John MacArthur is rightly considered one of the most faithful pastors alive, a sentiment with which I agree. I begin with that confession so as to alleviate the concern I’m just another “MacArthur says to take the Mark of the Beast” type critic (and yet I doubt it will buy me much good-will). If you’re counting, we’ve run three articles with positive coverage for Dr. MacArthur since coronavirus broke out including here, here, and here.
In all of my years I’ve had only two disagreements with MacArthur’s judgment, the first being his woeful decision to invite the Social Justice boys to the 2018 ShepCon, which almost all of us can agree was a mistake at this point. The other, and original disagreement, is MacArthur’s curious non-interpretation of Romans 13 (I first spoke opposition to his view in May of 2015).
In recent news, John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church (a fine church if ever there was one) will be meeting this Sunday after months of forsaking the Lord’s Day. The reason GCC went on worship hiatus is because MacArthur claimed that Romans 13 requires submission to governing authorities and California’s governor tabled religious liberties for the sake of coronavirus. Despite Governor Newsom not reinstating religious liberty yet, GCC will be open Sunday because President Trump gave the thumb’s up to corporate worship and threatened to over-ride state directives.
What MacArthur likely discovered recently is that Romans 13 requires nuance in interpretation. When competing jurisdictions each claim authority and have contradictory directives, Citizens have to determine who or what is their rightful governing authority. Up until now, this seems to be a step of expositional application MacArthur has been hesitant to make.
As I argued in the viral post, Romans 13 Does Not Give the Government Power Over the Church, And You’re Ignorant for Saying So, Romans 13:1 requires exposition and application. While we know we are supposed to submit to the proper governing authorities, it takes some familiarity with your nation’s laws to know who or what is your authority.
It’s here that critics lob charges toward us of “elevating the Constitution above the Bible.” But it is not enough to know to obey. We must know who or what to obey. Lazy exegetes will gloss over this point, which is not a fine one.
The KJV renders the term in Romans 13:1 “higher powers,” but the Greek term is “ἐξουσία” and means “authorities.” A synonym is “jurisdiction,” which is how the term is rendered in Luke 23:7 in reverence to Herod’s jurisdiction:
“And as soon as he knew that he belonged unto Herod’s jurisdiction, G1849 he sent him to Herod, who himself also was at Jerusalem at that time.”
The Bible student must ask who or what is our authority? Are we in their jurisdiction? What makes an authority an authority?
Christians have to ask if the police should be granted permission to search without a warrant or seize property without a court order. We must especially ask what government authority has jurisdiction when multiple government authorities are issuing contradictory orders.
Until now, MacArthur has refused to apply American jurisprudence to the application of Romans 13. His greatest and most notable error on this point is his insistence that the American Revolution was sinful for the American colonists.
MacArthur famously taught…
“So the United States was actually born out of a violation of New Testament principles, and any blessings God has bestowed on America have come in spite of that disobedience by the Founding Fathers.”
As I’ve insisted throughout the years both as a theologian and historian (as such is what my post-graduate degree says I’m qualified for), the narrative that the American colonists were rebelling against their governing authorities is horribly inaccurate.
The entire notion of American Independence was built upon the conviction that the Americans were not British at all, primarily because of their lack of representation in the British parliament. Rather, the colonists had their own parliaments, their own governments, and their own authorities (all installed by the Crown in colonial charters). The American spin on history is that the colonists were not rebelling against their government, but against a foreign occupying force.
Simply put, an argument could just as easily be made from Romans 13 that it would have been sinful for a Virginian not to pick up arms against the British when the colonial government declared war. Every colonial soldier was obeying their rightful governing authority by opposing the British Crown, which was not their rightful governing authority.
Such an argument earns some hemming-and-hawing from those who insist the exposition of Romans 13 doesn’t require any modern application. But John MacArthur just found out differently.
Fast forward 244 years and John MacArthur has a governor who forbids Grace Community Church from worshipping and a president who said he’ll allow it. Both have made claims of governing jurisdiction. And I hate admitting it, but as Andrew Napolitano has argued, Trump probably does not have the power to over-rule Governor Newsom (the courts should be doing that).
Nonetheless, the dilemma for MacArthur isn’t very different from the dilemma of the American colonists. Both had to decide which authority had jurisdiction, and both would have to apply the laws of their day to the application of Romans 13 to not be trapped at the intersection of apathy and inaction.
I pray that MacArthur’s real-life contradiction of his position on Romans 13 would lead him – and others – to more carefully research our laws and government. If they did so, they would discover that neither Trump nor Newsom have ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the church. Our Emperor is, in fact, not a man at all. Our emperor is neither president nor governor. Our Emperor is the Constitution of the United States, and to him, we should submit.
[Editor’s Note: Contributed by JD Hall; please note that since our website re-design, hyperlinks are not differently colored. If you hover your mouse over this article, you’ll find lots of hyperlinks to primary resources]