Caught in the In-Between

Recently, I posted a blog that highlighted the Church – State love affair that has become prominent within the realm of Christendom, particularly in the West. In that post, we looked at the unequally yoked relationship that has existed between the two entities and provided some nuance as it relates to Scripture’s definition of the gathering of God’s people. This is critically important for understanding what is and is about to transpire in this country. What I suspected would happen several months ago with the State ordered closure of church buildings is indeed happening, as witnessed recently by Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California where John MacArthur serves as the primary teacher/preacher. Now, there are responses near daily either in support of GCC’s decision or to denounce their decision and it has become a divisive point among professing Christians. It’s gotten to the point that in a public statement, MacArthur said that not one of his prominent pastor friends had called to offer support. Think about this for just a minute, he is one of the Together For The Gospel members, all the book-writing, conference speaking celebrity pastors, remember them? More on his decision to defy the State’s mandate in a minute, but first a clarifying point for what is actually happening.

Because we have become so accustomed to Christendom’s Church, it being all we know, and generally having never really examined the New Testament understanding of church (I too was guilty of this for decades), many find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to defend Scripture’s emphasis on believer’s gathering together from an unscriptural church model. The exposure of this error becomes evident when situations arise, such as the one in which we find ourselves, where churches rebel against the State’s mandates by taking a hard stand on what the Scriptures say regarding meeting together, however they are doing so from the position of what amounts to a State sponsored Church. The irony of it all is that they ignore how Scripture alone defines and regulates these meetings. If this is confusing, welcome to evangelicalism. To clarify, MacArthur and Grace Community Church are proclaiming that the State has no authority over the Church, which is true, though a nuanced point that we made in the previous post. However, he is arguing this, using Scripture, from a church-business model that is not supported from Scripture. You can’t build your house on sand and then try to force the rock under it and expect it to weather the storm.

Now, let me just preface this by saying I have learned much from John MacArthur through his sermons, books, study Bible, etc., so I do not wish to impugn his character nor his motivations. His courage to publicly oppose the mandate of the State and open the church building’s doors is admirable, although misguided. If one was going to err in this debate, would that so many would err on the side that he has taken by openly defying the orders of the State. However, as we saw in the previous post, MacArthur is defending the status quo of Christendom’s Church, the one that has been accepted as a non-profit business by the State; the one that has purchased a multi-million dollar facility and employs more than 250 people. Now before you object to this line of reasoning, Grace Community Church has also received a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal Small Business Association in the amount of $1-2 Million dollars, which was approved on June 17, 2020. You can examine this for yourself here:

In case you are unfamiliar, the PPP loans were designed to help small businesses withstand the blow dealt to them by the State mandated closures in response to COVID-19 and religious organizations were afforded the same status as businesses under this program. The loans, if used specifically for salaries, do not have to be repaid, technically, though as financial advisor Dave Ramsey points out in the following video, accepting the loan is an absolute, unmitigated disaster for churches ultimately inviting the State in the door, handing them control, and then submitting to the possibility that they can just as easily change the terms of the loan.
Essentially, the PPP loan pays businesses to remain closed by reimbursing them for losses incurred. When a church, which is already recognized as a non-profit business by the State, accepts PPP loan money, they essentially doubled-down on their relationship with the State, in a sense sealing their fate. MacArthur, as admirable as his stance might be upon first glance, is caught in-between Scripture and the model of Church that has become acceptable in Christendom by continuing to cozy up to the State. He (Grace Community Church) was paid by the State as a small business to remain closed. I’m not sure how on the one hand, a church can meet all the requirements of a business recognized by the State as such, receive a small business loan, and then object to the terms that the State hand’s down, but thus is the inconsistency of Christendom’s Church. It is simply not possible to serve both Christ and the State or as Scripture so clearly teaches, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Grace Community is not alone, literally thousands of churches across the country have accepted PPP loans in excess of $150,000. While the data is not readily available, I suspect there are thousands more that have received PPP loans under the $150,000 cutoff.

As long as the State allows Christendom’s Church to operate freely and stays for the most part hands-off, then the Church is happy to meet the State’s requirements for non-profit exemptions, receive the benefits of State recognition, and even in extraordinary times like these, receive small business forgivable loans. However, when the favor of the State towards the Church changes, or the Church feels discriminated against, the claim that the State is a Taskmaster is made, then the shackles are wont to be thrown off. This typically becomes the gateway for the persecution. It’s akin to volunteering to be an indentured servant, accepting the terms of that servitude, and then when things get difficult or the master becomes harsh, you want out. By that point it’s too late. If this sounds far-fetched, may I simply refer you to the Great Ejection of 1662.

The reason why there have been so many pro- and con- arguments from those particularly in the reformed camp of evangelicalism is because they are all arguing from the perspective of Christendom’s Church and it catches them in the in-between also. Case in point is that the church Mark Dever pastors also took a PPP loan, albeit substantially less than GCC. Dever, along with Jonathan Leeman, were two of the more outspoken critics of MacArthur and Grace Community Church. Dever and Leeman are taking the rather odd position that meeting with believers is a matter of conscience. Their error is a desire to maintain Christendom’s Church by not provoking the State via outspoken rebellion. In essence, they are also bowing down to the State, despite them having no actual authority over the gathering of believers.

To summarize, on the one hand we have MacArthur who is willing to rebel against the State despite being in relationship with them, while on the other hand we have Dever and Leeman who want to submit to the State while likewise being in relationship with them. Using our analogy from earlier both sides volunteered themselves to indentured servitude; MacArthur has decided he no longer wants the State as master, while still accepting most of their terms; Dever and Leeman have decided they still want the State as master and are willing to do whatever they say in order to comply with original terms. Both are in servitude to the State. Both are unscriptural and wrong, though again, I would rather err on the side of MacArthur than the weaselly side of Dever and Leeman. What we are witnessing is not a battle for the Scriptural requirement for believers to meet; instead we are witnessing the last battle for Christendom in America and it is dividing us because we failed to stop and see what the Scripture had to say about believers gathering together.

‘The extent of apostasy under Antichrist, as to the ruining of instituted churches, making them to be Babylon, and their worship fornication, is duly and carefully to be examined. Here lie our disorder and division; hence is our darkness and pollution of our garments, which is not an easy thing to free ourselves of: though we may arise, yet we shall not speedily shake ourselves out of the dust.’ (MLJ citing John Owen) That is the chief difficulty for every one of us; we are all bound by what has gone before us.

We have to go back beyond the 17th century, beyond the 16th century; we have got to go back to the beginning. Now that is an exhortation we all need. We all suffer from the tendency to defend inherited positions and our own particular history. We must go back to the very beginning, to the rise and spring of it all in the first century.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “John Owen on Schism,” The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors, pgs 92, 95.

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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