Gavin Ortlund recently wrote a response to John Mac Arthur which I want to interact with here. Without directly defending John Mac Arthur’s decision, I want to interact with Gavin Ortlund’s criteria for arguing that Mac Arthur was showing undue definance to Caesar.
He shares his criteria for critiquing John Mac Arthur’s decision to open church: (1) the importance of worship (Hebrews 10:25); (2) love for neighbor (Mark 12:31); (3) obedience to government (Romans 13:1-7); (4) maintaining a good witness (Colossians 4:5-6). I will interact with each one and ask the questions that I hope everyone is asking during these times.
(1) It seems that most evangelical and orthodox Christians are agreed on the basic command that we should be at least gathering to worship. Only 600 out of 10s of thousands of COVID-cases have been contracted in church in the States. In my own province not a single case has been contracted in worship, and there have been no hospitalizations. So it is reasonable to say that we should at least be worshiping. I would ask Gavin if this is worth the divisions that the State has made in only allowing sections of certain congregations to come to worship, and if the limitation on the work of the office-bearers of the church is justified?
(2) Love for neighbour is essentially living in obedience to Christ to the second table of the Law, at least under Mark 12:31. It would be more effective to place the 5th and 6th commandments in this position. And I would argue also the 4th, 8th and 9th. This is a very hard question to answer. There are the hard questions related to the spread COVID which might lead to more hospitalizations (it could also lead to a weakening of the virus). We have seen some hospitalizations, but locally and at large, we have also seen an increase in addiction, in erratic behavior, a drift in church attendance, mental illness, etc. Many had to put medical issues on hold and they got worse. On the East Coast, we are facing an economic crisis for small businesses. As a pastor my primary concern is what the mixture of fear and isolation is doing not only to spiritual health but also to mental and physical health. Many counselors recognize this connection between mind, body, and soul. My question is: are we really loving our neighbour?
(3) Romans 13 speaks of obedience to the civil authority. But it also speaks of the limitations and mandate of the civil authority. Many churches believe that the civil authority has gone past the boundaries of its God given role, partly related to what I point out in the other points. So my question here would be: what are the limitations on the role of the civil authority? I am sure he would hold an abusive husband in his church accountable, how do we hold the civil courts accountable?
4) Christian witness. Christian witness is based on whether or not we are really loving our neighbour. I wonder when we started defining Christian witness by what people say and not by what really is loving our neighbour. Peter doesn’t tell Christians that there will be no slander, but that they should keep doing good even if there is slander: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (I Pet 2:12) Just because many are angry at the church doesn’t mean that many more are not waiting for the church to take leadership. Love is not affirmation, and so witness is not based on affirming the sins and idols of the day. We first must ask the question: am I really loving my neighbour? Love of neighbour, of course, includes honoring God-ordained authority and protecting life. So my question here is: are we really being a good witness? And what exactly is a good witness?
There are many more questions to bring to bear on this discussion. What is a Biblical theory of church and state? What role does subjective and changing scientific theory play in the the decisions and laws of the civil authority? What role does the Old Testament Law play in this? As some have pointed out, there are Laws concerning pandemics in the OT. But how does the love that Christ and the disciples for the sick play into this? How does our misunderstandings of OT law play into this? Scientism and secularism are both matters that the church must contend with in our post-Christian culture.
We need Biblical answers. Not easy answers. Gavin Ortlund remarked that he is not an epidemiologist. I am not either. I know that there are disagreements among epidemiologists. But if we are allowed to make statements concerning a pandemic from God’s Word, then we are also allowed to ask questions. And those questions might lead to new statements.