Three Congregations That Grew During The Covid Lockdown

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.

NOTES

  1. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (New York: MacMillan, 1923), 149.
  2. Machen, ibid., 152.
  3. 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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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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14 comments

  1. Analogously, here in rustic northeast VT there are voters who vote for both Trump and Bernie Sanders, not for ideology but for similar styles.

  2. RSC: What a startling admission, in effect, stating: “Preacher, your preaching should confirm me in what I already feel.” If this is representative, it seems pews are being filled more and more with listeners who are accumulating for themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires. A deeply troubling development indeed.

  3. RSC:
    good on you for not being afraid of this potential hot button.

    Certainly we aren’t to be picking fights with State to thump our chests in boastful courage. But should we not publicly gather for worship when it’s clearly safe for those who wish to gather? and publicly call the State out for its many inconsistencies?

    The peace and prosperity of a “justice is blind” constitutional State is good for all. (Lev 19:15)

    Bigger political picture: is God displeased with those who think it’s good that He uses political borders to provide common graces of peace and orderliness? Is He displeased with those who serve in military/law – maybe they have a twisted view of what it means to “seek the peace and prosperity” of the place where one lives?

  4. The situational irony in Driscoll’s case is that while “now” he’s willing to tweet that livestream is not really church, back in 2009 he was excited to announce at the Ballard campus that the rest of the Mars Hill campuses would be getting a DVD week-delay rebroadcast of his sermons. If livestream in 2023 is not really church and someone who does that isn’t really a pastor just because of Covid 19 why was Driscoll so pleased with himself that the super-majority of attendees at Mars Hill would hear his preaching a week after he preached and by DVD?
    https://wenatcheethehatchet.blogspot.com/2023/09/today-mark-driscoll-tweets-that.html

    Former Mars Hill co-founding elder Mike Gunn gave an interview in late 2022 where, among other things, he shared that Mark Driscoll has always been pragmatic and a “present” guy. He means whatever he says in the present but he could do a 180 degree turn when circumstances change.

    At the risk of sharing a YT link …
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZqzlqUnn4c

    Since Lief Moi, the other co-founding pastor, died a bit more than a year ago and is no longer with us, Gunn’s account is valuable for those who have had doubts about Cosper’s sprawling Christianity Today podcast on the one hand and, on the other, would like a perspective from someone who was actually part of Mars Hill leadership. I know of quite a few former Mars Hill leaders who did not go on record with Cosper. I wasn’t a leader and I ultimately opted not to go on record with the CT podcast, either.

    With Wilson and Driscoll the influence of the former on the latter couldn’t be more obvious in 2023. Wilson’s hypothetical address to harpies and intoleristas post seems of a piece with Driscoll’s old 2012 “kerfuffle” piece about his Justin Brierley interview. And, perhaps strangely enough, Driscoll once told me and some others Macarthur was a big formative influence on him in his earlier Christian life.

    To see where they have all landed as public figures and pundits is, well, I can’t say I am entirely surprised. During Covid lockdowns in Washington state (which got pretty onerous) livestream was one of the only ways to keep church services going and so it may be a providential irony that my church, for instance, was able to keep services going because enough former Mars Hill people in the dissolution exodus migrated to other churches the skillsets needed for livestreaming spread out to other churches who benefited from the technical possibility of livestreaming services as a way to comply with covid lockdown protocols.

    The temporal double standard at play in Driscoll’s recent denunciation of livestream not being church is therefore a pretty big double standard.

  5. I am utterly appalled at the lack of understanding of Romans 13 within the Christian community in general. Yes, it clearly states that we Christians are to submit themselves to the governing authorities, but few have bothered to define the “governing authorities” within the context of the passage. At the time of the writing of Romans, St Paul clearly understood that the worldly power belonged to Caesar who ruled with an iron fist, therefore Christians were to quietly submit to it. But as a naturalized citizen of these United States, I am flabbergasted that very few Americans understand that their governing authority is the Constitution to which even our leaders, rather our representatives, have to pledge allegiance, to uphold and to defend it. And when our representatives overstep their authority as prescribed and limited by Constitution, it is our duty to obey God rather than man, not to make trouble but to defend the weak and the oppressed. I am saddened by the blind obedience of pastors who didn’t bother to investigate the legitimacy of the Covid scare, but blindly closed down their churches, depriving thousands of comfort and care when they needed it the most. Don’t try to determine Wilson’s, MacArthur’s or Driscoll’s motive, but ask yourself why you did not submit to the governing authority of the United States, the Constitution.

    • Hop,

      Are you proposing that there are 365 million sovereign, equally authoritative interpreters of the Constitution?

      If you read the article you know that I’ve defended civil disobedience but aren’t you missing the point of the article or perhaps you’re making the point of the article? People have flocked to congregations not because the gospel is preached but because they defied the government.

      Defying the government is not one of the three marks of the true church.

  6. Scott,
    I’m not sure what you mean by 365 million interpreters. The Constitution was written at the 8th grade level of English so anyone with common sense can understand it. I was in the thick of things back in the Covid days in Arizona, and I can tell you that people understand the situation differently than what was published through the MSM. They defied the illegal lockdown that caused thousands of unnecessary deaths.
    I agree that defying the government isn’t a mark of the true church, but no one can control the reasons folks flock to churches, just that the Gospel is preached. Granted I don’t know what Wilson and Driscoll did in their services, but I can assure you that MacArthur, as non-reformed as he is, preached the Gospel and I rejoice, as Paul said, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.” Philippians 1:18

    • Hop,

      The American system of government has three branches, the legislative, the judicial, and the executive. All three branches interpret the Constitution as part of their duties but, since Marbury v. Madison (1803) the courts have asserted the right of judicial review.

      The various branches of government do have a right to assert their interpretation of the Constitution as happened when sheriffs and police chiefs indicated publicly their refusal to enforce an executive order made by the governor of New Mexico.

      In the case of public health, however, the legislatures in this country passed laws giving broad authority to the state and county health departments to institute restrictive measures in the case of emergencies. The breadth of that authority was tested during Covid and as States and counties pressed their authority to the limit and beyond, some courts overturned some of their decisions. We’ve been tracking those developments here.

      It is not part of our Constitutional system that individuals or even congregations can decide what the law is or should be. The principle you seem to advocate is that there are 365 million supreme courts or sovereign arbiters of the Constitution. There are not. As individuals and private organizations Americans are entitled to their opinion but not their own Constitution. A man may not decide that abortion is unconstitutional (it is) and on that basis bomb a clinic to stop it. He may pursue legislative and judicial remedies, which ultimately worked in Dobbs, but not private remedies. That is literally criminal.

      There are legislative representatives, elected by the people. They write laws (or they should). They empower the executive branch to execute those laws and enforce them (e.g., via health departments and police departments). The judicial branch is meant to referee. Should citizens believe that a law is unconstitutional they have two choices: violate the law as a matter of civil disobedience or pursue remedies through the system.

      I’m unaware that any of the congregations I surveyed in the article pursued remedies. Perhaps GCC did. I don’t recall but I don’t believe that the Kirk did nor do I have any information that Trinity Church in Scottsdale did. They choice defiance or civil disobedience.

      The Civil Rights leaders in the 50s and 60s pursued legislative and judicial relief. That did happen in some Covid cases (and in some cases churches were paid handsomely for their suffering) that doesn’t seem to have been the pattern of the defiant churches represented by the three in this essay.

      As I argued in my essays on GCC, they were within their rights to practice civil disobedience, though it was never clear to me that they, like the Civil Rights leaders in the 50s and 60s, were prepared for the consequences. I’m not supporting the LA County Health Dept. I complained quite a lot about the tyrannical behavior of public health directors across the country.

      MacArthur preached but he also turned his church into a Trump Rally, which was widely chronicled and also in this space. He not only practiced civil disobedience out of conscience, he poked a finger in the eye of the magistrate.

      As to the gospel being preached, I rather doubt that regarding the Kirk, which advocates a corruption of the gospel called The Federal Vision or in Driscoll’s case, who long ago disqualified himself as a pastor.

      My concerns about John MacArthur’s theology are well documented.

      • Scott,
        There seems to be a circular reasoning here. Is it your understanding that as Americans, we vote into office representatives according to the Constitution so that they have free reign to interpret said Constitution to determine our laws affecting us? Essentially we vote into office our own oppressors. This is certainly not the intent of the Constitution by any stretch of the imagination. This nation was established to be guided by it and your representatives are bound by its dictates. We are after all a Constitutional Republic. The Constitution was framed by the country’s fathers after the Revolutionary war to establish the form of government that prevents another oppression and another revolutionary war. I could go through a lesson in civic, but every American should have already learned it in grade school. No, we aren’t all interpreters of the Constitution (BTW it’s a strawman argument), but we should be familiar with its contents to be aware of proposed legislations that are beyond its bounds and to voice our objection as it is our civic duty. What you also failed to mention is that this nation is a UNION of States, meaning that each State is sovereign, and the Federal government cannot interfere with the State nor can it bypass the State to grant rights to various agencies, except for matters involving interstate commerce or national security.
        You describe what is unfortunately happening today which does not make it right or as intended by the country’s fathers. We are in this sad state because citizens, being ignorant of the Constitution, continue to vote for candidates who don’t uphold it, then relegate the interpretation of the Constitution to those whom it is supposed to regulate, control and limit. This is similar to Christians relegating the interpretation of Scripture to the priests. This is essentially allowing the fox to guard the henhouse.
        You mentioned that you complained about the tyrannical overreach by the health directors. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to visit the sick and infirmed during Covid. I did as a chaplain, and it was heart breaking. People were being systematically killed by malpractice and neglect. I actually watched a personal friend being confined to bed for three months without necessary healthcare and died because we were not able to intervene on her behalf, and when I conducted the funeral, I wondered if I could have done more to save her. What happened to our Christian mandate to defend widows, orphans and the oppressed? Should we not go beyond paying lip service? Should not our faith go beyond the safety of the four walls of the church?
        Forget about Wilson, MacArthur or Driscoll. God won’t hold us accountable for their conduct, but He will certainly make us account for ours.

        “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.” James 4:17

        Semper Reformanda.

        • Hop,

          My reasoning is not circular. Our system of government is not radical populism. The people express their understanding of the Constitution through the legislature. We don’t have a direct democracy. We never have had. This country has always had a representative form of government.

          The legislature interprets the Consistution when it writes and passes laws. The executive has to interpret the Constitution, to a certain degree but the courts are the final arbiters.

          Americans do interpret the Constitution when they practice civil disobedience and there is a basis for civil disobedience in Scripture in Acts 5:29, which I’ve explained repeatedly on the HB. E.g., The Church And The Virus: Is This An Acts 5:29 Moment?

          I’m not defending the government’s handling of the virus nor am I defending the lockdown’s but Scripture enjoins us to submit to the magistrate and we need very serious grounds to resist the government. My neighbor’s interpretation of the Constitution may not meet that test.

          This is the problem with your original assertion that the citizens as private persons are the magistrate or that the Constitution is the magistrate to which we submit. This sounds good but it’s simply untrue, as I’ve been trying to explain. The Constitution is the final authority in our civil life in this republic but the Constitution is interpreted and applied by the branches of government, as I’ve been trying to explain.

          The government during the days of the Apostles did far worse than the American government did during Covid. The Romans regularly arrested, jailed, and beat the Apostles. Ultimately it martyred them. Nevertheless, knowing this the Apostles still told us to honor the King, pray for him, and submit to him.

          As to Semper Reformanda see this.

  7. Having finished Driscoll’s self-published book this last week and seeing that he’s touting his involvement in the Fathom Event movie feature The Domino Revival I felt obliged yesterday to write out thoughts on what I really believe the Mark Driscoll I met in the 2003 days would have said about the Mark Driscoll who self-published New Days, Old Demons in 2023.
    https://wenatcheethehatchet.blogspot.com/2023/10/for-mark-driscoll-in-2023-being-elijah.html

  8. This was such an important article. As I watch the popularity grow among young men toward Doug Wilson’s church, for instance, I can only shake my head in sadness.

    Example: Doug has created a month-long event every November called No-Quarter November. In Oct., many videos came out showing Doug putting things on fire with his “No-Quarter November flame-thrower,” which of course you can now buy for the holidays for a momento.
    “You can buy your own NQN 2023 Special Reserve Edition Flamethrower this holiday season.” https://twitter.com/canonpress/status/1720486816867086612

    The image of Doug in these videos is the same: he smokes a cigar, makes fun of evangelicals verbally as he drinks his libation, sports a beard and an arrogant, self-serving attitude, and like a man with an uncontrolled nature, he unashamedly puts thing on fire with a flame-thrower, justifying his sinful nature.

    As I look at the young men drawn to his “church,” I see many of them imitating him, even posting videos of themselves looking like Doug and bragging about it. They sport beards, adopt his crude language, as the latest NQN video said, “Lying is bad and so is being a wussy.” Here’s the video: https://twitter.com/i/status/1719686489926467589

    Doug is starting a streaming service. Imagine the monthly checks he will get from all of his enamored followers. Not to mention the income from Canon Press, the Assoc. of Christian Classical Schools he runs, and church donations, etc. Follow the money.

    Doug and Mark, in particular, have made themselves into an idol. I am concerned that this idolatry will become a headline one day, which will be used against Christianity and all Christians. I am concerned about celebrity “pastors” who appeal culturally to young, ungrounded Christians in an effort to make them desire deeply to join their ranks (which means more $$ to them).

    I agree with you that civil disobedience may be necessary in the future. It seems like Doug and Mark are happy to take this and run with it often, normalizing civil disobedience instead of using wisdom as to when it should be used. They are profiting from it and drawing upon human sinful nature to grow their following. The years of Covid were trying on all of us. But what these men have done, Doug, in particular, is to give non-believers good reasons to hate Christianity.

    How can it be that people are so easily drawn to self-made celebrities and desire to be just like them? I can see the irony in Driscoll’s Nov. 5 post on X where he posts: “There’s a VIP section in hell. “Very Ignorant Pastors.” It is arrogance that makes Mark post things like this. It is arrogance that makes Doug use crude language and ridicule other Christians so that their own aberrant narrative can be normalized.

    Thank you for exposing this, Dr. Clark. Too many of our young people are being drawn in….

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