Reopening and defying the law -why John McArthur has got this badly wrong

Grace Community Church, Sun Valley is a mega-church in California.  It’s pastor John MacArthur is prominent, particularly from the conservative end of the spectrum with an international teaching ministry.

Last week, they decided to re-open their building for public worship in defiance of State rules during Coronavirus. Their argument was that they must obey God and whilst they respect the civil authorities, God’s command to gather must be obeyed when it contradicts human law.

Well, on one level, I have no problem with that so far.  I have argued in the past that if churches genuinely believed that online type gatherings were not really church gatherings then they should find ways to gather, even if at times that might put them at odds with the authorities. You will remember of course that I insisted that:

  • If you took that course of action, then you should take all precautions necessary to minimise the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus. In other words, meet outdoors with appropriate social gathering.
  • That personally I believed we were allowed to gather because I considered online formats to meet that requirement.

So, I would have less problems with a church saying “I think the current restrictions stop iis from gathering so we must obey God even if it means breaking the law” than with a church saying “we are stopped from gathering but we will comply.”

So, on the one hand, you might expect me to say “all power to them and God speed.” Except I cannot and here is why.  My first issue with their actions is bound up in some of the defences I have seen for their decision and actions.  A constant refrain seems to be that different churches have reached different conclusions on how to approach re-opening and we seen to respect and support each other.  Therefore, what has MacArthur’s decision got to do with us if we are not part of his church or at least of a neighbouring church in that area.  There are two problems with that defence. First of all, it seems to be a UK response but here the difference is not between defying Government restrictions but the pace we move forward at in responding to them being lifted.  Secondly, if I choose to do something different at Bearwood Chapel to say Bethel Church Oldham or  Gas Street church, then what is the impact going to be? Really, it is going to be local.  However MaArthur has not simply acted as a local church leader. He has acted as someone who has been set up as having a leadership and teaching role towards the wider church through books, conferences, teaching and an online ministry. He cannot help but make a pronouncement by his words and actions on what we are doing here in Smethwick.

Alongside that, he is not coming to a pragmatic decision. He has said quite explicitly that this is a choice between obeying God or obeying the state authorities in an area where they have no authority. By implication, every eldership that has complied with COVID-19 restrictions has in effect surrendered their church to mammon.

Furthermore, I must admit that I struggle to give him the benefit of the doubt. As with the CCFN legal action in this country, I am left asking “who are the real targets here?” You see as I understand it, GCC are permitted to meet so long as it is outdoors and with precautions taken. So this is not the big exercise in martyrdom that we are first led to believe.  Also, McArthur has previous. He and his acolytes have used their platform over the past few years to attack and dismiss as woke  those who have spoken up against systemic racism and social injustice accusing them of replacing the gospel with a “social justice gospel.” 

The biggest problem with McArthur’s approach is that his argument is not really based on Scripture at all but on a theory or model of government developed by the Puritans. The approach is called Lex Rex (The rule of the king) and it involves the separation of authority into spheres, family, church and state. The concept relies on a context where a country is essentially Christian and assumes that those spheres should work together in harmony. However, each authority must stick to its sphere of responsibility. If the State steps into parenting or the church leaders take on political leadership roles then that is when tyranny comes in.

It’s not a bad approach but it is not infallible Scripture. Furthermore, I think that the GCC elders have misunderstood how it works. It’s not that once you enter the church building, the government has no authority past the door.  In the same way that whilst the church cannot parent your kids, it can still teach you and instruct you about family life, so the State has a level of authority in those areas, for example to protect against child abuse, to ensure that criminal law is kept, that fraud does not happen and that health and safety measures are in place. I cannot just do whatever I want within the church. I am still under the law of the land. If that means that the law requires me to wear a facemask, socially distance by two metres or even meet outdoors for the time-being then it is not going against scripture to comply with that.

My final objection is that we are now being presented with YouTube videos of a packed church and a pastor taking to the pulpit with applause ringing out and that just looks awfully triumphalist to me.  The big risk from COVID-19 tends to come from people being packed into indoor spaces with singing and projected speaking.  Now, I hope and pray that there isn’t a serious outbreak of the virus in Sun Valley as a result of this. However, if there is, then it will bring the gospel into dispute. People will be weary of engaging with a church that they see as irresponsible. Governments are less likely to trust churches to manage their own responses and so other churches may experience tighter restrictions and finally it is possible that people might die. Will the elders of GCC take responsibility for those deaths?

We have a responsibility to Christ and to one another during this virus.  Let’s pray for GCC that the congregation will be kept safe and yes that God will bless them with fruitfulness. However at the same time I think we are permitted to say that we think they have got this wrong both in what they have done and how they have gone about it.

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