Between Conscience And Defiance: Questions For Grace Community Church


Grace Community Church met for worship this past Sunday. Ordinarily that would not be news but we are not living in ordinary times. In order to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the State of California has forbidden churches to meet indoors for worship. This comes after California had opened up and allowed businesses (e.g., barbershops and restaurants) to resume. The summer spike, which the media insists could have had nothing to do with the 60 days (and counting) of protests and riots but which even the Public Health Officer of Los Angeles County conceded probably did have an effect, prompted the governor to mandate the restriction on indoor dining, cosmetology, worship, etc. This whipsaw effect of the latest decision, combined with fairly obviously partisan, corrupt, incoherent, inconsistent, and, according to a vocal, persuasive minority of United States Supreme Court justices, restriction on constitutionally protected behavior has fostered mistrust of public health officers, doubt, confusion, frustration, and anger.

Here They Stand

Grace Community Church published a statement last week,“Christ, Not Caesar, Is Head of the Church.” Their principal argument is explicit in the title. They explicitly refused to argue for their right to gather indoors on the basis of the Constitution or Supreme Court decisions or dissents. They appealed mainly to the Scriptures and their congregational statement of faith. They addressed Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:18, both of which chapters enjoin submission by Christians and even the visible church to the civil magistrate, but they deny that the civil magistrate has any “jurisdiction” over the church: “God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church” (italics original). They do not seem to distinguish between indoor and outdoor gatherings and argue civil authorities have “exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction.” They reject any restrictions on the number of people who are able to gather arguing, “[w]hen officials restrict church attendance to a certain number, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the saints to gather as the church.”Thus, they declare, “we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”

They do make some appeal to church and American history:

As government policy moves further away from biblical principles, and as legal and political pressures against the church intensify, we must recognize that the Lord may be using these pressures as means of purging to reveal the true church. Succumbing to governmental overreach may cause churches to remain closed indefinitely. How can the true church of Jesus Christ distinguish herself in such a hostile climate? There is only one way: bold allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ.

They also appeal to “Calvin’s Geneva” where “church officials at times needed to fend off attempts by the city council to govern aspects of worship, church polity, and church discipline.” This is true. GCC also sides with the Presbyterians and Congregationalists who judged the Church of England “but halfly Reformed” and even to the Great Ejection of 1662, in which “the Puritans” were ejected from their pulpits for non-conformity. Their second argument, mostly contained in an addendum, is that the public health authorities in the State of California and Los Angeles County are wrong about Covid-19 and how to respond to it: “But we are now more than twenty weeks into the unrelieved restrictions. It is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared.” This leads us to our next point

Without Masks Or Distance

Photos of the service suggest that most people gathered for the service without masks or without social distance. When I asked about this on social media, the response by those defending GCC was almost uniform: masks and social distancing are of no medical value in preventing the transmission of Covid-19. The other argument made by those favoring GCC’s statement and act of defiance is that the state’s imposition of masks and social distancing is an infringement upon Christian liberty.

This matter may not remain theoretical for long. According to news media reports, the L.A. County Department of Public Health “is investigating and will be reaching out to the church leaders to let them know they need to comply with the Health Officer Order.” Thus, it seems that GCC’s decision to meet indoors and even to ignore the mask and distance requirements may provoke some sort of showdown between the church and the county health department.

According to Tulsa, OK public health officials, there is a link between President Trump’s rally there in late June and a rise in Covid-19 cases. Assuming that there were some among the thousands gathered for the GCC service, who were asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19, we shall have to wait to see if there are any consequences for the health of those present and for those with whom they came into contact.

Questions And Analysis: Is This An Acts 5:29 Moment?

Regular readers of this space will know (see the resources below) that I have been seeking to apply Acts 5:29 to the church’s response to the Covid-19 regulations. I do so well aware that Christians will come to different conclusions. I have only asked that, since we are dealing with an inference from Scripture, Christians respect the liberty of Christians who disagree with them. Thus, in that spirit, though I disagree with GCC’s decision to meet indoors, I understand and respect their convictions.
That said, there are some aspects of their statement and behavior that deserve scrutiny:

1. As a Reformed-confessing Christian (e.g., the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards), I heartily affirm their declaration that Christ is the only head of the church (Belgic art. 31; Heidelberg Catechism 50; WCF 25.6). Neither the Bishop of Rome nor a civil magistrate has a right to require the church to do in worship what God has not himself instituted. God’s Word alone (sola scriptura) is the unique and final authority for the church’s theology, piety, and practice. The Lordship of Christ over his church, however, does not free the church as an institution from obligations common to human society. GCC seems to be unaware of Calvin’s distinction of a “twofold kingdom” (duplex regimen). We submit to Christ’s saving Lordship in the church and his general dominion in the shared, common realm of public life. Those things intersect whenever the church gathers visibly. We see this distinction expressed in Westminster Confession of faith 31.4:

Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.

It is hard to see how public health policy is “ecclesiastical” and it is equally difficult to see how GCC’s rationale squares with “not to intermeddle with civil affairs.” Remember, we are not talking about private persons opining about public policy but about the church as the church, as an institution, opining about public health policy. What exactly is the church’s authority to do so? Unless one is going to accuse the Westminster Divines of denying the Lordship of Christ, a risky thing to do, then we have to recognize that there is another way to think about the church’s role in such questions.

The basis for this distinction is the distinction between the sacred and the secular, or between the sacred sphere of God’s kingdom and the common or secular sphere. There is not space to explain this distinction in detail nor is there space to explore its implications for late-modern America but never fear. It has been done. Please see the resources below for more.

2.GCC does not appear to have distinguished between meeting indoors and outdoors. The GCC statement complains that the state will not permit them to gather for worship but that does not seem to be quite accurate. The “Safer Los Angeles” regulations updated July 16, 2020 seem to permit outdoor gatherings where participants practice social distancing and wear masks. In San Diego County, our congregation (Escondido United Reformed Church) has responded to California’s (fairly Draconian) regulations by staying at home (under phase 1) and then by meeting in a drive-in service in the parking lot, and now we are meeting out of doors, wearing masks and practicing social distancing, in a nearby school courtyard under tents and umbrellas. I understand that meeting out of doors is inconvenient and even uncomfortable. In some places, e.g., the Inland Valleys of California, it is probably not possible for most of the day during the Summer. If GCC can and may meet out of doors, does that not alleviate the problem?

3. On the rationale offered by the church it is not clear that they recognize the state’s authority to regulate any part of church life. E.g., the California Retail Food code requires “all food employees preparing, serving, or handling food or utensils shall wear hair restraints, such as hats, hair coverings, or nets, which are designed and worn to effectively keep their hair from contacting nonprepackaged food, clean equipment, utensils, linens, and unwrapped single-use articles.” I assume that GCC agrees to and submits to these sorts regulations. I assume that GCC has fire extinguishers and bathrooms that accommodate the disabled. If so, why not masks and distancing during worship? Are such restrictions really a violation of Christian liberty, as some seem to be arguing? Such argument seems to misunderstand the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty. It holds that no one has a right to bind the conscience in moral matters, on which God has spoken. Whether to eat meat offered to idols is a matter of Christian liberty (See 1 Cor 8; 10). There are divinely imposed restrictions on whether a Christian may eat meat offered to idols. If a pagan neighbor invites a Christian to what is a religious (sacred) meal, as opposed to a common or secular meal, the Christian may not partake. A Christian should not partake if so doing will cause another to stumble. Beyond that, he is free. Wearing a mask is not a religious matter. Is the mask-wearing food handler violating God’s moral law? Is a hairnet contrary to God’s moral law? It is a matter of public health. It is true that the authorities have lied to the public about masks and have been incoherent, first telling us that they do no good and then telling us that they are essential but, according to God’s Word, they get to be incoherent and inconsistent. Nero was not a nice man. He was a ruthless, Narcissistic pagan, who set Christians on fire in order to cover up a business scandal. We were still obligated to submit to him and honor what the the dissenting English Reformed might have called “God’s silly vassal.” How are multiple outdoor services, with social distancing and masks, contrary to God’s Word?

4. Neither Romans 13 nor 1 Peter 2:18 condition our obedience even to pagan magistrates upon their being just, fair, or right on these issues. The test is whether they have commanded us to disobey God. Clearly, GCC did not regard the initial restriction, in principle, as contrary to God’s moral will. Thus, GCC’s about face seems about as coherent as the state’s policies.

5. The GCC statement cites Acts 5:29 but does not reckon with what the text says in context. Has GCC made the case that the public health restrictions currently in place would require us to disobey God? The statement seems to reflect some tension in this regard. It recognizes that the church did submit to the Phase 1 restrictions but argues that the restrictions have gone on too long. This places the congregation in the uncomfortable position of sitting in judgment over the medical judgment of the public health authorities. GCC, however, does not seem uncomfortable making that judgment. This gets us back to the twofold kingdom. If, in GCC’s judgment, the civil magistrate has exceeded its authority in restricting worship, has not GCC exceeded its professed authority, by making a medical judgment about public health? Christ is Lord of all but does that empower GCC to make medical and public health decisions that potentially jeopardize thousands of people? Is GCC defending their sphere sovereignty or Christendom?

6. Were the building on fire, GCC would have safely evacuated everyone present in the interests of public safety. Were it the case that leadership of GCC believes that masks and social distancing contributed to the safety of the congregation, they would have required them just as they require attenders to be reasonably clothed and to evacuate in case of fire. Even in the case that the GCC leadership evidently discounts the value of masks and social distancing, have they adequately accounted for their neighbors, Christian and non-Christian. The statement says that non-Christians will not understand why GCC felt compelled to meet. That is likely true but what if the photos of the assembly showed congregants masked and distanced? Might that not have mitigated concerns by non-Christians who, after the service and all week long will now come into contact with attenders from GCC? Might it not have sent a signal to the watching world that GCC does love their neighbors? As it was, the refusal to wear masks or distance looked like a cultural-political statement as much as a religious statement.

7. The early Christians were martyred not because they had no regard for their neighbors but because they would not conform to the Roman demands that the Christians conform to the state religion by denouncing Christ and making an offering to the Romans gods. They Christians, of course, were forbidden by God’s Word to practice idolatry and many of them went to the stake and to the lions out of fidelity to the Word of God. Our apologists, e.g., Justin the Martyr (c. 150 AD) did not prescribe social or public health policy to the pagans government. He only asked that the Christians be left alone to worship according to the dictates of conscience. They asked, in effect for a secular government. Instead of implicitly lamenting the death of Christendom, GCC would have done better to harken to the early church, who, according to scholars, invented the doctrine of the secular state. On this see, e.g., Diognetus ch. 5 (below).


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  1. Thank you for your continued commentary on this pressing matter. I am a pastor of a congregation here in Southern California. We too have met outdoors for the past two weeks.

    I do have a question: Do you believe the civil government has the right/authority to determine whether or not the church may assemble together for corporate worship? As your third point indicates, the civil government has the right to make requirements about the type of building we worship in. But are they not overstepping their jurisdiction by dictating whether the church may worship and how the church may worship (singing vs. no singing)?

    • Hi Matt,

      They have a right to limit gatherings in the interest of public health. That might have the accidental outcome of limiting indoor gatherings for worship. Were they to ban worship explicitly or ban all gatherings but permit others, e.g., protests (as happened in phase 1), that would be more problematic.

      The early Christians defied the Roman officials by meeting secretly.

      They can restrict singing in the interests of preventing the spread of Covid. Again, they did that under phase 1 but not after the re-opening. We’re singing outdoors, with masks & social distancing.

  2. Hi, Scott – Thank your for your article and for your Twitter posts. I always find them helpful. I would, however, add one counterpoint. Our congregation is in the throes of controversy about our state’s (Kansas) mask requirement, and it has generated a lot of discussion at Session level (we’re PCA). One matter which I’ve found myself thinking about in all this is a concern that the state’s requirements may overstep their authority over the church by way of the backdoor.

    Here is what I mean. In our state, at least, the directive concerning masks is binding upon organizations at their place of function. At that location it is the organization’s responsibility to ensure that the directive applies to any members and visitors. What this sets up, and what concerns me, is that the effect of the state mandate co-opts the church to enforce the law of the state. In this instance the church, I think, is in danger of violating the spirit of the Confessions’ distinction between the Church and the State. At least, as I say, that’s a concern that I have. It’s a difficult situation which, as you make clear, requires wisdom.

    Thanks again for posting this.

  3. Well said, Dr. Clark. I appreciate your thoughtful analysis.
    Slight typo at the end of #6: “Is (As?) it was, the refusal to wear masks or distance looked like a cultural-political statement as much as a religious statement.”

  4. Dear R,
    Greeting in Christ from Dunedin, New Zealand! My wife and I are deeply pained by GBC’s position. They were fundamentally involved by their on line ministry with us escaping Pentecostalism. We feel like the “brands from the fire” in Jude. I am 54 and one of the 1% and don’t think I should be “Collateral Damage” Here in New Zealand, Covid19 has been eradicated. We feel so blessed. This was done by the Governments declaration of a Civil Defence emergency leading to the closure of the boarders and everything except Hospitals, Gas Stations & Supermarkets. For 7 weeks we all stayed home except essential workers like police, Doctors, Nurses and staff for the above. I think you call it “Shelter in Place”. The Government even co-opted the opposition political party to help so it was a united effort. Our church closed (reformed, 400 member) and we started Zoom meetings and a YouTube channel and rang each other, It was different. We laugh now as it’s like Satan struck the churches and all that happened was the explosion of Zoom and Youtube church channels that we are continuing even through we are meeting again. The Government underwrote the wages of everyone who had to stop work and could not work from home and business as well. So 7 weeks later community transmission had been stoped and in week 9 we opened again. The economy took a real hit, but the government has absorbed that cost. We will all share that burden ultimately, but Life is normal again, but our boarders are closed except to returning New Zealand citizens who go into quarantine for 2weeks. Quite a number arrive with Covid19 needing treatment. We sit here almost stunned by what’s happening in the US, UK and Brazil. There seems to be a denial of science mixed with a toxic infatuation with freedom. We will pray. I’m glad our Prime Minister listened to the Head Science Adviser and had the guts to do it, even with the possibility she may be wrong and lose power because of it. Please keep your self safe, I enjoy your writing. If you wish to share this, feel free. Be blessed, Alan

    • Alan,

      Near as I can tell, 4.8 million people live in NZ, a country of about 104,000 sq miles. That population would make a single large city in the USA, which has about 331 million people spread across 3.8 million square miles. So, comparing the two is hazardous at best.

      Toxic infatuation with freedom? Yes, we Americans like our freedom and it does entail some risks. That’s why Commonwealth nations and the United Kingdom has called on us repeatedly to save the rest of the world from tyranny, at the cost of no little American blood.

      You’re welcome.

      We have a free-market economy that produces enormous wealth, when it’s allowed to operate. This has allowed us to fund international operations like the UN and carry NATO for decades.

      Again, you’re welcome.

      We have sparsely populated places where Covid is virtually non-existent but we are a highly mobile people and it’s going to take a while to bring it to heel.

      Thanks for your prayers.

  5. Thank you Scott, for this well written and scripture based article and kindly rebuke. I have the upmost respect and admiration for John’s commitment to theology, so it did come as a bit of a heavy hearted sadness to see him conduct himself like this. In his recent sermons on this matter, he has often referred to the virus as “the flu” which leads me to believe that those statements as well as these seem to be based not so much on scripture and theology but in the political sources of today, not to make any unfair assumptions.

    My continual prayers for you and yours during these trying times. May God continually bless you and your fellow congregants, and may his mighty will be done.

  6. Dr. Clark,
    How do we, His Church, prepare for the persecutions that are couched/foreshadowed in these restrictions?
    How is the family of God dealing with these little cuts?
    Are we aware of the wounds to the body of Christ?
    Is it better to begin worshiping secretly rather than turn visitors away from the door because a certain allowed number has been met based on governmental restrictions?
    Is it good for church officers to record the names and addresses of participants to meet tracking requirements established by the government?
    What is God really doing in His Church?

    It seems John MacArthur and the elders of GCC are taking a stand against tyranny, which has been their pattern historically. The public health authorities and the three branches of government, who are radically estranged from the state’s constitution, seem to be the biggest bullies he has faced to date. Will the GCC’s stand bring a battle to the door of every church?
    Is our Gospel witness ready?

    • Catherine,

      Are masks and social distance regs tyranny?

      Smaller, more frequent, or even outdoor services tyranny?

      I’m frustrated with the state too.

      Preparation for persecution? Preach the law & the gospel. Perhaps we should think about smaller, more nimble congregations. We live in a democratic Republic. As citizens, We should make make use of the means & liberties afforded us to advocate for religious liberty for all Americans.

  7. Thanks for the wisely written post. I don’t really follow MacArthur and Co. because I’m not into their theology but unfortunately it became confused for standard Reformed Theology and because of that there’s a great deal of influence that they hold far and wide. Alan Thompson writes from New Zealand whilst I write from Kenya yet I am afraid to say that for better or worse, his perception of America at present is not his alone but one that is shared by much of the world; it is possible that we could all be wrong but it is not in doubt that what he says is a very real and shared perception.

    Numerous non-American Christians such as myself are wondering to what extent has individualism and the allure of Christendom’s power taken over the American church. Many are thinking this way precisely because of the behaviour of GCC. From my own vantage point I’ve seen Dr. VanDrunen’s new book on politics after Christendom taking heat online and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because he dares to suggest there’s such a thing as a post-Christendom reality.

    There is indeed much to be grateful to God for how the church in the USA has been a positive force for missions but outside of America, Christians and whole congregations are beginning to worry whether American Christians especially those with greater responsibilities such as pastors, elders and missionaries really understand what Jesus meant when he said his kingdom was not of this world while at the same time praying that we would not be taken out of this world.

    Just my two cents.

  8. Hey Scott! Thanks for this. It reflects my own thoughts, and articulates it better than I could.

    One question, what would you make of Paul’s refusal to obey the magistrate’s order in Acts 16. Essentially he’s told to leave jail, leaving wouldn’t have compromised obedience to God, but he still refused the order on the basis of his civil rights (vv 37-38). Is there anything normative in that for the way we as Christians can respond to governing authorities? Cheers!

    • Hi Kyle,

      I doubt the premise of your question. The Apostle Paul appealed to a superior magistrate and to his civil rights under Roman law. He did not defy the magistrate. He defied no law. He stood on Roman law. The authorities who had beaten him did not follow Roman law.

      We live in a twofold kingdom. Paul’s behavior perfectly reflected that reality, didn’t it?

  9. I largely agree with your analysis, Scott. But I would add this question: Does the church need to be a medical expert in order to make a decision that the state is wrong about risks or at least possibly so? There are plenty of medical doctors and experts in the U.S. and around the world already making that case. We’re in a situation where it isn’t crazy to be skeptical of the ever-changing “expert” wisdom and mandates issued by states and feds over the last five months.

    • Hi Jack,

      Individuals, of course, in America (for the time being) are entitled to think and say what they will. The question is whether the church as an institution is called by God and competent to render a medical judgment or gainsay the civil magistrate regarding a public health order? I have my personal doubts and opinions about the way the government, at all levels, has handled the pandemic but, as a minister, I cam not charged to speak to the magistrate or on behalf of the church on those things just as I am not authorized to give my partisan political opinion from the pulpit. It goes to the nature of the church. I would call this the doctrine of the spirituality of the church had that phrase not been sullied by association with Southern Presbyterian defense of slavery. However they may have abused it, the fact remains that the church as an institution is charged to do essentially three things:

      1. Preach the gospel purely;
      2. Administer the sacraments (holy baptism and the holy supper) purely;
      3. Administer church discipline faithfully (Belgic Confession art. 29).

      I agree with WCF 31.4:

      Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.

      Public health concerns the commonwealth. Christians and pagans alike are subject to Covid-19. Christians and pagans alike are capable of spreading Covid-19.

      As I said above, according to Scripture, the magistrate is entitled to be wrong. We don’t have to like it (I don’t). We don’t have to take it quietly. As private persons (not acting in our capacity as ministers) we might join with other citizens to petition the government to change its policy or for mercy or consistency or whatever.

      Now, when the state shuts down the church but permits casinos to operate, as Nevada is doing, then the church may well have a case to petition the government. Notice, however, that the divines did not say “defy the magistrate.” Arguably, what GCC did was not “humble.” It looks like a finger in the eye of the governor and the public health authorities.

    • Dr. Clark,

      The communication between you and Jack clarifies the concerns Pastors must address as leaders of congregations. The WCF 31.4 clarifies Biblical doctrines and the ecclesiastical matters regarding the magistrate. But how does the lay person honor God in WCF 31.4? How does this represent His Will for lay people who live under a Constitution rather than a king?

      What are nimble congregations? Are these small groups? Is a nimble congregation flexible? Wouldn’t this really relate to a nimble consistory? Or a nimble session? This sounds like an oxymoron.

      I connect the idea of ‘nimble’ to lay ministries. A nimble lay ministry allows me to serve widows and orphans, work in friendship gardens, and join/facilitate 1:1 Bible and/or book studies. Nimble equates to relational. In Christian relationships we serve and edify one another as we govern ourselves while accomplishing His work. But these nimble lay ministries can not replace worship because we do not receive the ordinary means.

      So the difficulty I must face, in order to receive the ordinary means, are the impositions of external controls. An arbitrary Health Authority tells my pastors where I am to stand, where I may sit, that I must cover my face, that I must not fellowship with others. Being edified in the Spirit relationally is lost. Being self-governed vanishes. In worship I experience being an object, not being satisfied through God’s ordinary means.

      Perhaps I have wrongly connected the value of personal freedom to the worship of God. Perhaps leaders do not experience this loss of personal freedom because they have made the decisions to obey the magistrate.

      How doI trust God when men, regardless of their station/appointment, are fallible?

      Thank you for providing a forum for discussion.

      • Hi Catherine,

        As a private citizen you have every right, and perhaps even a duty, to participate in civil life. The WCF there is restricting the institutional church, the church as an institution. It’s not restricting what you as a private person or as a member of an another organization, e.g., a political action committee or a political party, may do. You have every right to be as active (or inactive) and as noisy or quiet as your conscience says. You are free to follow your conscience within the limits of the moral law.

        This means that Christians may disagree on civil politics or public policy. That’s fine. When we gather in worship, we do not do so as members of a political party or as partisans in a culture war but as citizens of the heavenly city.

        By nimble I was suggesting that mega-churches may not be well positioned to adjust to persecution, should it happen. To be clear, I don’t think we are very near persecution. Remember, as much as the mobs in the street would like us to forget it, this is still a Republic governed by laws. We still have a written constitution and the guarantees made therein. By nimble, I meant congregations not so large that they cannot adapt to changing circumstances. I was thinking of those early Christian congregations and those Reformation-era congregations that we are able to continue worshipping, typically without attracting the attention of hostile civil authorities.

        I agree that meeting together is the ideal. To put it plainly, the civil authorities in Nev and CA have acted in an arbitrary way, permitting some activities and restricting others apparently on the basis of the content of speech.

        Yes, when we meet, we must accommodate the requirements of public health. It is unusual and uncomfortable. I hope to address this more fully tomorrow, Dv.

        Yes, I think you’re on to something in re personal freedom, a civil right, and worship. We should not confuse the two.

        We trust God despite what we see because his Word is true. The tomb is still empty. Jesus reigns through his his civil ministers and he’s still using the ministers of his church to accomplish his purposes.

        • Dr. Clark,
          I just read your response to me to my husband; we are very encouraged by the distinctions regarding our responsibilities as Christian citizens in two very different kingdoms. Being a Christian citizen in our local county government requires more thought, prayer and consideration than I imagined. We are blessed to be in a Confessional Reformed Church that holds us closely to Biblical standards. We hear the Gospel preached regularly, receive the Lord’s Supper regularly, and experience Church discipline when we have questions – 2 Tim. 3:16-17. (Church discipline is really guidance regarding our theology, piety, and practice.)

          I appreciate the GCC discussion thread because its uncovering confusion. At one time we were considering participating in a group affiliated with John MacArthur’s church. Gratefully we visited and became members of a PCA instead. There we were introduced to the Westminster Standards. Though John MacArthur’s published statement inspires us with patriotic courage, his decisions confuse our two kingdom citizenships. He makes decisions without the benefit of Church History and the Biblical doctrines the Reformers saw were essential for right theology, piety and practice.

          I am looking forward to your next post.

          Our Father blesses us with the benefit of Church History and the wisdom of confessional standards.

  10. As I wrote, I largely agree with your article. I was making a narrow point regarding whether one needs to be an expert in coming to a judgment on what is or isn’t effective regarding Covid visa-vis State declarations. I disagree with GCC’s not allowing for measures to accommodate those with health concerns. Nonetheless to take issue with the State’s ever changing medical assessment of risk (especially in light of the abundance of available data to the contrary) seems to put GCC in a place somewhat less than ‘sitting in judgment over the medical judgment of the public health authorities.’ Therefore, GCC (imho) could have rightly published their conclusion re: medical risk and yet have taken a path that didn’t veer into intentional confrontation. Cheers…

    • Jack,

      The church as church explicitly (and implicitly) in their statement took issue with the public health authorities on medical grounds.

      The question is not whether you and I as private persons may or can do so. The question is whether the church as church may do that? May they also take issue with FAA guidelines? May they also take issue with the state budget? Where does the competence and authority of the church as church end?

      This goes to Christian liberty. One point of limiting the authority of the church is to liberate Christians to disagree charitably with one another and to protect the liberties of Christians. This is afunction of sola scriptura, to protect Christian liberty.

    • Scott,
      May the church take issue with the State’s medical assertions/opinion though they still comply with their mandates (masks, social distancing, outdoor worship)? I don’t see how to do so violates obedience to authorities per Rom 13.

      Again, this is my narrow point and where I believe GCC was both within bounds when it chose to take issue the State’s medical conclusions visa-vis risks and yet wrong to not comply with mandates that are a big inconvenience but so far don’t strike to the heart of the church’s worship.

      • Jack,

        1. I would be glad to see the church submitting to the civil magistrate.

        2. If the church as church is going to speak to the state, she implicates all the members in that statement. What if I disagree with the church’s medical assertions? Do I get to file a minority report? Am I subject to discipline for dissenting from the church’s medical judgment? Do you see how bizarre the phrase “church’s medical judgment is” and what an infringement it is upon Christian liberty?

        In the history of the church she has barely been able to perform those three basic functions, the marks of the true church, let alone, master medicine or astronomy (that did not go well for Rome, did it? Fortunately, the Reformed churches never confessed anything about astronomy. Unlike the Lutherans, we didn’t even make analogies to garlic and magnets and thus we’re not bound by ephemeral opinions.

        The Westminster Divines weren’t kidding when they said “nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical…”. I don’t see how medical opinions are ecclesiastical. That opens the door to all sorts of ecclesiastical meddling.

  11. RSC,

    Related to point #6 above and Jack Miller’s comment, is our obligation under the Sixth Commandment, Thou shalt not kill. The WLC #s 135-136 speak to the matter: We have an obligation to preserve our own life and the lives of our neighbors.

    Given the highly contagious nature of COVID-19 and the way that non-symptomatic people can spread the disease, we ought to be cautious. Better to worship with social distancing and face coverings than be shut down. More than that, who wants to be “that church” who flaunted the civil magistrate and is responsible for an outbreak? I don’t want to be “that church” or “that pastor” or “those elders” or “that denomination.”

    Today news broke of a Christian camp that decided to open for a couple of weeks earlier this month. Now they are closed because at least 42 campers have tested positive for COVID-19.

  12. I appreciate much of what you have written here and while I certainly appreciate the GCC argument about religious freedom have been concerned at the lack of mask-wearing and social distancing as well as their equating limiting indoor worship gatherings to limiting worship gatherings altogether (which do not seem to be limited in their area as long as done outdoors in a socially distanced fashion).

    However, I did want to address (as a pediatrician – having completed 3 years of general training and currently training specifically in pediatric infectious disease) something you said in your point 3 – “It is true that the authorities have lied to the public about masks and have been incoherent, first telling us that they do no good and then telling us that they are essential.”

    I will say that even amongst the infectious disease community at the start of the spread of COVID within the US, there was uncertainty about whether masks would be helpful or harmful (due to frequent touching of face, etc… with mask-wearing). I certainly have shared (alongside everyone else) frustration with the changing guidance as it has been incredibly difficult to follow and I can very much understand the impression that people guiding these policies have flip-flopped and the sentiment that people have been willfully misled. Moreover, I think overall in many ways there have been many many missteps on many levels that have led to our country not containing COVID as well as many other countries. I also believe that these issues have been politicized on both sides of the political spectrum.

    However, I think to say that authorities “lied” re: masking is rather strong given that honestly, this is the process of science particularly for a novel virus that we are learning about on the spot. I can honestly say that many of those who are making these policy statements (at least from the medical community perspective) are truly doing their best to assess the information that we have and make recommendations on that information. Because that information is constantly changing as we learn more, their recommendations are changing as well. I do not always agree with their conclusions or their recommendations, but still deeply respect the work that they have been doing and want to point out that their job is to search for truth and as our understanding of truth changes, to change their recommendation. While many of them are not Christian, I do believe as a Christian I appreciate that they do value truth and have the humility to change their recommendations when it turns out that what we thought to be true turns out to be different than we had thought. Please, let’s not accuse those truly doing their best to seek truth and to provide best guidance based on the best information we have.

    • Jeanette,

      I take your exhortation seriously. I do think that, on the ground, health care workers across the globe and in the USA have worked tirelessly to save lives, even at the expense of their own health. I am deeply grateful for all they have done and continue to do. We pray regularly for everyone on the front lines, cops—the number of line of duty deaths (LODD) is up 50% over last year and it’s due to Covid—medics, nurses, docs, prison/jail staff—a high percentage of law-enforcement LODDs this year comes from deputies/guards working in prisons and jails.

      I hesitated before I wrote those words but I came to my conclusion after watching the Surgeon General of the United States repeatedly tell us that masks do us no good and then, 30 days later reverse ground 180 degrees. I understand that the administration’s narrative now is, “but we didn’t know.” However different Covid is from other viruses, even those of the same strain, the basics of epidemiology haven’t changed under Covid-19. They know the efficacy of N95 masks, that’s why they train medical personnel to wear them. They knew that even common surgical masks have some efficacy in reducing viral load, even if it does not catch all the droplets.

      There is simply no squaring the reasons given (e.g., increased face touching, over-confidence in the efficacy of the mask, etc) with what we are now being told. The truth seems to be that they were short of PPE (which they admitted) and instead of using that as the basis for their admonition to stay home and wait for PPE production to ramp up, ala WWII, they dissembled. On June 17. 2020 Dr Fauci gave an interview in which he admitted that the feds lied to stall for time. It was a cynical, paternalistic thing to do.

      I’m not arguing about masks. Indeed, today’s essay is addressing the controversy in churches over wearing of masks. In that post I’ll footnote the documentation.

      Thanks for your service.


  13. Good day, Nico from South Africa.

    Thanks for your sensible response! This disease will continue to divide christians.

    To me, it seldom hear the words that we need to hear the voice of our Lord in nature (Ps 19) We are so wise in explaining the Bible with all manly wisdom, that we became deaf when the Lord speaks to all – christian and pagan – in nature with the Word of an epidemic.

    As He has done in the days of the Bible as well.

    In the sermon of the rev McArthur, I did not “feel” the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ as the focus! Rather the wisdom of man with lots of numbers.

    It seems as if human nature and short memory has already surfaced – the dissasters of New York and elsewhere seem to be forgotten.

    Regarding the wearing of a mask: It is a joy to wear one – just in case there is a slight possibility to reduce the risk of infection to others, and especially my brothers and sisters in Christ!

  14. I find it wrong that GCC uses Acts 5:29 to justify their actions. If you look at the entire context, the Apostles were thrown in jail (because the high priest and Sadducees were jealous). God breaks them out and gives them a DIRECT revelation to go and teach in public. Then when brought back and asked whey they disobeyed the STRICT order to not teach about Jesus, that is when Peter and the Apostles reply, “We must obey God rather then men.” I am surprised that GCC (and MacArthur) takes verse 29 out of its context. I agree, we must be weary of the authorities over stepping their bounds and there is a time to take a stand. However, I think GCC’s justification needs to be examined.

  15. Thankful for the Lords grace you and your studious love for Him, His Word, and His people in our generation. Grace, mercy, and peace in these troubled times.

  16. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for this piece, which I find to be the most compelling case against GCC’s decision. I believe I share many of the same presuppositions and impulses you have. I agree that the church should not, as an institution, make a public health declaration. We may disagree on how the church should respond to different executive orders in order to work with the governing officials, but these are practical points that apply directly to the state of CA and GCC, which is not necessarily germane to my question, which is more theoretical.

    A government declaration regarding public health during a pandemic naturally has institutional ramifications upon the church. The church declaration to meet naturally has institutional ramifications upon the government. The sphere’s don’t overlap, but the consequences of each choice impinge upon the other. The judgments of the government are not merely health related. They are also philosophical and theological. The church’s decisions is not merely philosophical and theological, but also health related. Does your argument, then, cut both ways?

    You seem to advocate for an approach that accommodates both but certain situations/states may not allows for this. For example, our mayor banned any form of church gathering, including drive-in. At least at the level of theory, is there a place for the church to say, “We understand the health risks outlined by the government, but there are good reasons for us to meet in spite of the risks and the executive orders of the mayor/governor.” Such a judgment would take the government’s health policy seriously while weighing and judging other factors within the bounds of the church’s authority.

    • Hi Drew,

      Thanks for this.

      I’m not philosophically opposed to civil disobedience. This is why I keep raising Acts 5:29. I specifically did not criticize GCC for meeting in disobedience to the public health order. I did, however, criticize them for seemingly going out of their way to poke the magistrate in the eye by not demonstrating any concern for the concerns behind the public health order.

      In a place where the the magistrate will not accommodate any gathering, then I think a congregation faces the Acts 5:29 problem more directly. E.g., banning drive-in services seems unreasonable. I can see how, in such a situation, a church might humbly disobey the magistrate. In a Republic, however. there are steps to be taken before disobeying. Has the congregation appealed to the magistrate for relief? Has the congregation made a case to the magistrate for meeting safely (e.g., via drive-in or some other accommodation)? Has the congregation taken its case to the court system? Here is where congregations might band together and file a lawsuit against the city/county to ask for relief.

  17. A church building is physically a part of the state in which it is situated, though quasi-privately owned by the body that uses it. So surely the state must have the same rights to legislate over its use as it does over prople’s homes and businesses?

    • Anthony,

      Property ownership in the USA is different than in the UK. Here property owners actually own the property they have purchased. It is genuinely private property. Nevertheless, the civil magistrate does have a right and interest in governing those aspects that are public, e.g., public health and safety.

    • I thought that in the UK property owners also actually owned the property they had purchased. But the property they own is still part of the state, in a way that a foreign embassy compound is not. Are you saying that this is not the case in the USA?
      I am reminded of a bible study led for us by the late George Ashdown, former General Secretary of the Protestant Alliance. He had been in the Middle East and had some insights into culture there. He was expounding the passage in Judges about Sisera and Jael and said that had Sisera stayed in the door of Jael’s tent, he would have been perfectly safe, because the Israelites would have respected Heber’s ownership of the tent, but because Sisera went into the inner part, she had to kill him, in order to preserve her honour. Does the USA respect citizens’ rights over their property to that extent? In the UK, the police can enter any property, other than a foreign embassy, if they have obtained the magistrate’s warrant.

      • Anthony,

        When I lived in the UK, I was told that there are some who actually own land outright but other “owners” actually have a long-term lease wherein the property reverts to the actual owner (e.g., landed nobility). We do have renters and lessees in the States but generally, when one holds the mortgage, one owns the property outright.

    • Do you mean that in the USA, the lender does not have the right to ensure that the mortgage holder insures the property properly so that the lender still has a genuine property to reclaim should the borrower default on the mortgage, rather than just a near valueless wreck?

      • Anthony,

        No, I mean to say that the bank holds the title until the mortgage is paid in full. Once that is done, the mortgage is free and clear. Until then, as you say, the bank has an interest in the property and the person paying the mortgage signs papers to that effect. Yes, should one fail to pay the mortgage, the bank will repossess it. Should the mortgage holder (which I used incorrectly before) fail to maintain the property, he can find himself in jeopardy with the lender.

    • The systems in the UK and the USA seem then in general to be broadly similar. What you heard about when living in the UK must, I think, have been about leaseholds. This system did give rise to terrible abuses I could tell you about, particularly in the years when the market price of a building (which you lease) was so much less than that of the land it stood on (which remains the property of the landlord, and on which you pay ground rent).

  18. Dr. Clark – In your response to Jack, 7.29.2020 you wrote, “ This goes to Christian liberty. One point of limiting the authority of the church is to liberate Christians to disagree charitably with one another and to protect the liberties of Christians. This is a function of sola scriptura, to protect Christian liberty.“

    Please discuss this further in terms of how it works among lay people (It seems everyone must see Scripture the same.) and between the lay people and the Pastors and Elders (It seems there is one way to see Scripture.).

    I understand how this works in a PCA but the turf seems different in an URCNA.

    How does Christian liberty lead to Church discipline?

    • Catherine,

      Sola scriptura means that the holy Scriptures are the final rule for faith and life. This is true in all the NAPARC denominations and federations, including the URCs and the PCA. Both groups confess an interpretation of Scripture and where the church has confessed an interpretation of or good and necessary inference from Scripture, we are bound to that confession of the Word generally. It’s true that the PCA tends to relate to the Westminster Standards differently from the way the URCs relate to the Three Forms. In the URCs all the members are bound to the confessions as the church’s confession of God’s Word. In the PCA, the teaching and ruling elders and the deacons are bound to them. The laity are not subscribed to them. It’s possible to be a lay member of a PCA congregation and dissent from the standards. It’s possible to be an officer in the PCA and dissent from the standards so long as that dissent has been registered to the presbytery (in the case of a teaching elder) and, I suppose to the session in the case of a ruling elder or deacon. It’s possible that an RE in the PCA must also register his dissent to the presbytery. I don’t know.

      Sola scriptura and the confessions protect Christian liberty by providing a framework within which to live. No one can bind our conscience where Scripture has not done and no one can obligate us to hold what we do not confess. Where Scripture is silent or where we do not confess, we are free.

      If we find ourselves in disagreement with the confession, we have liberty to seek revision of the confession through the means provided in our church orders. It’s a process that should be undertaken carefully and slowly but it has happened.

  19. Thank you for the post and thank you for the opportunity to comment. As a church member, these are difficult times.
    In the midst of confusion, even in March, I needed to hear clearly, “We worship publicly. We invite the local officials to help us determine how to gather safely, but we worship publicly.” This would have given freedom to each church to consider its unique location and congregation. I believe the abandonment of public worship for two months, or even more, hurt congregants as well as communities and frankly empowered policy makers.
    On-line services are not public worship. I appreciated hearing a pastor who made that distinction by saying, “Our on-line services are nothing more than aids to your family worship”. That particular church resumed public worship rather quickly. If public worship is a Biblical mandate, it needed to take a prominant place in discussions and notices. Public worship is a stabilizing force in the public square. The church needed to reject the premise that government can define “essential” and “nonessential”. It didn’t.
    By April 1st, it was clear that the hospitals were not going to be overrun. Though the media wanted all of us to look at the Spanish Flu, the Asian Flu of 1957 is probably a better comparison. Healthy people were not lockdowned and masked. Widespread lockdowns and masking are not effective in managing a virus in a population. We, along with most of the rest of the world, adopted the Communist China’s approach to viral management instead of assessing and applying decades of viral management by the U.S.
    Then there is that U.S. Constitution. Government is to be restrained in depriving individual liberties. Even today, cosmetologists are limited to cutting hair which can only done ouside. Restaurants, which have implemented every precaution, must serve outside. The list goes on.
    What do these restrictions have to do with the churches? Churches are in communities. Shouldn’t churches stand in the gap between the virus and essential mandates at one end of the spectrum and overreaching, ineffective, oppressive mandates at the other end of the spectrum? Some mandates will prove to be as deadly as the virus. Some mandates, such as the mandate to discharge Covid+ patients to nursing homes, have already been deadly. Some mandates, such as the restriction on Hydroxychloroquine, has most likely caused deaths.
    I watched GCC’s service on Sunday morning, 8/2/2020. It was powerful, God-glorifiying, and church-affirming. I was a little surpised that they did not do a combination of indoor/outdoor seating as the virus is more easily transmitted in tight, poorly ventilated areas. However, asymptomatic transmission is nominal. I trust the elders of that church did and will make the best decisions for that church.
    Pastor MacArthur probably recognizes death by a thousand cuts. In the service, he talked about the pain of being banned from ministering to those in the hospital even at the end of life – a great sadness indeed. I can’t help but notice while these bans are being enforced, abortions continue unhindered and funerals for the ones deemed “worthy” by our officials are packed to overflowing.
    May God’s church come out of this stronger, wiser, and more committed to our Lord and Savior and His Word. May we show grace to each other as we have been shown much grace.
    Thank you. Sue

  20. Romans 13 is not applied at GCC
    1. No submission to Governing Authorities
    2. No love your neighbor as yourself.

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