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.

Phil's signature

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.

Phil's signature

25 May 2020

What Is a Christian's Duty to Unjust Government?

by Phil Johnson

This guy, angry that Grace Community Church yielded to the 9th Circuit Court's ruling banning church meetings in California this weekend, Tweets at me: "An unjust law need not be followed."

I'm appalled at how many people who profess to believe Scripture echo that sentiment. Nero was emperor when Paul wrote Romans 13:1-7: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. . . ." First Peter 2:13 was written to people suffering unjustly. ("Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him...")

Peter goes on to say: "Be subject . . . also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly" (vv. 18-19). Indeed, "to this [unjust suffering] you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps." (v. 21). When someone in authority over us treats us unjustly, the example we are to follow was set for us by Christ, who simply "continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly" (v. 23).

The only exception to this principle is when the one in authority instructs us to sin. Then "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

So does a government-mandated quarantine ask us to violate Hebrews 10:25 ("not neglecting to meet together"), or is the quarantine in keeping with the principle of Leviticus 13-14, where quarantines are expressly mandated?

The answer to that question may vary according to where we live. Quarantining people in the midst of a pandemic is a legitimate prerogative of government. How long the quarantine should last and who should be exempted are questions that don't have clear, fixed answers. The severity and duration of the pandemic determines what's reasonable or not. We may or may not agree with how the quarantine is being implemented (I certainly do not), but we have a clear duty to submit unless we are being asked to sin.

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 it's clear that among believers—in the church itself—there is not yet consensus on whether the quarantine has gone too far.

Nevertheless, if you hang out on Twitter or Facebook, you may have noticed that there are countless people in the evangelical community who refuse to regard any of the above questions as matters of conscience. They believe the answers are perfectly obvious. They are eager to tell you what you and your church ought to be doing. They are locked and loaded with vituperation for anyone who sees matters differently. Two camps of them have squared off against each other—hordes of angry Karens at opposite extremes, all of whom disagree with the position I've outlined above. Some of them are scolding us for thinking Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 actually apply in today's circumstances. The others are berating us for wanting to resume public worship ASAP.

Sorry, but in the words of Martin Luther, here I stand. I can do no other. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help us.

Phil's signature

13 April 2020

Virtual Communion?

by Phil Johnson

ne of the questions prompted by the quarantine is about "virtual communion." After all, in lieu of regular worship services, we are listening online every Sunday while our pastor preaches from the pulpit of the church. So why not have a kind of virtual communion service, where we all take the elements simultaneously in the privacy of our homes?

Five times in Paul's instructions regarding the Lord's Table, he uses the phrase "when you come together as a church" or its equivalent (1 Corinthians 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34). In verse 34 he expressly contrasts "eat[ing] at home" with the act of eating the bread and drinking the cup as a church body "when you come together." Clearly, the communion ordinance is supposed to be shared by the gathered assembly of the church collectively, not taken by individuals in solitude. It is not a private sacrament.

We might sometimes serve communion with a small group of 5-10 church members gathering at the bedside of someone who is homebound or permanently confined to a nursing home or long-term health-care facilities. But there's a significant difference in a case like that—because you have a subset of the church in genuine communion together, contrasted with isolated people in quarantine who serve themselves (which destroys the symbolism of the Supper).

I agree that extraordinary times do sometimes call for extraordinary measures, and I understand the desire to be flexible in a time of emergency, so although I don't approve and wouldn't participate, I wouldn't necessarily inveigh publicly against a church that offered a "virtual communion service." There may be some well-meaning church leaders who sincerely believe some kind of makeshift online Eucharistic ceremony (sans any actual communion among the saints) is better than none at all. They are wrong about that. But if done anyway, such dramatic revision to the sacrament needs (at the very least) to be carefully and thoroughly explained, along with clear instructions telling participants that this is a temporary measure only, a one-time exception to the normal practice, and it should not change how the church normally observes the Lord's Table or regards its significance.

In practice, however, "virtual communion" services do confuse people—or worse. Saddleback Church, for example, has embraced the idea of "virtual communion." In an email message to church members during Passion Week, Rick Warren wrote, "Last weekend, thousands of our members participated in this tradition at home in our first online Communion in the history of this church. Many people just used what they had: cheese crackers, pancake bits, and various juices. It's hilarious seeing on social media all the things our members used!"

They have literally made a mockery of the Lord's Table—the very kind of thing the apostle was rebuking the Corinthians for in 1 Corinthians 11.

So the best course of action—and what Grace Community Church's elders will be doing—is to wait to serve communion until the church can legitimately assemble. Better to forego the ordinance altogether during the quarantine rather than risk confusing people about the meaning of the Lord's Table and how it is normally to be administered.

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