When Governor Bullock (D) put his lock-down order into place, which included church gatherings – at 12:01AM on March 28, 2020 – my daughter and I left home and went to the church house to turn on all the lights. In Montana, the legal code ceded power to unelected health officers during a time of a pandemic (we changed that in the last legislative session), who were even legally able to order the sheriff to issue citations or to lock up whomever they so ordered. However, Bullock left it up to county prosecutors to actually prosecute those alleged criminals. We were now – my daughter and I – alleged criminals. In the end, there were 2 of 19 churches in our county left unclosed. The rest folded like cheap paper bags.
I soon called my county prosecutor (and friend) to ask if she would prosecute the Fellowship Baptist Church for remaining open in defiance of the governor and her answer was, “of course not, Jordan.” Some in the health department are church members. All of our county commissioners are on my speed dial. We were relatively safe. John MacArthur was not. Sun Valley, California – the location of Grace Community Church – is a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Not only did Grace Community Church have to deal with a Governor Newsom (D) just as we had to deal with Governor Bullock (D), they had to deal with the City of Los Angeles. There is really no good comparison between my church and MacArthur’s except we were both forced with the decision of whether to surrender the keys of the church to the government or not. The consequences for biblical faithfulness in California would certainly be greater than mine, where in July most of the county sheriffs issued a letter telling the governor his mandates were unenforceable. But from March to July, Montana was the Old West – some sheriffs nailed shut the doors of local churches upon the dictates of health officers, like in Fallon County. Others like my sheriff knew better. It took three to four months for law enforcement statewide to get up the courage to defend our liberties as a cohesive unit.
What shouldn’t be lost in any of this is the results of the dispensational theology of Grace Community Church, which has attempted to strip bare God’s immutable Moral Law, enshrined by one of the commandments etched by God’s own finger. Theirs is a decalogue of nine, which makes it no decalogue at all as it strips bare the fourth commandment. It’s an odd peculiarity, considering Jesus taught more on this command than any other. Yet as I’ve often pointed out, there is little difference between MacArthur’s view on Lord’s Day observance – even in his Sabbath antinomianism – and mine. Consider his bold defense of worship on Sunday from this 2009 sermon. The only difference between how MacArthur believes Sunday ought to be observed and that of a Covenant Theologian is difference between our views is that observance is optional according to the convenience of the church-goer, and not obligatory. The rest, seems to stay the same. It’s safe to say that John MacArthur seems to have a higher view of the Sabbath than some Sabbatarians despite his unwillingness to use the word Sabbath in reference to Sunday. This was reflected in a sermon he did on why Grace Community Church will always maintain Sunday night worship (which I have tried but failed to find but still recall hearing vividly with much joy).
As our church remained open – or at least our services went without a break but ventured outside to the parking lot (I preached from the back of my pickup truck in the snow on Easter morning over an FM transistor to people in their cars who were served Communion by deacons like Sonic carhops) – we too thought COVID-19 might kill somebody, sometime, somewhere. It took a month (or so) to figure out that COVID was a bugbear, Anthony Fauci was evil, that death rates were being exaggerated, that lockdowns was a beta test to see how far the citizenry could be bossed, and that the economic shutdown was the most unnecessary blunder in world history. The most fanatical conspiracy theorists alleged that “vaccine passports” were coming, and that businesses, governments, the military, and airlines would require yet-to-be-manufactured vaccines (everyone laughed at them). They also warned that such vaccines could not possibly be tested for safety before their release and that they would quite possibly make COVID-19 worse (everyone mocked them).
I have, in fact, criticized John MacArthur over only two issues in many years; the first (1) was his decision to bring to the Godfathers of Social Justice (Mohler, Dever, and Duncan) to ShepCon and his flat-out refusal to “fight his friends. I think history has judged me rightly on that. Even in that chastisement of Dr. MacArthur, it was gentle. The second issue over which I’ve criticized MacArthur was his poor exegesis on Romans 13 (which I had done gently since at least 2015), and was heightened during his 19-week closure of Grace Community Church for COVID-19, which was due to his errant theology on that point.
Before I move forward, let me reiterate that I do not admire MacArthur. I love him. My photo with him graces the church secretary’s office. My signed edition of his commentary on Matthew sits in the display booth with Spurgeon’s ancient manuscripts in the church lobby. And his signed Pulpit Bible rests permanently on my pulpit. So unless a critic of mine thinks that I’m nothing but a perennial critic of his, I’ll remind you that we have praised and/or defended John MacArthur in articles at Protestia here, here, here, here, here, and here and those are the ones in only the last four months. Counting articles going back to 2010, there are hundreds of articles at Protestia or Pulpit & Pen praising him for his faithfulness or defending him against vicious attacks. When a poorly worded headline made it even appear we were criticizing MacArthur (the article did the opposite) and people judged the article without reading it, our editor changed the headline and apologized for even appearing to criticize MacArthur over his preaching making it onto an R-rated movie (we thought it was neat). In fact, there are 120 articles at Protestia that positively affirm Dr. MacArthur (I counted) and defend him from attacks from the likes of Servetus Diablos, Julie Roys, Brannon Howse, Andy Stanley, Jory Micah, Beth Moore, Danny Akin or Jeff Dornik et al. At Pupit & Pen, there are one-hundred articles praising or defending him going back to 2018 alone. There are 8 more years I didn’t count. I don’t have a good way to count the times within 8 years of bi-weekly podcast segments I’ve done defending MacArthur, but it surely must be in the dozens upon dozens – perhaps hundreds.
I have defended him against the “Mark of the Beast” controversy, the Lordship controversy, the Strange-Fire controversy, the “MacArthur has a nice watch” controversy, and as much muckraking of Julie Roys as humanly possible.
That said, I’m circling back round to March to July 2021 when only 7% of churches remained open, and Grace Community Church was not one of them. Did you think I would forget that?
As the lockdowns began in February and March, and churches closed, I criticized them harshly in social media and blogosophere.
During this time that I chastised churches for agreeing with Caesar that their services were not essential I didn’t do two things: First, I didn’t single out Dr. MacArthur or Grace Community Church because they were just one of 353,400 churches in America that closed down. Second, I didn’t chastise churches who believed that COVID-19 was a legitimate health pandemic presenting a providential hindrance to public worship (even Covenantal guys believe in providential exceptions).
Rather, I saved my ire for those who believed that Caesar had jurisdictional authority over the Ecclesia using an inexcusably sloppy reading of Romans 13 that refuses to correctly exegete “governing authority” (verse 1 as ἐξουσία), which is translated elsewhere in Scripture as “jurisdictions” (like in Luke 23:7). This failure of basic Biblical analysis leaves the Christian woefully unprepared to know who to submit to and when. Although I have criticized R.J. Rushdoony for his theonomy, he is not without contributions, and one such contribution was his articulation (although not invention, for it goes back as far as Matthew 25:15-22) of the jurisdictional distinctions between the civil magistrate (government), home, and church. As much as I hate to admit it, Rushdoony was right and MacArthur has – up until now – been wrong.
Just as I as a pastor have no place telling fathers whether or not to vaccinate their kids or mandate bedtimes for the congregation, the government has no place telling churches how or when to worship. If the Bible does not make this clear enough, the First Amendment of the Constitution (our emperor) does. This is why I said things like this…
As I spoke out on the wrongfulness of government church closures from day one and against mandated mask mandates at churches, without fail people would challenge my words with John MacArthur’s actions. With the vast majority of the evangelical public knowing I support MacArthur, telling me I was wrong because MacArthur’s church was closed was sufficient logic to prove their point. This is why I said earlier on Twitter today that his actions were weaponized against us.
I’m positive this was not MacArthur’s intention, but it is reality nonetheless. Those who were in error remained in error for many months, while MacArthur worked out his errant Romans 13 views in the face of reality imposed by Governor Newsom. On July 25, Christianity Today reports MacArthur saying “the church has a duty to remain open.” Obviously, it had that duty the 19 weeks it was closed, too.
I liken MacArthur’s change on Romans 13 to Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s on pacifism. The doctrine looked nice on paper, but it was misunderstood, and reality it had to be refined. Bonhoeffer’s commitment to pacifism led many others to errant doctrine and likely much inaction that lead to innocent dead people, before Bonhoeffer abandoned his views and died a hero in an assassination plot against Hitler on April 9, 1945.
Yet as MacArthur came around to a Bonhoeffer-type conversion on Romans 13 and re-opened his church, we began again to applaud him, but not without first rubbing it in with typical Pulpit & Pen style.
Some insisted that MacArthur’s views did not change at all. Reality denies this.
As Matt Estes pointed out in his Twitter thread today, in March Newsom demanded the closure of churches the size of Grace Community Church. GCC immediately complied, sending out a note stating, “The GCC elders discussed this tonight, and we will be complying in submission to the governing authorities”, and referencing Rom. 13 and 1 Peter 2.
In May, GCC decided to comply to a different governing authority – President Trump – stating, “…in the response to the leadership of [President Trump (a governing authority)], we’re gonna go to church. And we’re going to go to church this Sunday [May 24].” I immediately pointed out that the California courts would nullify Trump’s order, which is exactly what happened.
In response to the Ninth Circuit’s stay order, the GCC elders once again deferred the church’s authority – this time to the courts which indeed nullified Trump’s edict -stating, “[T]he Ninth Circuit decision is sadly the law of the land in California, and we gladly submit to the sovereign purposes of God.”
Of course, courts don’t make laws – neither do governors or presidents – and Grace Community Church needs to be taught the basics of civics as I said at the time.
Sooner or later, Dr. MacArthur had to decide that it didn’t matter what the president said, the court said, or the governor said. It mattered what God says. And that’s when we began to brag on him again.
Some of the less renowned but more vocal defenders of MacArthur refuse to believe he changed his position (looking at you, Fred Butler). The rest of us – including a great many Masters Seminary graduates who kept their churches closed and are requiring masks up until this very day – insist that MacArthur has changed his view and think it’s spurious to suggest otherwise (looking at you, Brian Hughes). Of course John MacArthur’s views – like Bonhoeffer’s – have changed. And that’s 100% okay. Heck, that’s good. It’s praise-worthy. But the contradictions were palpable.
Repentance will not be complete, however, until John MacArthur – like Pastor Jeff Romans – who initially followed MacArthur into error, approached his congregation with an apology for ever closing and promising never to do it again. Again, that’s praise-worthy and righteous. And that should be done everywhere that churches surrendered Christ’s Body to Caesar.
And this has been my prayer – that the 93% of pastors who closed because it was the easy thing to do, because everyone was doing it, because they were ordered to do it, or because they believed the lies of Anthony Fauci would just repent already. It’s simple to do. It honors God. He’s glorified by it.
But this tweet from Jenna Ellis annoyed me today, which precipitated this post…
Excuse me, but Dr. MacArthur kept his church closed for 19 weeks, and that fact alone was used to condemn the 7% of us who never bent the knee of Ba’al, surrendered the keys to Caesar, or who made the governor the Head of the Church. MacArthur failed “the test” for 19 weeks.
If anything, Protestia is consistent. We made fun of Jonathan Leeman, who last week did a piece at The Gospel Coalition advocating for in-person worship as a necessity. The irony is that the faux-bravery is only possible because of the memory hole phenomenon, in which Leeman spent 18 months telling us that loving our neighbors requires not physically gathering for worship. And while we would never make fun of Dr. MacArthur and have defended him more than any publication in the world (I think that’s a fair statement), he led people wrongly for more than four months.
So instead of making a hero out of MacArthur for “standing up to the government” (after having bowed to it), you should make heroes out of the 7% of pastors who exhibited more courage and clarity than MacArthur from Day 1.
And lest you think about I’m talking about making a hero out of me (who happens to live in a state that doesn’t elected mentally retarded tryants as civics leaders), no…I speak of those who have suffered consequences on a shoe-string budget and without the president’s attorney behind them.
I’ll remind you of Dustin Germain’s year-long weekly series at Protestia entitled A Gathering of the Faithful Gathering for Church, highlighting those congregations meeting where it’s still illegal. For 19 weeks, John MacArthur rendered unto Caesar that which belongs to God. Then, he turned course and nothing makes us happier than repentance. But do not forget the thousands of pastors who never rendered to Caesar that which was God’s – the church – a single, solitary Sunday.
Thanks to those guys. Thanks to those churches. They have nothing to repent for (unlike MacArthur or James Coates, etc) and should be proud their hand never left the plow even for a single Sunday (and all glory given to God).
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