A Useful Distinction Regarding Church And State In Our Covid-19 Controversy

For better or worse John MacArthur and Grace Community Church have become the public face of resistance to California’s onerous Covid-19 regulations. They have also become entangled in the culture war over masks and aligned with the Trump administration, since the president has spoken in their defense and is lending his personal attorney to their legal cause. In response to this phase of the controversy, many have complained about those of us who are not “onboard” or not fully supporting GCC and MacArthur’s defiance of Los Angeles County and the State of California. Not a few GCC supporters have said that those of us who are reluctant are guilty of cowardice. This is not true. In what follows I hope to try to explain again why some of us are not fully supportive of all that GCC and MacArthur are saying and doing.


Around And In

It would help the evangelical discussion regrading church and state in the controversy over how to respond to regulations (e.g., masks, distancing, not meeting indoors etc.) to distinguish between the state’s interest in regulating things around worship, which are common to all gatherings, and regulating the substance of worship. My argument is that the state properly has an interest in the former and no business touching the latter.

We all recognize (or we did before Covid-19) that the community, as represented by civil government, has a proper interest in the general welfare of the community. Thus, I am unaware of any church that has refused to allow the fire department  or the health department to perform inspections. How many churches now certify that their youth and nursery workers are not sexual offenders? How many have made mandatory staff training to prevent sexual abuse at church? Our church buildings must be built to local safety and fire codes. No one reasonably objects to such civil regulations. These are regulations around worship that are common to all associations in a decently governed society.

When an easily communicated virus breaks out, the community at large has an interest in how other members act. Church congregations are no more immune from the virus than any other gathering. Tribal arguments for a favored group (e.g., protestors or congregations) are special pleading and thus specious no matter who, whether public health officers or pastors.

In the case of Los Angeles County and the State of California, some of the regulations are onerous and arguably unreasonable. Clearly the county is now seeking to punish GCC and to make their life difficult in light of their civil disobedience but what role has GCC played in this? Are they free of blame?
Has GCC distinguished between the state’s and the community’s proper interest around worship, i.e., as a public assembly, as distinct from the state seeking to regulate the content of worship? It does not seem so.

This was evident when they first  publicized their return to worship and in their services since returning. For more on this see the resources below. They made a point of not following any of the guidelines. If the state has a proper interest in regulating public gatherings relative to health and safety, and we agree that they do, then why the resistance at GCC to masks and social distancing? This is one of the points I made early on in this discussion.

What Does God’s Word Say?

One is entitled to one’s personal view of the efficacy of masks or distancing. That is not the question. The issue is whether the state has a proper interest, which we have long recognized. If that is the case, on what basis are we supposed  to resist the very same interest that we were recognizing eight months ago? Romans 13 is not absolute in the sense that we may consider no other passages (e.g., Acts 5:29) but Paul does not say that Nero is correct in all that he does. He says that Nero has been installed by God and we have to submit to him. 1 Peter 2:17 says “honor the emperor.” Does the cheering congregation at GCC (or anywhere else for that matter) fit that description? Are they gathering together reverently, soberly, doing all that they can to meet the concerns of the civil magistrate to the best of their abilities?

Nero was Caesar when Peter wrote his first epistle and by comparison Gov. Newsom is a choirboy. Nero put Christians to death to cover up his own crimes. He made Christians mere pawns in a cynical and murderous scheme.  This is no defense of Gov Newsom, who has mishandled Covid-19 about as badly as possible. Americans are entitled to hold a politician in low esteem but Christians must highly esteem God’s Word. Further, I am concerned about the witness to the watching pagan world that this controversy gives.

GCC prides itself on its fidelity to God’s Word. Consider the adverb “quietly.” 1 Thessalonians 4:11 says that we are to seek to live “quietly.” 2 Thessalonians 3:12 says the same thing, for the same reason. 1 Timothy 2:2 says that we are to pray for our rulers “that we may live a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”

Has GCC met these tests? Is GCC honoring the emperor? The reply that Newsom isn’t emperor is disingenuous. As long as Gavin Newsom is in office, by analogy, we are bound to obey his rules until they require us to violate God’s moral law (Acts 5:29).  So long has he is not requiring us to disobey God, we must submit. Wearing masks, whatever one’s opinion of their efficacy, is not a demand that we sin. Practicing social distancing when we gather for public worship is not requiring us to sin.

What I am Not Saying

The Reformed have a long history of teaching and practicing civil disobedience. One of the early treatises on this was Theodore Beza’s On the Right of Magistrates. Another is the pseudonymous Vindication Against Tyrants. Johannes Althusius was a significant social theorist, whose Politica would be of use to us now. For more on this see the resources below.

To be clear: I have never criticized GCC for meeting, i.e., for practicing civil disobedience. To the contrary, I have defended their natural right to disobey the magistrate when conscience requires it. Without civil disobedience the United States would not exist. Without civil disobedience we would still have segregated water fountains. I have criticized them, however, for the manner in which they have conducted themselves while disobeying. Some congregations in California, because they do not have their own facilities, have not been able to meet indoors since mid-March. They are not making a public scene. Others are meeting quietly and seeking to obey the magistrate in matters around worship.

The early church assemblies were probably  illegal. Certainly their affirmation of Christ (and not Caesar) as Lord were bound to seen as treasonous and impious. Their refusal to say “Caesar is Lord” and their refusal to renounce Christ cost many early Christians their lives. Nevertheless, the early Christians sought to make it clear that they were not seeking to establish any sort of earthly political empire or power. They obeyed respectfully as far as conscience, formed by the Word, permitted.

Thus, again, I understand that GCC feels conscience bound to meet. I sympathize with that conviction. Many of us in California are about to face a similar crisis of conscience. The governor is sending signals that my county is about to be “locked down” again—largely because of an outbreak of Covid-19 confined to a local university campus— thus prohibiting congregations from gathering for worship in any form. In other words, we would be going back to March, starting over again. This will be intolerable for many and quite understandably so.

Nevertheless, it is fair to raise questions about the manner in which congregations meet and how they conduct themselves publicly even as they respectfully disobey the civil magistrate. We all have an interest in this since, by defying the government openly, GCC has become the de facto representative of all Christians and we are all being judged by what they do and how they do it. If the magistrate punishes the rest of us more severely will it be, in part, due to the high-handed way in which GCC has defied him?

I am not saying that Christians cannot make use of the civil remedies available to us, e.g., suing LA County or seeking to have an elected official (e.g., Gov Newsom) recalled by petition. We may hope and pray that the current petition is successful but so long as he holds the office of governor, he is God’s minister. Paul invoked his rights as a Roman citizen but he also submitted to Caesar.

He submitted to the civil authorities even when the treated him unjustly and contrary to Roman law. He noted their illegal actions but he submitted. As Christians we may not allow our political and cultural views to swamp our fidelity to the Word of God. There are congregations that are meeting that are not calling attention to themselves and not inserting themselves into the media-social media-political culture war. These concerns might help explain why some of us are not cheering on GCC and MacArthur unreservedly. Our reluctance is out of concern for fidelity to God’s Word. It is not cowardice..

When the magistrate requires us to disobey God, we should make our case to the him and explain why we are conscience bound to disobey him. This is America. The 1619 Project notwithstanding, one of the principal reasons people came here was to be able to worship freely, according to conscience. Any such case would have prima facie Constitutional support. There is a difference, however, between obeying the dictates of conscience soberly, quietly, reverently, and respectfully and defying the magistrate at every turn in pursuit of victory in the culture war.


There is an important distinction to be made between the civil government’s interest in matters around worship and the civil magistrate’s interference in worship. His requirement to wear masks and to practice social distancing are touching matters around worship. When the magistrate forbids us to gather at all for worship, that arguably touches the substance of worship.

If we feel compelled to resist, however, we must do so soberly, prayerfully, carefully. A worship service is not a political rally. It is a convocation before the face of the living God. It is no place to be scoring points in the culture war. Further, if Christians do decide to disobey they must count the cost. It may be higher than we think.


Note correction: Romans was written under Nero, not Claudius (HT: Grover Gunn).

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  1. Dr. Clark, you have written with a rigor, precision, depth and fidelity to God’s word (and helpful insights from Church history) that has been painfully absent from the preponderance of evangelical rhetoric on this matter. Thank you. You serve Christ and His Church well in your assessments.

  2. Dr. Clark,
    How sympathetic are you to the argument that it is impossible for GCC to split up into countless indoor services to maintain physical distancing, or that it is impossible/impractical for them to meet outdoors, especially given the weather in their part of the country? As someone who would readily agree that only teaching elders should preach, certainly you realize that they don’t have a large contingent of teaching elders ready to preach all of the services that would be required to meet the magistrate’s demands. I agree their tone and the consistency of their arguments has not been the greatest, but what about the fundamental issue at stake? Even if they had worn masks and done everything right re: tone and argument, we still would be having this discussion because it is never enough in this magistrate’s eyes.

    • I agree with you. This is MacArthur’s congregation to preside over, teach and preach and they must do what they think best. We must assume it is with prayerfullness that they have done this action.

      • Lauren,

        Isn’t it Jesus’ congregation? Isn’t Rev MacArthur a minister (servant) of Jesus and his Word? Aren’t all ministers, indeed, all Christians subject to correction by God’s Word (sola scriptura ?

  3. The reply that Newsom isn’t emperor is disingenuous.

    It should be obvious to everyone in CA that he’s an emperor. He rules by edicts enforced by zealous public health officials.

    One of the early treatises on this was Theodore Beza’s On the Right of Magistrates. Another is the pseudonymous Vindication Against Tyrants. Johannes Althusius was a significant social theorist, whose Politica would be of use to us now. For more on this see the resources below.

    Everyone should read these. We will not avoid politics or political theology in the future. Quite the opposite. You may not have interest in culture or the so-called culture war, but it has interest in you.

    • Newsom is acting like a dictator and writing executive orders like he is a self pronounced dictator. As an average but interested church-goer, I would like better to know how far we must go in obedience to an evil gov’t. which is no where near doing the job God describes for them in the bible. I think we could use some real practical direction about this.

      • Lauren,

        Claudius Caesar was a despot too but God’s Word calls him God’s minister. It commands us to pray for him and to submit to him until he commands us to violate God’s moral law.

        What to do? You’re a citizen in a twofold kingdom. You have citizenship in the heavenly kingdom (Philippians 3:20). You also have citizenship in an earthly kingdom. You need to exercise your responsibilities in both spheres at the same time. If you are a citizen of the state of California, you have the rights guaranteed to you by the California constitution and by the US Constitution. For example, you have the right to petition the government, to seek the removal of an officer who is abusing his authority. You have a right to campaign to elect a replacement in the next election. In other words, there are many things you can do. Obviously, as a minister, it is not my place to tell you what you should or should not do in the civil/secular sphere. That is a matter of Christian freedom. I do think, however, that Christians are to be good citizens in the temporal/secular sphere And should seek to fulfill their duty as best they can according to the gifts and opportunities that God has given.

        • Thanks for your clarifications. I appreciate it. I am new to the Reformed faith compared to those who have been in it all their lives. This distinction about the state needs lots of study and consideration. I am no scholar but would like a book which might be an easy to understand teaching on our relationship with the civil gov’t.

          • Hi Lauren,


            The Reformed churches are old churches and thus we began thinking about the magistrate under the influence of the medieval state-church system (Christendom). Like you, I’m a Gentile grafted into the Israel of God, as it were. That’s true of a lot of Reformed folk. It’s just that I found the Reformed Churches about 40 years ago, so I’ve had time to learn the traditions, language etc.

            There are lots of popular resources on how to think about civil government here:

            Resources On The Twofold Kingdom

            The best popular book David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. I would put some thing different, e.g., I prefer to use Calvin’s language from his Institutes of God’s “twofold kingdom.” On that resource page you will see articles and podcasts and book recommendations. Mike Horton’s, Beyond Culture Wars was helpful for me and seems entirely relevant to the current controversies.

  4. Glad to see you cite Vindication Against Tyrants. Written by a French Huguenot to discern what biblical responsibilities God’s Word requires of Christians living under the tyranny of a lawless magistrate. It’s my understanding Vindication Against Tyrants had a tremendous influence upon the thinking of our country’s founders and their belief that a war for I dependence could be morally justified. The careful reader of Vindication Against Tyrants and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence will see how much the former document shaped the latter. For those interested in the history of our founding this is one of the books that is a must read. Written in the late 1600’s it had a much bigger influence upon the collective thinking of our founders than Thomas Paine’s Common Sense which wasn’t published until January 1776.

    One of the arguments in Vindication Against Tyrants seems to be missing in this present discussion is that Civil magistrates are also bound to obey God. The author of Vindication Against Tyrants Makes distinctions between the magisterial obligations inside the theocracy of Israel verses the magistrates in pagan countries. Yet, while covenantal distinctions exist, the author makes the case from Scripture that even pagan leaders are blessed or cursed based upon their obedience to God. They are owned by God, answer to God, and are appointed by God to be His servants for the welfare of all people. These pagan magistrates are not free to define for themselves the good they are to promote or the evil God calls them to restrain. Further, the author of Vindication Against Tyrants seeks to demonstrate the citizens responsibility before God to keep the magistrates obedient to God in whatever political context they are under. Additionally, the author writes about how the Christin citizen is to resist the tyrant.

    IMHO, part of the confusion over what is proper or improper as to how Christians are to respond under the actions to magistrates such as Governor Newsom is in part because of an improper use of the 2K view. Too long the church has been AWOL in declaring the moral will of God in the market place of ideas. As our country slides toward Sodom and Gomorrah, the church has boldly pontificated against our post-Christian society among ourselves in our Christian ghettos but rarely speak to power against such immorality. Fearing they might fall into the real and dangerous trap of turning the Great Commission into a call to make America a Christian country, too many pastors have been silent as the grave in public discourse on behalf of biblical morality. Reformed teaching has long held that the moral law of God is written in the hearts of all men, it’s part of being imago dei. Yet, somehow we are not permitted to boldly hold our magistrates accountable to the very law we teach they intuitive know as image bearer. We appear to teach that the sphere of the church is accountable to God but the sphere of the state isn’t, or at least isn’t until the coming of Christ at the end of the age. Until then they are to be left unencumbered by any resistance from Christians. Reformed theology rightly teaches that we must maintain all proper distinctions between the sphere of the church and the sphere of the magistrates. Confusion at this point is dangerous on many levels. Yet, divorcing these two sphere as if they have no real intrinsic relationship in this age is equally dangerous on many levels.

    Proof of how silent our reformed 2K pastors and teachers have been, notice the lack of letters to the editor from the in our local papers written by local church elders. Notice how few pastors have ever met personally with their local elected officials, or state officials or governors. Notice how rarely our reformed pastors ever show up to open public local or state meetings to speak on behalf of biblical morality. A pastor or elder testifying before a state sentarte or house committee is all but unheard of these days. While his testimony before the US Congress was ultimately fruitless, Machen was willing to testify in a congressional hearing against the wisdom of the federal government getting involved in regulating public education.

    A brief review of Christian periodicals just before and after the passing of Roe v. Wade shows there was very little comment against the Supreme Court decision. Listen to Francis Schaefer’s pro-life address at James Kennedy’s church back in the mid 1980’s. He speaks to the silence of the church of that generation in the public arena. If we really believe as Calvin taught the the church and state are distinct but also independent, we need to be more engaged in public discourse. The magistrates need to here from us, not our view of policy. It to help them understand the moral will of God concerning the issues of the day. If we won’t help them properly know God’s law who will? In all of life it takes takes time and practice to know how to do things well. We have been silent so long we have lost the ability to know how to speak to our generations magistrates without turning the church into a political organization.

    Maybe MacArthur hasn’t spoken up perfectly, but what he has done poorly is better than what others haven’t done at all.

    • Doug,

      The Author of Vindication was a theocrat as well as Beza. They both assumed the propriety of a state church. Americans do not and have not since 1789. Thus, the question becomes what we are to do with those principles of resistance in a post-theocratic setting.

    • The Author of Vindication was a theocrat as well as Beza. They both assumed the propriety of a state church. Americans do not and have not since 1789. Thus, the question becomes what we are to do with those principles of resistance in a post-theocratic setting.

      When you say, “Propriety of a state church,” what do you mean?

      According to Tuininga, Calvin believed in two kingdoms and based his ideas of the magistrate’s care of religion on natural law and the laws common to nations and believed that the magistrate only indirectly benefited religion and had no authority over church discipline or doctrine or the offices of the keys. To the extent that Calvin thought the magistrate should punish blasphemers, it was only to make the most obstinate ready to receive sound teaching from the church and only in a “Christian” commonwealth, not a pagan one. He also noted that punishment of blasphemy is common to most nations. He didn’t think that the two kingdoms were always separate or hermetically sealed. His views were highly nuanced. Calling him a theocrat seems very simplistic.

      Do you have an opinion on Tuininga’s book?

      • Bryce,

        I was one of Matt’s professors and one of those who may have introduced him to Calvin’s doctrine of a twofold kingdom (duplex regimen). I’ve been trying to work out the application of Calvin’s theory in a post-theocratic state.

        I discussed this with Matt while he was writing his dissertation. As I recall (it was several years ago) my complaint was that he wasn’t giving enough weight to the historical context in which Calvin formed his theory. Some of that argument seems to me like special pleading. Had Servetus et al. not publicly taught heresy they would not have been arrested and put to the death. This was the universal practice in Christendom. It happened in Heidelberg in 1572, when the ministers and theologians demanded that Frederick III, despite his misgivings and objections, put two anti-Trinitarians to death. Frederick was reluctant because he had experience being a “heretic,” i.e., the only Reformed elector in the empire and under threat of invasion.

        “Punish blasphemers,” is a bit of euphemism. The punishment was capital. That’s not just a fine or a little jail time. Calvin’s view wasn’t entirely unique but whatever his good intent, we Americans have soundly rejected the idea that the state has any business in punishing religious heresy. Abraham Kuyper, decided not an American, agreed with us. This is why we have revised Belgic Confession art. 36, because most Reformed people believe, with Kuyper that the state has no business punishing religious heresy for whatever ostensibly beneficial reason.

        Of course Calvin assumed a state church. It has been more than a millennium since there had not been an established church. What most of us forget is that the early church did not seek a state church. It was the pagan Romans who had a state religion and who punished the Christians for not adhering to it.

        Calling Calvin a theocrat isn’t simplistic at all. It’s the plain historical truth. We need to accept it and deal with it. We disagree with him (and virtually everyone in the 16th century) on that point. That’s okay. Calvin was wrong about some things. He was wrong about the perpetual virginity of the BVM too (she wasn’t perpetually virgin).

        The orthodox Reformed, who followed Calvin, didn’t feel the need to follow him slavishly and neither should we.

        I’m grateful the American founders rejected a state-religion/church. The folks at GCC should be too, because, as judged by historic Christian norms, GCC wouldn’t pass the test. They would have been considered a wild Anabaptist sect by the Protestant Reformers and their political allies. They would have all been arrested long ago for refusing the baptize their children and for raucous behavior in their public assemblies.

        Resources On The Twofold Kingdom

  5. Thanks Dr. Clark. I really appreciate your (and many others) take on this.
    It bothers me when MacArthur appeals to the illegitimacy of the science, which I’m not denying, but then takes that and makes it a “therefore” we don’t or shouldn’t follow the rules. You’ve mentioned before, the government has never been nor will they ever be perfect (obviously). But this article was helpful to have that distinction between the matters around worship and matters regarding the substance of worship.
    Thank you again.

  6. The last long paragraph referring to Calvin was suppose to read, “…church and state are distinct but also ….” inter-dependent.”

  7. Hi Dr. Clark,

    You said, “Clearly the county is now seeking to punish GCC and to make their life difficult in light of their civil disobedience”. Using the word “clearly” must mean you have evidence for this, and is not based on mere opinion. Or are you simply saying that whatever the sanctions for not following the rules have been are now naturally being put into effect? It seems to me, though, you’re saying there’s a vendetta going on. What’s the substance of this vendetta, if indeed that’s what you meant?

    • Hi Bruce,

      Vendetta? Well, when the mafia don says, “it would be a shame if anything happened to your nice church,” is that a vendetta? The county has paid special attention to the church after their defiance. They revoked a decades long agreement to rent the parking lot across the street. They have sent inspectors to the church and fined them for errors in their signs. These are clearly intended to punish the church for defying the county. One need not have worked with bureaucrats very long to recognize what is happening. It’s not as though GCC did not invite such scrutiny but they are getting “the treatment.”

  8. If the fire chief shows up to tell you there is a fire and the church ought to evacuate, you listen. If he shows up every Sunday for 6 months ordering the same without evidence of a fire, you disobey and continue to worship. At some point we have to be wise enough to realize we are being sold a bill of goods. Our neighbors lives are being ruined because of restrictions based upon lies. How about we ask ourselves what the truth is and start speaking it.

    • Paul,

      Your argument is familiar: the magistrate is wrong, therefore the church may ignore him.

      The question here is how is the church as an institution to behave? If the fire marshall is abusive of his office does that give us license to remove the fire extinguishers and to lock the fire doors to spite him? Isn’t that what GCC is doing?

      Can you show me that argument from Scripture? Was Claudius wrong? Was Nero? Did Paul leave an exemption for error in Romans 13? What about 1 Peter 2? “Honor the emperor, unless he is wrong. Then you may defy him with a high hand”? I’ve never seen that textual variant.

      I understand the frustration. If you read the essay then you saw that I linked to the petition to recall Gov. Newsom. I am arguing that, as citizens, as individuals and groups, we have a right and even a duty in a republic to seek to remove tyrants and the like.

    • RSC,

      If the emperor continues to insist on Chinese fire drills and making brick without straw and only then will we be able to worship God, we continue to honor God and worship him.

      IOW we continue to do the good of worshipping God, for ‘if we do that which is good, we shalt have praise of the same (cf. Rom. 13:3)’.

  9. Before Abraham Kuyper, Casiodoro de Reina (Unknown Reformer today but not in the 16th of all Europe including England) disagreed with John Calvin with it came to the punishment of heretics.

    “He secretly translated the work of the critic of Calvin, Sebastian Castellion, De haereticis, an sint persequendi (“Concerning heretics, whether they should be Persecuted”), that condemned executions “for reasons of conscience” and documented the original Christian rejection of the practice.” Wikipedia, i know, only source available in English

  10. R. Scott Clark, Yes, it is Christ’s church and we are all subject to His correction. Ministers are not their own. I guess MacArthur is not subject to a church gov’t. but is independent? Since the church has this problem, what should he do? I hope that this serves the church in some way to open eyes and ears to the proper obedience to the magistrates….or not. This seems to be an area that could use some scrutiny now.
    I do not disagree with anything you said but do think we need to address the subject in depth for all the church.

  11. Had Servetus et al. not publicly taught heresy they would not have been arrested and put to the death. This was the universal practice in Christendom

    It sounds like you’re saying that the Reformers wanted a state church because they would have the magistrate carry out sentences like capital punishment for heresy.

    When you say, “state church,” people today think of the Anglican church or the Lutheran (Evangelisch) church in Germany which is actually run by the State. Magistrates carrying out church sentences in Christendom and a state church like the papacy and Anglicanism aren’t necessarily the same thing. In the case of heresy, the church pronounces the sentence and hands him over to the magistrate who is in this case subordinate to the judgment of the local church . In the second case, the magistrate runs the church itself and pronounces the judgment. I agree that neither is good and I greatly prefer the American separation of church and state (no state churches). However, I couldn’t find Calvin advocating for the latter case in Tuininga’s book. I think it definitely matters because Calvin was careful to situate his political theology in a cultural context and did not advocate the same thing for all peoples, thus his political theology is still useful and relevant.

    Which of the links you posted above discusses this further? (Reformers advocating a state church). I thought one of the points of the Westminster Standards was to eliminate the magistrate as the head of the church as the king of England is the head of the Anglican church or the Pope is the head of the papist church.

    • Bryce,

      Yes! That is exactly what I’m saying. Virtually everyone prior to the Modern period (the 18th century) believed in state-enforced religious orthodoxy and in state-enforced punishments, including death, for religious heretics. The American notion of religious pluralism and religious liberty is cherished (or ought to be) recent.

      The late-modern state churches are largely a vestige of their former selves, since they largely abandoned Christian orthodoxy more than a century ago. Most of the European governments stopped being actual theocracies some time ago but in the 16th century, the church was, in many places, either subject to the state or a creature of the state. Obviously, there were places (e.g., the Papal States) where the state was the creature of the church.

      You should read Calvin for yourself. He is not that difficult to read. We need to be very careful of anachronism here, i.e., reading the present back into the past and we need also to be careful of the temptation to save our heroes. We must let them be what they were, creatures of their time. Calvin was a theocrat. As I say, he could imagine the state not enforcing religious orthodoxy. The only question what which orthodoxy? The Romanists, the Lutherans, the Reformed all agreed on this. Even some Anabaptists, when they had opportunity to gain political power sought to enforce religious orthodoxy by the power of the state.

      Reading? You should also read VanDrunen’s book on natural law and two kingdoms. As to what to read? All of it, of course! More seriously, you shall have to scan them and decide for yourself. There are no shortcuts to education.

      Ps. To be perfectly clear, I think state-enforced religious orthodoxy was a great mistake and without warrant in God’s Word. I’m with Kuyper on this. The church is much better off in a place where religious orthodoxy is not enforced and that includes new religions, e.g., political correctness, Critical Theory, and “Climate Change.”

  12. The American notion of religious pluralism and religious liberty is cherished (or ought to be) recent.

    I think the American notion of pluralism depended on Christian notions of liberty of conscience. It is dying with the Christian consensus. The only way to bring back pluralism is to somehow make the country more Christian. Countries composed of other majority religions such as Islam do not have pluralism or political liberalism. Look what’s happening in Turkey these days, for example, or even the United States.

    You should read Calvin for yourself. He is not that difficult to read. We need to be very careful of anachronism here, i.e., reading the present back into the past and we need also to be careful of the temptation to save our heroes. We must let them be what they were, creatures of their time.

    It’s not possible for a layman like me to read all of Calvin as Tuininga has done. I’m not an academic in the letters who reads Calvin as his day job. I can read some of Calvin but I think careful Calvin research and writing of secondary sources is what makes seminary professors so valuable to the laity and clergy alike, isn’t it? For those with jobs outside of academia, the best most of us can hope to do is know the confessional standards. In other words, the scope of my reading of primary sources is limited by my vocation.

    I’m also not trying to rescue Calvin but I don’t think we should a priori dismiss aspects of his scholarship as something written by a man of his times. I find that postmodern men who criticize Calvin as a man of his times are as much men of their times as Calvin, so I tend to take their criticisms with a grain of salt. After we’ve heeded CS Lewis’ warnings about chronological snobbery, we can label some of his conclusions as those of a man of his times on a case-by-case basis.

    As for Van Drunen, I’ll probably start with his latest since I already agree with him that there is a such a thing as natural law. In general, though, I’m not optimistic that our society can return to it or even a consensus on public reason.

  13. Good evening Dr. Clark.

    I have two concerns about your article, First, how would you distinguish “matters around worship” and “matters in worship”? Can you provide a concrete example?

    Second, you mentioned that “Practicing social distancing when we gather for public worship is not requiring us to sin.” But wouldn’t that indirectly drive Christians to sin since it can make us prejudiced and unloving against our fellow believer? I’ll give two examples. I and another brother visited the house of a fellow believer whom we have not seen for several months after the lockdowns. While he welcomed us, he asked if we still went out 5 days a week to go to work. He said that if we frequently go to crowded place, etc., he might not welcome us to his place. He was more concerned about his safety than with our fellowship in Christ. My point is, the requirement to practice social distancing also drives believers to sin. Please share your thoughts on this. Thank you.


    • Dennis,

      I tried to give examples of the distinction in the essay. Did you miss them? Should the magistrate tell us what we may or may not say (the limits on 501(c)3 organizations notwithstanding) or what we may or may not pray or what Scriptures we read or what sacraments we observe, that would be material to worship.

      As noted in the article, we happily submit to building codes and safety regulations to ensure the well being of all who enter our buildings.

      I cannot see how wearing masks leads a Christian to sin. Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and united to Christ. If they are prejudiced against a brother that has more to do with his heart than with his mask.

      Please see the other essays linked in the resources where I’ve addressed the question of masks more extensively.

    • Dr. Clark,

      I did not miss it. If that’s the example of matters around worship, it’s unclear. Fire codes and building permits are normal regulations for every organization, whether religious or not. It’s not necessarily connected with worship. Christians can worship outside a building anyway. But in a social distancing requirement, that already touches on an element in worship, which is one-anothering or fellowship. Christians are now required to socially-distance whether they’re inside a building or not.

      As for the issue of the heart, the Bible also mentions that our speech and outward actions are reflections of what is inside our hearts. If a brother refuses to accept another brother into his home because he’s afraid of either violating the law or getting infected by a disease which has a 99+ recovery rate, is that not sin too? Thus, it is the requirement to social distance which is forcing him to do it.


      • Dennis,

        As I’ve explained repeatedly, you are entitled to your medical opinions re Covid but you’re not entitled to ignore Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2. The magistrate has authority to regulate civil life and even the right to be wrong. Christianity was an illegal religion when Paul wrote Romans. Claudius & Nero were oppressing Christians–the latter murdered several.

        The magistrates aren’t telling us what to say or whom to worship. We’re not at Acts 5:29 yet.

  14. Don’t the mask mandate and social distancing hinder the substance of worship though? The masks put great strain on singing, and also communicating with fellow brothers and sisters (fellowship of the saints). Furthermore, the fruit of the Spirit can’t be exercised to a large extend when the mask and social distancing are obeyed.

    • Joseph,

      No. The substance of worship is the administration of God’s Word, in preaching and sacraments, and prayer. Masks may be an irritation but they do not prevent us from praying or sining. I’ve been doing it for six months and so have many others. Yes, they make communication more difficult but life is hard. We live in a fallen world.

  15. Well, the Democrats are sicking the police on the Jews, that’s good isn’t it? Let’s pretend that they are ok to vote for.

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