In his July 25, 2020, piece, “A Time for Civil Disobedience? A Response to Grace Community Church’s Elders,” Jonathan Leeman discourages members at Grace Community Church (GCC) from meeting together for corporate worship, and pleads with other churches not to follow their example (Leeman may claim that it was not his intention to discourage anyone from meeting, but the words, “hold on! Stop…” don’t convey that very well). Leeman writes, “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.” Note that Leeman does not say, “Before your church follows Andy Stanley’s church and stops gathering despite there being no government orders against it…” He does not say, “Before your church follows Ed Stetzer’s church and stops gathering despite there being no government orders against it…” He does not say, “Before your church follows J. D. Greear’s church and stops gathering despite there being no government orders against it.” Rather, Leeman singles out a church and its elders that have made the difficult decision to meet together for corporate worship despite their civil government telling them not to.
Where Leeman and GCC Appear to Agree
Let’s start with where Leeman agrees with GCC. Leeman writes, “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.” He adds, “pastors do well to learn from MacArthur’s example of courage.” Leeman explains, “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).” The elders at GCC likely agree their decision was a “judgment call.” The complaint Leeman has for GCC is that they make the wrong call. Leeman also says, “I’m sympathetic with Grace Community’s concern about the indefinite elongation of this time.” These are all ways in which Leeman is more or less in agreement with GCC. So what are his major problems with the way GCC has approached this issue?
Leeman offers four points to ponder in relation to GCC’s decision, which are supposed to constitute pushback. However, GCC could easily concede Leeman’s first and fourth point. Leeman writes, “First, it’s true that MacArthur’s church cannot meet, but Christ’s church can meet.” Yes, Christ’s church can meet, but what does that have to do with GCC? The Chinese know that other churches in the world can still meet, but that observation isn’t overly helpful to the church in China. Christ’s church can meet, but that ignores the place in which GCC finds herself. Leeman also agrees with GCC on the respective roles of family, church, and state. Leeman notes these spheres often overlap given that the same persons are impacted by them, but it’s strange that Leeman might think the elders at GCC would not readily grant this point.
Where Leeman and GCC Appear to Disagree
Moving on to actual disagreements, Leeman suggests that “churches should observe state-established fire codes, building codes, zoning restrictions, historical-preservation-society codes (if you’re on Capitol Hill), and more.” Some would no doubt disagree even with that claim. Leeman doesn’t prove that point, he assumes it, which only serves to weaken his argument. Let Leeman’s premise stand for the moment. Leeman’s conclusion is, “All that to say, it’s not immediately evident to me that a government’s original orders back in March and now again in July are, in MacArthur’s words, ‘an illegitimate intrusion of state authority into ecclesiastical matters.’ One could argue they are doing their job by seeking to maintain peace, order, and the preservation of life, as hundreds of people gather, potentially infect one another, and then scatter into the wider community.” Of course one could argue that the government is doing their job to “maintain peace, order, and the preservation of life.” But one suspects that is almost always how a totalitarian government does argue for overstepping its God-ordained boundaries. We’ve seen such language used to disparage movements against government sanctioned racism in the United States of America, and we will no doubt see it used to disparage Christian worship that contradicts government sanctioned secularism. In any event, Leeman’s idea that John MacArthur is wrong about government intrusion doesn’t follow from an observation that churches follow building codes. Imagine thinking that the Chinese Communist Party is justified in preventing churches from meeting because churches in the US have building codes.
Now that the problems with granting Leeman’s premise are plain, we can go back and deny that premise. Again, Leeman writes, “churches should observe state-established fire codes, building codes, zoning restrictions, historical-preservation-society codes (if you’re on Capitol Hill), and more.” But Leeman grants, “all of which impinge on and limit our gatherings.” Leeman concedes that these codes are impinging on and limiting gatherings. In other words, Leeman says that most people haven’t thought of what he has thought of, namely, that these codes do impinge on gatherings. Indeed, they do. So why do churches submit to government regulations pertaining to safety? Because these regulations do not hinder but rather help with conducting corporate worship. Is it always the case that such regulations do not hinder but rather help with conducting corporate worship? No. We know that government regulations seemingly unrelated to religious liberty are nevertheless used, at times, to prohibit the practice of religion. Recall the infamous mosque defense offered by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Presumably Leeman agrees with the ERLC’s actions in that case. Presumably Leeman would be shocked at the suggestion that ‘members’ of the mosque could have just met somewhere outside instead. And yet, Leeman seems perfectly fine with the civil government prohibiting GCC from gathering, or the civil government requiring GCC to gather outdoors, because they’ve followed building codes in the past. The civil government forcing churches to meet outside is not okay. We cannot justify a government ban on corporate worship gatherings by appealing to building codes, because those codes are generally not the same thing as the civil government prohibiting corporate worship. Surely Leeman sees this?
A Biblical Example of Civil Disobedience
Leeman’s main contention is, “civil disobedience may not be the only legitimate or moral course of action at this moment.” Let’s go to the Bible to consider Leeman’s thought (something Leeman does not do in his article to the extent that the elders at GCC did in their statement). Remember Daniel 6:10, “When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.” Now when Leeman came along, he questioned Daniel, saying, “civil disobedience may not be the only legitimate or moral course of action at this moment.” And Leeman speculated, “In years and decades to come, we may have many opportunities to defy governmental incursions.” Leeman offered instruction to Daniel, explaining, “There is nothing sacrosanct about the particular and present forms” of his daily prayers. And Leeman warned Daniel, “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.” Leeman did all these things, but Leeman wouldn’t dare to be a Daniel, especially given that Daniel had signed all the king’s building codes.
Applying Leeman’s logic of what justifies civil disobedience to the Civil Rights movement would absolutely obliterate the moral goodness of that movement. That it would do so seems less an argument against the Civil Rights movement and more an argument against Leeman’s logic. Civil disobedience need not be, “the only legitimate or moral course of action at this moment” in order to be morally justified. Without discounting morally good acts of civil disobedience on the part of those fighting for civil rights (as Leeman’s logic would do), what we have in the case of Daniel, and what we have in the case of GCC, is perhaps even more clearly justified than the aforementioned acts, given that there is no direct command from God to meet and protest (as Leeman has recently done, apparently even against government orders), but there are direct commands from God to worship the Lord God alone through prayer and in corporate assembly.
The problem with Leeman’s suggestion that other options are available is that other options are always available. When it comes down to it, most Christians in the world could move elsewhere, or absolute worst case scenario, ‘practice’ the faith in their heads. But none of this is just, or good, or what God calls us to, which is why civil disobedience exists.
How the Word and the World Affect Our Worship
At the core of this disagreement is an apparent concern over what others will think if a church doesn’t bow to the demands of science and Caesar. Leeman writes, “Right now, the guidelines restricting churches also restricts restaurants, movie theaters, museum, 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?” Leeman is wrong about parity between the closing of churches and the closing of businesses, as John MacArthur has pointed out. But the much deeper difficulty here is Leeman’s worry about the world. We should value the corporate worship of God more than we value all of the other things Leeman mentions. Leeman turns the idea of Christian witness on its head. He’s left off that the only way to love one’s neighbor is to love the Lord God. Refusing to worship Jesus Christ out of our fear of offending an unbeliever’s sensibilities regarding food or fitness or financial success is a surefire way to damage our Christian witness. This type of pragmatism lends itself to theological liberalism. In a time when it’s controversial for a church to gather to worship God, Leeman counters a group of faithful elders, basing their argument on Scripture, with a flimsy argument about what the secular world might think about our worship.
The question should not be ‘can we do something else?’ Rather, the question should be ‘what is the best course of action given the circumstances and context?’ Leeman has doubled down on his discouraging word and insisted he was making a minor point about the conscience based on Romans 14, but he never exegeted or applied Romans 14 (who is the “weaker brother”?) in his article, and people didn’t see his article that way, and his words in that article dealt damage despite his best intentions. Who really read GCC’s statement as making an argument against conscience anyway? MacArthur is not the Protestant Pope, but he is known for taking a stand against the tides of a tyrannical anti-Christian culture. Pastors would do well to heed his warnings, in which he’s been proven right again and again, even when many of us did not want to hear what he had to say. Perhaps this has something to do with Leeman’s reply. Perhaps this really is a conscience issue for Leeman, but not in the way Leeman supposes. Perhaps Leeman is offering a paper thin justification for kicking against the pricks. In any event, I like the way GCC worships God better than the way some other churches don’t.