Then the devil led Jesus to the entrance of the Jerusalem Farmers Market.   Jesus observed that most people were prudently wearing face coverings and masks to protect from a severe virus that had made many in the Holy City sick in recent weeks.  And the devil said unto him, “If you are the Son of God, then enter the market, talk, shop, and laugh but do not wear a mask for it is written ‘He will give his angels charge over you’ and so we know God will protect you and others from the virus.”  And Jesus replied, “It is also written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”  Jesus then put on his face covering and entered the market in search of some fresh figs.  The devil then left him . . . until a more opportune time.

A more opportune time may have come, not to tempt Jesus but perhaps others.   But then, the devil is always an opportunist when it comes to temptation.  My little riff on the Temptations of Jesus is shooting fish in a barrel in one sense when it comes to applying Jesus’ interactions with Satan to our current pandemic and the controversy over wearing masks.  And it would seem unnecessary to make this analogy were it not for the fact that there are some out there making religious arguments that all-but necessitate a response.   Here are some words from a Livestream of a political activist in California on this very subject:

“A mask is a symbol of fear. You’re living in fear. If you have a mask on, it means you actually don’t trust God. You don’t have faith.You’re living in fear instead of faith. And of course, the Marxist globalist Satanists that are pushing all this, they are trying to invert reality and pervert God and Christians, and they want to isolate us from God, isolate us from other humans, and deprive us of that faith so that we rely on the government, the media, telling us what to do and telling us whether to be fearful or not instead of God.”

OK, so this person is a bit loopy.   So now let us turn to someone far more eminently respected: John MacArthur.  In a statement released from his church on Friday, MacArthur and his merry band of bad exegetes declared their defiance of their governor’s new orders to restrict indoor gatherings in the wake of a severe increase in COVID-19 cases in California.   The good reverend wrote:

“Therefore, in response to the recent state order requiring churches in California to limit or suspend all meetings indefinitely, we, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction, and faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services. Said another way, it has never been the prerogative of civil government to order, modify, forbid, or mandate worship. When, how, and how often the church worships is not subject to Caesar. Caesar himself is subject to God.”

Earlier in this message MacArthur spooled out multiple texts proclaiming Jesus as the Lord of all, as the Lord of all creation, as the Head of the church.  All true, of course.  He also anticipated the Romans 13 argument and Paul’s injunction to obey the governing authorities as God’s deacons/servants.  Paul was only speaking to civil matters, MacArthur claimed.  Paul’s words had nothing to do with religion or religious practice or something like holding church services.

Well, Rev. MacArthur, that’s just wrong on multiple counts.  First, Paul was writing to the church in Rome.   In ROME.  Ponder just that for a moment.   Second, the Caesar was in charge of a government officially hostile to the Christian faith—I am pretty sure there were one or two religious ramifications to the kinds of laws the Caesar was enacting and whose programs the Roman Christians were being encouraged to support via their tax payments.  Third, MacArthur also mentioned how Jesus, after being handed a Roman coin with the Caesar’s face on it, said to leave Caesar’s things to him and leave God’s things to God.  Again, true enough except that that same coin in Jesus’ hand would have held the inscription to Caesar as “Deus et Dominus,” as the professed “God and Lord” of the Empire (if not of the world generally). 

So MacArthur’s tidy attempts to act as though Paul was encouraging the support of a government that was mostly just enforcing speed limits and sales taxes and agricultural quality standards but that never strayed into matters of faith is too tidy by half.  Yes, even in Roman times if the government tried to force believers to renounce Christ and embrace Caesar, believers refused and sometimes even on the pain of death.  But no one today is asking that of any believers in California or anywhere else in the U.S.  So if Paul could encourage people to obey THAT government in Rome . . .

But nevermind all that for the moment.  For all of MacArthur’s hopping up and down about the superior Lordship of Christ and how we must obey God above and beyond any civil government, there is something else that he never mentions in his defense of defying California’s governor: the thing that Jesus himself declared to be the First and Greatest Commandment and its Great Corollary: You will love the Lord your God with everything you’ve got and you will love your neighbor as yourself.   All the Law and the Prophets hang on this, Jesus said.   Everything.

So when Rev. MacArthur refuses to suspend worship gatherings or even—according to his post—restrict the size of such gatherings in the name of obedience to God’s Law, then he violates the Great Commandment on which all else depends and so proves himself a hypocrite.  Because when close, in-person gatherings become super-spreader events for the novel coronavirus (and right now the two most common places this happens are two places not generally otherwise yoked: bars and churches), and then when people disperse from their “faithful” gathering for worship only to infect store clerks, elderly relatives, coworkers, or anyone else, then they are not loving their neighbor as themselves.  They are just not loving their neighbors.  And you cannot hate your neighbor and claim to love God.  Pretty sure that’s in the Bible somewhere too.

Jesus loved God and loved his neighbors.  That’s why he would have resisted temptation and put on a mask.   And Jesus would not ask where the order to wear a mask came from.  If it was Caesar, so be it.  Then again, if Caesar said not to wear a mask but experts said it would protect the vulnerable anyway, Jesus would still have worn a mask.  And he would have discouraged large gatherings if that also protected the vulnerable neighbors around him.  Don’t put the Lord your God to the test.

If this were all just a matter of partisan politics—and at the end of the day it kind of is—I might not comment on it here on The Twelve.  But because people are wrapping all of this up inside ostensibly strong biblical arguments that go to the heart of the integrity of nothing short of our Christian faith, then the time comes when one needs to say something. 

Because remember: the devil quoted Scripture to Jesus in all of his temptations. 

Jesus knew, however, that in the end and by itself, that proved exactly nothing.

Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.

16 Comments

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    One of the best essays I’ve read … my thanks … and peace and protection to you. Out here in CA, it’s been nothing less than bizarre to see these churches and their toxic male leaders twist and distort the issue into something that further feeds their long-standing obsession with “persecution.” That they are NOT being persecuted in any way whatsoever, makes it all the more ludicrous and painful. For decades now, these hyper-masculine churches have needed to have enemies, and the list is long, and the “tears” many as they lament the sad state of affairs in this nation, how liberals are out to get them, how their religious freedoms are under attack, and so on. And now Covid. With their muscled-bound “christianity,” they are clearly tempting God to protect them from the virus, and they are failing at the same time, to love the neighbor. Doing all of this with a stunning denial of science, history, and reality. All to prop themselves up as the “persecuted minority holding on to the faith.” I’m sure you’ll get some blowback on this one, from the “faithful ones” in your part of the country. But take that as a badge of courage when Satan howls rather than laughs. All the best.

  • mstair says:

    “It is also written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 

    I cited this verse at Worship Committee 2 weeks ago when we were considering taking worship back inside into the air conditioning. Jesus quoted this from Deuteronomy 6 (the incident which later became Moses’ judgment). Judgement … I’m not hearing that from MacArthur.

    But God, allowing the virus to remain, is changing humanity and the way they worship.
    We have become masked, smaller, quieter, briefer, simpler, more sincere. It is now a willful decision to decide to attend.

    I am not seeing that as a bad thing – it matches the whole message of Deuteronomy 6 pretty well …

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Scott, for your take on wearing face masks as protection against Covid-19, and putting it into a religious context, a Christian context. I have often said, you can make the Bible say anything you want it to. And here’s a perfect example. Here we have two revered Bible scholars, both well educated in Biblical theology at a variety of well known and respected Christian schools of higher theological education. Both are respected and looked up to by those whose sincere desire is to be a follower of Christ. And if given free reign, both could elaborate on their different conclusions using Scripture till the cows come home. In fact, I would imagine both have used the other’s argument in completely different contexts. So thanks, Scott, for your very convincing argument.

  • Rev David J Jones says:

    Well said.

  • Jon Lunderberg says:

    The mark of an excellent essay is when I forward it to our four children (who are adults – 22 to 32). The mark of a good writer is KISS. You hit both. I will wear a smile under my mask today. Well done!

    • Jim Dekker says:

      Ditto to Jon L. My kids say I forward lots of stuff, which is true, and they don’t read all of it. I hope they read this, even though they and theirs smile under their masks anyway. Thanks, Scott.

  • Harris says:

    This does avoid the fundamental issue, viz. that the state mandated the closure of worship indoors. That state action is the bug, and it is hard to see how that is not crossing the line; it is the sort of provocative behavior that feeds McArthur’s position. The state, by drawing a bright line, basically dares the other side to cross it. This is bad public policy. A better tack is that of Michigan where religious bodies are advised, but not ordered. In so doing, our Governor treats the political/cultural opponents with respect.

    • David E Timmer says:

      For the churches to insist that they not be “ordered” to observe urgent public safety regulations that other institutions are ordered to observe, simply because they are religious bodies, seems to me to be an abuse of the special privilege that the First Amendment creates for such bodies. Would you have insisted that the British government in 1940 ask churches politely to observe black-out rules during the Blitz while it ordered everyone else to do so?

  • George Vink says:

    Scott, the Tigers may have won a game last night, but it’s nothing compared this one that you hit out of the park….hope it lands where it needs to land, although I’m discouraged as to how many are determined to follow nonsense put forth by JM and leaders like him. It’s a sad day, but when you write stuff like this, I’m encouraged. Well done!!

  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    These questions are, in their essence, much more legal than theological. Some of the questions are very much scientific as well (and the “science” is certainly not “settled” as to matters coronavirus) but still even more so legal. And frankly, the US has developed a pretty good jurisprudence to handle these questions even if that doesn’t make the questions easier to answer. After all, as simple and legally appropriate it may be to have jurors answer the questions, “was the defendant negligent when she … ?” or “would a reasonable person in similar circumstances have done what Plaintiff did?” their answering such questions is unavoidably difficult.

    I cringed when McArthur said what he said in large part because he was much too long on biblical exegesis and much too short on legal argument. But then he’s a pastor/theologian and not a lawyer I suppose, and so he uses the tools with which he is most comfortable. But then I cringe when my own denomination’s office of social justice does essentially the same thing: e.g., lobby for the House version of the 1000+ page long Agriculture bill and against similarly lengthy Senate version of the Agriculture bill, or push constituents to send prewritten emails on the latest political hot topic that preface with the phrase, “As a Christian,” as if that invokes some special explanatory subroutine that that includes something of a trump card value.

    As much as I love the church of Jesus Christ (both institutional and organic), I long to see institutional side of the church more clearly recognize what is ecclesiastical and what is not, and when not to make a dominantly theologica/ecclesiastical argument about what is dominantly a legal question (or even a set of them, and difficult ones at that).

    McArthur would have done much better had he hired a good attorney, experienced in the relevant area of law, and had him/her lead on this. Indeed, there are problems with the orders issued by some governors and those problems create injustice, for churches, other institutions, and individuals. But they are dominantly legal problems, best addressed with legal argument, especially in this country. Making grandiose exegetical arguments from scriptural texts does more harm than good, at least if furthering justice in a legally pluralistic society is the goal.

  • One may develop their personal argument for a particular situation and this author put forth his case cogently. But the essay is premised by a presupposition of what Jesus would do. Really? Do we proof text select scriptures to validate our argument? Is that wise or verifiable. Has this writer set up a straw man ridiculing Christians as naive and projecting words on the lips of Satan such as ” The Lord will protect you from the virus?”To me the argument is not about what Jesus would do, what Satan would say or what John McAuthur has written but about which medical professionals and scientists one considers the most definitive for their congregation to protect them and to enable the worship of the Lord. The issue includes a high value of the gathered Church for the worship of the Lord and the building up of the saints. There is a vast spectrum of wise Christians who differ with integrity on this issue. Do we trust and respect our fellow pastors, Churches and brothers and sisters to make their own decisions within their contexts and situations? Or do we ridicule and accuse them? I work with pastors and leaders who have no one response to our epidemic. They have sought the Lord through scripture study, prayer, discernment, information gathering from medicine and science, evaluated their demographics and situations and are serving faithfully as shepherds of their flocks. They stand accountable before God.The large conservative Church I attend has established a safe protocol amending the physical layout of services, how people are seated, communion, cleaning, social distancing and adding other services and rsvp system to rigorously conform to social distancing. There are masks only services and masks optional services. We have been in gathered worship and singing corporately for 2 months. There have been no new cases of COVID. I respect and value my brothers and sisters who discern differently than my church and than me. Can we not respect them as well. Grace and peace.

    • Martin Dam says:

      Thank you Barb. I was considering a similar reply, and you wrote it for me. While I would be on the “pro-mask” side of the debate in the U.S. (I’m in Canada), I am constantly disappointed by the lack of grace and respect shown to the “other side” by both sides. People seem to think the entirety of Christian witness fall on whether we open or not, or mask or not. I suspect an equally great witness might come by showing a level of respect and grace increasingly absent in the un-churched world.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Scott, What a refreshing entry. Thanks for discussing this because many of us are. How we do church is very important for all. It involves our health but also our theology of how to obey the Lord. Thank you very much.

  • I like The Gospel According to Scott 4:14-17. I think you got that right.

  • Steven John says:

    A Word from the Other Side….

    Masks and church gatherings are such a Wealthy Western World issue. Regardless of what side of the mask or meeting arguement you are on most of the world doesn’t have the chance to weigh in on the arguement even though they are the ones bearing the brunt of these decisions.

    I would NOT wear a mask knowing what I know living outside of that Wealthy Western World.

    Would Jesus wear a mask if he knew that doing it would save two Wealthy Western World people and kill 100 in a poor country? Would Jesus perpetuate a myth to be politically correct in the Wealthy Western World while doing so forces the poorest nations to impose restrictions on people who cannot afford to stop working because that means they stop eating.

    Shutting down, isolating, flattening the curve, wearing masks, social distancing; these are Wealthy Western World issues. In the rest of the world if you don’t work today, you don’t eat tomorrow. You sacrifice your needed medicine so your kids can eat the next day, you sacrifice your food so your kids can eat the day after, you sacrifice your weekly rental home and you eat in the streets the next day, and on it goes. The refugee community is told by the WHO, which tells the government to force businesses to close for safety when that means the people will starve.

    If you believe the whole pandemic is political hype this should make you angry and rebel against wearing masks, distancing, and shutting down.
    If you believe the pandemic is real and dangerous you should understand that the decision to not wear masks, distance and the push to open things up again just may not be motivated by petty selfish reasons and it has to do with REALLY loving your neighbor outside the Wealthy Western World.

    I am tired of being called selfish when I am taking a stand against this evil. I have watched and tried to help too many starving refugees on the street to not be angry at the pettiness of the debate in the Wealthy Western World. I am tired of getting food and water for parents in the streets, seeing them give it all to their children and having the police carry the bodies away in the dark of night.

    Wake up Wealthy Western World, you are saving one life there only to allow many to die here. One would think these Wealthy Western World people were worth more than the poor outside this World.

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