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.

Phil's signature


Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing this brother.

Aj Hurley said...

I know that our conversation on this matter in the past has not always been one of unity. However, I want to say that I am incredibly happy to see your leadership, humility, and courage in this regard. Praying for you, pastor.

-AJ Hurley

Bill O'Neill said...

One of the many takeaways from the original Statement is that biblical warrants vis-à-vis church gathering are not validated by the 1st Amendment; they are God-given and need no validation.

FX Turk said...

I think the most helpful part of this clarification is the detail regarding the Governor's intentions toward and disregard for local churches. There is a substantial difference between "overly-cautious" and "intending to harm," and the details provided here (IMO) help flesh out why the elders at Grace have moved toward a position more assertive toward the authority of the church vs. the commands of men.

I think it is also quite important to note that if one does not live in California, these reasons may not apply. It's important to recognize the circumstances in the reasoning. And I think Phil has made clear here that there are circumstances that could potentially cause the elders to reconsider (again) what is warranted.

Aaron S said...

I think a lot of people (including myself) are interested in whether we can principally affirm that the government can incidentally but legitimately interfere with the church in a temporary way. Earlier statements seem to affirm this. The latest statement seems to deny this.

Take the affirmative statement put out by the Evangel Presbytery, for example:

"Through the “general law of neutral applicability” one sphere’s exercise of authority may “at times [interfere] incidentally… This incidental interference in itself does not necessarily exceed the [respective] sphere’s authority as long as it is understood to be temporary and localized, lasting no longer and extending no farther than the conditions that gave rise to it."

And Douglas Wilson:

“The magistrate has genuine authority in times of emergency to command the church to do certain things, or refrain from certain things (as with a quarantine in a time of plague). When the church complies, it is obedience, not happenstance agreement. At the same time, because no human authority is absolute, and because every form of human authority can be corrupted, those under authority, including the church (and especially the church), have the authority to identify when the genuine authority of the magistrate is being abused or mishandled to the point where it is now legitimate to disregard what they are saying.”

And Richard Baxter:

"It is one thing to forbid [assemblies] for a time, upon some special cause, (as infection by pestilence, fire, war, etc.) and another to forbid them statedly or profanely."

An important question seems to be: Are we to cease to comply with the government in this case because it is *principally* wrong for them to "incidentally interfere" with church assemblies at all, or is such "temporary and localized" authority legitimate but excessively mishandled in this case so as to justify non-compliance?

In other words, is it that the government may conceivably but temporarily forbid or curtail the assembly in times of emergency, or is it that they have no legitimate authority whatsoever to do this? Is non-compliance appropriate here because of the mere misapplication, or is it also appropriate because such exercise of authority in even more dire circumstances (war, legitimate pestilence) yet still violates sphere sovereignty?

You write, "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." But the new statement by Grace Community seems to take a genuinely different position that it did before.

With affection and understanding over these difficult times,

A brother

Rich Deem said...

COVID-19 is probably not as dangerous as originally thought, but it isn’t as benign as other typical flu. For example, the last major novel flu (swine flu) infected 60 million Americans with 12,000 dying. COVID-19 has infected 4 million Americans, killing 147,000. The current mortality rate in California is 1.8%, which is at least 20 times higher than the flu. Have the elders discussed the criteria under which they would close again due to infections within the congregation?

Mark Davies said...

Will the wearing of masks be required in church?

Rufus Nganga said...

Thanks for sharing this. In Kenya ���� people above 58yrs have been bared from fellowship and they are the majority that attend services. Our pastor decided to have a special service for them even though the government doesn’t allow and from a biblical position he is right.

Gilbert said...

Let's be clear here: Phil, and his church, as best as I can discern, actually didn't change anything. They have been consistent all along that there are legitimate reasons to shut down a church temporarily, for reasons such as war and in this case, pestilence, and reopened after evaluating the threat in prayer, and with hard data.

Is COVID-19 serious? You bet it is. I know one in the hospital, and one who is very sick at home, and they have a five-year-old kid to take care of, and the one at home can barely think because of the "Covid fog", and can't taste anything. However, the church is holding services outdoors in a tent where ventilation is good, and thus the "load" of viruses that one can get from an infected individual is minimal. The air is not recycled. And if people think or desire they need to wear a mask, that's fine. And if your judgment indicates that you shouldn't be there because your risk is high for serious consequences, that is fine as well.

California's government has allowed rioting, thus violating the Biblical mandate to protect it's citizens. It furthermore allows the murder of unborn babies and buying marijuana to alter one's mental state for non-medicinal purposes as essential, while forcefully claims that churches are not essential. That's bigotry in the highest regard. The state is in extreme violation and completely out of bounds with discrimination at the heart of it. The Lord will judge these politicians for that, unless they repent and believe in Christ, which I pray they do.

Their church, from the outside looking in, seems to me that they have accommodated for the disease, and now responsibly continue them, And just as importantly, they allow ministry of those who are hurting badly to resume. I am a single guy, and I'm not going to sugarcoat this: this has utterly stunk. I've lost two jobs because of this, I just ran out of unemployment, and I have been unable to find work that I can actually do well. I wear a mask to stores, and when I have to be in close proximity to a number of people. People who don't account for this suffering, pain, loss and frustration and blindly sing the mantra of "wear a mask!", are selfish, while chiding others of their selfishness. I want to help people, and now, I'm being helped, can't help others much, and it's very frustrating.

Well done, Phil and Grace Church! We always need the true church, but even more so in a crisis like this. Sorry for venting a bit…

TimTodd said...

You previously wrote, "Quarantining people in the midst of a pandemic is a legitimate prerogative of government...

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."

This seems at odds with the statement, "...we, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction."

It also seems opposed to the statement, "Therefore, when any government official issues orders regulating worship (such as bans on singing, caps on attendance, or prohibitions against gatherings and services), he steps outside the legitimate bounds of his God-ordained authority as a civic official and arrogates to himself authority that God expressly grants only to the Lord Jesus Christ as sovereign over His Kingdom, which is the church."

Has your position changed from what you wrote previously? If not, how do you reconcile them?

Phil Johnson said...


I stand by both statements. Quarantining people in a catastrophic pandemic IS a legitimate function of the state.

But like every other function of government it must be done justly and not excessively. The word _quarantine_ comes from a root that means "forty," because the standard duration of a medieval quarantine was forty days. Californians have been under the ban since March 19. That's literally more than three times longer that a potential carrier of the Black Death would have been quarantined. COVID-19 is nothing like the Black Death.

(More than 99 percent who contract the coronavirus survive. 640,000 people worldwide have died from it, and while that's tragic, it's fewer than half the number of people who died from tuberculosis in 2018. Google it if you want to confirm those statistics.)

Here in California, rules targeting churches have been stricter and longer lasting than any of the restrictions the state imposed on abortion clinics, marijuana dispensaries, liquor stores, casinos, or massage parlors. Indeed, the State has declared those businesses "essential" while expressly disallowing that categorization for churches. They've also permitted--even encouraged--riots and massive gatherings for political dissent. Those "demonstrations" drew shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that stretched from the heart of Hollywood to downtown L.A..

In extending the ban against church gatherings "indefinitely" (that's the governor's word, not mine) the State has absolutely "exceeded its legitimate jurisdiction by any reasonable standard.

Government hostility to biblical Christianity has been intensifying gradually for years, and it has recently accelerated dramatically. Churches that aspire to be faithful to Scripture DO need to choose whether they will obey God rather than men. The earlier we recognize that such a line is already being drawn, the better it will be for the purity of the church and the credibility of our message to the world.

I realize my viewpoint on that doesn't sell well to postmodern evangelicals, who are convinced against all reason that appeasement is the only way to win the world. But it's not a new or contradictory message from me.

TimTodd said...

Thanks for the very detailed response Phil! It is appreciated and helps me understand what your position is.

I also appreciate the related historical tidbits you are finding!

So, taking the first two statements and your explanation, I think I could reconcile your reasoning and the ..three.. statements together as follows (bracketed words added and condensing to two statements instead of three):

Quarantining people in a catastrophic pandemic IS a legitimate function of the state.

"[However], when any government official issues [indefinite and excessive] orders regulating worship (such as bans on singing, caps on attendance, or prohibitions against gatherings and services), he steps outside the legitimate bounds of his God-ordained authority as a civic official and arrogates to himself authority that God expressly grants only to the Lord Jesus Christ as sovereign over His Kingdom, which is the church."

That said, given the above (your post and further explanation): MacArthur’s declaration, his statement and reasoning do not include your qualifications.

Rather, he seems to be saying that quarantine during a pandemic is (without qualification) NOT a legitimate function of the state if that quarantine includes the church.

Am I conflating issues or misunderstanding one of you or both? Would you be able to try to help me see what I am missing? No problem if not, you have already put a lot of time into this and I know you are busy.

Thanks for your candor and your time.

Your brother in Christ,

Robert Coss said...

Can one trust those COVID-19 numbers?

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

The comparison with Tuberculosis is not valid. Tuberculosis is treated with antibiotics, and the majority of world deaths occur in poor nations with poor health systems.

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

Also, Tuberculosis has had various vaccines developed over the years. In many parts of the world, communities are resisting efforts to vaccinate because of conspiracy theories, leading to increased deaths.

I am not a blog said...

quarantine the infected perhaps the frail for their protection is the time tested method that as of yet has never been scientifically refuted.
Quarantining the uninfected from each other is not proven science.
Applying the absurdum ad nauseam test if the authority orders everyone to hop on one leg to combat the pandemic would your church comply? the have the same proven scientific evidence, zero.