by Jonny Atkinson

We’ve all become a lot more familiar with Romans chapter 13 in this season, which reminds us that it is right to obey the government because all governments have been instituted by God for the common good. We also know that the apostles did not obey the government when they were told to stop speaking about Christ (Acts 4:19-20, Acts 5:29). And we also know that Romans 14 teaches that it’s more important on some issues to lay down your rights, even if you are on the side of truth, so as to care for your brothers and sisters.

If God tells us to not forsake the assembling of ourselves (Heb 10:25) and then governments tell us we can’t assemble in this season—and your members are confused and divided—pastor, what do you tell your church to do? Do we obey the government? Do we obey God? Is now the time to disobey the government? And how? 

Caesar or Christ?

I won’t rehearse all the details, but I’ll try to summarize the online discussion over the last few weeks that was sparked by a blog post from Grace Community Church. (If you’re up to speed, feel free to skip this section.)

July 24th – Grace Community Church in California published a blog titled “Christ, not Caesar, is Head of the Church” in which they “respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction, and faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services.” This article seeks to make the case that Acts 5:29 is in play as they write: “in response to the recent state order requiring churches in California to limit or suspend all meetings indefinitely” the government has “exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction.”

July 25th – Jonathan Leeman wrote a post reflecting on Grace Community’s decision (which was followed up with a podcast with Mark Dever and another reflection) in which he graciously offered an alternative under four points. First, he notes that Grace Community Church can, in fact, still meet. They can meet outdoors, or in smaller gatherings. And so it becomes less clear if Acts 5:29 is in play. Secondly he points out that churches globally have always accommodated government restrictions both when they seem fair and even when they don’t. Leeman, thirdly, questions whether a pandemic is the time to “flex” those Acts 5 muscles, since harder days are likely ahead. And finally, Leeman thinks Grace Community Church has drawn too clear a boundary around the jurisdictions of God and government, questioning whether the government has in fact overstepped its jurisdiction by issuing requirements for a public gathering to protect the public’s health.

Leeman concludes with:

What’s implied in MacArthur’s statement is that his elders don’t believe there is a real threat with COVID-19 (John MacArthur appeared on Fox News on July 28th confirming Leeman’s initial hunch). Again, that is a judgment call they are allowed to make.…my goal here is not to necessarily disagree with much less condemn either judgment. My goal is to open up a little space of Christian freedom for other churches to make different judgments…

July 28th On their podcast The Sword and the Trowel, Jarred Longshore and Tom Ascol at Founders Ministries discussed both Grace Community’s letter and 9Marks’ response. Longshore and Ascol, while acknowledging that a church could alter how they meet (Leeman’s first point), they state that they are under no obligation to do so. They also draw heavily on the American Constitution and their first Amendment right (as does MacArthur) to invalidate Leeman’s second point about churches globally accommodating the government. 

Ascol then comments that Romans 14 and “acting in love” are being applied a lot these days but wrongly. These passages have to do with “indifferent” matters (Rom 14:1), but the church gathering is not an indifferent matter. Moreover, reopening services to worship the triune God, may in fact be the most loving thing you can do for your neighbors.

July 28th Scott Clark at Heidelblog weighs in adding the unique perspective of the reformed confessions on Christian obedience to the government. He does not see the current issue as an Acts 5 moment, but rather a public health issue. Furthermore, our obedience to governments is not conditioned upon their being right, just, or even fair. Similarly to Leeman, Clark points out that the primary issue seems to be whether or not Grace Community Church views COVID-19 as a real threat. He then raises the question: 

If, in GCC’s judgment, the civil magistrate has exceeded its authority in restricting worship, has not GCC exceeded its professed authority, by making a medical judgment about public health?

July 29th Doug Wilson chimed in seeking to honor John MacArthur for being the Dad America needs, the Shepherd evangelicals need, and the Prophet that our generation needs. While not engaging the Acts 5 issue, Wilson praises MacArthur for calling out the hypocrisy of the government.

July 31st Grace Community Church released a video of John MacArthur in which he emphasized again that Christ is the head of the Church and therefore, they will continue to meet. However they are also providing outside seating for those not comfortable meeting indoors, and he encouraged his congregation to be welcoming to all, including those who may have different opinions about masks, distancing, etc. He also notes (around 9:40) that he has “significant people in Washington” with “legal expertise on the constitution” who want to help them. Regarding churches that have stated they may remain closed until January, MacArthur states (around 10:35) that those who do so “don’t know what a church is and they don’t shepherd their people.”

August 2nd Gavin Ortlund, a fellow pastor in California blogged saying that the issue is not as clear as Grace Community Church wants to make it and there are, in fact, at least four things to consider: (1) the importance of worship, (2) love of neighbor, (3) obedience to government, and (4) maintaining a good witness. Ortlund does not see churches being singled out, and understands the restrictions as temporary and purposeful, and so he does not view the present time as one for civil disobedience. He upholds Grace Community Church’s right to make a judgement call, but not their unkind statement that those complying with the government aren’t shepherding their people. In agreement with Leeman and Clark, Ortlund does not see the issue as an Acts 5 issue, but whether or not COVID is a real threat, because Grace Community Church did follow government instructions and close for a time in March.

August 3rd Finally, Al Mohler, on his podcast The Briefing comments that the principle of obeying Christ not Caesar is an especially complicated one that differs from state to state when applied to the current pandemic. In his opinion, we should presently respect all “temporary, neutral, and generally applicable” guidelines from the government.

Is this an Acts 5 Moment?

Everyone is wondering when can Christians disobey the government, but Acts 5 is actually very clear: Christians must obey God and government, but when the two contradict we obey God. Easy peasy.

The government, like every government globally, is doing its best to handle a public health crisis. You might think they are handling it terribly, or you might think that COVID-19 is not a significant health crisis. But in neither of these scenarios (incompetence or misjudgement) has the government acted illegitimately outside of its jurisdiction to prevent Christians from obeying God, so it’s very hard to see how Acts 5 would apply.

If you attribute duplicitous and malicious motives to a tyrannical government that you perceive to be singling out Christians, then Acts 5 becomes more of a real possibility. If so, then you have the right to follow your conscience regarding how you perceive the current situation, and obey God and not man. (While not always wrong, it is a serious thing to act out of attributing motives to another person and ought to be done so with great caution, wisdom, and prayer, and an acceptance of the consequences for being wrong.)

However, if you do so, nothing in Acts 5 protects or prescribes how obedience to Christ and disobedience to government is fleshed out. To be more specific, there is nothing in Scripture that mandates a church must, or even has an inalienable right to, worship in a 21st century, air-conditioned, first-world way. You can gather as a church in a way that the government has little-to-no interference. But it doesn’t seem right to gather in such a way that submits to the legitimate authority of the government to impose fire codes, disability-access requirements, and food-preparation standards upon your public building and then cry “Acts-5” when they require masks, distancing, or a temporary suspension of public meetings in response to a pandemic. If you really want to apply Acts 5 in this moment, then it would seem you need to be prepared to give up your non-essential aspects of your Sunday morning worship that the government has legitimate jurisdiction over and happily move on obeying God in a way that the government has no involvement with.

But, if you want to have your cake and eat it, it’s hard to see how Acts 5 applies. You can cry “this is ridiculous” or “this has gone on too long”—and that’s a judgement call that you’re entitled to—but let’s not call it Acts 5.  

You could, however, call it Acts 22.

Another Acts to Act upon

In Acts 22:22-29, Paul appeals to Roman law, to argue that he is being mistreated under that law. One significant reason Grace Community Church has acted how they’ve acted is on the shared grounds of the American Constitution. John MacArthur has said as much explaining Grace Community Church’s decision as “first of all and foremost, it’s a first amendment right this is the United States of America,” noting (around 9:40) also they have experts on the US Constitution helping them (though in their initial post they confusingly say, “we are not making a constitutional argument” and “Our argument therefore is purposely not grounded in the First Amendment.”) 

Ironically, Grace Community Church has appealed to the fact that Christ is the head, but can only act in the way they have done so by appealing to Caesar’s Constitution. This does not invalidate what they have done, but it does raise question marks over their explanation of what they have done. They’ve cried Acts 5 but they are acting out Acts 22, claiming they have been mistreated under law.

I’ll give an example to illustrate. If a church in Saudi Arabia respectfully informed the governing authorities that they have overstepped their God-given jurisdiction and, because of their allegiance to Christ and not Caesar, they as a church are going to keep holding public worship gatherings at Riyadh Arab Evangelical Church building on Salman-Al-Saud street in Acts-5-type defiance of the government because it is their inalienable right they’re likely to get a Pharoah-type response: “Who is the Lord?” (Exodus 5:2) and “we have no idea what right you are referring to.” This does not mean the right to worship does not exist, it merely means it is not recognized by the government. This does not mean the Christians in Saudi Arabia can’t meet, but they can’t meet in a legal way. But Christian worship does not need any government recognition or protection to exist, as the early church proved.  

And so, because there is no law protecting or recognizing their right to Christian worship, Christian nationals in Saudi Arabia would have great difficulty to argue for a publicly recognized building to stay open for Christian services. But just because a country does have law, like the US, protecting their right to Christian worship does not mean that Acts 5 entails that a government should recognize that right, or that the church can act as if the government recognizes that right. On the contrary, arguing that a publicly recognized building stay open for Christian worship, or filing lawsuits because a constitutionally recognized right has been infringed upon is an Acts 22 issue, an appeal to shared law, not an Acts 5 issue.

In other words, every Christian on the planet has an obligation to live out Acts 5, but not every Christian has the luxury of Acts 22.

Pastor the Flock Among You

The form of obedience to God in this season will look different from church to church, state to state, and country to country inasmuch as the form of Christian worship services vary from church to church and the current government restrictions vary state to state. And the extent to which each pastor believes the government is acting incompetently, hypocritically, has misjudged the severity of COVID-19, or is tyrannically targeting Christians to prevent them obeying God will vary also. 

And so, pastor, you are not necessarily bowing to Caesar nor do you not know how to pastor if you are following the government regulations at this time regarding the use of your public building. But, neither are you following Acts 5 if you are presently defying the government health regulations regarding the use of your public building. If you think the government has abused their authority you can and should appeal to shared laws that protect your rights as a citizen in a civil and Acts 22 way. 

You are also free to make a judgement call that this is an Acts 5 moment, that the government is intentionally trying to prevent Christian obedience to God, and to obey your conscience you must lead your people to defy the government’s health regulations regarding how and when you meet for church. But if you do so—and it may be right to do so!—don’t confuse Acts 5 and Acts 22, don’t confuse your present ability to obey Christ in all that he has commanded with obeying Christ in a particular form that includes the government’s jurisdiction. And let’s not hastily accuse or implicate other pastors who may not follow what you do.