church.
But here is where it got messy: they also made a statement evaluating public health policy: It is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared. That is a disputable point. But more than that, the church has now taken on a role not given to it: to make decisions about public health. Last I checked, that is not part of the biblical calling of elders.
I believe that as they insisted the State had exceeded their authority in prohibiting gathering for worship, it could easily be argued that the church exceeded their authority in making a determination on public health.
Simply put, while asserting the limited authority of the government, I wish they had distinguished between those parts of the government directive that were not a usurpation of the authority of Christ over his church, and those that were.
It was certainly conceivable that they could have resisted the prohibition of assembly while keeping the directives on limiting transmission of the disease. They are obligated to make a good faith effort.
An Even Bigger Issue
There is more involved here than the rule of Christ over the church.
The COVID pandemic has revealed the sins and idols of our hearts. It appears that many Christian in America have allowed their view of this virus to be co-opted by the ways it is being used for political purposes.
What has struck me in these last four months is how I can tell the news source of people in Christ by the views they take of the virus. Their narrative is ideological not theological. This is bearing dreadful fruit.
We now have factions in our churches. There are Christians who identify themselves as anti-maskers or pro-maskers, virus minimizers and virus maximizers, etc etc etc. Members of churches refuse to come to church if the elders ask people to wear masks. To put they differently, they make compliance with public health policy a matter of censure. They dis-fellowship, not over sin or doctrine, but over courtesy.
We contend with each other over these matters. The unity of the church is disrupted. We do not serve the vulnerable and fearful in love.
Learning from 1 Peter
As I preached to our congregation yesterday, God calls his people to respond to even the most corrupt authority by trusting God to be at work even through corrupt authority. God calls us to patient waiting not taking matters into our own hands. ,When we walk by faith and with patience, we will live in submission, preserving the unity of the church in serving the weak, and abounding in good works. Jesus is our example in this, leaving us the steps to follow.
Whether we submit to lawful commands or disobey an unlawful one
This present distress is a God given opportunity to commend the . . . . rights of Christians? the freedoms of our Constitution? Republican party? our view of the virus? NO, NO, NO.
Let me be blunt, if the true and living God ranked what his purposes are in this God sent pandemic, none of those would be on the list. No. Not. One.
When he designs suffering for us, it is for the advance of the Gospel. We advance the Gospel by lives that commend the Gospel. Commending the Gospel is by good works.
This is an opportunity to commend the Gospel, to show the beauty of Jesus patience and kindness to people we disagree with, to abound in good works. How many good works? Listen to Peter:
“For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” (1 Pet 2:15 ESV)
Abound in good works.
Deny your rights to serve your brothers and sisters. Stand in unity with your church and its elders. Look for the widows who may be stuck alone at home and cannot get their groceries. Help her. Look for the poor of your community whose lives have been deeply affected by the infection, and serve them. Bless those who disagree with you. Pray for your enemies. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.