Jonathan Leeman joins CrossPolitic for a discussion on the recent church closures in California.
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.
“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.
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.