What is going on with John MacArthur and Romans 13?

MacArthur

I could say a lot of things here about John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, but until yesterday I always thought he took a pretty consistent stand on passages like Romans 13 that require Christians to submit to governing authorities. Whether you agree or disagree with MacArthur’s interpretation and application of Romans 13, his views have changed little over time. As I have noted before as this blog, MacArthur even believes that the American Revolution was staged in violation of this biblical passage.

In late May, MacArthur announced that Grace Community Church would be returning to face-to-face worship for the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak. Donald Trump said that churches were “essential. MacArthur listened and responded with his re-opening announcement. He wrote:

We were elated yesterday morning when President Trump declared churches to be essential, asked us to open this very Sunday, and promised to fight any state government that tried to stand in the way. As I’ve said many times, the Bible would have us submit to the governing authorities, and in the United States, there is no higher human executive authority than the president, who was speaking on a matter of federal and constitutional interest, specifically the First Amendment.

This announcement was made on a Friday. On Saturday evening, MacArthur learned that the Ninth Circuit Court ruled in favor of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home order. This order prevented churches from gathering in face-to-face settings. MacArthur was not happy about the decision, but he admitted that “the Ninth Circuit decision is sadly the law of the land in California, and we gladly submit to the sovereign purposes of God.”

Now, in an online statement, MacArthur seems to have changed his position on Romans 13. He has decided that Newsom’s  current ban on indoor religious services is intruding on his congregation’s right to worship. He writes:

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.

When any one of the three institutions exceeds the bounds of its jurisdiction it is the duty of the other institutions to curtail that overreach. Therefore, when any government official issues orders regulating worship (such as bans on singing, caps on attendance, or prohibitions against gatherings and services), he steps outside the legitimate bounds of his God-ordained authority as a civic official and arrogates to himself authority that God expressly grants only to the Lord Jesus Christ as sovereign over His Kingdom, which is the church. His rule is mediated to local churches through those pastors and elders who teach His Word (Matthew 16:18–192 Timothy 3:16–4:2).

Read the entire piece here. MacArthur makes it sound like Newsom and all government officials concerned about the health of their citizens are somehow equivalent to an atheist totalitarian state trying to suppress all forms of religious belief.

What happened to the principled Romans 13 argument that MacArthur made back in May? He addresses this issue in an addendum posted this morning:

Below we want to answer the primary question we have received in response to the statement:Why did you submit to the original government order, citing Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2?

The elders of Grace Church considered and independently consented to the original government order, not because we believed the state has a right to tell churches when, whether, or how to worship. To be clear, we believe that the original orders were just as much an illegitimate intrusion of state authority into ecclesiastical matters as we believe it is now. However, because we could not possibly have known the true severity of the virus, and because we care about people as our Lord did, we believe guarding public health against serious contagions is a rightful function of Christians as well as civil government. Therefore, we voluntarily followed the initial recommendations of our government. It is, of course, legitimate for Christians to abstain from the assembly of saints temporarily in the face of illness or an imminent threat to public health.

When the devastating lockdown began, it was supposed to be a short-term stopgap measure, with the goal to “flatten the curve”—meaning they wanted to slow the rate of infection to ensure that hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. And there were horrific projections of death. In light of those factors, our pastors supported the measures by observing the guidelines that were issued for churches.

But we did not yield our spiritual authority to the secular government. We said from the very start that our voluntary compliance was subject to change if the restrictions dragged on beyond the stated goal, or politicians unduly intruded into church affairs, or if health officials added restrictions that would to attempt to undermine the church’s mission. We made every decision with our own burden of responsibility in mind. We simply took the early opportunity to support the concerns of health officials and accommodate the same concerns among our church members, out of a desire to act in an abundance of care and reasonableness (Philippians 4:5).

But we are now more than twenty weeks into the unrelieved restrictions. It is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared. Still, roughly forty percent of the year has passed with our church essentially unable to gather in a normal way. Pastors’ ability to shepherd their flocks has been severely curtailed. The unity and influence of the church has been threatened. Opportunities for believers to serve and minister to one another have been missed. And the suffering of Christians who are troubled, fearful, distressed, infirm, or otherwise in urgent need of fellowship and encouragement has been magnified beyond anything that could reasonably be considered just or necessary. Major public events that were planned for 2021 are already being canceled, signaling that officials are preparing to keep restrictions in place into next year and beyond. That forces churches to choose between the clear command of our Lord and the government officials. Therefore, following the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, we gladly choose to obey Him.

This reads like some of the American patriots in the 1760s and 1770s trying to twist and contort their reading of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 in order to justify the American Revolution against the arguments of Loyalists clergy like Samuel Seabury and Charles Inglis