In this non-SBC article, which explains why John MacArthur and Grace Community Church are suing the state of California, Charles LiMandri states, “The hospitals are not overwhelmed and the percentage death rate from COVID-19 is now extremely small. It is time for Governor Newsom and Mayor Garcetti to recognize what President Trump has already proclaimed: Churches are providing an ‘essential’ service to the people. Therefore, they must be allowed to serve the people in the manner in which God has called them.”
God is using current events in the United States of America to reveal and topple our idols. Some believe political ‘power’ and ‘control,’ supposedly summarized in the constitutional rights we enjoy as United States citizens, are such idols. But this take is extremely shortsighted.
For one thing, under the US Constitution, freedom of religion isn’t just for Christians, it’s for everybody. So it’s a strange argument that equates the loss of religious freedom with the loss of Christian power or control in particular. But let’s set aside this observation for a moment, and consider a handful of other non-starters in this discussion before we return to it.
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“The End of Evangelicalism” is a series devoted to slippery slope style arguments pertaining to the social justice movement in evangelicalism. Each post features a ‘thin edge of the wedge’ line of thinking from seemingly sensible social justice measures that might nevertheless effectively end some major element of the evangelical faith. So while many of these posts will seem foolish on the surface, the idea is to think slightly further along the curve of critical theories in order to locate one’s ‘woke breaking point.’
By now, you’re probably aware of Pastor John MacArthur and the Elders at Grace Community Church (GCC) stirring up much of the evangelical world over meeting for church even though California Governor Gavin Newsom said something like, “Hey…wait…they can’t do that!” Just in case you missed it, here’s the original announcement. Jonathan Leeman, Editorial Director for 9Marks and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Maryland, wrote a response here. Conservative Resurgence Voices authors wrote on the controversy here and here. Meanwhile, here’s an update from MacArthur on what GCC is doing on Sunday mornings. It might also be helpful to hear Phil Johnson’s comments on Cross Politic here. And GCC just announced here that they have legal counsel on retainer. Or, you can just skim the Federalist article summarizing everything here.
Leeman argued against MacArthur et al. based, in part, on state-established regulations:
Likewise, churches should observe state-established fire codes, building codes, zoning restrictions, historical-preservation-society codes (if you’re on Capitol Hill), and more, all of which impinge on and limit our gatherings. Yet most of us have not stopped and said, “This is hindering our worship” or “This is the state exercising authority over church practice.” Rather, we understand the state is doing its job even there. We understand that we are not ancient Israel. And though in one sense all space is sacred for a Christian because all space is under Christ’s lordship, in another sense no space is sacred, at least in a Temple-like way; and the government’s authority also extends everywhere inside its borders.
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.
In an earlier post, I noted that 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. But now I want to take the argument in a different direction.
2020 is, obviously, bizarre in a number of ways. One of the lesser indicators among evangelicals is that we are officially in the era of writing responses to responses to responses.
If you aren’t familiar with the genesis of this particular post, Grace Community Church of Sun Valley, CA (where John MacArthur pastors) recently announced their intention to resume meeting for corporate worship on the Lord’s Day indoors – a decision that defies California’s prohibition on just such gatherings – and, in doing so, articulated the theological conclusions that led to their decision.
Jonathan Leeman, editorial director of 9 Marks Ministries and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Maryland, felt compelled to write a response to the announcement from Grace Community Church (hereafter referred to as GCC). One important additional feature of this whole imbroglio is that, around the same time as GCC’s decision, Andy Stanley and SBC President J.D. Greear announced their own decisions, in various fashion, to do the opposite of GCC for the remainder of 2020. Greear, in particular, has described his church, Summit, as re-constituting into 2400 smaller churches. Leeman apparently felt no similar compulsion to respond to those choices, particularly Greear’s (who he shares a denomination with) yet did feel an impetus to respond to GCC (who he has no formal relationship to).
In response to Leeman’s response (what a strange phrase to write) Tom Buck has penned a strong piece for Alpha & Omega Ministries, putting Leeman’s critique of GCC under a particularly precise microscope.
One of the most interesting features of Buck’s response is his quotation of Leeman’s own words about the central importance of the church’s structure in regards to the church’s nature and Jesus’ designs for it. From Buck’s piece on A&O (and quoting from Leeman’s One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite and Multiservice Church Models published for 9 Marks in April of this year):
In discussing ways that churches can obey the government in the pandemic, Leeman appears to make an enormous shift to how churches can legitimately structure themselves.
In his most recent book, released this past April, Leeman argues that, “changing a church structure changes its moral shape” and applies that truth down to the specific details of how a church gathers for worship. He declared, “change the basic biblical structures and you’ll slowly, subtly change people’s understanding of what the church is, what the church does, and what members are responsible to do.”
9Marks has based much of its ministry arguing for what constitutes a healthy church and what its gathering is to look like biblically. It revolutionized my own ecclesiology as a young pastor. They have argued against the “multi-site” model, and have not minced words about their position. Leeman writes,
“We fight Jesus by redefining the church. We fight Jesus by forsaking any of the responsibilities he’s given to us… Multisite and multiservice churches repudiate the Bible’s definition of a church, redefine what the church is, and so reshape the church morally. And all that means these models pick a fight with Jesus. The fight involves abdication by the members and usurpation by the leaders, even if unintended… What is a church? It’s an embassy of Christ’s kingdom. It’s a group of Christians who together identify themselves and each other as followers of Jesus and as the church through regularly gathering (in one place at one time) in his name, preaching the gospel, and celebrating the ordinances… So next time you hear someone say, “the church is a people, not a place,” you might respond: ‘Sort of. The people become a people by regularly assembling in a place. You can’t call the team a team if they never play together.’”
Yet now, Leeman and 9Marks seem more comfortable with pointing to the solution of the multi-site model of J.D. Greear to “turn the 12,000-member Summit Church into hundreds of house churches for the remainder of the year.” When you consider 9Marks long-held views on ecclesiology, how are they more comfortable commending the decision of Greear’s church to create 2,400 multi-sites that are essentially “churches” without elder leadership, than the decision of MacArthur’s church to come together under the authority of their elders to worship? If I may be so bold, I am as concerned, if not more so, about the inconsistencies of Leeman and 9Marks on this issue as I am the current inconsistent practices of our government.
Do the circumstances of the pandemic mean Leeman does not believe that Greear’s church will be “picking a fight with Jesus” over the next 7 months in their 2,400 “churches?” How is that not raising the “fight with Jesus” to the level of an ecclesiastical revolution? Has 9Marks concluded that in this case it is better to “pick a fight with Jesus” than with Caesar? Has the circumstances of the pandemic caused them to rethink their position on multi-site churches? The inconsistency of the position of Leeman and 9Marks at this point seems equally glaring.
It seems quite clear that, in fellowship with Leeman’s words above, GCC has re-entered the essential structure at the heart of the church’s nature and Jesus’ intentions for the local church. In contrast, Greear’s church has done something… else. And yet Leeman has words of response and critique for GCC and MacArthur but not Summit and Greear.
Why is that?
More specifically, does this indicate Leeman has changed in his understanding of the church published a mere four months ago? If, not, the question arises again: why did he feel compelled to respond to GCC and not Summit?