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


PastorJayson said...

Phil, where can I send an email to you directly? I’d like to offer a thought to you privately regarding Pastor MacArthurs comments and your writing here. Thank you.

Bill K said...

Thanks for the excellent clarification and comments here. I am particularly perplexed with Leeman's apparent contradictory comments, where, on one hand, he presents an affirmation of your post's conclusion (c.f. also your cited post of Leeman, and his recently published book, One Assembly), while on the other hand, appears to present a conflicting viewpoint in his more recent statements regarding indefinite quarantines.

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

men. if this were the black plague killing 50% of everyone, it would be justified. But we know now the good, the bad, and the ugly of this disease. Is it hurting and killing people? You bet. But it's also hurting just as many, and more, due to suicides, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and more. I'd rather serve the Lord for one years and get sick and die, then spend 5 years sitting around unable to serve and share the Gospel.

Phil Johnson said...

Pastor Jayson:

phil at spurgeon dot org.

Imee said...

2 or 3 people 2 or 3 thousand people it doesn’t matter because Jesus said I will be in their midst.

Isaiah 48:9 said...


Is it not true that announcing the opening of the doors to gathered congregational worship, (by the Elders of GCC) is an action that is NOT a mandate from the elders to "come to church", nor is it a matter of congregational submission to the eldership to do so? Would you not agree that those of the congregation of Grace Community Church, who attended the worship services, did so voluntarily, and with a good conscience before God? Was it not clearly explained by GCC leadership that those who, for a variety of reasons, did not want to "come to church" were under no obligation from the leadership to do so?

Why is the leadership of GCC being criticized (sometimes harshly) for providing an opportunity for the voluntary assembling of the saints???

stfarrell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Come Fail Away said...

If you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one that yelps is the one you hit.

In other words, if you have to ask, we're talking about you.

Phil Johnson said...

stfarrell: Did you bother to read the blogpost? I quoted that part of the statement in full. The context gives an entirely different meaning to JM's words than Pastor Ortlund implied. That, as a matter of fact, is the whole point of this blogpost. Read before commenting.

Ministry Addict said...

Agree or disagree with Pastor MacArthur (I admit I do happen to agree), but he has been very clear in all the statements I've read or listened to about where he stands on the issue. I wonder if the reactionary nature of the response to where stands reveals a bias against those who resist the political left's narrative.

Come Fail Away said...

When the Pharisees asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus responded to love God and to love Neighbor. That is the summation of the law. So if we are being told that to meet is to not love your neighbor, that is placing a sin burden on any church leader who chooses to meet.

I believe this is a bigger controversy than most people realize. Also, I believe we should not use loving your neighbor any longer in this conversation. Rather, we should look to the principals of eating meat in the pagan context.

This year has been one that has been very revealing. I came to Christ 17 years ago and jumped into the deep end as quickly as I could. I became very familiar with many of the people referenced in this controversy, and the back and forth of this issue has been troubling to me. Many who I thought were champions have taken a step back in my mind. Perhaps this is why the best champions we can look to are usually those who have already passed.

I pray that the friendships that have been strained through this can be mended. And since the straining has been done in public settings, I believe the reconciliations should be done in the same way, providing a gospel example for all who observe.

God bless you, Phil. And God bless John for his bold stand on the gospel. I'm just a guy in Iowa who live blogged a Shepherd's Conference once upon a time. But his willingness to stand in the gap has produced much needed conversations across this nation.

Bobby Grow said...

I fully stand behind JMac's decision to reconvene the public meeting of the local church. This is something where I find strong agreement with you all.

Kirby Wallace said...

The Church is, and always has been, an example to the world that the Church is not to be what the world is. We are seperate, and different, unique. The Church is to be a contrast to the world.