Hello friend, this is part 3 of an article series I wrote addressing pastors on the issue of opening the church. If this is your first time to the blog, welcome, and I would recommend you check out part 1 of this series here and part 2 here.
Just A Pinch of Incense
The Roman Empire was known for its vast array of gods. Individuals were free to worship any number of gods, Christians would have been free to add Christ to this large collection of deities. All Caesar wanted was the pinch of incense offered at the altar. All they had to do was bow down before the Roman image, take a pinch of incense, and throw it into the fire. You can serve Christ, just offer your worship to the emperor as well and all will be fine for you. No persecution, no beatings from the government, no hostility from political officials. Why then was the early church persecuted? Why were Christians literally lit on fire as torches in Nero’s gardens? It was because they refused to worship Caesar and gave their exclusive allegiance to Christ as Lord.
We too in our time must give our allegiance only to Christ. You are not being asked to offer a literal pinch of incense at a physical altar, but the exclusive authority of Christ is being challenged. Since when did Caesar obtain the right to tell the church what it can and cannot do in worship? Where do we see Peter and Paul going to the Emperor or any political authorities seeking permission to gather with the saints? The head of the church is not governmental leaders or health officials, it is Christ alone! When considering the topic of opening the church, I am well aware that many pastors who take this step will cross swords with Caesar and it is to that subject I address this post.
The Limited Authority of Government
Governmental authorities do not have unlimited authority over the nations they govern any more than the pastor of a local church has unlimited authority amidst the congregation. When the government oversteps its bounds in disobedience to God, the people have a duty to disobey them in obedience to God. If a pastor goes astray, then the church has the duty to obey God rather than the man teaching contrary to Scripture. So also, if the government goes astray from God’s Word we have the duty to obey God rather than men. The Apostles continued heralding the truth of the Gospel even when they were commanded to be silent (Acts 5:29). Paul told the magistrates to “go pound sand (paraphrasing Tom Ascol here)” when they had acted unjustly and illegally (Acts 16:37). The point is when the government acted like a tyrant, the Apostles were not deterred, but instead stood for truth, and called the magistrates to come back to obedience.
Therefore, the notion that the government has the ability to say that only 15% of the congregation can come to church or dictate the opening and closing of churches is completely foreign to the Bible. What we have in this case is an instance of conflicting authority. The church leaders say the congregation can meet fully and gather again, however, the magistrates forbid this activity. As I demonstrated in the second post of this series COVID is not anywhere near the black plague nor incredibly deadly to the overwhelming majority of the population. So, do you have to lockdown the church just because the government says to do so?
Unbiblical Dictates Necessitate Civil Disobedience
Obedience to God must be our priority even if it means disobeying men who hold positions of authority. The Founding Fathers of the United States even recognized the duty of the people to overthrow oppressive governments:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.1
My point in citing the Declaration of Independence is to show that even the founders of this country understood the right and duty of the people to establish governments and hold them accountable. The Apostles did not obey unjust civil governments and we must not obey the evil commands of men bent on overstepping their authority. We must obey God rather than men. The civil magistrate has no right to shut down the church of Jesus Christ and to command her as to what she can and cannot do. Jesus Christ is the head of the church and He is the sovereign Lord over all. Brothers, if we really believe Christ is sovereign over all then we must be biblical in our interaction with the governmental realm. That fact means we need to be ready to disobey when the government oversteps its bounds. I thank God for the example of men like John MacArthur and James Coates who have led the way in standing for Christ against overstepping governmental authorities. May we all be given the boldness to follow in their path in faithfulness to the Lord.
The two greatest biblical commands are to love God and to love neighbor. Pastors, is it loving to sit idly by and do nothing while governmental authorities command the church not to meet (remember the statistics discussed in part 2 of this series)? Is it loving to tell the sheep Christ has given you charge over that they cannot meet and not to feed the Word to them? Is it loving to fail to share the Gospel because of COVID dictates issued by authorities hungry for power? Consider these things brothers, the Chief Shepherd is watching and will judge us for the stewardship of the pastorate. May we be faithful to steward this duty well for the glory of His name!
I want to close this series by expressing my ever so heartfelt thankfulness to John MacArthur and James Coates. I suspect that neither of these men will read this post or ever know that my little blog exists. However, as a young pastor, I am grateful for the example they have set by standing for the truth of Christ in this realm. Pastor Coates has literally been to prison for opening the church. Dr. MacArthur took the heat of pretty much the entire media in America for his stand. These brothers have blood in the fight, may we not shrink back in the day of adversity, but follow the example they have given!