22 September 2021

COVID Masks and Congregational Worship

by Phil Johnson

We regard the wearing of masks in worship first of all as a matter of conscience—and since we are forbidden by the teaching of Christ not to make extrabiblical religious rules that bind men's consciences (Matthew 23:1-7; 15:1-9), we neither mandate nor forbid the wearing of masks in worship.

Veils and face coverings have profound religious significance in many world religions. Indeed, much of the rhetoric surrounding COVID masks (even among evangelical Christians) describes them as symbols of personal piety. Serious questions about the usefulness, effectiveness, or medical necessity of masks are routinely dismissed or swept aside, and people are told to wear them simply because they are a tangible, visible means of showing love for one's neighbor. This rationale is pressed on people's consciences regardless of whether it can be proved statistically that they really safeguard anyone from the virus, and irrespective of the fact that masks can cause other medical problems. But COVID masks have become, in effect, secularism's substitute for religious vestments. No one can reasonably deny that face coverings have become the chief symbol of popular culture's sanctimonious devotion to the secularist credo.

But one of the distinctives of Christian worship is face-to-face fellowship. Koinonia is the Greek expression the New Testament uses to describe it. The word conveys the idea of community, close association, and intimate social contact. Thus the apostle's instructions: "Greet one another with a holy kiss" are repeated four times in the Pauline epistles (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:22).

The importance of face-to-face koinonia is stressed repeatedly. Paul writes, "We . . . were all the more eager with great desire to see your face" (1 Thessalonians 2:17). "We night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face" (3:10). The apostle John writes, "I hope to come to you and speak face to face, so that your joy may be made full" (2 John 12). "I hope to see you shortly, and we will speak face to face" (3 John 14).

Worship, in particular, is best seen as an open-face discipline. Covering the face is a symbol of disgrace or shame (Jeremiah 51:51; Job 40:4). Concealing one's mouth while praising God suppresses the visible expression of worship. The Psalms' calls to worship are filled with the words "tongue," "lips," and "mouth." "Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise" (Psalm 81:1). " Wholehearted worship cannot be sung as intended—unrestrained and unmuted—from behind a state-mandated face covering. We see "the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (4:6), and our faces were designed by him to reflect that glory back to heaven in uninhibited praise.

It is true, of course, that for now, "We see in a mirror dimly, but [someday] face to face" (1 Corinthians 13:2). That speaks of a face-to-face encounter with Christ himself, when we will be brought into the fullness of knowledge and moral perfection. John the apostle says, "We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is" (1 John 3:2).

Despite the temporary limitation of seeing heaven's glory as if we were looking in a dim mirror, we nevertheless are privileged as Christians to have a view of divine glory that is superior to what Moses and the Israelites enjoyed at Sinai. We see God's glory revealed in Christ—"glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Unlike Moses, who was shielded in the cleft of a rock from seeing the full display of divine glory; and unlike the Israelites, who only saw the fading reflection of glory on Moses' face (and even that was covered with a veil) we see Christ so clearly revealed that it is as if we are looking in the very face of God's glory. "We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory" (2 Corinthians 3:18). Again: we see "the glory of God in the face of Christ" (4:6).

Yes, the language of that biblical passage is symbolic. We don't literally see the face of Christ physically. For now, we see him as he is revealed on the pages of the New Testament. But the symbolism embodied in Paul's description of seeing him with "unveiled face" is important, and the wearing of masks—especially government-mandated masks that serve as the vestments of secular religion—feels like a covert attempt to erase one of the core truths that makes Christianity unique.

Those are my personal convictions about masks. It's not a dogma we teach. It's certainly not a rule we expect people in the church to swear fidelity to. Again, we don't want to bind anyone's conscience with manmade restrictions. We especially do not want to shame the person who wears a mask purely because he or she genuinely believes the current orthodoxy about masks as an effective shield against viral transmission. People in the church are free to wear masks if they choose. But people who share the above view are likewise free to worship, sing, pray, and proclaim God's Word without a face covering—even if that goes against the vacillating, sometimes arbitrary, and frequently heavy-handed dictates of government officials. It is simply not the church's duty to enforce executive orders based on a politician's whimsy—particularly when those edicts impinge on our freedom of worship.

Phil's signature


31 August 2021

California's "Indefinite" Lockdown vs. the Free Exercise of Religion

by Phil Johnson

Note (31 Aug 2021):I wrote this post last year to answer some evangelical critics who insisted that our church could easily follow all government-mandated shutdown protocols without sacrificing our freedoms or compromising our worship. Almost as soon as I posted it, the attorneys handling the church's court case asked us to refrain from discussing the case online—to make sure the legal argument they were making did not get clouded by a social-media debate. So I removed the post. Now that the legal case has been settled, here is that information. Internal links will take you to documentation that proves what an impossible burden the government-mandated restrictions imposed on the church.

(This is kind of long. Pack a lunch.)

For the past eight weeks or longer, Sunday morning worship services at Grace Community Church have been open to anyone who wants to attend. John MacArthur and the elders made that fact as public as possible in a statement they issued on July 24, saying they would continue to have normal worship services despite a July 13 edict from the California Governor ordering churches to close again after a brief respite from the original quarantine.
     The most common question sent to me about the elders' position is, "Why not just avoid conflict with the government by downsizing your congregation, meeting outdoors, and following the simple masks-and-social-distancing guidelines?" For those who have ears to hear, the elders' statement itself gives a carefully reasoned answer to that question.
     I've explained how and why my own thinking changed on the relative weight of Romans 13:2 vs. Acts 5:29 as those texts apply to the church's current circumstances. I've also answered a number of honest questions about the elders' statement here on the blog. But there is a small group of ill-tempered cyberhecklers who endlessly Tweet and retweet variations of the same protestation: "Why not just comply with the government's guidelines? You could easily do that if you were willing to have your worship services outdoors with masks and social distancing." For readers who still aren't sure of our answers to that question, this blogpost is a compendium of my replies.

A  few splenetic people (the kind who put the "Twit" in Twitter) have been relentlessly posting shrill criticisms of Grace Church's decision to stay open for congregational worship in spite of the California Governor's edicts ordering church doors closed. All the criticisms we get echo the same basic claims—namely, that the shutdown hasn't resulted in any actual "persecution" of churches, just inconvenience; that the Governor's orders don't really "target" churches, because they apply to sporting events and concerts as well; and that Grace Church would be perfectly free to meet and worship as a congregation if the elders would simply enforce the experts' guidelines for social distancing and keep everyone outdoors.

Some typical examples:

Here's a guy, for example, who Tweets, "The Church is free 2 meet in California. Not restricted. Truth matters." That Tweet was accompanied by more than 75 additional Tweets from the same Twitter account in 48 hours' time, all sharply critical of Grace Church's elders' decision.

Another person likewise insists that "churches are free to meet in California, provided they comply with social distancing rules re: masking and not singing. . . Those are facts."

There is also a persistent stream of people who want to dispute whether there's any element of persecution in the constraints California officials have placed on worship.

More noisome foes of the elders' position have gone even further, challenging the fundamental integrity of John MacArthur and the elders, or imputing evil motives to them for wanting the church to meet. Some of our critics have seized the opportunity to vent accusations of greed, racism, pride—or whatever nasty bitterness they might have stored up in their hearts.

I'm not surprised that we would get criticism. But I am somewhat surprised that the most angry, ill-tempered, accusatory—even imprecatory— remarks have come from within the evangelical community.

Some preliminary comments

So before I deal with the central question, let me clarify some facts the critics tend to misconstrue.

First, the elders' statement gave a clear and simple reason why the church is continuing to meet—namely, that the State has no legitimate authority to determine what churches teach or how they worship. The document's key sentence is italicized for emphasis on page 1: "God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church." Christ is the Lord of the church, and he mediates his rule in the church through duly qualified elders. Open-ended executive orders from State officials dictating how, when, or whether the church can meet for worship overstep the bounds of Caesar's authority.

That is the whole argument we are making. It doesn't hinge on the question of whether the government's restrictions qualify as "persecution" or not. Our protest is not because we think there's something sacrosanct about the church building. We have not refused to hold services outdoors. We erected the largest tent available in the church parking lot, and it has been filled with worshipers every Sunday morning. Our refusal to limit attendance is not driven by any of the crass motives some pathologically cynical critics have ascribed to Grace's elders.

Second, the elders of Grace Church would not flippantly or injudiciously defy a legitimate government-imposed quarantine if it were clear that a deadly pestilence posed a real and present threat to life and well-being in our community. By "legitimate," I mean a quarantine with 1) a well-defined, quantifiable objective; 2) trustworthy monitoring and honest reporting from qualified health officials; and 3) well-considered restrictions that are impartially enforced in every public gathering. In other words, every event that draws a crowd, including political protests, would have to be treated even-handedly.

Not one of those conditions is being met in the current shutdown.


  1. The stated goal when the quarantine was announced in March was "15 days to flatten the curve." It quickly morphed into a months-long stay-at-home order. Here in California, that phase, in turn, became an "indefinite" lockdown that now threatens to keep schools, businesses, and churches closed through the Fall season and beyond. Given the early cancellation of the Rose Parade on New Year's Day, there's little doubt our political overlords have every intention of not allowing life to return to normal for the remainder of the calendar year—if ever.
  2. The "science" behind the predictions that started the pandemic panic turned out to be false and absurdly fluid. The model that originally motivated so many world leaders to shut down their economies and put their people under quarantine was grossly wrong in virtually every prediction it made. Most experts admit that the data being reported on the spread of the virus even now is untrustworthy. The majority of them signed a letter in support of the "Black Lives Matter" mass protests, saying "we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission." The nation's top infectious disease expert has admitted to lying to the American public about the effectiveness of masks. California's top public health official quit this week because the computer system used to gather statistics was hopelessly faulty. There is no rational reason to trust the fear-mongering spin that politicians and the media continue to put on coronavirus statistics.
  3. When large crowds of angry protestors are permitted free reign to gather in the streets and spawn riotous behavior (often with support and encouragement from the same government officials who say they intend to keep lockdown restrictions in place indefinitely), that's not a legitimate quarantine.

Third, for context, remember that the State of California and others have consistently categorized churches as non-essential while keeping liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, casinos, and abortion clinics open for business as usual. Perhaps no institution is more vital during a time of fear and uncertainty than a church where the gospel is preached. We wouldn't necessarily expect an increasingly secular government to recognize or celebrate that fact, but we do expect American officials to safeguard our unalienable, God-given rights to freedom of worship and assembly. They are sworn to uphold the U. S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The fact that they have not done so is perhaps the most telling sign that religious liberty in the United States is indeed being threatened.

Fourth, I might also mention the fact that hardened felons are being released from prison lest they risk being infected with COVID-19. Recidivism in the wake of that experiment has already exacted a costly toll. It is also well known that political demonstrations have been held in various places around Southern California every day since June, and no legal pressure has been put on participants to abide by social-distancing guidelines. In fact, some of the same experts and officials who insist severe restrictions are absolutely necessary for the rest of us have winked at or encouraged the protests. Meanwhile, pastors holding regular worship services are routinely hectored by public officials and threatened with legal action.

Back to the original question:

Here's my reply to those who wonder why we don't simply accept the restrictions and alter our worship services accordingly in order to comply as much as possible with the quarantine restrictions.

The list that follows is taken from official guidelines that have been issued for places of worship in California. You'll find those documents linked below. (If you can't find where a specific bullet point can be documented, email me or comment below, and I'll give you specifics. I didn't want to clutter this list with references.) So here is a short list of just some of the things that our Governor's edict and the State of California's current guidelines would require of us:


  • All "indoor operations" must close and remain closed indefinitely.
  • Congregants must pre-register in order to come on campus. They are not permitted on campus at all except during scheduled events.
  • Attendees must be screened for symptoms and have their temperature taken as they come onto campus.
  • Everyone at all times must remain at least 6 feet away from anyone else who is not a household member. (That applies to the tent, the parking lot, restrooms, and the open areas of our campus.)
  • Maximum occupancy of the tent is therefore determined by how many people can stand or sit inside the tent with a six-foot radius around each family group, with extra space allocated for aisles. We have the largest available tent that will fit in our parking lot. (The tent is 20,000 sq. ft.) At most, it can hold 350-400 people with social distancing. That's not even a tenth of our congregation.
  • Attendees must therefore be counted as they come onto campus, and once the maximum occupancy of the tent is reached (400 people), anyone else who comes must be turned away.
  • Every other parking space must be closed in order to maintain social distancing even in the parking lots.
  • There must be marked, designated pathways from the parking lots to the tent. Staff members must be positioned along those pathways to remind people to maintain social distancing and stay masked at all times.
  • Everyone who attends must wear a mask at all times, and anyone who comes within six feet of a maskless non-household member should self-quarantine for two weeks.
  • Children are required to stay with their parents at all times and not intrude on the six-foot radius of non-household members. "Children should remain in the care of those in their household unit and not interact with children of other parties at any time while visiting facilities. [The church must] close play areas and discontinue activities and services for children where physical distancing of at least six feet cannot be maintained."
  • Restrooms must be guarded by a monitor—a staff member tasked with making sure the six-foot rule isn't violated and that everyone who enters stays masked. (If those standards are strictly followed, most of our restrooms will accommodate only one person at a time.)
  • Tape must be laid out on the ground outside the restroom to indicate where people in the queue should stand in order to maintain social distancing.
  • Congregants should be encouraged to use the restroom during the service to minimize the rush before and after the service.
  • Hand sanitizer must be provided at places around the campus. (We do that already.) In addition, all surfaces in high traffic areas must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected throughout the day. That includes "lobbies, halls, chapels, meeting rooms, offices, libraries, and study areas and areas of ingress and egress including stairways, stairwells, handrails, and elevator controls. . . . [also] doorknobs, toilets, handwashing facilities, pulpits and podiums, donation boxes or plates, altars, and pews and seating areas."
  • Hymnbooks, seat cushions, offering plates, communion trays, and any other shared items are not to be used at all.
  • If there is more than one service, disposable seat covers must be provided and changed between services.
  • Signs must be posted at all entrances reminding people to wear masks, maintain social distancing, and go home if they are sick. Additional signs must be posted around the campus forbidding hugs and handshakes. And still more signs must be placed in the restrooms reminding people to wash their hands frequently and with soap—for at least 20 seconds each time.
  • A list of all rules governing behavior for attendees must be posted on social media so that people can be informed of these restrictions before they come for worship.
  • Church services must be "shortened to limit time spent at the site." (The guidelines aren't specific about the amount of time that must be shaved from our services.)
  • The entire campus must be closed to the public when the service ends.
  • If three people from the church test positive for COVID-19, church staff must report that to the Department of Health. The State will then send a representative to come and give us additional instructions on how to respond.

To that guy who Tweeted that churches in California are "free 2 meet . . . Not Restricted"—and then had the chutzpah to add, "Truth matters," my answer is that I don't believe truth really matters very much at all to someone who is as militantly determined as he is to perpetuate that false narrative.

To that guy who Tweeted that churches in California are "free 2 meet . . . Not Restricted"—and then had the chutzpah to add, "Truth matters," my answer is that I don't believe truth really matters very much at all to someone who is as militantly determined as he is to perpetuate that false narrative.

To those who have had questions of conscience regarding the position our church has taken, I hope this information is helpful.

Professing Christians who bow to tyranny under these circumstances are setting a bad precedent. It will be very hard for them to justify the position the Apostles took in Acts 5:29 when they finally realize that is what they need to do.

And finally, for anyone seeking my sources, here are some of the documents issued by various government agencies listing restrictions for places of worship in California:

No end to these draconian restrictions is anywhere in sight. The Governor says, "These closures shall remain in effect until I determine it is appropriate to modify the order."

We answer: "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge" (Acts 4:19). God's Word says, "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:24-25).

"We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

Phil's signature



04 August 2020

Questions we get about the GCC Elders' Statement

by Phil Johnson (and friends)



ome friends and I collected common questions that have been raised regarding the recent statement from John MacArthur and the Elders of Grace Community Church, titled "Christ, Not Caesar, Is Head of the Church." Here's our FAQ in its current form:

1.Why did you consent to the original government order, citing Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2?
     The elders of Grace Church decided to follow the recommended procedures set forth in the original government order, not because we believed the state has a right to tell churches when, whether, or how to worship. To be clear, we believe that the original orders were just as much an illegitimate intrusion of state authority into ecclesiastical matters as we believe it is now. However, because we could not possibly have known the true severity of the virus, and because we care about people as our Lord did, we believe guarding public health against serious contagions is a rightful function of Christians as well as civil government. Therefore, we voluntarily followed the initial recommendations of our government. It is, of course, legitimate for Christians to abstain from the assembly of saints temporarily in the face of illness or an imminent threat to public health.
     When the devastating lockdown began, it was supposed to be a short-term stopgap measure, with the goal to "flatten the curve"—meaning they wanted to slow the rate of infection to ensure that hospitals weren't overwhelmed. And there were horrific projections of death. In light of those factors, our pastors supported the measures by observing the guidelines that were issued for churches.
     But we did not yield our spiritual authority to the secular government. We said from the very start that our voluntary compliance was subject to change if the restrictions dragged on beyond the stated goal, or politicians unduly intruded into church affairs, or if health officials added restrictions that would to attempt to undermine the church's mission. We made every decision with our own burden of responsibility in mind. We simply took the early opportunity to support the concerns of health officials and accommodate the same concerns among our church members, out of a desire to act in an abundance of care and reasonableness (Philippians 4:5).
     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. Still, roughly forty percent of the year has passed with our church essentially unable to gather in a normal way. Pastors' ability to shepherd their flocks has been severely curtailed. The unity and influence of the church has been threatened. Opportunities for believers to serve and minister to one another have been missed. And the suffering of Christians who are troubled, fearful, distressed, infirm, or otherwise in urgent need of fellowship and encouragement has been magnified beyond anything that could reasonably be considered just or necessary. Major public events that were planned for 2021 are already being canceled, signaling that officials are preparing to keep restrictions in place into next year and beyond. That forces churches to choose between the clear command of our Lord and the government officials. Therefore, following the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, we gladly choose to obey Him.



2.Are you saying that pastors who choose to follow the government guidelines are thereby guilty of abdicating their responsibility before the Lord and violating the God-ordained spheres of authority?
     To be clear, we're not trying to tie faithfulness to a particular evaluation of the severity of the virus or the best way to take precautions in response. For many churches, elders will independently conclude that the recommended regulations are the best course for the present time. Our point is that these decisions are the church's call to make, not the state's.
     How elders make their decisions on whether and how to meet is a Christian liberty issue, and not every faithful congregation will make those decisions exactly as we have. Given the size, health, age, and location of their congregation, as well as how the virus has affected their own community, some pastors and elders may decide to suspend fellowship for a bit longer. Our statement was not intended to target faithful pastors and elders striving to exercise their own independent discretion and navigate their own congregation's needs. Our desire was simply to equip and empower such faithful men—not cause them trouble or bind their consciences to choices we are making.
     With that said, it is not a Christian liberty issue for elders to farm out to the state their God-given authority to make such decisions. That is abdication. Pastors and elders who allow the government to dictate the size of their gatherings—or whether they can meet at all—give authority to the government that God has given only to Christ as the head of the church. If church leaders have ceded Christ's authority to the government, which God never gave nor intended government to have, it is our prayer that they would repent of that and reaffirm that Christ and not Caesar is the head of the church. The statement calls other faithful congregations to join us in recognizing that God has committed to elders the authority and responsibility to make these decisions, and they should not forfeit to the state that authority and responsibility in contradiction to God's design.

3.Are the spheres of church and state as distinct as the statement implies? Doesn't the church submit to government fire codes and zoning restrictions? If so, why not likewise acquiesce to these public health restrictions?
     While it is true that the church is subject to fire codes and zoning restrictions, those are routine civil, not spiritual, matters, so the state exercises legitimate authority enforcing them. But the government's authority in civil matters associated with the church does not give it authority in spiritual matters, which are the lifeblood of the church. Attendance caps, singing bans, and distancing requirements (especially those that are established arbitrarily and by executive fiat) have the effect of suppressing or eliminating the congregational worship that is an essential element of church life. Therefore such orders fall outside the jurisdiction of civil authorities.

4.Why did you ask for signatures on this statement?
     We wanted to find a way for other pastors and church leaders who agreed with our perspective—but who were perhaps apprehensive about reopening—to have a way to express their support and solidarity.

5.Why haven't the elders of Grace Church enforced social-distancing rules and the wearing of masks?
     The medical community has widespread and dogmatic disagreement on the effectiveness of both of these restrictions. We do not believe it is within the elders' purview or responsibility to resolve that disagreement or act as enforcers of such a hotly debated policy dispute—especially when government authorities themselves have declined to enforce those rules during countless mass demonstrations with crowds much larger than any of our worship services have ever drawn. Instead, we leave it to each individual to be "fully convinced in his own mind" whether or not to follow these guidelines. We gladly welcome anyone to Grace Community Church and leave those choices to each individual, in the spirit of Romans 14.


6.What if officials intervene in our services or force us to comply?

     The threat of even the most severe consequences from government has never stopped faithful people from submitting to the authority of God's Word. And we know that any opposition we receive will be within the will of our Lord, and for the good of His church. We simply desire to gather peacefully and reverently in worship of Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:2), free from the prohibitions of the state. We also understand how desperately the world needs the church, because we are (in Jesus' words) "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world" (Matthew 5:13-14)—an absolutely indispensible influence for truth and righteousness in society. Of all people, we understand how desperately the world needs the Gospel, a spiritual priority far more important than any physical threats which can kill the body but are unable to kill the soul. If the governing authorities feel the need to assail us for that, we will trust the Lord, rejoice, and glorify God for the privilege of suffering in the name of Christ (1 Peter 4:12þ16; cf. Philippians 1:27þ30).

7.Is Grace Church open for anyone to attend?
     Yes. Please feel free to join us for worship.

8.Must we meet in the tent, or will the worship center be open?
     We trust the members of our congregation to be mature adults, so they and their families are welcome to sit wherever they feel comfortable. We have ample outdoor seating available, and have uniformly observed that congregants have been respectful of those wearing masks and/or seeking to social distance.

9.What if I don't feel comfortable returning?
     We understand that we are in unprecedented times, and that the information from governing authorities and health officials changes each day. If you are not comfortable returning to worship, please feel free to take advantage of the live stream and other alternatives. We love you, we miss you, and we are eager to welcome you back when you are able to join us (1 Pet 1:22), but we recognize there are some of our members for whom this is the right decision—especially if you are sick or experiencing symptoms of the virus, are at high risk of complications due to age or other health conditions, or have regular contact at home with someone who is at high risk.
     While you're away, please continue to reach out to your fellowship group pastors, Bible study shepherds, and other fellow members. We are eager to learn of and meet your needs.

10.When will fellowship groups, children's ministry, the nursery, and student ministries resume?
     As soon as we can work out the logistics.

Phil's signature

03 August 2020

Not Forsaking the Assembling of Ourselves Together

. . . and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.
by Phil Johnson



avin Ortlund has written a blogpost titled "Should Churches in California Defy Government Restrictions? A Response to John MacArthur." Time won't permit me to go through his entire post, but I want to clarify one point that Ortlund gets wrong, because it's a crucial one, and I've seen it repeated several times on Twitter. (I've even had a couple of angry emails from people who think John MacArthur said what Ortlund claims he said.) Since it's the starting point of Ortlund's blogpost, much of what he writes in the piece hinges on his misunderstanding of a partial quote he has pulled from MacArthur.

Ortlund writes, for example, "To claim that those complying with the government restrictions 'don't know what a church is and . . . don't shepherd their people' is both unhelpful and unkind" (italics added). MacArthur made no such blanket statement, but Ortlund seems to believe that's what he meant, and Ortlund feels personally targeted by it.

Here's what John MacArthur did say, with a little bit of context:

Churches are shutting down. Large churches are shutting down until (they say) January. I don't have any way to understand that—other than they don't know what a church is and they don't shepherd their people. But that's sad. And you have a lot of people in Christianity who seem to be significant leaders who aren't giving any strength and courage to the church. They're not standing up and rising up and calling on Christians to be the church in the world.

—John MacArthur (2 August 2020)

As the context plainly shows, Pastor MacArthur was talking about pastors who are doing what Andy Stanley and JD Greear have done—namely, they have stopped gathering as a church and made small home groups a long-term substitute for congregational worship. And they say they have no intention of re-gathering the whole flock until sometime in 2021.

MacArthur's remark was not about masks and social distancing. It wasn't aimed at churches that have continued to gather the flock by moving their services outdoors or off site. And let's be clear: That would exclude Gavin Ortlund from MacArthur's censure. In his blogpost, Ortlund himself says, "Our church has chosen to meet outdoors." Wonderful. He is to be commended for that. But would Pastor Ortlund not actually agree that it would reflect an unbiblical notion of what the church should be if he had given up on the duty spelled out in Hebrews 10:25—which (by the way) Ortlund himself lists first in his list of "four biblical values that should inform our decision-making in this situation"?

No one who is making a good-faith effort not to forsake the regular assembly has any cause to feel insulted by John MacArthur's comment. I'm convinced that no one who is listening carefully to what Pastor MacArthur is saying (and what he has said—repeatedly—about Grace Church's response to the indefinite extension of the quarantine in California) has any cause to feel targeted—unless they are arguing that long-term closure of churches is the right response to the pandemic.

I admit, it did surprise me last week when Jonathan Leeman, Editorial Director of the 9Marks ministry, indicated he appreciated JD Greear's approach, implying that canceling congregational worship for the rest of the year is a viable (perhaps even better) answer to the quarantine than John MacArthur's decision simply to open the doors of the church and allow the congregation to come. Leeman himself had previously written an excellent article, "The Church Gathered," defending the priority of the congregational assembly.

In the discussions currently taking place in various Internet forums, it seems there is no shortage of church leaders who, faced with the pragmatic difficulties of the recent pandemic, have adopted the view that it's just fine for a pastor to make plans not to gather the flock at all for the better part of a year. Those who think that way ought to feel the sting of John MacArthur's rebuke. The prevalence of such thinking among evangelicals is a disturbing reality, and one that shouldn't be glossed over or downplayed just because someone's feelings might accidentally get hurt.

MacArthur was absolutely right in what he said. Those who think closing churches for the remainder of the calendar year is a good plan frankly don't have a biblical understanding of what the church is to be. The fact that so many in current positions of church leadership don't see that sets up a scary scenario for the future of the evangelical movement.

Phil's signature

24 July 2020

I think I'd Better Think It Out Again

by Phil Johnson




ot this question today in more than one Tweet (regarding the Grace Church elders' statement "Christ, Not Caesar, Is Head of the Church"), so I'll answer it here:

Twitter Question

Thanks for the question. I'll answer candidly. Speaking for myself alone, I'll acknowledge that yes, my thinking on the question of the COVID-19 quarantine and Romans 13 has changed somewhat—or at least been refined, illuminated, qualified, and enriched. I've been forced by circumstances to rethink and amplify my answers carefully because of the government's relentless attempts to keep churches closed despite the fact that months have passed without the apocalyptic quotas of death and disease that were originally predicted. My original concern about the virus was clearly overblown. At the time, I needed to be cautious, because we could not possibly know how serious the threat really was. My concern now is for people whose need for fellowship and pastoral care is going unmet. I do have firsthand knowledge of how critical this emergency is.

In the weeks since March several things happened that affect my perspective. For one thing, the California Governor's edicts have become increasingly onerous.
  1. He has told churches they should not have congregational singing.
  2. He wants to limit church attendance to 100 (even in a massive 3,000-seat auditorium).
  3. He says churches are "nonessential" while insisting that marijuana dispensaries, liquor stores, and casinos are vital businesses that must be kept open.
  4. Although he briefly showed signs of backing off the policy of church closures, he then immediately doubled down to try to force the mandatory re-closure of all places of worship "indefinitely" (even though there's no evidence churches have been hotspots for passing the virus).
  5. Meanwhile, government officials have not only permitted but actively encouraged mass demonstrations (including riots) for political causes.
With all of that going on, I was forced to rethink my position on Romans 13. The elders of our church also realized the need for us to answer in greater detail the question of who has the authority to govern the doctrine, worship, and polity of the church. The elders' statement that was affirmed on July 23 and made public the following day is the result. It's a clarification and qualification of everything we have previously said about the duty imposed on us by Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Without denying that duty, we're endeavoring to explain biblically why those passages don't call for blind, automatic acquiescence to government overreach into church business.

It is of course still the case that in a real and impending health crisis, the elders and pastors of a church may wisely decide to follow the recommendations of health officials with regard to protecting against dangerous contagions. That's precisely what we did at the start of the quarantine. Circumstances have changed, however, and we have adapted (and explained) our response accordingly.

An observant person who has been following me might have noticed subtle shifts in my position since the quarantine began. I knew from the start that things might change if politicians began to use the health crisis in an opportunistic way. When explaining our position on Romans 13 several weeks ago, I wrote this:

How long until the government-ordered quarantine is undeniably excessive, or we conclude that it's targeted persecution against our worship and therefore an illegal attempt to make us disobey Hebrews 10:25? That time may come, and when it does, we may have to implement the principle of Acts 5:29. The question of whether we have already passed that point is another subjective issue . . . .
But now I don't see it as altogether "subjective." In our congregation, by every metric I can conceive of, the amount of hardship, suffering, death, and disaster inflicted by the quarantine far exceeds whatever grief has been caused by the virus. It is time—past time—to get the church back together.

I hope that's helpful. Again, thanks for raising the question. You'll find John MacArthur's reply to your question has been added at the bottom of the statement at the Grace to You blog.

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10 July 2020

My thoughts about Congregational Worship, Social Distancing, Submission to Caesar, and Obedience to God

by Phil Johnson



do of course, wholeheartedly affirm the principles of Romans 13:1-7 ("be in subjection to the governing authorities") and 1 Peter 2:13-17 ("Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution")—while recognizing also that those commands are limited by the principle of Acts 5:29 ("We must obey God rather than men").

If you believe the threat to public health is real and deadly, you'll probably be inclined to submit to all the governor's orders. If you suspect politicians are milking the entire thing and exaggerating the threat for partisan purposes, you're more likely to conclude that the duty of Hebrews 10:25 outweighs any obligation to kowtow to the governor's latest whim.
Circumstances surrounding the current quarantine, riots, and mass political demonstrations have greatly blurred the question of whether Acts 5:29 applies in this case. Good, Bible-believing Christians have landed on both sides of the question. If you believe the threat to public health is real and deadly, you'll probably be inclined to submit to all the governor's orders. If you suspect politicians are milking the entire thing and exaggerating the threat for partisan purposes, you're more likely to conclude that the duty of Hebrews 10:25 outweighs any obligation to kowtow to the governor's latest whim.

During more than 16 weeks of quarantine (with the death toll just a sparse fraction of what experts originally predicted) the elders and staff of Grace Community Church observed every order related to the quarantine. But the rules change almost daily and are being applied unfairly. Statistically, people are far more likely to get the virus in a gym or a bar than in a worship service. (Of 3+ million cases in the US since March, only 650 have been traceable to churches.) Yet bars, gyms, gambling casinos, and even massage parlors have been given freedoms that are withheld from churches. In fact, as these and other businesses are finally being permitted to reopen, restrictions targeting churches are becoming even more onerous. The California Governor has gone so far as to tell churches they must cease all congregational singing.

Governor Newsom: Not clear on the concept. It's supposed to be a mask, not a chin strap.
Governor Newsom: Unclear on the Concept.
(It's supposed to be a mask, not a chin strap.)


Our elders and security team cannot in good conscience become enforcers of rules that 1) we believe unfairly target the church, and 2) the government itself has declined to enforce. Owing to the arbitrary, capricious way these regulations are made and changed, combined with the fact that authorities did nothing (and are doing nothing) to enforce the masks-and-social-distancing rules on political demonstrators who gather regularly in downtown L. A. in crowds of thousands, it seems only right to leave the question of how far to go in observing social-distancing recommendations up to each individual.

The degree to which we permit masks and social-distancing recommendations to impinge on our worship in the congregational context ought to be seen as a matter of conscience. "Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind" (Romans 14:5).
In other words, the degree to which we permit masks and social-distancing recommendations to impinge on our worship in the congregational context ought to be seen as a matter of conscience. "Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind" (Romans 14:5). And don't be quick to condemn believers who hold a different opinion, no matter which side of the issue you have come down on.

Grace Church's elders have made it possible for people with scrupulous consciences to obey every government-issued regulation to the letter. The church provides masks and hand cleanser at stations around campus, and there are ample outdoor seating spaces where people can hear the sermon, participate in the singing, and still practice careful social distancing if they are bound by conscience to do so.

On the other hand, for those (like me) who are not fearful of exposure to the virus, or those who are deeply skeptical of the motives behind this level of government intrusion, they can likewise do what their conscience dictates and gather in the auditorium for worship as usual—with or without masks. If government officials choose to single those people out and enforce rules they aren't enforcing at political demonstrations, let them do so. I for one am willing to suffer the consequences if it comes to that.

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13 June 2020

Wokeism Is a Hateful Religion

by Phil Johnson



BTW, "Get Woke or get out" is no way to promote Christian unity.

John McWhorter, professor of linguistics, comparative religion, music history, and Americana at Columbia University has been pointing out (since at least 2015) that Woke anti-racism is a religion. McWhorter says, "When someone attests to his white privilege with his hand up in the air, palm outward . . . the resemblance to testifying in church need not surprise. Here, the agnostic or atheist American who sees fundamentalists and Mormons as quaint reveals himself as, of all things, a parishioner."

Wokeism satiates the religious cravings of the human spirit for people who have rejected conventional expressions of theistic worship. It has therefore become the current orthodoxy in the academic world and the official religion of secular society.

It has also become a kind of plaything for evangelicals who crave the world's admiration and approval—and who don't mind dabbling in syncretism. This is a frivolous and dangerous experiment, however, because no one who holds any real evangelical convictions can ever be truly Woke. Too many of Wokeism's cardinal tenets flatly contradict biblical principles. The truly Woke are militantly pro-abortion; devoted to the LGBTQAFLCIO agenda, rabid socialists, and high-handed secularists. Pure Wokeism is openly hostile to any whiff of evangelicalism.

Wokeism has become a kind of plaything for evangelicals who crave the world's admiration and approval—and who don't mind dabbling in syncretism.


Plus, Woke religion has a very insular creed. Soul liberty is antithetical to their fundamental convictions. They have a deep and abiding hatred for every worldview, idea, or person that challenges any point of their authorized credo. Indeed, to challenge Wokeism on any point or at any level whatsoever is deemed damnable heresy. Wokeism ironically fosters this extreme illiberality in the name of "tolerance and diversity."

Wokeism is as narrow-minded as any brand of fundamentalism—and getting more narrow every day. Every article of faith must be formally affirmed and faithfully adhered to. A catalogue of insider jargon signals other adherents that you too are Woke. But there are forbidden words that must be carefully avoided on pain of excommunication. And the list of taboo expressions is constantly being revised and expanded, so you must stay conversant with the approved vocabulary or risk being publicly shamed and shunned.

In addition to the strict cardinal dogmas, Wokeism has its own sacraments and rituals, high priests, saints, and martyrs—even a kind of hymnology. The flavor of Woke rhetoric is homiletical rather than scholarly; it's a sermonic appeal to deep emotions, utilizing personal testimony and a carefully-crafted narrative (the Woke mythology) rather than statistics.

It's an odd religion—teaching people to nurse grudges, cast blame, cultivate ill will against whole people groups, and deepen that personal sense of resentment. But it is nonetheless fully religious in character, for all the reasons noted.

The push to spread Woke doctrines therefore has all the characteristics of a religious campaign—a crusade to win converts by any means possible. Conversion conveys a moral standing that non-converts (the uncooperative, unwashed, unWoke) don't have. It's a limited veneer of virtue that offers a provisional reprieve—nothing like full forgiveness. (More on that later.) But it entitles the penitent to join the Woke in heaping full-throated condemnation on the unWoke.

To a devotee of Wokeness, being unWoke is tantamount to being a rank heathen or an evil infidel. They see Wokeness not merely as a matter of politics; it is the only righteous worldview, and it must be embraced with pure religious fervor. Indeed, Woke anti-racism has quite literally become a point of religious doctrine so important that even in the minds of the kinda-Woke evangelicals it has upstaged and eclipsed abortion as the number one moral crisis in America.



Wokeism is a nasty religious cult. Its votaries routinely declare people guilty for the sins of others, elicit rote confessions, and then refuse to offer absolution. They define sin mainly (if not entirely) as a horizontal offense—but not necessarily even a personal offense. You are guilty mainly for what your ancestors may have done. And even if your ancestors were themselves poor subsistence farmers who never oppressed anyone, if other members of your ethnic group did, you are made to bear the guilt for that. Guilt is therefore a corporate responsibility, apportioned differently to different ethnicities.

If you don't have the right kind of victim status or skin color, it would be utterly foolish for you even to think of asking for forgiveness. Still, you must confess the guilt you bear by kneeling and reciting the prescribed confession. And if you don't do this, your refusal to genuflect on command will mark you as a fascist. The fact that you dissent from the received opinion intensifies the criminality you inherited when you were born into the wrong ethnic group. Preachers of the Woke doctrines will do everything they can to make sure you are shunned by polite society. Apologize publicly and you will merely be mocked (and subjected to endless re-indoctrination). But if you remain stubbornly unWoke, those who are Woke will scold and harass you publicly, relentlessly, trying to get you fired from your job.

Or worse.



On the other hand, if you are a cop, a civic leader, or a Christian, kneeling and accepting the Woke credo will do nothing to make you any less worthy of public contempt and censure.

After all, this is a religion that has no doctrine of atonement, no concept of forgiveness, and no possibility of real redemption. The recent demonstrations and riots made clear that no matter how frequently they use the word, reconciliation is not the real goal of Wokeism.

In short, the Woke worldview is impossible to blend with gospel truth—and its inevitable drift will take today's wanna-be-Woke evangelicals exactly where the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch took the mainline denominations in the twentieth century: into rank theological liberalism and unbelief.

The notion that the gospel can be improved by blending it with Wokeism is sheer folly anyway. The Woke worldview is rooted in secularism—and arguably, Marxism. Its central claims and distinctive jargon are taken not from Scripture but from secular political discourse. It is a canon of doctrine deliberately designed to provoke conflict, prolong resentment, and foster bitterness between different ethnicities. It encourages people to be offended by things that never actually happened to them—while blaming others for sins they did not actually commit. It doles out guilt and shame rather than grace and redemption. Though it is promoted by people who say they oppose ethnic strife, it is a blatantly racist worldview, condemning entire ethnic groups for sins that were committed generations ago by people long dead.

All of that hits at the heart of the gospel message of forgiveness, grace, oneness in Christ, and unity in the church. It is as anti-Christian as every other cult or false religion, and faithful followers of Christ should recognize that.

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