John MacArthur, popular mega-pastor of Grace Community Church in California, made waves this past weekend when he defied the State of California’s restriction on worship gatherings. In a widely-shared statement to his congregation justifying his decision, MacArthur wrote that “compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.” By Sunday afternoon, several photographs of MacArthur standing in front of a packed sanctuary were circulating on Twitter. Of particular note in the photographs is the conspicuous absence of either masks or any social-distancing measures. Both MacArthur’s statement and the subsequent photographs have generated heated debate among American church leaders and Christians, with fierce critics on one hand and passionate supporters on the other.
It’s hard not to notice that there is a significant overlap between the church leaders who appeal to the Apostle Paul’s admonition to “submit to governing authorities” in Romans 13 when it comes to issues like immigration and those who advocate defying those same governing authorities when it comes to Coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings. One might be forgiven for wondering if self-interest is the common thread that holds such seemingly contradictory positions together. Setting that suspicion aside, however, let’s investigate MacArthur’s claim that “compliance would be disobedience to the Lord’s clear commands.”
When a lawyer tested Jesus by asking him “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus famously answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” It would seem that MacArthur and those who agree with him have interpreted Jesus’ words to mean that loving God is the first most important commandment and that loving neighbor is the second most important commandment and, therefore, love for God must take precedence over love for neighbor, even to the point of endangering that neighbor. It would also seem that they believe that it is impossible to love God without large, indoor gatherings for public worship, even in the midst of a pandemic. In my view, both assumptions are rooted in faulty logic and problematic biblical interpretation.
Beginning with the second, there is no scriptural command to physically gather thousands of people inside a single building for public worship. It is true that the gathering of believers is a central component of Christian worship, just as it is for many other religions, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean that a temporary pause on public gatherings in the midst of a global health crisis somehow constitutes a failure to properly love God. Modern technology enables the faithful to gather digitally and to worship with other believers online. No pastor I know believes this to be the ideal scenario—we all desperately long to gather together again in person—but to suggest that this is somehow less God-honoring seems misguided. Additionally, even if weekly physical gatherings were absolutely essential to loving God, wouldn’t small groups and/or outdoor gatherings accomplish that without incurring the additional risk of spreading a highly contagious disease? Is defying the wisdom of public health experts a sign of faith? I have a long list of Bible verses that would suggest it is not.
And what about the first assumption? Does love for God take precedence over love for neighbor? The author of the New Testament letter of 1 John didn’t seem to think so. Writing to a group of first-century Christians he said, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Unnecessarily risking our neighbors’ health—which large, indoor gatherings have been proven to do—certainly seems like a failure to love them. According to 1 John, then, even the most fervent in-person worship gathering would still not constitute genuine love for God. It seems to me, therefore, that contrary to MacArthur’s assertion, compliance is actually obedience to our Lord’s clear commands. From my perspective, the government should never have had to mandate church gathering restrictions in the first place. Why? Because the church, out of wisdom and neighborly love, should have led the way by voluntarily abstaining from gathering on its own.