When the magistrate requires us to disobey God, we should make our case to the him and explain why we are conscience bound to disobey him. This is America. The 1619 Project notwithstanding, one of the principal reasons people came here was to be able to worship freely, according to conscience.
For better or worse John MacArthur and Grace Community Church have become the public face of resistance to California’s onerous Covid-19 regulations. They have also become entangled in the culture war over masks and aligned with the Trump administration, since the president has spoken in their defense and is lending his personal attorney to their legal cause. In response to this phase of the controversy, many have complained about those of us who are not “onboard” or not fully supporting GCC and MacArthur’s defiance of Los Angeles County and the State of California. Not a few GCC supporters have said that those of us who are reluctant are guilty of cowardice. This is not true. In what follows I hope to try to explain again why some of us are not fully supportive of all that GCC and MacArthur are saying and doing.
Around and In
It would help the evangelical discussion regrading church and state in the controversy over how to respond to regulations (e.g., masks, distancing, not meeting indoors etc.) to distinguish between the state’s interest in regulating things around worship, which are common to all gatherings, and regulating the substance of worship. My argument is that the state properly has an interest in the former and no business touching the latter.
We all recognize (or we did before Covid-19) that the community, as represented by civil government, has a proper interest in the general welfare of the community. Thus, I am unaware of any church that has refused to allow the fire department or the health department to perform inspections. How many churches now certify that their youth and nursery workers are not sexual offenders? How many have made mandatory staff training to prevent sexual abuse at church? Our church buildings must be built to local safety and fire codes. No one reasonably objects to such civil regulations. These are regulations around worship that are common to all associations in a decently governed society.
When an easily communicated virus breaks out, the community at large has an interest in how other members act. Church congregations are no more immune from the virus than any other gathering. Tribal arguments for a favored group (e.g., protestors or congregations) are special pleading and thus specious no matter who, whether public health officers or pastors.
In the case of Los Angeles County and the State of California, some of the regulations are onerous and arguably unreasonable. Clearly the county is now seeking to punish GCC and to make their life difficult in light of their civil disobedience but what role has GCC played in this? Are they free of blame?
Has GCC distinguished between the state’s and the community’s proper interest around worship, i.e., as a public assembly, as distinct from the state seeking to regulate the content of worship? It does not seem so.
This was evident when they first publicized their return to worship and in their services since returning. For more on this see the resources below. They made a point of not following any of the guidelines. If the state has a proper interest in regulating public gatherings relative to health and safety, and we agree that they do, then why the resistance at GCC to masks and social distancing? This is one of the points I made early on in this discussion.
What Does God’s Word Say?
One is entitled to one’s personal view of the efficacy of masks or distancing. That is not the question. The issue is whether the state has a proper interest, which we have long recognized. If that is the case, on what basis are we supposed to resist the very same interest that we were recognizing eight months ago? Romans 13 is not absolute in the sense that we may consider no other passages (e.g., Acts 5:29) but Paul does not say that Claudius is correct in all that he does. He says that Claudius has been installed by God and we have to submit to him. 1 Peter 2:17 says “honor the emperor.” Does the cheering congregation at GCC (or anywhere else for that matter) fit that description? Are they gathering together reverently, soberly, doing all that they can to meet the concerns of the civil magistrate to the best of their abilities?