I want to dispel a particular myth that has taken root across social media. It is the claim that the legal battles with the state of California and the county of Los Angeles during the corona virus pandemic has brought John MacArthur to change his fundamental views of Romans 13 and the responsibility Christians have toward the government. That of course is ridiculously untrue. John has been consistent in his position, and anyone claiming he changed it demonstrates a deep unfamiliarity with what John teaches and has taught on the subject of Christians and government.
What Has John Taught?
If a person were to review John’s sermons on the topic of Christians and government, specifically the ones that were expositions of the relevant passages like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13 ff., he will find that John has always maintained that Christians must submit to the authority of the governments where they live. That would include those governments that are hostile to religious faith and may engage in oppressive tyranny. So that we are clear, John isn’t saying that Christians should roll over and allow themselves to be killed by hateful governing authorities. He means that Christians should live peaceable lives, seeking the welfare of the city. The Christian Church should not have a reputation of subversion and political agitation. Believers shouldn’t be out in the streets leading protests fomenting rebellion to overthrow the state.
Take for example his comments from a sermon on 1 Peter 2:13 that was preached in 1989. John states,
The command is simple, "submit yourselves," from the Greek word hupotassō. It literally is a military term meaning to arrange in military fashion under the commander. It's talking about being subject. The best translation would be, "Put yourselves in an attitude of submission.” “Put yourselves in an attitude of submission." By the way, that is distinctively Christian because attitudes of submission and humility in ancient times were looked upon as those things which characterized cowards and weaklings. And no man of strength would ever think of submitting himself or being humble. So God's people were to live in a humble, submissive way in the midst of a hostile, godless, Christ-less, sinful, wicked, accusing, slandering society. In fact, God's people had often been accused of insurrection, would continue to be accused of insurrection but were never called by God to engage in it, never.
He goes in the same sermon to say,
Frankly, I believe it is sad to see Christians who set the example of public civil disobedience, Christians who set the example of the violation of law, Christians who harass the police, because if we are the righteous then what will the unrighteous feel that they should do? If we are the virtuous of society, if we are the righteous who serve the God who ordained government, how can we defy the very God and the very government He has ordained? And if we set the example who are the righteous, then what will the unrighteous do?
Consider his sermons from Romans 13. Those messages were given in 1985, and there he teaches the exact some thing. In the opening message to his series “The Christian’s Responsibility to Government,” John provides some reasons for why the Church should not be leading the way on political activism, the more notable being that God has not called Christians to that duty, and the Church can swiftly become compromised with both the secular state and other groups of false religionists who may advocate for the same goals.
Seems to me that the church needs to use all of its power and all of its resources, and all of its energy and forces to convert men and women to Jesus Christ. And that's what God has called us to do. The Scripture speaks not at all about Christians engaging in politics. It has nothing to say about it. Other than the fact that we're to be model citizens, it says nothing. It speaks not at all about Christians engaging in civil change. That is not our priority. It doesn't mean we're not to be involved as citizens where we can be. It's a question of priority.[emphasis mine]
I highlight that one sentence because there will be choruses of critics saying John is hypocritical. He says the Christian Church shouldn’t be involved in politics, but then he said Christians should vote for Donald Trump. But it is not “political activism” to encourage people to vote for one particular candidate over another. That’s doing our part as citizens in our American system, which is totally acceptable. But I digress…
That One Exception
The ONLY exception for the Church’s duty in submitting to the authority of the government is if the government imposes orders for Christians to disobey God and the commands of Scripture. John says as much in the conclusion of his first sermon on Romans 13,
Now you say, "Wait a minute. You mean we're to submit to everything? Everything, everything without limitation?" No, there's one limitation. There's one limitation. And we'll deal with that and conclude our study tonight. ... The one time we have a right to disobey the authority and the government is when the government commands us not to do something God commanded us to do. Or when the government commands us to do something God commanded us not to do. Okay? When it invades that domain. For example, if all of these laws that are supposed to be being made for the rights of homosexuals come to the point where they make demands on Grace Community Church to hire homosexuals, that's where we say sorry, you have just told us to do what God forbids us to do. We will not do that. Those are the only places where we have justification. And I hope, if it comes to that, we have the opportunity to speak loudly and clearly as to why we stand with the truth of God. [emphasis mine]
John has been clear since the time he taught through Romans in 1985 and later in 1 Peter in 1989: It is the duty of God’s Church to submit to the governing authorities, either good or bad, and to seek the civil peace with those authorities. The only time those duties are overridden as it were, is when the government imposes laws or commands that cause the Church to VIOLATE God’s will for His people as revealed in Scripture. That has been John’s consistent position throughout his ministry and it is still reflected in the commentaries adapted from those messages, as well as other printed material, like his book, Why Government Can’t Save You.
Did Corona Virus and Government Lock Downs Change Any of That?
A week after the 2020 Shepherd’s Conference at Grace Community Church, California governor, Gavin Newsom, issued a lock down of the entire state that was to last three weeks. The goal of the lock down was to slow the spread of Covid-19, preventing the state’s healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed by the then prediction of hundreds of thousands of people succumbing to the choking horror of the virus.
The Thursday before the lock downs were to go into effect, the elders of Grace Community Church met to decide how they would move forward handling the mandate. At that time, due to the unknowns regarding the virus and the urgency from state and local health officials for preventing its spread, the elders decided to defer to government authorities and suspend services at GCC for three Sundays.
That of course is an entirely reasonable decision. It was never sinful for GCC, or any congregation for that matter, to cancel services for three weeks in compliance with a state health mandate that helps the general welfare of the city. Again, at that time, it was prudent given the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Yet, immediately after GCC chose to suspend services, John and the elders came under scrutinizing criticism from other believers for “bowing to Caesar” by allowing the STATE to dictate their services. The bulk of those criticisms, though, came from individuals who attended small congregations in rural areas of the United States, or in locations that were favorable to churches staying open. They were not navigating a 5,000 member congregation at a high profile church in a major city in California.
Those critics overlooked the fact that the elders of GCC had determined at their initial meeting that IF the state began abusing it’s authority by preventing churches assembling together for worship and fellowship, they would have to reconsider their obedience to that mandate. Phil Johnson stated in an article at his blog addressing that very issue. He writes,
How long until the government-ordered quarantine is undeniably excessive, or we conclude that it's targeted persecution against our worship and therefore an illegal attempt to make us disobey Hebrews 10:25? That time may come, and when it does, we may have to implement the principle of Acts 5:29. The question of whether we have already passed that point is another subjective issue, but it's clear that among believers—in the church itself—there is not yet consensus on whether the quarantine has gone too far.
That consensus on whether the quarantine has gone too far is, as Phil states, subjective. That means the leadership in various congregations must have the liberty to make those decisions they believe are best for their members, not placating the finger-wagging of online scolds.
On April 19th, John did a Q&A on a Sunday evening. Keep in mind this is just over a month since the lock down mandate went into effect and had since been extended past the three week mark. A question was asked about churches who were defying the various state mandates and what John thought of that. He responded,
Yeah, let me make very clear this question because it keeps coming up. If the government told us not to meet because Christianity was against the law, if the government told us not to meet because we would be punished, fined for our religion and our religious convictions, we would have no option but to meet anyway. And that takes you to the fifth chapter of Acts where the leaders of Israel said to the apostles, “Stop preaching.” And Peter’s response was very simple. He said, “You judge whether we obey God or men,” then he went right out and preached. If the government tells us to stop worshiping, stop preaching, stop communicating the gospel, we don’t stop. We obey God rather than men. We don’t start a revolution about that; the apostles didn’t do that. If they put us in jail, we go to jail and we have a jail ministry. Like the apostle Paul said, “My being in jail has fallen out to the furtherance of the gospel.” So we don’t rebel, we don’t protest. You don’t ever see Christians doing that in the book of Acts. If they were persecuted, they were faithful to proclaim the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ even if it took them to jail; and that’s been the pattern of true Christianity through all the centuries. But this is not that. Might become that in the future. Might be overtones of that with some politicians. But this is the government saying, “Please do this for the protection of this society.” This is for greater societal good, that’s their objective. This is not the persecution of Christianity. This is saying, “Behave this way so that people don’t become ill and die.” [emphasis mine]
He goes on to say in his answer that the church doesn’t want to come across as defiant at the expense of hurting those vulnerable to the disease, and so at the moment, it is best to obey the authorities. But, as I emphasize in that answer, a response of defiance against government “might become that in the future.” He left open the possibility that such may happen.
And that is exactly what did happen. As the pandemic plodded onward, it became increasingly clear that the virus was not as severe as was originally claimed. In fact, the absurd over reaction to the virus with lock downs and stay at home orders was creating more catastrophic devastation to people than the virus itself. The state of CA and the county of LA continued their draconian overreach infringing not only on the rights of the general society, but the Church’s duty to gather for worship and ministers to each other. It was quickly coming to a place that an Acts 5 approach would be necessary. That decision with John and the elders was solidified during the summer riots, when the same politicians and health officials who had upended society with their medical police state mandates, tossed them all away to excuse the outrageous looting and mayhem caused by “protesters.” It was at that point GCC’s compliance and obedience to the lock down came to an end.
“We must obey God rather than men.” Does this mean we have no responsibility to our leaders? Not at all. God has ordained human government for the peace and well-being of temporal society. Romans 13, “We are to recognize the authorities are designed by God. We are to submit to them in the sphere in which God has designed them to operate.” We’re to do more than that. We’re to honor them, show them respect. Through the years we’ve done that here. We continue to do that with the authorities in our city every opportunity we have. We render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. We even have been called, 1 Timothy 2, to pray for their salvation, as I did this morning. When orders come, however, to us that contradict the orders of our King, we have to obey God rather than men.[emphasis mine]
I believe there is a false perception that John changed his views because this was perhaps the first time in the history of his ministry and the life of GCC that what was taught from the pulpit regarding the Church’s responsibility to government was put into actual practice. The critics are either entirely unaware of what John genuinely believes on this subject, or they have some differing take on the relevant passages than what he does. So, when they see him genuinely apply his convictions in real time, they falsely conclude: “He changed his position!” That is hardly the case.
A couple of other articles that may be of interest along these lines is a time line of events from the beginning of the lock downs to the legal victory GCC had over LA County. And Phil Johnson’s article that was written last year, but was just published officially detailing the medical fascism of health procedures as dictated by the LA County health department.