Three congregations that reportedly grew during the Covid lockdowns in 2020: Christ Church in Moscow, ID; Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA; and Trinity Church in Scottsdale, AZ. These three congregations have a few things in common. Each is led by a powerful personality: Doug Wilson, John MacArthur, and Mark Driscoll respectively. Each of these pastors has been controversial in one way or another, some of which have been chronicled in this space. All of them, to one degree or another, generated controversy over their reaction to the Covid mandates. All of them too took a very public stand in defiance of public health regulations. Comments in a recent article on Driscoll’s congregation in Scottsdale capture well what happened:
Driscoll’s ministry in Phoenix grew rapidly during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. After just a brief closure in the pandemic’s earliest days, Driscoll made the decision to open the church, making it one of very few that held in-person services during that spring and summer. In response, people poured in by the thousands.
Meanwhile, Driscoll took part in weekly private Zoom calls with a group of other pastors overseeing large churches in the area to share strategies for safely holding worship in those unprecedented times. According to pastors who attended the meetings—which went on for months—Driscoll was a source of encouragement and inspiration.
The congregation ballooned from 800 or so people at first to more than 2,000 in just two years. The masking policy was lax at the church, according to former attendees, making it one of the few public spaces for people to congregate during a time of mass isolation.
Ben and Tiffany Eneas, a couple who had moved to Phoenix in May 2020, were two people who found the church during the pandemic. As newcomers who moved to a new city during the height of the pandemic lockdowns, they were hungry for community, and Trinity was one of the only places they could find it. They started attending regularly.
Ben Eneas was drawn to Driscoll’s willingness to speak boldly about current events—even controversial issues. He enjoyed Driscoll’s public defense of the Second Amendment, as well as his skepticism of mask mandates and the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines. He felt at home, both spiritually and politically.
“It felt really good to hear a pastor boldly say what you already feel,” Ben Eneas said. “All of that resonated with me.”
This narrative and the quotations are illuminating—though, Ben Eneas would come to change his mind rather dramatically about Mark Driscoll. My interest here is not to rehash the Covid lockdowns. Rather, this article should stimulate us to think more carefully about one of the greatest questions facing Christians in the 2020s: Christ and culture. The last line in the quotation from Ben Eneas stating that Driscoll was saying what he was feeling might seem familiar. Rush Limbaugh (1951–2021) often attributed the success of his radio show to the fact that he articulated what millions of Americans thought, and millions of Americans rewarded him by listening loyally to his show for thirty years.
There is something to be said for a talk show host who understands his audience and who successfully gives voice to their frustrations, but “says what I think” is not a biblical qualification for the office of minister. The chief qualification is that a minister says what God thinks, regardless of what the congregation thinks. From the point of view of biblical history, a faithful preacher is more likely to be thrown down a well (Jeremiah 38:7)—”And Jeremiah sank in the mud” is not a bad epitaph for a faithful pastor. Jesus’ preaching was so offensive that the crowd shouted for Bar-Abbas to be released instead of him (Matt 27:21). The Apostle Paul was attacked repeatedly for his faithful preaching of Christ and him crucified (2 Cor 11:21–33).
So it was for Wilson, MacArthur, and Driscoll during Covid. While other churches either continued meeting quietly or went online, these men led their congregations in very public defiance of authorities, which attracted thousands of American Christians. Call it the Trump phenomenon. What attracted Americans to Trump? Those who knew that he had promised to nominate Federalist Society judges to the bench might have been attracted for that reason. Others might have been attracted to his stand on immigration, but most seem to be attracted to him for one reason: “he fights back,” as they say. This same idea is essentially what drew folks to Trinity Church and Mark Driscoll.
Former GCC insiders will tell you that while there was an influx of people coming into Grace Community Church during the lockdowns, many people were leaving it as well. Those who came in during Covid were, understandably, looking for a place to worship, but they were also attracted to the minister’s stand against the Covid regime. I have neither heard nor read reports of any exodus from Christ Church, Moscow. All reports are that the congregation flourished under the Covid regime and continues to benefit from their stand.
None of this is to suggest that churches should not have practiced civil disobedience. During Covid, I appealed repeatedly to Acts 5:29 as the standard. In his sermons on Daniel, my pastor, Chris Gordon, has appealed repeatedly to Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as models of Christian fidelity and peaceful resistance. Quiet, peaceful resistance has been a part of Christianity since the very beginning of the apostolic church. After all, when the Christians gathered in the apostolic period and in the early post-apostolic period, they were pointed about their conviction that “Jesus is Lord.” (1 Cor 2:3). Caesar has his realm (Rom 13:1–7) but he is Christ’s servant and Christ, in his general, sovereign, providence is Lord of all. When Roman authorities demanded that the Christians confess that Caesar was a god, make an offering, and renounce Christ, the martyrs refused, and they sealed their fidelity to Christ with their own blood.
I do not see, however, any evidence in the New Testament or in the early post-apostolic writings, that Christian congregations grew by positioning themselves publicly against the empire. Paul instructed the Thessalonian church that they should “aspire to live quietly” (φιλοτιμεῖσθαι ἡσυχάζειν). He wrote the same thing to them again in 2 Thessalonians 3:12, that they should “be working with silence” (μετὰ ἡσυχίας ἐργαζόμενοι)—that is, do their work quietly. He wrote to Timothy that his desire was that, in worship, the church ought to pray
for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life (ἤρεμον καὶ ἡσύχιον βίον), godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:2–4).
We are to live quietly because, Paul says, God desires that all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. The Jews had engaged in rebellions before Jesus. Many of them, Judas among them, expected Jesus to lead a political rebellion against the empire. Bar-Kochbah led a rebellion against Rome in the AD 130s. Paul wanted nothing of it. Paul, like Peter, wants the congregations to be good citizens, but to mind their business so as to do nothing that interferes with the advance of the Kingdom of God.
None of the Apostles give the slightest hint that they expected the visible church, as a church, to resist the civil authorities, let alone lead a rebellion against them, and yet it was acts of defiance that attracted great numbers of people to these congregations during the Covid regime.
To the degree this is true tells us that too many American Christians have a confused set of priorities regarding Christ and culture. They expect the church to serve and save the culture. In the 1920s, J. Gresham Machen complained about the theological liberals, that, for them, “religion has become a mere function of the community or of the state.”1 As Machen understood the New Testament, it is unabashedly otherworldly. The fancy way to say it is eschatological. Christianity, wrote Machen, is “directed toward another world.”2 Its chief interest is not this world, but the world to come. Today, it is difficult to tell the liberals from the “conservatives” on this score. Both regularly heap scorn on an otherworldly Christianity, but, according to Machen, that is just what Christianity is.
What is the visible church? Is it an ersatz labor union intended by God to serve as a a collective bargaining agency with the culture? Is it a political action committee to rally cultural conservatives to rally against the progressives? Or is the church more like an embassy from another kingdom, another place, and another king? These are questions that too many Christians have considered fully or carefully in light of Scripture.
Abraham could have had more than a burial plot in Canaan, but he was looking for a city whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:10). Moses could have had power and influence in Egypt, but he chose to bear “the reproach of Christ” instead (Heb 11:26). The Christian life is lived by faith (Gal 2:20). We believe a Savior whom we have yet to see (John 20:29).3
That Christians flocked to GCC, to the Kirk, and to Trinity Church because they defied the authorities—not because they were preaching Christ and him crucified—is a troubling indicator of the spiritual health of the church.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
- J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: MacMillan, 1923), 149.
- Machen, ibid., 152.
- Machen’s discussion of the eschatological hope of the Christian, in this section of the book ought to be read by every Christian.
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