I’ve admired pastor John MacArthur for some time. And I was especially interested in his opposition to the state of California’s rules that prohibited church attendance and other church activities. But I must say that I wonder at some of what he has done. It occurs to me that while making a bold defense of the Christian’s right to worship, has he, perhaps, overstated the case?
The restrictions that we’ve had to live with during the era of COVID are not unique to America. Many countries around the world have also imposed strict restrictions on public activities, including church attendance. I’ve talked recently with friends in other countries from Africa to the Middle East. They are facing the same limitations we are. And Christians in those countries, while they might feel targeted to a certain degree, patiently obey the government restrictions because they want to follow the scripture in Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”
I, however, look to another scripture to help guide me in my opinions over the situation we are facing. It’s a passage from Matthew 17:27. Speaking to Peter about whether or not the sons of rulers are exempt from taxes, Jesus said, “Not to give offense…”
If there was anyone who should have been exempt from taxation, it was Jesus. He was, after all, the son of the great ruler, God the father. But instead of protesting by his special status, he told Peter, “However, not to give offense,” then instructed Peter on how to pay the tax.
With this in mind I ask myself, “Do the current government restrictions give me a cause to sin?” In other words, is the government asking or requiring me to do something that is a sin in God’s eyes? Remember, part of our struggle is against sin. The writer to the Hebrews noted, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4). So, do the current government restrictions cause us to sin? It’s one thing to say that the restrictions are an imposition or curtail our religious freedoms. But tell me, when have Christian not been restricted around the world in one way or another over the many centuries of history and yet thrived? These are two different issues, soft persecution and a cause to sin. Le’t break this down a bit.
Is social distancing a cause to sin? No.
Is wearing a mask a cause of sin? No.
Is restricting church meetings a cause of sin? No.
Is self- or imposed-isolation a cause of sin? No.
Now, are these an imposition and even a matter of soft persecution? In some ways, yes, though not always. But through the centuries, what have Christians done when faced with such troubles? They obey the rule of law and trust God for the outcome. Even if it meant incurring on their freedoms.
If, therefore, these are not a cause to sin, then what biblical reason can we give to disobey the government’s orders to not do these four things? If social distancing helps to keep my friends safe, why would I disobey it? If wearing a mask keeps my neighbors from catching anything from me, then why would I take it off? If I can’t attend church the way I would like, but the result is to prevent the spread of a dangerous disease, then why not inconvenience myself for the sake of others? And the same is true with self-isolation. None of these are a cause to sin. If I, therefore, disobey I am not only violating Romans 13:1, but I’m also violating Matthew 17:27 by giving offense when it is unnecessary. If Jesus obeyed the law, then why can’t I? Some may remark that these rules are not the law and therefore don’t hold the same force as the law. But this is splitting hairs. I’m not posing these questions looking for a legal answer. Rather, I’m looking for a biblical, moral answer. And I think the scripture answers these issues with a rule of obedience and humility so that we do not defile our witness for Christ. If Jesus obeyed (and he did), then we have no excuse not to obey as well.
Now, come the day when these things were to become a cause for sin, then that would be another matter entirely. But right now, in the here and now, they are not a cause for sin. At most, they are an inconvenience. And why in the world would you make a mountain out of a mole hill of inconvenience? Meanwhile, Christians are being slaughtered in northern Nigeria, China is tearing down churches faster than the church can build them, and Middle Eastern women who come to Christ are being driven into poverty by their husbands. And we complain about a face mask? I think our priorities are a bit screwed up.
These things are not a cause for sin nor are they unreasonable. There are exceptions to this, such as those announced by California against MacArthur’s church. But, in general, most restrictions are not unreasonable. And they certainly won’t last forever. Just because you protest wearing a mask doesn’t mean that one day you’ll be forced to wear a hijab.
Obey the authorities. When possible, which is most of the time, don’t give the authorities unnecessary offense. Jesus commanded so. There are a lot worse things going on in the world that we could protest. COVID restrictions aren’t one of them. On the contrary, COVID presents us with opportunities to spread the Gospel, not stifle it.