I want to underline my deep respect for the man I am responding to in this article. He has been a rock to the church of Jesus Christ in England through one of its most challenging eras in many generations. My wife sat under his ministry during her internship in South London, and I attempted to get him to preach at our Reformation Weekend in 2019. So what follows is written with a keen sense of Leviticus 19:32, but I feel it is necessary to present another perspective to what he published recently. However, do not be expecting a militant pushback. I don’t believe I have this all figured out, but I wanted to help bring some balance to the considerations put forth by this dear man of God.
Note: I am not mentioning him by name because I want to prevent his name appearing in Google searches in any negative context. People should be able to Google him and find all the best aspects of his ministry.
Richard Baxter and the Westminster Confession
As soon as churches closed back in March, there were pastors across the world that began to wrestle with the relationship of the church to the state. As the months have passed, the number of pastors and Christians giving thought to this issue continues to rise. This brother’s article reflects this when he refers to a British periodical that dared to ask, “Should we have a debate about this? Are we doing the right thing? Should the churches, ruled by Christ, surrender so easily to the state—the kingdom of this world?”
I don’t know what periodical is being referred to, but he says,
“The article did not actually answer the question, but could easily have done so, if only the writer had referred to the Westminster or Baptist Confessions for guidance on the scriptural position. The answer is there, in disarmingly simple but carefully crafted words.”
He then quotes from the Westminster Confession and refers to Romans 13.1-7 and 1 Peter 2.13-18 and says,
“God has implemented government and civil order for all to obey, including his people. He has put it into the hearts of the human race, even in its fallen state, to desire government and order, and gives power to civil authorities.”
To which I, and no doubt others (like Dr. John MacArthur, who is, I think, referred to in the article without being named) wholeheartedly agree. But there are subtleties being missed here which I’ll get to later. Let’s just say that to suggest that a plain reading of the Westminster Confession of Faith gives a straightforward answer of compliance to the government in its lockdown restrictions upon churches is far from reality. In fact, with a careful reading of the article the author admits as much himself, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
He then calls Richard Baxter to his aid, saying,
Puritan Richard Baxter’s well-known ‘Question 109’ (in Christian Ecclesiastics, 1665) has been reprinted by various magazines recently, representing the traditional Christian position. ‘May we omit church-assemblies on the Lord’s Day if the magistrates forbid them?’ Broadly, the answers are—‘If the magistrate for a greater good forbid church assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him.’ On the other hand, ‘If princes profanely forbid holy assemblies and public worship… as a renunciation of Christ and of our religion, it is not lawful formally to obey them.’
The ruler’s suspension of public gatherings must be even-handed, apply equally to all society, not singling out churches, and it must be for a period of time only, or we will sense restricting of faith and persecution of the church. Then we have to take a stand. This has always been the position of most Protestants.
Here is a more complete reference of Baxter’s quote:
May we omit church-assemblies on the Lord’s day, if the magistrate forbid them?
1) It is one thing to forbid them for a time, upon some special cause, (as infection by pestilence, fire, war, etc.) and another to forbid them statedly or profanely.
2) It is one thing to omit them for a time, and another to do it ordinarily.
3) It is one thing to omit them in formal obedience to the law; and another thing to omit them in prudence, or for necessity, because we cannot keep them.
4) The assembly and the circumstances of the assembly must be distinguished.
(1.) If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him.
1. Because positive duties give place to those great natural duties which are their end: so Christ justified himself and his disciples’ violation of the external rest of the sabbath. “For the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.”
2. Because affirmatives bind not ‘ad semper,’ and out-of-season duties become sins.
3. Because one Lord’s day or assembly is not to be preferred before many, which by the omission of that one are like to be obtained.
(2.) If princes profanely forbid holy assemblies and public worship, either statedly, or as a renunciation of Christ and our religion; it is not lawful formally to obey them.
(3.) But it is lawful prudently to do that secretly for the present necessity, which we cannot do publicly, and to do that with smaller numbers, which we cannot do with greater assemblies, yea, and to omit some assemblies for a time, that we may thereby have opportunity for more: which is not formal but only material obedience.
It’s tempting to get into Baxter’s context. Let’s just say that he would have been opposed to the pluralism of our day and would have expected much more from the civil government as a nursing father than the average pastor of the 21st century. But even in his own context, Baxter is careful in presenting this matter.
First, when he gives the reasons for obeying the magistrate, it is when “natural duties” (like preserving life) supersede “positive duties” (like public worship). In such cases, I’d argue that reasonable church leaders do not need to be forced to do this. They will know that the pandemic is killing the congregation, and they will realize that performing an “out-of-season” duty (again, like public worship) would be a sin if it was killing people indiscriminately. Christians do this all the time when they choose to care for and attend the needs of a loved one confined to their home on the Lord’s Day rather than gather with the Lord’s people. The question church leaders facing closures must ask themselves is, given the data and impact of Covid-19 on their community, would they close public worship if the magistrate did not order it? If they would, fine, they have the right to make that judgment and stand before God for that assessment. If they wouldn’t, why close entirely? I’ll get to this point again later, but let’s just say that we know now and we have known almost since the beginning that Covid-19 poses almost no threat to the young and healthy. Indeed, we might say that those most likely to suffer spiritually from not being at church are least likely to suffer from Covid-19. This is what I realized back in March or April. I have no problem with the Lord’s people determining that they ought not to assemble with others for reasonable considerations relating to their own health or the health of a loved one, but I feel very uncomfortable as a church officer that if I close the doors of the church altogether, I am not giving an option to those that have no reason to be taking precautions.
Second, Baxter argues for a ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ mentality during unusual seasons like wars and pestilences, such as meeting in smaller numbers. This has been sadly lacking. If churches cannot meet inside, they should meet outside, even if it is for an abbreviated time. Let’s imagine, hypothetically, that there’s a virus that is truly deadly to all age groups, lasts for years, and the only safe way for people to meet is in the open air. Would you put corporate worship on hold for years? If you wouldn’t, why not? Since God calls us to worship on the Lord’s Day, should we not obey that call as we would at other times? Are we permitted to justify our absence by an argument from the temporary nature of the suspension when we could meet safely outside?
Restrictions are not singling out churches
The article then draws conclusions about the government’s motives based on their treatment of other areas of society and the economy and states,
“There does not appear to be unfair action toward churches and the proclamation of the Gospel.”
I think it’s hard to argue that point when group support meetings for addicts and those struggling with mental health issues are permissible, but church is not. In some places in California the authorities are permitting topless bars to function as normal, but their churches can’t gather. In places in Canada you can get your fast-food via a drive through, but you can’t meet for a drive-in church in a parking lot.
But even if you believe everything is restricted equally and there is no attack on the church I would ask, is it possible that an attack on the spiritual welfare of society could encompass an attack on all areas of society? For example, did Satan move Herod to kill the Messiah with a laser focused assassination, or by a mass slaughter of all boys two and under? Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying this is definitely what’s going on. But if people are going to draw conclusions to make themselves feel comfortable about government motivations, then some of us feel obligated to poke holes in such reasoning and remind God’s people that Satan would happily destroy all that’s good in our society, especially if it can hinder the gospel. Let’s not be ignorant of his devices, and his primary objective to blind and damn souls. I believe Satan would make sacrifices at every level if it hindered those that preach the gospel, don’t you?
The pastor then then seems to make an apples-to-oranges comparison. Criticizing the brethren in California (which I assume to be Grace Community Church pastored by Dr. MacArthur) for stating, “Christ not Caesar is the head of the church” he goes on to say,
“As Christians we are subject to speed limits, building restrictions, and even emergency lockdowns just like the rest of society.”
It seems very odd to me to equate speed limits with public worship, but it makes sense when you understand Romans 13 as the writer of the article does. He says,
“Romans 13.1 reads—‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.’ It has been suggested that this is a duty of individuals, and not necessarily of churches, but this is an impossible distinction. ‘Every soul’, applies to all, saved and unsaved.”
It’s difficult to say, but it appears to me that he is misunderstanding what people mean by noting a distinction between the individual and the church. Yes, all individuals have an obligation to the civil magistrate, but this simplistic perspective seems to ignore the fact that just as God has given authority to church elders who must conduct their authority by the Word of God, so God has given authority to magistrates who also must conduct their authority by the Word of God.
As G. I. Williamson says in his work on the Westminster Confession of Faith,
“As long as a civil government is content to restrain and to punish crime and violence, protecting the good and punishing the evil, the Christian must support, pray for, and honor that government. But when that government punishes the righteous, and rewards the evil, becoming militaristic and bent upon aggression, it is the duty of Christian to resist that power because it subverts the ordinance of God.”
Williamson’s perspective is not unique to reformed scholarship. It recognizes that Romans 13:1 teaches that God is the ultimate sovereign, and all authority is a delegated authority. Sometimes God gives good rulers and sometimes bad, but in each instance, our response to these rulers reflects our ultimate submission to the Lord. If He appoints wicked rulers and they call us to disobey God, that’s a test for us, just as it was for the Hebrew midwives, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. God casts the determining vote in all matters that relate to authority (Dan. 4:25), and when the wicked rule it inevitably brings challenges to the people of God.
The apostle Peter is wrote:
“If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.” (1 Peter 4:14-16).
Are Christians that gather and are fined or arrested suffering as evildoers, or suffering as Christians? Are we ready to say that church leaders who open their doors and allow people to determine for themselves what is safe and what they want to do, should be treated like evildoers and punished by the state?
We must never think of the civil government as independent from God, anymore than we perceive church government as independent from God. Yes, all individuals are subject to the civil authorities, but the church has its own governing authorities, and sometimes they need to show courage against the civil authorities when they are in the wrong.
Consider Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, who, in the 4th century, opposed Emperor Theodosius and would not permit him access to the fellowship of the church. Granted, this was a much more serious issue. Theodosius had ordered the slaughter of 7,000 people. But my point is, church officers need to make judgment calls on what civil authorities do at times and not blindly obey them. Is this such a time? Some church leaders think so, and they do have a right to ask questions of the government, as it makes decisions that harm livelihoods, promotes addition and depression, and forbids public worship.
Let’s be clear, church authorities and civil authorities are not opposing authorities, nor is one entirely subordinate to the other. As exemplified above, magistrates are subject to church elders in ecclesiastical discipline, just as church elders are subject to civil judges when they act as an evildoer. Baxter expected—as we should—the church to speak to the magistrate to help them in their responsibilities over civilians. The church does not have a call to be mute on matters.
While the author does not give an in-depth look at Romans 13, it’s important that we do not miss the significance of verses 3-4. It is in these verses we understand magistrates are to be a terror to evildoers and praise those that do good. That, unfortunately, is not a universally applicable statement. Good and evil are objective realities, and not in the magistrate’s power to determine for themselves, and that’s why Christians must, as Williamson put it, be ready to resist magistrates that subvert the ordinance of God.
Magistrates that seek to govern the church
The pastor rightly says,
“If public authorities try to completely stop the proclamation of the Word, then we obey God rather than men. If they try to change our doctrines and tell us we must teach same-sex marriage, or evolution to the children, we obey God rather than men. If they interfere with moral standards or the doctrines of the Word or the proclamation of the Gospel, we obey God rather than men. In Acts chapters 4 and 5, we find the apostles taking a very clear stand on such matters.”
But the question that arises in my mind is to whom would the apostles have proclaimed the Word if the authorities had banned them from assembling? They would have had to disobey the authorities if they made such a request, since it would have made their work impossible. Does modern technology such as livestreaming give magistrates a new power to prevent God’s people assembling? Make no mistake, when the magistrate makes decisions concerning the church with little or no interaction with church leaders, they are interfering beyond their jurisdiction with little respect of the distinction between the church and the state.
What we must keep in mind is that when magistrates seek to prevent the assembly of the people of God for public worship, church leaders, who hold the authority under Christ to call God’s people to worship, must determine whether it is a sinful command, or commanding sin. There is a significant difference. In the article there’s a reference to a wealthy professing Christian that was engaged in tax evasion because he considered himself under Christ and not under Caesar. That man failed to make this distinction.
Most of us obey sinful commands by magistrates all the time. We pay property tax as if the state has some claim on our property. It’s a sinful command, but I’m not sinning when I exercise a material obedience (material obedience is mere compliance whilst formal obedience is a genuine embracing of the law) to that command because God does not explicitly call me to do something contrary. But I will not obey where magistrates command me to sin, such as not meeting for public worship when God commands otherwise. The magistrate may, as already mentioned, command that our worship is not inside a building, or they may demand we wear masks (and even those are a stretch), but they cannot command that Christians do not meet at all. That is a) beyond their jurisdiction, and b) commanding sin if church leaders make a reasonable assessment that there’s at least a certain demographic of their congregation (if not simply allowing people to decide for themselves) that face almost zero percent chance of danger from the pandemic.
In addition, it’s good to remember that the magistrate Paul calls us to obey is a “minister of God” (v4), a title also given to preachers (1 Thes. 3:2). Therefore, the writer of the article is a minister of God. I doubt that he believes he has a right to that title if he conducts his ministry in opposition to God. Would he not call out the false teachers inhabiting pulpits and condemn them as unworthy of being called a minister of God? And does the same logic apply to magistrates?
Which brings me to my biggest problem with the position taken in the article. I have no problem with the fact that the author wants his church to stay closed for now, but by publishing his article he is influencing others and even trying to quench the questions that are arising. The article germinated because he has discerned that “doubts begin to rise” within the church concerning continued compliance. In the author’s mind, it appears that Christians and church leaders need to be quiet and obey the government at this juncture. The only problem is that he then writes,
“If coronavirus restrictions become unreasonable, or too long, or unequal, that would be the time to protest.”
Personally, I think it is not un unreasonable position to believer that the coronavirus restrictions are unreasonable, too long, and unequal.
They are unreasonable because the state has no right to prevent a man from the means whereby he earns a living and provides for his family (Deut. 24:6). They are too long because the degree to which they’ve been implemented should never have occurred at all. And they are unequal because those with mental health problems and addictions can gather, but Christians cannot render their worship to Almighty God.
But even if you disagree with me, how does one determine too long? Americans were told in March to stay at home for 15 days to flatten the curve, and those in the UK were given similar information. Months have passed, and it seems like the approach many now want is that we lockdown until everyone is vaccinated. Thus, given the admitted ambiguity in determining when restrictions become unreasonable, why should the author be surprised and seek to undermine others that see things differently to him? He should be encouraging church elders to discern what’s best for their individual congregations.
The opinion of the world
Finally, the author seems concerned that the church that gathers to worship Christ would be seen as a “spoilt community” determining that unbelievers are “ready to pounce if a church will not keep the restrictions. ‘Look at those selfish people,’ they will say, ‘they don’t care how many people are infected, or how many may die.’”
It may be so that many will think like that. To that I simply respond that it did not take an expert economist or medical professional to foresee that the lockdowns would have their own health repercussions. Some of us were discussing this from the beginning of the lockdowns even before the data was published. Now there’s an entire website dedicated to collating this data ( https://collateralglobal.org). Indeed, as time goes on, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that an honest and holistic analysis will prove that the lockdowns did more harm than good. Lockdowns, self-isolating, and shielding is not the only barometer of love to our neighbor. As Prof. J. Bhattacharya has said,
“The single most important fact about the COVID pandemic—in terms of deciding how to respond to it on both an individual and a governmental basis—is that it is not equally dangerous for everybody.”
My concern from the beginning is not to tell other ministers and elders what to do. This is a difficult time for everyone. But if a huge proportion of our congregations are not in danger of the virus, and are not in contact with the vulnerable, why should they be kept from obeying Christ? And if it’s safe to meet outside, why don’t we? It’s not like the practice has never been done before! Because some are kept from worship during periods of national warfare, does it mean that church should close altogether? Because some are kept through circumstances from corporate worship, does it mean all should be prevented?
I don’t expect all to assume my conviction towards public worship, but neither do I think it right to suggest that those of us resolved to keep meeting are acting “spoilt.” May God give grace to all good, God-fearing pastors and elders in these days.