John MacArthur is one of the most prominent biblical scholars alive today. However one area of controversy with MacArthur is his interpretation of the role of civil magistrates. John MacArthur has a very strict interpretation of Romans 13. By strict, I mean far less conditional than how most view the passage.
This has left Grace Community Church in a pickle when the California government audaciously barred indoor worship gatherings. Grace Community Church complied citing Romans 13. This application proves problematic for several reasons. Firstly, in America, the people are the sovereigns. And the First Amendment protects religious assembly. Therefore, it is the governors not defiant churches that are in violation of Romans 13.
However, John MacArthur showed a change of tone applying the Doctrine of Lesser Magistrates. In an article titled: Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church does what one might not have expected during this crisis.
However, while civil government is invested with divine authority to rule the state, neither of those texts (nor any other) grants civic rulers jurisdiction over the church. God has established three institutions within human society: the family, the state, and the church. Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected. A father’s authority is limited to his own family. Church leaders’ authority (which is delegated to them by Christ) is limited to church matters. And government is specifically tasked with the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community. God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church. The biblical framework limits the authority of each institution to its specific jurisdiction. The church does not have the right to meddle in the affairs of individual families and ignore parental authority. Parents do not have authority to manage civil matters while circumventing government officials. And similarly, government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders.
It appears John MacArthur has awakened to what is really happening in America with the government and the church. Vehemently anti-Christian governors and mayors, both Republican and Democrat, have taken upon themselves to impose tyranny over a virus that’s threat is comparable to the seasonal flu. MacArthur articulates in this excerpt the doctrine of Lesser Magistrates, a Christian belief dating back to the Lutherans besieged at Magdeburg by Charles V, the most powerful man in Europe at the time. This doctrine paves the way for civil disobedience. MacArthur then declares:
Therefore, in response to the recent state order requiring churches in California to limit or suspend all meetings indefinitely, we, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, 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.
In talking about the specific context of California’s reopening policies, MacArthur states:
When officials restrict church attendance to a certain number, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the saints to gather as the church. When officials prohibit singing in worship services, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the people of God to obey the commands of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. When officials mandate distancing, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible to experience the close communion between believers that is commanded in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. In all those spheres, we must submit to our Lord.
MacArthur is not short on Scripture to make his case, a case many of us have been making from the start. However, MacArthur does not hold back in his argument about the overreach of government and the complicity of churches.
As government policy moves further away from biblical principles, and as legal and political pressures against the church intensify, we must recognize that the Lord may be using these pressures as means of purging to reveal the true church. Succumbing to governmental overreach may cause churches to remain closed indefinitely. How can the true church of Jesus Christ distinguish herself in such a hostile climate? There is only one way: bold allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ.
MacArthur ends by depicting this dichotomy between serving God and government. It’s clear that Governor Gavin Newsom has had an impact on him. It’s also exceedingly felt that this response was patient and prayerful.
John MacArthur has not been on the right side of this issue the whole time, but we should be thankful that God and Bible study have led him to the conclusions he wrote. This leaves those who refuse to invoke the Doctrine of Lesser Magistrates with less cover when they submit to the government, as well as a fierce shepherd leading his flock to submit to God.