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

6 comments:

Ekkleisa said...

Phil,

The first question contains why GCC cited Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, but the answer does not refer to the passages at all, so I'm still unclear why you cited passages on authority/submission if GCC's action was simply voluntary and not an act of submission at all.

Thanks.

Yassine said...

Hi Phil,

I have a question if I may. I'm just a sheep that submits to my elders as onto Christ. I pray they be granted wisdom and boldness if need be.

What do you do as a sheep if the elders you love, respect and submit to make the decision to continue as is, for many months to come perhaps: mandatory masks, limited in person attendance (about 20% of our 3,000 capacity), no singing, all courses and fellowship groups online, etc.?

My leading says submit joyfully and happily to my elders (who are not heretics and are worthy men in Christ) whether I agree or not. They are responsible over me and I find no fault with them. So I submit and trust the Lord things will resume at the appropriate time. I'm just a sheep. My elders are responsible, not me (aside from praying for them and making it a joy for them to serve)

Would be nice to get the sheep perspective for a change!

As for GCC, you have my prayers, both you and John and my support. I love you both dearly and GCC because of GTY and GTY Canada. GTY has done so much for me. I thank the Lord for you all.

In Christ,

Phil Johnson said...

Ekklesia:

I wrote a more thorough answer to that here: http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2020/07/i-think-id-better-think-it-out-again.html

Yassine:

Yes, follow the leading of your elders. The central message of our public statement was that we believe the elders of each individual church are the ones charged with the primary responsibility to say how, when, and whether the church should gather for worship. The decisions made by each congregation's elders may differ owing to the circumstances of their unique time and place. See question 2 above.

Kim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kim said...

Hi Phil!
I want to thank you and Pastor John for the ministry at GTY and GCC. It has been a strong influence in my life!
I mostly agree with the decision that was made to open the church, but I do have a question about how to answer concerns that keep coming up.
Since this virus is one that is mostly spread to others by those unaware they have it, don't believers have a moral obligation to not put someone's health at risk? Why doesn't GCC either meet outside, or at least meet inside with smaller groups, masked and socially distanced with multiple services? It seems like:
1. the church would be more closely following mandates and avoid causing strife
2. the congregation could not be seen as potentially putting others at risk by meeting in large groups
3. both of the above would maybe be a better witness to unbelievers?

If this virus is potentially as bad as health experts say, isn't doing church differently for many months or longer, even though its inconvenient, something that we as believers should be willing to do for others safety?
Where is the line where the church says Caesar has gone to far, so now we should do things that put others at risk? It does seem selfish on the surface at least. I keep getting asked these things and I'm not sure how to respond. How would you respond?
Thank you!!

Touchstone said...

Point #5 is false. There is not "widespread and dogmatic disagreement on the effectiveness of both" [social distancing and mask-wearing]. Both are uncontroversially important to preventing the spread of the virus, and harming others around you. You can spread all the woo you like about God protecting your congregation by holy intervention, but at the end of the day, physics just doesn't support your claims. Six feet of separation is likely not adequate inside buildings, and even much larger distances can be very efficient at spreading the virus depending on the HVAC dynamics of the space.

Masks are not a panacea, but are proven to be beneficial in reducing the spread -- killing less of those you come into contact with directly or indirectly.

Here is an "acid test" for Christians on the "pro-life" issue. If you are really pro-life, social distance and masks are your best way to show regard for the health and lives of the community around you.

No one is surprised by the widespread rejection of this value, though. Don't pretend the science is equivocal on this. You might as well pretend the earth is 6500 years old, so far as science can tell.