A Biblical Case for the Church’s Duty to Remain Open
Recently John MacArthur wrote a blog post entitled “Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church” which is an excellent read. While we do not agree with all of the positions MacArthur holds too I will attempt to share the response here with minimal modifications to fit within the context of our local church named Calvary Chapel Fergus Falls.
Christ is Lord of all. He is the one true head of the church (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). He is also King of kings—sovereign over every earthly authority (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14; 19:16). Calvary Chapel of Fergus Falls has always stood immovably on those biblical principles. As His people, we are subject to His will and commands as revealed in Scripture. Therefore, we cannot and will not permit a government-imposed suspension on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.
Some will think such a firm statement is in conflict with the command to be subject to governing authorities laid out in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Scripture does mandate careful, conscientious obedience to all governing authority, including kings, governors, employers, and their agents (in Peter’s words, “not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable” [1 Peter 2:18]). Insofar as government authorities do not attempt to assert ecclesiastical authority or issue orders that forbid our obedience to God’s law, their authority is to be obeyed whether we agree with their rulings or not. In other words, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 still bind the consciences of individual Christians. We are to obey our civil authorities as powers that God Himself has ordained, unless they are opposed to God’s commands.
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: 1) the family, 2) the church, and 3) the state. Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected. A father’s authority is limited to his own family (1). Church leaders’ authority (which is delegated to them by Christ) is limited to church matters (2). And government is specifically tasked with the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community (3).
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 16:18–19; 2 Timothy 3:16–4:2).
Therefore, in response to the recent state order requiring churches in Minnesota to limit or suspend all meetings indefinitely, we, the pastors and elders of Calvary Chapel of Fergus Falls, 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.
Believers have been meeting for over 2000 years, in spite of war, famine, disease, and persecution. And, right now there are believers meeting in secret in hostile nations like China and North Korea, Somalia and Afghanistan, Libya and Pakistan, Sudan and Yemen, Iran and India, and many more. Christians in North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and about 40 other places on earth continue to meet secretly in spite of government restrictions.
Said another way, it has never been the prerogative of civil government to order, modify, forbid, or mandate worship. When, how, and how often the church worships is not subject to Caesar. Caesar himself is subject to God. Jesus affirmed that principle when He told Pilate, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). And because Christ is head of the church, ecclesiastical matters pertain to His Kingdom, not Caesar’s. Jesus drew a stark distinction between those two kingdoms when He said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Our Lord Himself always rendered to Caesar what was Caesar’s, but He never offered to Caesar what belongs solely to God.
As pastors and elders, we cannot hand over to earthly authorities any privilege or power that belongs solely to Christ as head of His church. Pastors and elders are the ones to whom Christ has given the duty and the right to exercise His spiritual authority in the church (1 Peter 5:1–4; Hebrews 13:7, 17)—and Scripture alone defines how and whom they are to serve (1 Corinthians 4:1–4). They have no duty to follow orders from a civil government attempting to regulate the worship or governance of the church. In fact, pastors who give up their Christ-delegated authority in the church to a civil ruler have fail to fulfill their responsibility before their Lord and violated the God-ordained spheres of authority as much as the secular official who illegitimately imposes his authority upon the church.
In short, as the church, we do not need the state’s permission or the government’s permission to serve and worship our Lord as He has commanded. The church is Christ’s precious bride (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:23–27). She belongs to Him alone. She exists by His will and serves under His authority. He will tolerate no assault on her purity and no infringement of His headship over her. All of that was established when Jesus said, “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18).
The church by definition is an assembly. That is the literal meaning of the Greek word for “church”—ekklesia—the assembly of the called-out ones. A non-assembling assembly is a contradiction in terms. Christians are therefore commanded not to forsake the practice of meeting together (Hebrews 10:25)—and no earthly state has a right to restrict, delimit, or forbid the assembling of believers. We have always supported the underground church in nations where Christian congregational worship is deemed illegal by the state, and are prepared to do so if the USA follows.
When we see people hungry or thirsty or a stranger or in need of clothing or sick or in prison, we are commanded to help for when if we refuse to help the least of these than were refusing to help God (Mathew 25:44-45). The Lord Jesus Christ did not run away from trouble, He came to this Earth for a reason and that was to take our sins on the cross. He left Heaven, and He knew that He was going to suffer and was going to die. He shed His blood on the cross and didn’t shy away, He didn’t run.
Therefore, as USA 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 public church services to remain on-hold 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.
To government officials, we respectfully say with the apostles, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge” (Acts 4:19). And our unhesitating reply to that question is the same as the apostles’: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Our prayer is that every faithful congregation will stand in obedience to our Lord as Christians have done through the centuries, and stand with our brothers and sisters around the world in the underground church, house church, and family churches.
Below we want to answer the primary question we have received in response to the statement: Why did you submit to the original USA government order, and not continue to as it says in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2?
The pastors and elders of Calvary Chapel of Fergus Falls 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. We have and will at times cancel services due to emergencies such as tornados or winter storms to help keep people safe. In light of those factors, our pastors and elders 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, Romans 12:21, Matthew 5:38-48).
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. If mandated vacancies are next the choice will be then for families to decide to either obey the government or the Lord first and foremost. Therefore, following the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, we gladly choose to obey Him.