5/13/20

Wrong Approaches to a Pandemic: Critiquing a Jonathan Leeman Post

By: Grant Kolkow

A recent post by Jonathan Leeman[1] correctly identifies the pressing issue on the minds of most pastors.  His article is well-written from a literary standpoint.  His crisp style allows him to get straight to his points.  His flow of thought is easy to follow.  Yet his content is wrong on numerous fronts.

First, the framework is wrong.  As the title and a nearly identical follow-up question reveal, the emphasis is upon what the government says and when churches should engage in civil disobedience.  Stating the premise in this manner purposefully makes pastors nervous at the onset.  A corrective is necessary to redirect attention upon what God says and the greater threat of divine disobedience.  Reframing the argument encourages biblical preachers not to cower from the issue, but rather to stand up and declare, “Thus saith the Lord!” as they seek to lead their congregations biblically during this difficult season.

While Leeman lacks intimidation to take a swipe at capitalism as found in his statement about the stock market—albeit a rightfully deserved critique since the financial world loves wealth—yet he offers no critical comment regarding government.  Our government receives a free pass as if their only interest is in the physical health of its citizens.  Indeed, government is a blessing from God that helps keep a fallen world with a natural affinity towards chaos in check (cf. Romans 13:1-5).  The opposite choice of anarchy is a nasty alternative.  But it would be naïve to think our government generally possesses a neutral or favorable disposition toward churches with a willingness to place politics on hold until after the pandemic runs its course.

Second, the application is wrong.  “Governments possess authority,” Leeman declares, “if for no other reason, then to preserve human life (see Gen. 9:5-6).”  He then advances the principle that this gives government the God-given right to do whatever in the name of preserving life.  Does Genesis 9:5-6 teach or imply this?  If so, the author must supply at least some exposition.  God’s concern is the shedding of innocent blood, whether by beast or man, because mankind is made in His image.  God gives government responsibility to preserve life, but only within a limited context (i.e. capital punishment).  Romans 13:4 confirms the same.  God grants government the right of bearing the sword, but within a narrowly defined application of being against those practicing evil.

Why is this important?  Depravity affects government as well as individuals.  Granting more responsibility to a powerful governmental entity is dangerous.  Thus God grants such in an objective manner.  This brings definability, limitation, and recognizable boundary.  He doesn’t do so in a subjective manner that invites ambiguity, open-endedness, and prejudice.  That distinction is critical.  The former controls government’s power whereas the latter empowers it.  To write our government a check objectively is to fill in the amount.  To write our government a check subjectively is to leave the amount open while still providing a signature.

Essentially what Leeman is telling churches is that God has given our government a blank check when it comes to the enforcement of preserving life.  Such power extends all the way to a pandemic.  Sadly the subjective fruit is evident to see: inconsistent categorization of essentials versus non-essentials, assembling together as churches is rendered non-essential, decisions made regardless of data (e.g. ongoing lockdown measures in California), overstepping constitutional rights has our government contradicting our government, and the list goes on. 

Third, the worldview is wrong.  Leeman notes conflict between the “church’s jurisdictional obligation and right to gather” and the “government’s obligation to protect life,” even providing a diagram illustrating “our pandemical moment.”  This jurisdictional overlap, however, is seriously flawed.  As believers in Christ, we live entirely within the sphere of God’s authority as revealed in the Scripture (biblical worldview).  The ultimate reason we submit to government authority is because the authority of the Bible tells us to.  When the two disagree, we always side with God and obey Him (cf. Daniel 6:10; Acts 4:19-20; 5:29, 41-42).  Jurisdictional obligation must always yield to divine obligation!

Asking the question, “Why should the government’s authority come first?” should make the hair on our necks bristle.  Yes, a place exists—as the author does—to resort to logic and facts in buttressing one’s position.  That approach works both ways.  For example, Leeman poignantly argues, “Yet stopping a pandemic which kills more than 50,000 U.S. citizens within a month strikes me as pretty reasonable.”  Yet the tragic 2017-18 winter flu season is on record of killing 80,000 people in the U.S. alone; the worst in four decades.[2]  Statistics are comparable to now, yet no hospitals were overrun or churches mandated to shut down then.  Here is the greater concern rather than differences in argumentation: an authority may exist above the Bible if certain conditions demand!  Whatever worldview this article advocates is clearly not biblical.

And fourth, the conclusion is wrong.  With so many wrong stances, the conclusion has nowhere to go but astray.  Leeman offers this summary that “churches should submit to government restrictions for the foreseeable future.”  Then comes this shocking statement, “Plus, Christians should utterly exhaust all ordinary means of legal recourse before contemplating disobedience.”  A deep breath is necessary.  Legal recourse takes money and time.  Are churches to empty their coffers in legal battles from where they pay salaries, do ministry, and support missionaries?  Do churches place Gospel proclamation on the back burner and continue to hit the pause button until the courts decide what we can or can’t do? 

The author’s final point about an evangelistic witness has a degree of truth.  It does show care for our community and love for our neighbors to refrain gathering together when a pandemic rages.  Vast majority of churches have acknowledged this by refraining from meeting.  But is this testimony overshadowing another important testimony understood by churches down through the centuries?

When Hebrews 10:25 provides instruction of “not forsaking our own assembling together,” it includes no less but involves much more.  The much more also includes evangelistic witness.  Whether in times of persecution or pandemic, gathering churches testify to the supreme authority of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Currently satanic brilliance is on display when a cough or sneeze or a frown from our government causes the saints to scatter and stay scattered.

Should churches look to reopen their doors during this pandemic crisis; particularly when the hard data fails to support this ongoing drastic action?  Individual churches will prayerfully need to decide.  Yet Leeman’s article is not helpful simply because wrong information or interpretation never helps us make good decisions.  Yes, churches need to honor and to obey our civil authorities, but not at the expense of honoring and obeying the Lord Jesus.

Grant Kolkow has twenty-four years of pastoral ministry experience.  Presently he pastors at Orland Evangelical Free Church in California.  He received his Masters of Divinity (2003) and Doctorate of Ministry (2013) degrees from the Master’s Seminary.

[1] “When Should Churches Reject Governmental Guidelines on Gathering and Engage in Civil Disobedience,” www.9marks.org, May 2, 2020.

[2] See https://www.statnews.com/2018/09/26/cdc-us-flu-deaths-winter/, accessed May 11, 2020.

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