Before your church follows Jonathan Leeman and 9Marks and begins to restructure your church in compliance to governmental orders this Sunday, hold on! Stop and think with me for a moment.
Two weeks ago, Dr. John MacArthur and the elders of Grace Community Church released a statement that they were opening the doors of their church for worship on the Lord’s Day in defiance of the California Governor’s orders. GCC clarified that they were not saying it was sinful for churches to not gather due to Covid-19 concerns, as long as they were “exercising their own authority and not ceding that authority to the state.” (http://shorturl.at/mvJOZ)
Soon after GCC issued their statement, Jonathan Leeman, as a representative of 9Marks, sought to offer an alternative position. He warned, “before your church follows John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church and begins to gather in defiance of governmental orders this Sunday, hold on!”1 Leeman later emphasized that all the article intended to do was call upon churches to not judge one another and that grace should be given to churches who choose not to follow the example of GCC. However, one can see how the opening sentence seems to indicate that Leeman is not asking people to simply extend grace for those who differ, but is trying to stop others from going down that path.
Furthermore, it wasn’t only the opening sentence and the speed at which the article was released that gave this impression. Leeman clearly argues against the decision of MacArthur. He writes, “All that to say, it’s not immediately evident to me that the 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” (emphasis mine).2
To be clear, my problem is not that Leeman, or anyone else, would set out to argue against MacArthur’s position. I think there are good reasons that churches will not follow the exact same path as GCC. However, my problem lies with Leeman’s argumentation.
First, California’s Governor, along with many other authorities, have allowed for massive gatherings without restrictions – including gambling in casinos, protest marches, and unchecked riots. These inconsistencies by government leaders appear to be at odds with Leeman’s claim that one could argue that the government’s mandates against church gatherings was for “the preservation of life, as hundreds of people gather, potentially infect one another, and then scatter into the wider community.”3
One glaring inconsistency was the gathering in a church for the funeral of Representative John Lewis. To be clear, I’m not saying a funeral for him was inappropriate. I also believe that every family should have the right to give their loved ones a dignified funeral. However, pictures from Lewis’ funeral of hundreds of people gathering contradict Leeman’s assertion that the government was prohibiting churches from gathering to worship in order to preserve life and prevent the potential spread of the virus.
Therefore, I tweeted the quote from Leeman’s article and declared that I could accept his argument if it weren’t for the pictures of the funeral that occurred only a few days after Leeman’s claim. Leeman indirectly responded that I was engaging in “whataboutism” and that although the government had been inconsistent, the two choices were “Revolution” or saying “I’ll obey.”
I do not believe I was merely practicing “whataboutism,” nor would I conclude that the only choices are what Leeman proposes – “revolution” or “obedience.” There is more at play and at stake here.
For one, the funeral for Lewis is not an isolated inconsistency. If they were prohibiting all gatherings, Leeman’s argument would be worth considering. However, while Leeman suggests that the government is acting out of its duty to protect individuals and the community, the many inconsistencies suggest otherwise.
But even then, Leeman is missing the fact that our government leaders’ highest duty is not to protect individuals in the community from potential threat of disease, but to not violate the rights of individuals as they seek to protect them. It is the government’s inconsistency that makes it so glaringly obvious of how they are abandoning their highest duty and raise reasonable doubts that they’re acting in good faith.
On the one hand, consider the fact that government leaders are allowing things that are not protected rights prescribed in the U.S. Constitution. On the other hand, the very thing being prohibited – the regular worship of the church – is by leaders who have no constitutional power to do so.
In fact, the public officials who prohibit worship are violating the very oath they took to defend and protect the constitution, which is the highest law of the land. This is why, as a Constitutional Republic, it is said that we are a nation governed by laws and not by men and that no one is above the law. By violating their oath, they become lawbreakers at the least and tyrannical rulers at the worst where we find ourselves at the whim of whatever “law” they want to enforce or right they want to suspend on any given day.
Furthermore, the U.S. Constitution does not simply give us the right to freely exercise our religion. It is written as a “negative right,” which negates the government from making any law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion! The writers of the Constitution saw our freedom to exercise religion as an unalienable right, hence the prohibition upon the government to impede upon it.
Given all this, I think one could easily argue that you are not breaking the law by ignoring the unlawful orders of governors, but that they are acting unlawfully in their prohibitions that violate the oath they took to uphold constitutional law. If we follow the “letter of the law,” the government never had the authority to place limits on the first amendment.
This is why I argued from the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis that we are not under a Romans 13 obligation in these circumstances. It would be better to say that as Christians we should follow the principle of 1 Timothy 2 where we seek to live peaceable and quiet lives by complying with and praying for the ruling authorities. A six-week shutdown is reasonable for that. A ten-month plus shutdown, under current circumstances, is deeply problematic.
However, I am not claiming that every church that does not engage in civil disobedience is sinning. I am questioning the rationale used for continuing to comply. Although I wouldn’t say it is sin, I would say it is at least unwise to simply surrender your unalienable right to freely exercise worship as Scripture commands since the highest authority and oldest codified law in the land upholds that right.
It is unwise because there is more at stake than simply “spending our capital on a pandemic.” The issue is that government is using a pandemic to indefinitely prohibit the right of many to freely exercise worship when government officials are legally obligated to protect that right. The Founders clearly recognized that right and found it necessary to be embedded in the first amendment.
James Madison wrote, regarding the free exercise of religion, “It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator.”4
Notice that Madison recognized that the free exercise of religion is more than a “God-given right”; it is a “God-given duty.” In other words, the reason government cannot prohibit our worship is because there is a higher authority to whom we answer. Our highest duty is to worship our God, and nothing should prohibit our ability to perform this sacred duty, even government.
More important, a greater authority than Madison or the U.S. Constitution is Scripture, which clearly teaches that Christians have a duty to worship God. In addition, I would agree with Leeman that God has also commanded us to carry out this duty is in a particular way. This leads to a second concern I have with Leeman’s argumentation in his response to MacArthur. 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”5 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.”6
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.’”7
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.”8 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.
That being said, I am not condemning Leeman’s church or 9Marks for not practicing civil disobedience. Nor would I condemn any church who decides to not meet because they consider it unwise because of the pandemic itself. But when you justify the actions of government leaders who themselves are acting unlawfully in their orders and willingly abandon your core principles regarding church health, I think there are greater dangers involved than you’re acknowledging. If you’re willing to obey the government, when they don’t have the constitutional authority for their actions, and in turn restructure your definition of a healthy church now, what will be your rationale for not continuing to obey whenever more tyrannical prohibitions come down the pike?
And if the answer is, “When that time comes, we will say that we must obey God rather than men,” then what is stopping you from doing that now. This doesn’t call for a “revolution,” but why is the only other option unchallenged “obedience?” The ultimate legitimate authority for the church is Jesus, and he alone is worthy of our unchallenged obedience.
I understand how J.D. Greear argues for modifying the structure of his church in obedience to the government. After all, he doesn’t agree that how we structure the church matters that much. But what is strange, odd, and inconsistent is for Leeman and 9Marks to take this position, especially when it contradicts everything they have stood for in the past twenty years and even recently reiterated four months ago regarding the structure of the church. Furthermore, they are choosing to stand in opposition to a pastor who they have regularly platformed and has far more in agreement with them than J.D. Greear.
As for me, I don’t want to stand before God on Judgment Day and tell my Creator that the reason I violated his clear command in Scripture to gather with the church to worship or restructured my church in a way that is not prescribed in Scripture was because I chose to obey a government that had violated its own laws to command me to do so. I personally believe the time to say, “we must obey God rather than men,” is already upon us. It’s just a matter of timing. The government has abandoned its highest duty, we must not abandon ours.
4 James Madison – “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessment” (1785).
5 Jonathan Leeman – “One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite and Multiservice Church Models.” Pg. 19
6 Ibid. pg. 34
7 Ibid. Pgs. 26, 35, 63
Alpha and Omega Ministries