A Time for Civil Disobedience? A Response to Grace Community Church’s Elders’ Decision to Defy California’s In-Person Worship Service Ban Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

For more on this topic, listen to Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman’s conversation.

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Before your church follows John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church and begins to gather in defiance of governmental orders this Sunday, hold on! Stop and think with me for a moment.

In case you missed it, MacArthur provided a wonderful statement affirming: Christ’s lordship over governments; our duty to disobey governments when governments forbid worship; and the government’s lack of jurisdiction over a church’s doctrine, practice, and polity. Plus, pastors do well to learn from MacArthur’s example of courage. In years and decades to come, we may have many opportunities to defy governmental incursions.

I also respect the decision of the Grace Community elders to “respectfully inform [their] civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction” and that “faithfulness to Christ prohibits [them] from observing the restrictions they want to impose on [their] corporate worship services.” That might be the right decision. I believe it’s a judgment call, but if they feel bound of conscience to gather their church, then they should gather (see Rom. 14:14, 23).

Yet I’d also like to add, civil disobedience may not be the only legitimate or moral course of action at this moment.

Four additional things are worth mentioning in case you did read his piece. First, it’s true that MacArthur’s church cannot meet, but Christ’s church can meet. 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 services 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? Along these lines, I appreciate J.D. Greear’s and the elders of Summit Church’s decision to turn the 12,000-member Summit Church into hundreds of house churches for the remainder of the year, even if I would structure things a little differently than him. 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.

Mind you, I’m not saying Christians need to embrace this as the new normal and that we should give up on having larger gathering spaces and larger churches. I am saying that, at least in this moment, a church could decide to do something besides all gathering together without selling out to Caesar.

Second, Christians have long worked to accommodate government restrictions on gatherings, both when those requirements have seemed fair and when they don’t. Churches in coastal cities during World War Two accommodated evening black-out requirements in case enemy planes hit the coasts. Those churches didn’t insist the government had no right to “restrict our worship.” Churches in China today sometimes do well to disobey the government and gather underground, but sometimes they’re wise to comply with government restrictions, or at least government enforcement measures, such as keeping their non-state sanctioned congregations relatively small. As my Chinese pastor friends tell me, the police know about their hundred-member congregations, but they won’t bother with them until they reach 200. And so my friends keep planting new churches. My point here is not that the Chinese Communist Party has a right to limit the church to 200. They don’t. My point is that my pastor friends are making calculated, wisdom-based judgments about what will best preserve the witness of the gospel over the long-run, and not just their church. In other words, just because you think God will ultimately vindicate your decision to disobey the government on the last day doesn’t mean it’s wise. You might have other options that avoid undue attention.

Third, addressing this matter of what’s wise or “beneficial” (see 1 Cor. 6:12), I personally wonder if defying government orders for the sake of a pandemic is the most judicious opportunity to exercise those muscles. The politics of LGBT tells me our churches may have more occasions to defy government requirements in years to come. Do we want to spend down our capital on pandemics? Right now, the guidelines restricting churches also restrict restaurants, movie theaters, museums, gyms, funeral homes, non-essential offices, shopping malls, barbershops, and more. As those restaurant and gym owners cast a glance over at our churches, will our refusal to abide by the same restrictions which are causing them financial distress help the witness of the gospel, especially if we could find other ways to comply, such as meeting outdoors? Again, all these are judgment calls. My point is merely, let’s leave room for churches to make different decisions a la Romans 14.

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SOURCE: 9Marks – Jonathan Leeman