“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.
What’s implied in MacArthur’s statement is that his elders don’t believe there is a real threat with Covid-19. Again, that is a judgment call they are allowed to make. And that judgment call presumably stands behind their subsequent judgment call to disobey the government.
Setting aside whether or not this line from Leeman is a fair assessment of how GCC views the virus, it’s clear that Leeman does view Covid-19 as a real threat, and this stands behind his judgment call to obey the government regarding church gatherings and worship. Leeman may very well be correct in his assessment of the threat posed by the virus. He seems, at the very least, to agree with some of the most sweeping proclamations from public health experts and government officials concerning what we must do in response to the virus.
The Importance of Protests
Remember, the pandemic is supposedly so dangerous that public health experts and government officials have decided on such strict measures as banning church gatherings of over fifty people (while casinos and other establishments are allowed to meet at 50% capacity), the Lord’s Supper, singing, ‘drive-in’ church services, weddings, funerals, hospital visits, nursing home visits, prison visits, and alcohol sales after 10pm. They have mandated masks, social distancing, and are encouraging gloves and face shields. People of all ages are actually hunkering down in their homes for fear the virus could negatively affect them or the people they love.
That’s why some have argued that recent protests and riots pose a serious risk to public health in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Protesters are placing themselves and others at risk. And, as noted many times, people of color are disproportionately affected by the virus. So for anyone – but especially people of color – to join in on these protests signals that they consider something else much more more important than mitigating the risks of Covid-19. What might that be? Fighting back against systemic racism, particularly in police departments.
Presumably, Leeman agrees with this risk assessment, as he apparently joined others in marching in a protest, even while churches were not meeting for worship. Leeman, in other words, was willing to gather with hundreds of people, “potentially infect one another, and then scatter into the wider community.” Why? Some things are more important than the risks posed by the virus. One of those is the risk posed by racism.
Racism as Public Health Crisis
We are told that alongside the public health crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic is another, perhaps even more significant problem for public health, which is systemic racism. According to the American Public Health Association:
Across the country, local and state leaders are declaring racism a public health crisis or emergency. These declarations are an important first step in the movement to advance racial equity and justice and must be followed by allocation of resources and strategic action.
Another article explains:
The designation of racism as threat to health comes as COVID-19 continues to ravage the country and people of color continue to be disproportionately affected in cases and in deaths. Structural inequality and systemic racism have created a never-ending pandemic of their own.
Epidemiologist Camara Phyllis Jones agrees, “And six months from now, the public can say, so County X or City Y, what are you doing, have you done and what are you going to do about this?” One thing that County X or City Y could do is shut down churches. But that seems silly, right? Until you consider the argument from the lesser to the greater.
If the Covid-19 pandemic is less of a threat to public health than systemic racism – as the justifiability of protesting in the midst of a global pandemic should prove – then any measures taken to combat Covid-19 would certainly be warranted in the case of fighting systemic racism as well, provided they pertain to the problem of racism. If it’s true that “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,” and if it’s true that public health experts and government officials “are doing their job by seeking to maintain peace, order, and the preservation of life” when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic, then how much more when it comes to measures they might take to contain the public health crisis of racism? Of course, there may not be any government bans on worship gatherings right now as a result of those assemblies being considered racist, but we’re trying to think ahead here.
Divided by Faith
In Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith argue that white evangelicals fail to even consider the category of systemic, institutional, or structural racism, much less overcome it through the efforts of their churches. In fact, if current sociological trends mean anything, and if history tells us anything, and if Sunday mornings are any indication, evangelical churches actually reinforce structural racism, disparities, and divisions as part and parcel of their individualistic faith. Surely this information would come as no surprise to Leeman.
So let’s do away with the initial push back on the supposed parallel between the pandemic and systemic racism you were no doubt considering just a moment ago. You probably wanted to say, “Racism isn’t like a virus because racism doesn’t spread the same way in church gatherings.” You’re correct that racism is not like a virus in that sense, but if Emerson and Smith are right, then it’s much, much more likely that systemic racism will be unwittingly supported in the gathering of an evangelical church than that the virus will spread in that church. So do you want to disagree with the sociologists about racism? Or the protestors? Or maybe you want to reject the expertise and authority of health and government officials concerning the public health crisis of racism? That isn’t a live option for those so willing to follow officials in the case of the coronavirus.
If government officials can shut down a church for Covid-19, certainly they should shut it down for endangering others through their collective contributions to the public health crisis of racism. For that matter, maybe Leeman and others could lead their churches to do the “loving” thing before the government tells us to do so. I’m arguing, in other words, based on what Leeman and others have said, for closing evangelical churches indefinitely. One might even argue, following Leeman, that what’s implied in any statement to the opposite effect is that the person making that statement doesn’t believe there is a real threat from systemic racism.
A Way Out
Now then, I’m not denying the reality of systemic racism. Nor am I denying the reality of Covid-19. Nor am I opposed to the protests. But I’m also not opposed to churches meeting together to worship God, even in defiance of pro-abortion governors who pretend to want to protect lives. Worship is what God commands us to do. It’s also a right recognized in the Constitution of the United States of America, right there with the right to protest. That’s why we need to protest, but, more importantly, that’s why we need to meet together to worship God. Most importantly, God’s word commands we meet together to worship, and even more so as we see the day approaching.