“And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my alter. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the Lord’s table is despised” (Malachi 1:6-7).
The priests in Malachi’s day seemed to be oblivious. But they were culpable. The pastors in our day are not far behind. In fact, they might be out in front.
There are not many things worse than disregarding God’s Word. But I can think of one thing: disregarding God’s Word and then being completely oblivious to your folly. In other words, learning nothing.
The great failure of the leaders of the professing evangelical and Reformed church during 2020 was that they sinned by closing churches and preventing the saints from assembling in thousands of congregations across the nation.
It was an unparalleled show of cowardice and hypocrisy that I have detailed elsewhere.
But it gets worse.
The excuses given, the theological errors promulgated, and the narratives spun afterwards have been even more troubling than the fact that many pastors walked in fear and indecisiveness like the rest of the world for several weeks or months.
The book of Hebrews instructs us: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
Godly leaders do not simply teach the word of God—that divine word leads to an “outcome,” namely, a biblical way of life to be imitated. In 2020, hundreds (probably thousands) of supposedly Reformed pastors—pastors who had previously taught that the gathering of the saints was a command by God—did not follow their own teaching.
They evidenced no faith worthy of imitation.
God ‘Is the One Who Has Stopped Our Worship’
In May 2020, W. Robert Godfrey wrote in Tabletalk, “Many Christians have expressed disappointment and frustration in the last few weeks about not being able to gather for worship because of the COVID-19 crisis. I am one of them.”
Godfrey goes on to effectively say it was the Lord’s will that churches shut their doors to the saints. “God is sovereign over all things,” he wrote. “‘Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?’ (Amos 3:6). So He is the One who has stopped our worship as the gathered body of Christ on the Lord’s Day.”
Did you get that?
According to Godfrey it was not the cowardice or indecisiveness of church leaders that led to church closures, but God.
I believe in the sovereignty of God. But Godfrey’s use of the doctrine is extremely poorly handled. God’s sovereignty does not absolve us from our responsibility to obey him, nor does it give us license to blame him for the faithlessness of church leaders. To quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith, “God from all eternity did…freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures…” (3.1).
Godfrey’s logic is akin to the adulterer saying, “God is sovereign over all things. So He is the One who has prevented me from being faithful to my wife.” That sort of reasoning is unbecoming of someone with the theological prowess of Godfrey. But when it came to COVID-19, all bets were off.
But beyond the sheer falsity of Godfrey’s theological claim, it fails on a more practical level.
If God was the one who “stopped our worship as the gathered body of Christ on the Lord’s Day” then why did many churches, unsurprisingly led by non-celebrity pastors, refuse to cancel the assembly of the saints?
Did God prevent Godfrey’s church and John MacArthur’s church from gathering, but allowed Matt Trewhella’s church to keep meeting? There seems to be a major flaw in Godfrey’s thinking here.
There were thoughtful Christians who, from the beginning, said that the church should never stop meeting. I was certainly one of them.
But because I was not a pastor or a member of a congregational church where the members would make that decision, I was prevented from meeting with the assembled church—not by God, but by my pastor and elders who immediately folded like a house of cards and ceased meeting for weeks on end. Similarly, the saints in Godfrey’s church and MacArthur’s church were prevented from assembling not by God, but by Godfrey and MacArthur, men who acted just like the world.
It is worth pointing out that the churches that never cancelled in-person gatherings had the same information leaders like Godfrey and MacArthur had. They had the same news media and government mandates. More importantly, they had the same church history books, and they had the same Bible.
Bible-believers said the church must keep meeting long before we “knew the truth” about COVID-19. We said it right away.
Blaming God for the decisions of spineless church leaders is shameful. Furthermore, it does not lead to growth. It does not lead to growth because it subverts the need for repentance.
The prophet Jeremiah needed to remind the people that it was because of their sin that judgment had come: “Have you not brought this upon yourself by forsaking the Lord your God” (Jeremiah 2:17; cf. 4:18)? They needed to understand that they had sinned. It did no good for them to look back with ignorance. It did no good for them to be oblivious like Malachi’s priests.
If pastors following Godfrey’s example view the church closures as merely the result of God’s will, then how will they learn to respond in the future? And, even more frightening, what will they tell God when he asks them how they led his sheep? Will they sound like Malachi’s priests? “How did we mislead the sheep?” “How did we prevent the church from meeting?”
Even though I have learned much from some of their teachings, it behooves me to point out the errors of these “priests,” lest we find ourselves imitating the faithlessness and obliviousness of those who have gone before us. (If Godfrey has recanted of his butchering of the doctrine of divine sovereignty, I certainly have not seen it. If you are aware of it, please let me know, so I can at least give credit where credit is due.)
The Narratives We Spin
That John MacArthur is hailed as a courageous leader during the COVID-19 lockdown is utterly astounding and it is proof positive that the celebrity pastor model blinds the eyes and deafens the ears.
MacArthur shut the doors to his church for six weeks and initially said it was an “easy” decision.
“The clear demand of Scripture is to be subject to the [civil government]…We conform, we are submissive to the government,” he said when he closed the doors to Grace Church after the government told him to. “That was an easy call for us.”
An easy call? Six long weeks of failing to do what God commands was an easy call?
But now many people think MacArthur stood as a bold example of faithfulness during COVID-19. The reason is that a narrative has been spun to make it appear that way.
Three months ago (in May 2022), Grace to You hosted the Truth Matters Conference in Williamstown, Kentucky. During the Question-and-Answer panel discussions, MacArthur was presented as an example of bold faithfulness. And he readily accepted the approbation.
“At Grace Church, we understood that COVID, and all that stuff, really provide an opportunity for hostile people to shut down the church,” MacArthur said during the panel discussion. “I don’t think for a minute that we weren’t an absolute target along with every other faithful church to be shut down. Well, we refused to do that because we are the church and the more danger there is in the world the more we need to be the church. So, we saw it as an assault, really, covertly, to take down faithful churches…If 10% of the people died, we’d have still been the church and done exactly what we did. Because that’s why we’re in the world and the more desperate times become the more faithful we need to be…The church needs a massive dose of biblical fidelity and the courage of conviction to be the church.”
How MacArthur can publicly spin that narrative of “courage” and “conviction” without publicly repenting of immediately shutting down his church for six weeks is puzzling.
Furthermore, his statement of “I don’t think for a minute that we weren’t an absolute target along with every other faithful church to be shut down” is clean contrary to what he said when he made the “easy call” to cancel church and blatantly stated that it was not a matter of persecution. When he initially shut down his church he said: “What would have made a difference would have been if this was persecution of the church. If, all of the sudden, the government decided to shut down churches as an act of persecution against churches, we would defy that.”
Well, that provides a nice copout.
But, most strikingly, his comment that “if 10% of the people died, we’d have still been the church and done exactly what we did” is demonstrably untrue.
After six weeks, MacArthur opened the church. What changed MacArthur’s mind? Was it heartfelt repentance? No. Was it a recognition that he was wrong to ever cancel the assembly of the saints? Nope. Was it a willingness to be faithful, even “if 10% of the people died”? Negative.
In a statement released by MacArthur on Grace Church’s website, he said, “Since the true gravity of the threat was still unknown and the quarantine was supposed to be reasonably short, Grace Church’s elders decided to suspend public services while we continued live-streaming sermons from the pulpit in the Worship Center auditorium…More than six weeks passed with no letup on the government-ordered quarantine. While media reports and health department predictions continued to be dire, the actual impact of the virus on our congregation was only mildly worse than the annual flu. Relatively few congregants tested positive, and those who did typically recovered quickly. It was soon obvious (and CDC statistics proved it) that healthy people in their fifties or younger were not in imminent mortal danger from the spread of COVID-19.”
Let’s have some integrity and truthfulness here: MacArthur was not willing to be faithful even if it meant the death of “10% of the people” as he boldly claimed at the conference. He only opened the church when he realized COVID-19 was little more than a bad flu.
So, after sheltering in place for six weeks like the pagans during the plague, Grace Church opened its doors. At that point, they did face opposition from the government. But their opposition to the government at that point is not overly commendable—they were simply doing their duty, as all faithful churches had been doing for over a month, while Grace Church’s doors remained shut. What would have been commendable would have been heartfelt repentance and an admission that they should have never closed the church. But that did not come. Instead, a narrative of courage and faithfulness was spun.
Perhaps it is because it is hard for celebrity pastors to repent. “It’s hard for prominent Christian leaders to repent,” MacArthur said at the same conference when speaking about critical race theory. He then shared how he once preached a sermon on repentance: “I asked the congregation, ‘How many of you have ever heard a pastor get up in his church and repent?’ I didn’t find anybody who said yes. Self-preservation plays a big role—and the lack of integrity at that point.” In the words of the theologian Michael Jackson, MacArthur ought to start with “the man in the mirror.”
In the statement, MacArthur also laments the confused state of many Christians: “Oddly, some of the same evangelical leaders who insisted the church must shut down on orders from the state also published essays affirming the duty and priority of congregational worship. No wonder churchgoers are confused.”
Uh, yeah—as Nathan told David, “You are the man,” John MacArthur.
MacArthur also wrote, “There is no justification for quarantining healthy people, and certainly no warrant for having the entire church suspend congregational worship on a prolonged basis.”
Does MacArthur read his own words?
His statement closes with a rousing call to faithfulness: “Now is not the time to forsake our own assembling together. The church must be the church—a pillar and buttress for the truth. We cannot cower in fear. We cannot hide our light under a bushel. We are not called to feed the fears of a world that is perishing.”
There’s only one problem. MacArthur didn’t do any of those things.
The churches that didn’t shut down for those six weeks while Grace Church was closed were the faithful ones. They did not cower in fear. Grace Church did.
In a sister statement by Grace Church’s elders, entitled “Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church,” a compelling case is made that the state has no authority to tell the church what to do. Tucked away in the addendum of this statement, is an explanation (read: lame excuse) as to why Grace Church shut down for well over a month.
“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,” the statement reads. “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.”
That is some revisionist history occurring before our very eyes. Remember what MacArthur said initially? “The clear demand of Scripture is to be subject to the [civil government]…We conform, we are submissive to the government…That was an easy call for us.” But now we are supposed to believe they rejected the government’s authority over the assembly from the beginning?
The equivocation is also important to consider. It may be legitimate for an individual Christian to miss the gathering of the church, but that is different than cancelling the assembly for all the saints. (I address this in my book, Essential Service, available as a free PDF download.) Even if COVID-19 was as deadly as government media puppets claimed it was, the church should have kept meeting. To cancel the assembly of the saints out of fear of a sickness, and then to reopen upon realizing the threat was not that serious, is not commendable, it is cowardly.
In summary, Grace Church shut down right away, deemed an “easy call” by MacArthur. They only opened when they realized the COVID-19 virus was not something to fear—not because we ought to be bold in the face of danger, but because it was nothing more than a bad flu.
And MacArthur is hailed as a leader worthy of imitation? We have very low standards.
So, if COVID-19 was a bit more serious, then it would have been fine to keep the doors shut for another six weeks? Contrary to MacArthur’s claim, the evidence points clearly to the fact that Grace Church would not have “done exactly what [they] did” if 10% of the people died. The very reason they gave for reopening was that the threat of sickness was low.
At the conference, MacArthur affirmed this: “Our initial reaction was, ‘Well, we don’t want to kill anybody, so, okay, we’ll do livestream’…A few weeks went by, and it became apparent to me…that they were lying about the death threat. And when we began to see…the statistics were somewhere around 99% survival, we knew we weren’t going to kill people.”
So, his claim that they would have been faithful no matter the cost (“10%”) is demonstrably contradicted by his own words, at the very same event.
The church should have stayed open, no matter what.
During a third century plague, the early Christians demonstrated that there was something more important than avoiding sickness—namely, showing love and mercy to others. Author Alvin J. Schmidt wrote about the contrast between the Christians and the pagans during the plague: “Because eternal life awaited all those who believed and died in Christ, life on earth was not the ultimate value. Even if one died while caring for the sick, a greater and better life lay ahead; moreover, if a sick or dying person came to see and accept Christ’s forgiveness, another soul was gained for eternal life.”
At the conference, Phil Johnson heaped praise on MacArthur, saying that he thinks when MacArthur’s biography is written “a major chapter in that book will chronicle your leadership at Grace Church during the COVID crisis.”
But why should MacArthur even be commended? He simply started doing his duty, six weeks later—without even repenting of his sin for the previous six weeks! His example is not praiseworthy. The fact that it is celebrated reveals the shallowness of the evangelical church in America.
That MacArthur and his church now have the audacity to profess to stand on the biblical truth that God commands the church to meet is unbelievable. That they can seriously claim to believe that when they shut their doors for over a month due to threats (from a virus or otherwise) defies belief.
Sadly, I have lost nearly all respect for the Godfrey’s and the MacArthur’s.
I do believe in repentance, however. And if they acknowledge their wrongdoing, I could at least begin to appreciate their example. But until then, they offer us nothing more than a shallow, insipid faith that reacts just like the world when things get difficult or dangerous.
I’ll imitate the men who stand on God’s Word no matter the cost, not those who shamelessly twist Reformed doctrines or wait until it is “safe” to defy Caesar.
Chris Hume is the author of Vote Christian: Biblical Principles for Voting. Follow @ChrisHume1689 on Twitter.