By: Grant Kolko Whatever one thinks of John MacArthur and the elders at Grace Community Church (GCC) leading a charge in civil disobedience concerning coronavirus mandates, they did provide a biblical explanation or exposition before sailing into these waters. How refreshing! You may disagree, but at least you know the premise of their decision-making. Jonathan Leeman takes exception to their conclusion,as does Mark Dever in a subsequent 9Marks podcast. When the Bereans heard the Apostle Paul preach, their reaction was to examine the Scripture to see if it was so (Acts 17:11). Sadly, this is not the direction of Leeman’s response; rather it favors logic over exposition.
Frankly, we may miss this approach because we can easily be guilty of the same. Logic seems to be the weapon of choice among evangelicals whether it is social media or elsewhere. Often it finds popularity to help with uncomfortable expositional conclusions.
After initial friendly affirmations, Leeman gets to thrust of his concern: “[Civil] disobedience may not be the only legitimate or moral course of action at this moment.” His exception could have legitimacy. It demands substantiation; something his post provides as it continues. Yet here is the problem. Leeman critiques a statement written in a unique genre: biblical exposition. Here only one form of argumentation becomes plausible. Exposition—granted, the interpretation must be accurate—is synonymous with divine authority. Now the only acceptable refutation is stronger or more accurate interpretation. The nature of biblical exposition is such that it insists upon an obedient response! “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22). Exposition rules when it comes to argumentation in the lives of believers. True, churches may need more time to study this issue; but logic is a poor substitute in the refutation of sound exposition.
And two, a response that merely mentions biblical references isn’t a serious attempt at exposition. It requires hard work, but work worth the effort so that one may know what God thinks about a given issue. Leeman’s article displays a weak hermeneutic since it appeals to a particular verse or passage only to discover a general principle which then receives broad application. While a careful use of this practice is appropriate, it should never apply where the Bible speaks specifically. Otherwise it serves only to undermine exposition itself. Such is the case here when it nails a thin veneer over exposition in order to advance a narrative that this is nothing more than “judgment calls” or debate over what is “beneficial” or merely “[passing] judgment on one another.” Wow! Suddenly ecclesiastical doctrine (e.g. “not forsaking our own assembling together” [Hebrews 10:25] or separation of civil and religious authority [Mark 12:27]) relegates to nothing more than personal preference.
“Second, Christians have long worked to accommodate government restrictions on gatherings, both when those requirements have seemed fair and when they don’t.” Again, exposition must surrender to logic; this time in the form of anecdotalism. Since churches have submitted to fair governmental demands (i.e. World War Two blackouts) and unfair (i.e. persecuted churches in China) in the past, then reasonable expectation exists for modern churches to do the same. While anecdotes have a place even despite its polemically weak propensity toward subjectivity, it simply fails to compare to exposition. As Romans 3:4 declares, “[Let] God be found true, though every man be found a liar.” Doesn’t MacArthur use anecdotes in his statement (e.g. “Calvin’s Geneva”)? Yes he does but in a subservient manner whereby the high ground of scriptural authority suffers no compromise. The intent of Leeman is quite different; it becomes a chisel to challenge the expositional statement he critiques.
Before leaving this second point, consider the following: “In other words, just because you think God will ultimately vindicate your decision to disobey the government on the last day doesn’t mean it’s wise. You might have other options that avoid undue attention.” Either Leeman writes with uncharacteristic clumsiness or invites danger from a practical theology standpoint. Certainly decisions must consider both present and future ramifications, but Leeman goes too far in making this point. If you truly believe God will vindicate your decision to disobey the government on the last day, where else can your decision go? God’s vindication is always the right decision! His counsel seems to give credence in accepting biblical exposition and a God-given conscience as being somewhat negotiable.
“Third, addressing this matter of what’s wise or “beneficial” (see 1 Cor. 6:12), I personally wonder if defying government orders for the sake of a pandemic is the most judicious opportunity to exercise those muscles.” Logic again thwarts exposition; this time in the form of jurisprudence. MacArthur refuses to appeal for support elsewhere, even if it could include the weight of the U.S. Constitution and First Amendment. Why? He would tear the fabric his carefully woven statement consists of. “[Freedom] of worship is a command of God,” he writes, “not a privilege granted by the state.” Such conviction agrees with the practice of the Apostles (see Acts 4:19; 5:27-29).
And finally, “Fourth, and this is my most wonky point, MacArthur draws a strict line between the jurisdictions of state, church, and family.” Once more logic is called upon to do the impossible of overturning exposition. The response to a helpful section explaining biblically established boundaries of authority is to blur those distinctions with contradictory examples: parental authority/abuse, fire codes, building codes, zoning restrictions, and even pandemics. Has exposition finally met its match being forced to cry out, “Uncle!”?
The opening line of GCC’s addendum brings clarity, “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.” Well stated; consent doesn’t imply abnegation of church oversight.
A weakness of logic is that it tends to implode if not careful. For example, Leeman would probably be the first to advocate a strict line in jurisdiction—and rightfully so—if believers took the law into their own hands to protects babies from the unconscionable abortion industry.
The critique tends to overlook the simple fact that the Scripture deems biblically qualified church leaders are in a superior position in making church decisions rather than government officials. They—as all believers—have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). They grasp the vast gulf between human wisdom and divine wisdom (Isaiah 55:8-9; 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16). They take their shepherding responsibilities seriously (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:1-4). They are a blessing to the communities they live in (e.g. consent to World War Two black-outs is an easy call). They realize no issue, including a pandemic, ranks above furtherance of the Gospel (Matthew 16:26). And they have discernment to recognize when a health issue becomes infected with political germs!
Logic has a valuable place in argumentation. Yet it always fails miserably when it seeks to usurp authority from biblical exposition; it makes a great servant but a terrible master. Pastor MacArthur and the elders of Grace Community Church have provided churches a blessing in the form of a definitive statement regarding a tough issue. It stands until a stronger exposition takes its place.
Grant Kolkow pastors at Orland Evangelical Free Church in California. He received his M.Div and D.Min from the Master’s Seminary.