By Ryan Itzel
On July 24, 2020 John MacArthur and the rest of the elders at Grace Community Church released a statement that they would gather as a church, defying the state’s restrictions on assembling in their building. At the release of the statement, many took to social media to weigh in on the decision to reopen. Some applauded at the firm stance that Christ is the head of the Church, not Caesar, while many disagreed with the decision, believing it was unwise and irresponsible. I wanted to share some thoughts on the matter but thought it right to take a week and contemplate before writing a post here on the situation. I pray that these few thoughts I share will encourage you and cause you to think about the situation from a Biblical and gracious perspective. My desire is for believers everywhere, whether you agree with Grace Community Church’s decision or not, to show grace to Grace.
A Changing Context
First, one of the most common complaints with Grace Community Church’s decision was that they had change their minds on obeying the government, forsaking what they had previously taught to be the right response to passages such as Romans 13. This however is not necessarily the case. When the lock down caused by the COVID-19 pandemic took place, churches everywhere shut down for the safety of their people and obedience to the governing authorities. The church took what information it had and found temporarily abstaining from large gathers to be the right decision. As the long months of isolation have progressed, the information on which previous decisions were made was found to have
changed. Initial projections on the COVID-19 virus had millions of people dying across the globe. The media described getting the virus as a death sentence, causing our world to spin violently out of control. Yet, here we are, eight months into the year, and the casualties have not been what was previously expected. This is not to say that COVID-19 is not serious or that we should disregard being wise in our actions. Rather, it simply is not what we thought it was. Though over 150,00 people have died in the U.S. from this virus (or at least are documented as having died from the virus), people are beginning to see that it is not going to have the toll many thought it would.
The COVID-19 outcome is not the only change to the context that might have played a role in the decision making of Grace Community Church, and many others. In the early months of the quarantine, the government’s stay at home order was reasonable and balanced. There was no reason to think that churches were being treated unfairly, as all aspects of normal life seemed to come to a halt. This has not continued to be the case. As the months have progressed, the government has not remained impartial in their restrictions. Casinos, bars, and abortion clinics are open and operational under California law, while churches are to remain closed “indefinitely.” Large riots led by the Black Lives Matter movement are not only encouraged but supported by the governor, yet the gathering of believers for worship is suspended. In the limited outdoor gatherings, the act of congregational singing has also been restricted by state order.
It is not a matter of interpretive change on the behalf of Grace, but rather a change of context. The information has changed. We are not experiencing the end of the world with this virus, as some would have had us think. Many have died, and we mourn with those who mourn, but the realization of need to gather is becoming more evident with each passing day. In certain spheres the government seems to no longer be protecting but attempting to seize control of the church’s pattern of worship. This right remains with the Lord of the church, Jesus Christ. The context has changed.
A Biblical Reasoning
While COVID-19 has proven not to be what we previously thought, others argue that Grace Community Church has become disobedient to the Word of God by refusing to submit to the governing authorities per Romans 13. John MacArthur addressed ideas such as these in his sermon on July 26th, giving the example of Daniel 6. This chapter, along with Peter's words in Acts 5, are the prime example of when Christians are to disobey the government. These two chapters do not contradict Romans 13 but are commands for different times. Romans 13 speaks of submission to government as long as the government does not tell us to sin. God does not ever call Christians to sin. Daniel 6 and Acts 5 are examples of when governing authorities demanded saints to sin (i.e. not pray to the one true God/pray to the king, and not preach the gospel).
So, how could Daniel 6 be understood as an example that some churches (depending on the governmental restrictions) should follow? In Daniel 6, a familiar text, we see king Darius, tricked by his high officials due to their jealousy of Daniel, to sign an injunction that whoever prayed to any god or man, apart from him, should be thrown into the lion’s den (Daniel 6:6-9). Daniel responds to hearing about this new law by immediately going and praying to God (Daniel 6:10). This act of defiance, though resulting in him being thrown in the lion’s den, was right, as he could not pray to anyone other than the One True God, nor could he cease from praying. But notice, this new rule was a short-term command. In verse 7 we find that it was only to be enforced “for thirty days.” Yet, even for that short period of time, Daniel could not obey. Notice as well in verse 10, Daniel does not hide his praying, or even slightly adjust how he prayed, but rather continued on “as he had done previously.” Obeying the wicked edict would be sin, and Daniel would not submit.
Some argue that we should not be so ready to our capital, and should wait until a greater issue arises. While there is something to be said about not being the boy who cried wolf, there is no room for compromise when obedience to Christ is at stake. We cannot exhaust our standing for the truth. If we are faced with sinful demands daily, we must do it. To argue otherwise is like saying someone with stage 1 cancer should wait for treatments until stage 4. The right course of action is to deal with it early on before it gets to stage 4. To do otherwise hinders the chances of success.
In our context each church must evaluate the rules and regulations of our local governments and discern whether it is a command to sin or not. But one thing can be said for sure: we are commanded to gather as believers (Hebrews 10:25), we are commanded to sing to the Lord (Colossians 3:16), if the government forbids gathering together to worship our God, we must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29).
A Humble Disposition: What Does This Mean for My Church?
In closing I hope to give just a few thoughts as we look to churches like Grace Community Church and others who are choosing to gather even when the government commands otherwise.
Know your Context
Each pastor and elder must be diligent to know what specifics their local government mandates regarding gathering for worship. You cannot go 10 miles without entering a new area with new regulations specific to that context. In order to know how your church should respond, you must know what is expected of you. Work hard to find out this information; your church deserves to be led well. If you are able to gather, worship God corporately, and shepherd your flock in a manner pleasing to the Lord, all while obeying your government, then do so! Don’t disobey government when they do not require you to sin. Pray for wisdom, do not be hasty to act, and do your best to discern what is right for your church’s context.
As you work on knowing your own context, you will see that it is almost impossible to get a straight answer on what is allowed and not allowed. This toil should prompt us to show grace to others, recognizing that every other church is going through the same struggle. Not only that, but we should consider the fact that we are not Grace Community Church. It is easy from the outside to “know” the right thing for every other church to do. But God has not given us the stewardship of Grace Community Church. We do not necessarily know all the intricacies of shepherding that flock well. We should show grace to Grace, praying regularly for wisdom for them and all other churches that they might lead well.
Prepare for the Inevitable
Our world will not get better. Though we long to return to regular ministry, we must be prepared that our ideas of normality may not always be possible. It could very well be one day that we are forced to quietly gather like those in China, Middle East, and many in the early church and throughout church history. We must also be ready to defy sinful edicts if our context proves to be like Daniel 6 or Acts 5. As pastors and leaders, begin now to prepare your leadership and your flock for the inevitable day of great persecution for naming the name of Christ.
As we consider all of these things, let us show grace to our brothers and sisters, remembering the golden rule of Matthew 7:12, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” MacArthur and the other elders face the prospect of heavy fines and possible arrests. Pray for those standing for the faith and be encouraged to do the same in the midst of those who compromise.