CHURCH AND STATE: THE CHURCH AND ITS RESPONSE TO GOVERNMENT DECISIONS THAT TOUCH ON WORSHIP
Our Trouble with Submission
(Part 1 of 2)
by Brian Lee
Much has been said about the decision of Grace Community Church (GCC) and Pastor John MacArthur to defy the state’s COVID decrees by gathering indoors for public worship. I’d like to say something different about this issue, something that I hope constructively adds to this conversation. (In Part II of this article, I’ll follow up by addressing a few of the more practical issues related to COVID and worship.)
THE CASE OF GRACE COMMUNITY
First, some brief background. After about 20 weeks of obeying California COVID ordinances against large indoor public gatherings, GCC announced that it would once again begin meeting in person, which it did in August. GCC is a mega-church, with weekly worship numbering around 8,000. Legal action has ensued, including threats of fines and imprisonment from the Los Angeles County health board. A judge has preliminarily ruled that the church may gather without threat, but a full hearing is expected to take place.
The question arising from this situation is whether and when should a church disobey the edicts of the state? As per Romans 13, obedience to the civil ruler is a good thing. Yet virtually every Christian agrees that we must obey God rather than man, and that there is a line which, when crossed, compels the believer to disobey.
The difficulty comes in discerning where that line lies. The vast majority of commentary on this issue in the COVID era has dived into the various details of how much flexibility we should exhibit in our worship in an effort to remain compliant with the edicts of the state, while still fulfilling our mission as a worshiping body of Christ.
Here is where I want to depart from that well worn path and pursue the matter from a different perspective.
BIBLICAL CASE FOR SUBMISSION
Submission is hard.
The first sin in the Garden came down to “Has God really said?” What did he really say, and what do you really have to do, especially when you’re really hungry and the fruit looks so delicious. Should you follow your heart, or God’s commands?
When God sought to replant his people in the garden a second time – a land flowing with milk and honey – one of the biggest problems was their incessant tendency to grumble. I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. Are we there yet? Who does Moses think he is? Obedience to Joshua and the Judges wasn’t much easier, and it was these same people then cried out for a King. And it went downhill from there.
Paul’s teaching on submission to the civil authorities in Romans 13 is not in the context of relative peace and calm. Recall that five times he had received from the Jews the 40 lashes less one. It was, in short, not an uncommon occurrence for him to be beaten within an inch of his life, and even if the Jews weren’t in a formal position of authority over him in the Roman empire, that empire had permitted such ruthless behavior and given Paul little protection.
In Romans 12, Paul reminds us to “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them.” Further, never be wise in your own sight. Do what is honorable in the eyes of all. So far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.
Note what a radical departure this is from the mission statement of the nation of Israel, who was to take the land by force, utterly destroy their persecutors, and reflect God’s holy dominion in their rule of that land on the battlefield. Paul’s turn in Romans 13 is a radical reorientation for the people of God around the heavenly kingdom that came in the death and resurrection of their Messiah. Now they were not to occupy a physical territory between the river and sea, but to go forth and bring the blessings of a spiritual kingdom wherever they might dwell.
This kingdom was not to have a revolutionary impact on the societies in which it dwelt. Do you remember the line in Acts 17:6: “These men have who have upset the world have come here also”? That was a slander of the Jews spoken against Paul and Silas, blaming the Christians for the riot they had started.
Against this backdrop, Paul writes one of the most difficult commands in the New Testament: “Bless those who persecute you.” And further, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities… for those that exist have been instituted by God.” God has established the Los Angeles City Council, Governor Newsome, the Health Board. Just as much as he instituted Nero, the vicious persecutor of the church. Just as he instituted Pilate, and the soldiers who drove the nails into Christ’s hands and feet.
Be subject to the governing authorities. Not just the good ones. Not just the fair ones, not only the ones who share your estimation of the danger of the novel coronavirus.
The problem isn’t that most authorities are on balance quite good and every once in awhile we have to put up with a stinker. No. Every individual that has been in a position of authority over another human has always been a sinner. And while some may on occasion be good, many are unjust. This is why our catechism tells us to “be patient with their failings” in its teaching on the fifth commandment (Heidelberg Catechism 104). This is in the spirit of Peter, who said: “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” (1 Peter 2:18).
Submission is hard, especially submission to foolish and unjust rulers. But we’re not given a hall pass for the difficult times. We are not commanded to submit when it’s easy, or when it makes sense, or when the rulers are doing the proper thing. We are commanded to submit. There is of course the exception of Acts 5:29 – “We must obey God rather than man.” In context, we must preach the gospel, rather than be silent. But notice that Paul doesn’t articulate an exception in Romans 13.
OUR TROUBLE WITH SUBMISSION
America’s original sin is rebellion. No matter how justified you might believe the American Revolution was, it ultimately comes down to the claim that the authority of the King was unjust, and therefore no longer worthy of submission. But Peter commands Christians to be subject to unjust masters.
The modern spirit of freedom is expressed politically in the American Revolution, and it now infests us all. It is the air we breathe. Our freedoms are sacred to us – interesting expression, no? – and we don’t question the regular need to rebel. Compounded with radical individualism and deep suspicion of institutions of all shapes and sizes, the result is that the modern believer has a chronic problem called rebellion.
Spiritual rebellion may be an unfortunate byproduct of political freedom.
Consider the matter of submission to Christ’s lawful authority expressed in the local church. In every new member’s class and membership interview I have sat in on, every single believer has agreed with the principle that Christ exercises his authority in the local church through elders and ministers. They have all agreed in their membership vows to “submit to the admonition and discipline of the government of the church.”
Yet if you ask elders how regularly members submit cheerfully to their admonition and discipline when it is needed, the consistent replay is, rarely, if ever. The church’s authority is good and fine, until it tells me something I don’t want to hear. Has God really said? Well, maybe, but the fruit looks so tasty and I’m so hungry. Surely he didn’t want me to starve and eat the same thing every day.
Submission is hard, and I believe it is even harder for us today. Culturally and politically we live in a time when individual freedom is celebrated. And it hasn’t generally made us more faithful Christians. u
(In Part II, I’ll discuss how the church should recognize state interference as an opportunity to model submission under difficult circumstances.)
Our Trouble with Submission
(Part 2 of 2)
by Brian Lee
In a previous article, I discussed the case of John MacArthur and Grace Community Church (GCC), who decided in late July to return to public worship and defy California’s ban on large indoor gatherings. As I write in late August, these services have drawn about 6,000 attendees each week under a temporary protection of a judicial ruling, with a court case to determine the final outcome still pending.
I argued in the previous article that this situation is an opportunity for us to revisit the difficult issue of submission. Since we in the modern west hold our personal freedoms as sacred, it is difficult for us to hear the clear teaching of Scripture about submitting to God’s authority, whether in the home, the church, or the civil sphere. While there are limits to the state’s authority, it is my view that GCC has significantly lowered that bar for the sake of convenience. Furthermore, with much future state interference and opposition on the horizon, now is the time for us to raise the bar, and think in fresh ways about the importance of our witness to a watching world, that we might do what is honorable in the eyes of all and live peaceably with everyone (Romans 12:17-18).
What follows are a few practical suggestions on how the church might proceed in these perilous times.
SUBMISSION: A TEACHING MOMENT & PRACTICAL REFLECTIONS
God calls us to submit to his will in the church, the home, and the civil sphere. How shall we expect Christians to submit to their God-given authority in the home or in their local church when the local church doesn’t submit to the state’s God-given authority? In Romans 13, Paul is adamant on this point: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1-2).
What shall we then do?
Should we expect our rulers in the state to appreciate the essential nature of Christian worship, and privilege it as highly as the procurement of food from the grocer or medicine from the doctor? Of course not. The civil ruler, though given by God, is ignorant of the things of God. They are not merely naïve, but oppositional by definition to the concerns of the spirit, as opposed to the body. They have expressly by God been given care of our bodies, and that is precisely why they seek to exercise such dominion over them.
So we should not expect favor from the state, but rather, persecution, implicit and explicit. We should expect them to place burdens, not benefits, upon our worship. And yet as Paul says, while being persecuted we should bless them, and seek to live peaceably among them, while endeavoring to worship faithfully as foreigners in this strange land. I doubt Daniel expected that the other Babylonian satraps, prefects, and governors would respect his sacred diet, daily prayers, or his abstinence from idolatry. Yet he remained steadfast when necessary to obey God rather than man, and stood ready to either receive the punishment the Babylonian rulers dished out, or be miraculously delivered from it.
How does this relate to GCC and John MacArthur? I believe our bar should be very high for defying an order of the state. Here are four practical reflections on how to set and navigate this high bar.
HOW SHALL WE WORSHIP?
It is not in fact clear to me that by prohibiting large indoor gatherings the state of California was prohibiting GCC from worshiping, per se. It is true that the church may have not been treated equitably in the eyes of the law, and they should pursue justice on that front. But many other churches have adapted to the circumstances by conducting worship in person outdoors, in smaller home groups, or other permitted methods. I understand that such accommodations place a huge burden on the business model of a mega-church which regularly gathers thousands inside an indoor auditorium. Yet, Paul doesn’t say “submit to the authority when it is convenient.” He says submit.
There is a different way forward. Due to prohibitions in the District of Columbia, Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) has decided to worship outdoors at an alternate location and time. They are meeting on Sunday evenings at a sister church in Alexandria, Virginia. This is approximately a thirty minute drive from their historic church building on Capitol Hill, and a burden on their membership and leadership. Doubtless it involves sacrifices. Yet these sacrifices are a powerful witness to their desire to live peaceably – and healthfully – with their neighbors outside the church, and gives great respect and honor to the authorities God has placed over them, even when it may not seem warranted. This orderly submission has not kept them from petitioning government officials vigorously for the freedom to worship together on Sunday morning, and indeed has perhaps given those petitions a better chance of being heard in a positive light.
Perhaps we should be more willing to rethink our methods of gathering, and in particular, the challenges that large mega-churches will face: open air services, micro in-home services, breaking large churches into regional or neighborhood gatherings. Maybe we should pursue smaller congregations in principle to be more neighbor-friendly and live more peaceably with our communities. GCC’s action seems to condemn all of these alternatives as less than faithful.
I do not believe that Christians must stand by idly while the freedoms we possess in the west are eroded. We should, like Paul, use the law of the land and the courts to defend the privileges we possess as citizens, while preserving honor and respect for the state as God’s servant. But we must also recognize that privileges will indeed likely be lost, and learn how to worship faithfully under a more restrictive regime, even as many of our sister churches around the globe worship faithfully today.
WHEN SHOULD THE STATE BE DEFIED?
The GCC statement defending its actions argues that Romans 13 “does not include compliance when such officials attempt to subvert sound doctrine, corrupt biblical morality, exercise ecclesiastical authority, or supplant Christ as head of the church in any other way.” This, to me, seems to set the bar way too low for when the state may be defied. I expect most governments to behave this way most if not all the time, especially with regard to “corrupting biblical morality.”
When Paul wrote these words, he clearly was mindful that the civil authorities God had placed over him were bound to corrupt biblical morality on a daily basis. They were in many ways the personification of corrupt morality. Yet he does not qualify his command to submit. This is why the Heidelberg Catechism tells us to be “patient with their failings.” Patience means we submit, if possible, even when they fail.
The church should never cede doctrinal or ecclesiastical authority to the state. But the standard for open defiance of a state edict must be more than attempted interference or burdening of worship. The church must defy any edict that directly conflicts with God’s law. GCC hasn’t demonstrated that is the case in California.
GCC submitted to the ordinance for 20 weeks, and then insisted that in principle it could do so no longer. It then gave public notice that it was going to defy the order, without any clear evidence that they have petitioned the state in any way for relief from these burdens. Why not conduct a lawful and orderly appeal of the state to the fullest extent possible, before pursuing civil disobedience? Further, if the burden could be borne for 20 weeks, why not 21? Why was there a limit to the duration to which they were willing to submit? Does Scripture give us a statute of limitations on Romans 13?
Finally, GCC argues that the passage of time has demonstrated that fears about coronavirus were unfounded, and it is precisely here that I fear that GCC has overstepped its spiritual boundaries and transgressed in the domain of the state. It is the state which God gives authority over our physical well being, and I am not aware of the Scriptures – the sole basis for the church’s authority – giving any clear advice on the lethality of viral infections, or appropriate public policy responses to them. Yet GCC has reached such a determination, and stands in judgment over the state on that matter.
To be clear on this final point, citizens are free to question the edicts of the state – perhaps especially emergency edicts for the supposed welfare of the citizens. We are free to question the supposed scientific and medical underpinnings of these edicts. But this is not the expertise – nor the authority – which the church possesses, and when she holds forth as a body on such determinations, she sets herself up for public embarrassment. This has the potential of damaging our gospel witness.
In the coming years, the church will increasingly find itself out of favor with the governing authorities in the western world. Historic privileges will be revoked. Courtesies will be withdrawn. We will revert to a state a lot closer to Rome under Nero than America under Reagan.
How shall we then live? How shall we demonstrate our care for neighbor, our desire to live peaceably? I have not explored in this article the many ways in which the church’s gospel witness may be harmed by wrongheaded civil disobedience. How may the gospel be set back when a church spreads infection, as occurred early on during COVID outbreak in South Korea? How may our love for neighbor be doubted with the unnecessary suffering or death of even a handful of visitors to our gatherings?
This is not about the true health danger of COVID. Individual opinions may and should be allowed to vary greatly, in the light of Christian liberty, and our individual behavior as believers may vary widely as well. My own opinions are far from accepted wisdom.
But the church as an organized expression of the body of Christ is not ultimately tasked with determining risks of transmitting infectious disease. We are tasked with preaching the gospel, and obeying our civil authorities as far as possible. This, it turns out, is a much more difficult task.
Submission is hard.
Submission to Christ Our King –
by Rev. Doug Barnes and Mark Van Der Molen
Submission is hard – but submission to Christ is paramount. And throughout history, Christ has raised up magistrates who lead the church in resisting the tyranny that would prevent His proper worship. That’s the soil in which America is firmly rooted.
In two recent issues of Christian Renewal, Rev. Brian Lee addressed recent restrictions on the worship of Christ’s church. He focused on the decision of Grace Community Church (GCC) in California – a large congregation led by the well-known Rev. John MacArthur – to resume indoor, in-person worship despite an order by the California governor forbidding such worship.
Rev. Lee used these events to flesh out his view that the church is called to radical submission to the authorities. While acknowledging that there are times when Christians must disobey the state’s edicts – notably, when the state forbids the preaching of the gospel – our brother contends that Romans 13 and other passages should have led GCC to submit to the state’s edicts. Admitting that the state did not treat the church equitably in the eyes of the law, Rev. Lee nonetheless argues that GCC was bound by Scripture to find alternative ways to worship, both in order to honor the governor’s commands and to maintain its witness to our society.
Rev. Lee takes American Christians to task by claiming that “America’s original sin is rebellion.” From the time of our founding onward, he claims, we have been prone to rebel against authority. “Our freedoms are sacred to us … and we don’t question the regular need to rebel.”
We believe that Rev. Lee has misdiagnosed the situation. This column is our response.
Today, we intend to consider the teaching of Scripture and our Confession concerning both the submission we owe to the magistrate and the magistrate’s duty in ruling. Next time, we hope to look at the legal footing of Christians in America when faced with a governmental ruling that would curtail the worship of the church.
SCRIPTURE LIMITES THE MAGISTRATE'S AUTHORITY
Rev. Lee argues that there is no exception to the command of submission found in Romans 13. Yet, the text itself places limitations on the role of the magistrate.
Rom. 13:4 declares of the magistrate: “for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
Question: what is a “wrongdoer”? Who defines that? The answer is clear: God does. He sets the standards of good and bad, right and wrong; and magistrates who transgress His commandments embrace illicit tyranny.
We see the same thing in 1 Peter 2, where we’re called to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by Him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:13-14). Note, again, the need to define “evil” and “good.” Only by God’s Word can we truly understand those terms. And while the unbeliever may accurately grasp those concepts, through the gift of conscience (Rom. 2:14-15), God condemns rulers who call evil good and declare good to be evil as unjust tyrants who are ripe to be judged (see Psalm 82; Isa. 5:20; Mal. 2:17).
In fact, Psalm 2 explicitly calls the kings of the nations to submit themselves to the true King, who defines the standards by which they are to judge.
So what does that mean for our submission? It means we need to submit unless doing so violates God’s commands.
That’s why Acts 5 shows the disciples refusing the command of the Sanhedrin to stop teaching in Christ’s name. The command was illicit; an act of tyranny. Therefore they were constrained to not obey. Likewise in Daniel 6: when the magistrates of Persia convinced the king to prohibit prayer to anyone but him, Daniel recognized this as an unjust law contrary to God’s commands. Therefore he openly disregarded it – recognizing, as he did so, that his disobedience would cost him dearly.
It’s worth noting that Daniel could have disobeyed the king’s command quietly. He could have prayed in a hidden part of his house, silently, and no man would have been the wiser. Rev. Lee seems to suggest in his recent columns that this would have been the appropriate course of action. (See Part II of his column, in which Rev. Lee suggested that GCC should have conducted worship “outdoors, in smaller home groups, or other permitted methods.”) Instead, Daniel prayed openly, where his resistance to tyranny could not be ignored.
Our forefathers during the Afscheiding of 1834 also endured tyranny. The Afscheiding was a mini-Reformation in the Netherlands, when the unfaithfulness of the state Reformed church prompted the formation of “unsanctioned” Reformed congregations. This did not sit well with the government, which invoked a Napoleonic-era law forbidding the gathering of more than 20 persons without governmental authorization. Instead of acquiescing, our forefathers appealed the government’s ruling – and refused to cease meeting for worship. They recognized that God’s command for His people to gather in worship superseded the state’s command. Contrary to the government’s command, they met for worship.
The government is owed submission; but God alone is to be feared absolutely (1 Pet. 2:17).
In fact, our Confession of Faith confirms this view of the government and its responsibilities.
THE REFORMED CONFESSION & REFORMED RESISTANCE THEORY
Article 36 of our Belgic Confession states:
“And being called in this manner to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, the civil rulers have the task, subject to God’s law, of removing every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship. They should do this while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them. They should do it in order that the Word of God may have free course, the kingdom of Jesus Christ may make progress, and every anti-Christian power may be resisted.”
Simply stated, we confess that government must remove obstacles to worship. Magistrates are subject to God’s law and may only operate within the sphere entrusted to them. The magistrate shall protect the gathering around the worship of God (circa sacra), but it has no authority to interfere with the elements of worship (in sacra). The circumstances and elements of worship are entrusted to the church, not the state.
In other words, the magistrate has no authority to issue edicts that interfere with the church’s obedience to God in assembling for worship, nor can the state forbid particular elements of worship set forth by God.
So may Christians resist government edicts that transgress God’s law in placing obstacles to worship and the preaching of the gospel?
The Reformed have a long history of teaching and practicing resistance to such rebellious rulers. John Knox famously stated, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God!” John Calvin recognized the limits of our submission to magistrates, writing: “So let us faithfully pay to princes the tributes which are due them, let us be ready to give them all civil obedience; but if, being not content with their degree, they go about to pluck out of our hands the fear and worship of God, there is no cause why any should say that we despise them because we make more account of the power and majesty of God” (Commentary on Acts 17:7; cf. Commentary on Jeremiah 1:9).
One of the early treatises on reformed resistance theory was Theodore Beza’s On the Right of Magistrates, in which Beza wrote:
“Inasmuch as only the will of almighty God is the eternal and immutable Rule of all Justice, we declare that must be unconditionally obeyed. As regards, however, the obedience due to Princes, they too would doubtless have to be obeyed always and unconditionally if they ruled constantly in accordance with the utterance of God. Since however theirs is often the contrary case, such obedience must be made subject to the following condition, namely, that they command nothing impious, nothing unjust. Impious or sinful I call those which God forbids in the First Table of His Law, or which forbids those which God there commands.”
Beza went on to develop what is known as the “lesser magistrate” doctrine, which recognized that subordinate magistrates have the duty to intervene on behalf of citizens who are the objects of the higher magistrate’s unjust rule. Beza said that such lesser magistrates “are certainly bound, even by means of armed force if they can, to protect against manifest tyranny the safety of those who have been entrusted to their care.”
An example of this intervention by lesser magistrates recently unfolded in Indiana. The governor sought to impose a mask mandate accompanied by fines and jail time for violators. A number of county sheriffs reviewed the proposed mandate and publicly declared they would not enforce such an unconstitutional mandate, since the governor had no authority to create new criminal law. The Indiana Attorney General issued a legal opinion that the mandate would be unconstitutional. In response to this pushback, the governor backed down and stripped his revised mandate of any such penalties.
Nonetheless, had the governor proceeded to issue the unconstitutional mandate with penalties, it would have been entirely justified for citizens to disregard the mandate, knowing they had the sanction and protection of the lesser magistrates.
John MacArthur made clear that his church is assembling for worship in obedience to Christ as Head of the Church.
His church initially complied with the state regulations, given the uncertainty over this new virus. The church patiently observed the low Covid numbers unfold over the months, even as regulations became more onerous. More telling, the church witnessed the disparate harsher treatment the state applied to churches with its so-called health regulations. Added regulations even forbade singing, partaking of communion, or passing the offering plate – naked interference with things in sacra. Only then did Grace Community reasonably conclude that the state’s regulations were an unjustified transgression of God’s law and intrusion into the sphere of the church.
Grace Community rightly sought relief through “lesser magistrates” in the courts, which so far have protected the church against punitive action. Local law enforcement officials were consulted, who have assured church leaders that they have no plans to enforce other threatened punitive actions such as making arrests or forcibly barring entry to the church building.
AN INITIAL CONCLLUSION
What’s the take-away from all of this? Two points.
Above all, we must recognize that Christians are called to a multi-level submission. To God we must submit absolutely, acknowledging Scripture as the final word that defines good and bad, right and wrong. To God we must ever submit.
The magistrate, however, is owed submission as a servant of God. In submitting to the government, we submit to God. However, when the government commands that which is contrary to God’s commands – particularly in the realm of God’s worship – we are called to resist such tyranny.
That leads to the second major point: God doesn’t raise up just one magistrate. The so-called “lesser” magistrate also is “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4). When a greater magistrate – a president; a governor – institutes tyranny among a people, lesser magistrates must be urged to rise up and lead the people in opposing that unjust rule.
That’s what happened in the American War for Independence. Today, it’s happening all across our nation, as tyrannical governors are being opposed by lesser magistrates who refuse to enforce tyrannical executive orders against the church.
In the next issue we will consider the legal standing of American Christians who are faced with government rulings that would curtail the worship of God.
Rev. Doug Barnes serves as pastor of Grace United Reformed Church in Alto, MI. Mr. Mark Van Der Molen is an attorney and member of Immanuel United Reformed Church in DeMotte, IN.
Submission to Christ Our King – Part 2 of 2
by Rev. Doug Barnes and Mark Van Der Molen
Submission is hard – but submission to Christ is paramount. And throughout history, Christ has raised up magistrates who led the church in resisting tyranny that would prevent His proper worship. That’s the soil in which America is firmly rooted.
In the previous issue of Christian Renewal, we addressed recent columns by Rev. Brian Lee that called the church to radical submission to the authorities. While acknowledging that rare circumstances compel Christians to disobey state edicts, our brother contends that Romans 13 and other passages call Christians to submit almost absolutely to state edicts.
The example employed in Rev. Lee’s columns was that of Grace Community Church (GCC) in California. A large congregation led by Rev. John MacArthur, GCC determined that it was obligated by its commitment to God to resume indoor, in-person worship despite the prohibition of California’s governor.
Rev. Lee believes that was the wrong decision. He contends that the law of man and the Word of God require American Christians to radically submit to the government.
But that’s hard, he says, because “America’s original sin is rebellion.” From our inception, says Rev. Lee, we have been prone to approve of rebellion against authority. “Our freedoms are sacred to us … and we don’t question the regular need to rebel.”
In the first installment (CR, Nov. 7, 2020), we reviewed the Scriptural and Confessional basis of our submission to Christ and the limits of our submission to civil governing authority. In this final installment, we will consider some limits which our land’s highest law places upon government and the implications for our submission to laws that interfere with our worship.
OUR CONSTITUTION: THE HIGHEST LAW OF THE LAND
Some of the confusion over proper submission to the magistrate stems from ignorance of the basic civic structure in our constitutional republic. The Constitution is the highest law of the land, setting forth the separation of powers between legislative, executive, and judicial branches. None of these branches is to usurp the power of the other branches.
Many of the recent Covid mandates issued by various governors are clear attempts to usurp the legislature’s power to create laws. An unconstitutional edict from a governor is not a “law” that demands our submission, but is in fact a rebellious action against the Constitution. However, even if these Covid edicts had properly issued from the legislature, such laws still must be judged as to whether they violate the Constitution, our supreme civil law.
The First Amendment to the Constitution recognizes the inalienable right to the free exercise of religion, which may not be abridged by any branch of government. This right is not compromised simply because the government’s restrictions are passed in the name of a “public health emergency.”
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito articulated this point in a recent dissenting opinion on the case of Nevada’s restrictions on churches:
“The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. … That Nevada would discriminate in favor of the powerful gaming industry and its employees may not come as a surprise, but this Court’s willingness to allow such discrimination is disappointing. We have a duty to defend the Constitution, and even a public health emergency does not absolve us of that responsibility.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch likewise opined:
“In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion. Maybe that is nothing new. But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion. The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesar’s Palace over Calvary Chapel.”
In this same vein, in August, a federal district judge ruled that Pennsylvania’s Covid restrictions on gatherings violated the First Amendment, Due Process, and Equal Protection clauses of the Constitution. In his ruling, the judge called the restrictions “such a dramatic inversion of the concept of liberty in a free society as to be nearly presumptively unconstitutional.” He then stated:
“Good intentions toward a laudable end are not alone enough to uphold governmental action against a constitutional challenge. Indeed, the greatest threats to our system of constitutional liberties may arise when the ends are laudable and the intent is good, especially in time of emergency.”
On October 2, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the Michigan governor’s “emergency” Covid orders were unconstitutional. For six months Michigan citizens had been subjected to unlawful restrictions on their businesses and freedom to worship as commanded by God. Yet it is encouraging to know that even before this ruling, some churches (including some URC congregations) had already reached the same conclusion and had resumed worship in obedience to God’s law and in compliance with constitutional law.
In the case of Grace Community Church, church leaders have repeatedly and reasonably argued that they are acting in submission to both the highest divine law (Christ’s command to gather for worship) and the highest civil law (the constitutional right to free exercise of religion). It is uncharitable, to say the least, to accuse MacArthur of “rebellion” or acting out of “personal convenience,” when in fact GCC is being obedient in resisting government edicts that transgress both the divine and civil law.
CONCLUSION: RESISTANCE TO TYRANTS CAN BE HARD
So then, what conclusions are we to draw from all of this? What is the proper course, and what are the wise steps, that Christians and their churches should take when faced with governmental infringement of their duty to worship God?
First, we should be encouraged by the patient boldness demonstrated by our brothers at Grace Community Church and in similar congregations. GCC in particular sought to honor the Constitution, as the highest law of the land, while steadfastly striving to obey Christ as the Head of the Church. This is an outstanding example for us. To be sure, such submission is a messy business! GCC initially submitted to the state’s order to suspend gatherings, seeking to be patient with the magistrate and to honor the desire to guard against the spread of infection. But as it became obvious that the government intended to maintain its prohibition indefinitely, GCC recognized – and respectfully expressed – its prior calling to honor the King of kings. No matter the consequences, we must do the same!
Moreover, we must learn the lessons of history. The founding of America was not, as liberal historians caricature it, an act of unrestrained rebellion. It was, instead, a legitimate act of submission to the lesser magistrates, who upheld their calling to lead the people entrusted to their care in standing against tyranny. Taking such a stand against injustice is precisely what the magistrate is called to do – whether the evildoer is an individual with no social stature, or a higher magistrate who is bent on violating the written law or opposing the law of God.
Therefore, when faced with government intrusions upon worship, Christians must encourage their church leaders to appeal to the lesser magistrates. This may be done through court appeals, through legislative action, or even via public appeals to the conscience of the magistrates. We should not hesitate to remind our lesser magistrates of the importance of upholding the Constitution which undergirds every legal statute in our land – including the separation of legislative and executive powers that is so crucial in preventing the rise of tyranny.
To guard against such a rise in tyranny, we must urge our church leaders to carefully evaluate any proposed restrictions on worship. Remember that the Reformed churches long ago rejected the Erastian view, which regarded the church as being subservient to the state. It is not! Rather, we confess that the church is the assembly of God’s people, entrusted with administering the means of grace under the direct authority of Christ. Yes, our submission to Christ can be hard when governments seek to intrude upon the church contrary to God’s Law. But nonetheless, we must fear God and not men – regardless of the consequences.
In all of this, we need to pray that God would preserve our constitutional republic, lest it be usurped by those who would replace the rule of law by the rule of mere men. This they strive to do by overthrowing the legitimate separation of powers in order to impose unbiblical standards upon the land, especially in silencing the worship of God. We must pray for God’s sustaining mercy, given that this land, with its freedoms, has been uniquely blessed with the opportunity to foster the spread of the Gospel throughout the world.
May God continue to preserve and strengthen His church; and may He raise up leaders in our land who truly love and serve the King of kings! u
Rev. Doug Barnes serves as pastor of Grace United Reformed Church in Alto, MI. Mr. Mark Van Der Molen is an attorney and member of Immanuel United Reformed Church in DeMotte, IN.
Submitting to Christ by Submitting to Unbelievers
by Brian Lee
“…Nothing is more contrary to the natural disposition of man than subjection … they [reckon] it unreasonable that they should be subject to the authority of unbelievers. —John Calvin, comment on Titus 2:9
I am grateful for the reply of Rev. Doug Barnes and Mark Van Der Molen (henceforth, BVDM) to my two articles. I hope our dialogue clarifies where we agree and where we disagree. Even within the unity of our Reformed tradition, there is diversity regarding how we are to relate to the state.
I want to be clear that no opinions I express on the general question of church and state should be read as a condemnation of particular decisions made by any local church. Even in the case of Grace Community Church – which the editor asked me to write about – I was taking issue with public pronouncements and actions they had made, admittedly lacking full knowledge of internal details and decision making. Local elders have to make difficult choices in applying God’s word based on their local facts on the ground.
BVDM and I agree that submission to Christ is paramount. We must obey God rather than man when their commands are in conflict. It is not true, as BVDM stated, that I argued “there is no exception to the command of submission in Romans 13.” What I stated is that Paul doesn’t articulate the exception in Romans 13; rather, it is found in Acts 5:29, which I quoted.
We agree magistrates are God’s servants (Rom. 13:4), called to punish evildoers, and that none other than God determines what is good and evil. The authority they exercise is thus limited by God’s law, revealed in both nature and Scripture. God checks their authority now by other magistrates and will ultimately judge them by this standard in glory.
We agree the magistrate cannot dictate the elements of Christian worship. The church is answerable to Christ alone about worship. However, it seems to me that some insignificant circumstances such as time and place may reasonably be impacted by civil code.
We agree with the Reformed understanding of the lesser magistrate, though I gather in further discussion we could find differences in how we apply that doctrine. Under our American constitutional system, I would first look to the distinct branches of government – judicial, legislative, executive – to serve as diverse or lesser magistrates to check abuses. Though a local law enforcement officer’s pledge to not enforce a law may be prima facie evidence that it is unjust, it doesn’t strike me as a lasting check on abuse nor a solid ground for a Christian’s defiance of a standing law.
BVDM suggest we differ in the extent of submission the believer is required to render the magistrate. I tend to think this description is inadequate. I don’t think of submission as a dial from 1 to 10, with Lee and BVDM disagreeing about the setting. Rather, I see it as a question of to whom God has given authority in a specific circumstance.
For instance, in the home God has given authority to parents. I don’t think it is very useful to debate the extent of submission a child owes their parents. We can agree it is extensive in terms of the types of submission required and comprehensive in terms of degree. We can also agree that it is limited. A child shouldn’t obey a parent who commands them to break God’s law. However, this limit doesn’t empower a child to second-guess every directive from a parent. It is, rather, an outer limit rarely exceeded in the home.
When the Bible commands two other groups to submit — wives and slaves — the scenario strikes me as similar, with one big difference. In both instances, the New Testament acknowledges that believers may often be called to submit to unbelievers. Calvin’s comment on Titus 2:9 notes how difficult this is:
… they who are under the authority of others shall be obedient and submissive. …nothing is more contrary to the natural disposition of man than subjection, and there was danger lest they should take the gospel as a pretext for becoming more refractory, as reckoning it unreasonable that they should be subject to the authority of unbelievers. So much the greater care and diligence ought pastors to use for either subduing or checking this rebellious spirit.
It is likely that gospel liberty provided an excuse for these groups to disobey unbelieving authorities, and their disobedience may have given Christianity a black eye. For this reason Peter and Paul both teach that submission is necessary, even with unjust masters / husbands (1 Peter 2:18). Peter clearly seems to understand this submission will be a hardship, yet “this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” Submission includes suffering punishment for defying wicked commands, with Christ’s silent suffering provided as a model.
When it comes to submitting to governing authorities, the New Testament assumes they are always unbelieving. Unbelieving authorities will often or even typically be unjust, and perhaps even regularly tyrannical. This would certainly describe Paul’s instructions to the Romans under Nero. In response to the Knox quote cited by BVDM that “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God,” I would humbly reply, “It depends.” I don’t believe it is the church’s task to resist tyranny, unless said tyranny makes obedience to God impossible. Indeed, I read Romans 13 as a call to submit to tyrants (such as Nero) in matters indifferent.
The key to Romans 13, I believe, is that God has taken the sword from the Old Testament covenant community – who could bodily punish civil and spiritual wrongs – and given it to the secular ruler. This is strongly suggested by the contrast with Romans 12. Thus the church is called to submit to governing authorities in a way that Israel was not. Like children and slaves, the church is to live peaceably, not to speak back, not to be argumentative nor quarrelsome (Titus 3:1 – 3).
When a command is issued which would force the believer to break God’s law, we of course must not submit. On that we all agree. We are fully entitled to appeal to another magistrate to give us relief, even as Paul appealed to Caesar based on his citizenship. But even in that instance, the authority still lies in the secular governing apparatus, and the church remains submissive. Should that appeal be lost, we willingly submit to the punishment the authority decrees. In no circumstance is the church itself the earthly arbiter of the justice of a decree.
In all earthly submission, our witness is that submission to Christ is absolute. We submit to our masters, our elders, our husbands, our governors, as though submitting through them to Christ. For God has put them over us. Thus, strangely, we submit to Christ by submitting to others, even unbelievers.
BVDM label my view “radical” three times, suggesting it represents an extreme subjection to human authorities. I disagree. I think it is biblical subjection. I do, however, acknowledge that it does radically challenge our natural disposition to independence.
GRACE COMMUITY CHURCH (GCC): A CLARIFICATION
To be clear, I believe that GCC should have obeyed the law while petitioning against it. It seems they chose to publicly defy before seeking redress. Furthermore, it was my understanding that since they had submitted for 20 weeks – at some considerable inconvenience – they could submit longer. Based on GCC’s statement, what changed seemed to be GCC’s own judgment about the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, and that is where I believe they overstepped the bounds of their spiritual authority.
Let me reiterate. The command to worship is absolute. Any state that commands a church to not engage in public worship must eventually be defied by Christ’s church. Some of our brothers under tyranny today in China, North Korea, or elsewhere, choose to worship underground for the sake of their survival. In America, we rightly have the privilege of public worship enshrined in our Constitution. But when or if that right should ever be lost, we must continue to worship, in whatever fashion God grants us, and regardless of the suffering that ensues.