Christ, Caesar, and Political Theology: Background to the Documentary, “The Essential Church”

During the lockdowns of 2020, did the government abuse its authority by claiming power over churches? Who has authority over the church, Christ or Caesar? What does it mean to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”? Does the state have authority to protect public health even if that impacts Christian worship?

These questions have been dealt with in a new movie, The Essential Church, produced by Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA. The documentary, which is showing in theaters at the moment, details the struggle of Grace Community Church after they defied Gov. Newsom’s stay-at-home orders and decided to resume indoor church. It also chronicles the parallel story of two pastors in Canada who were arrested for opening their churches’ doors.

Friends urged me to see the movie because of ongoing concerns I’ve been raising about the ethics of resistance. I was vocal in favor of mask mandates, at least in principle, and I have been critical of a resistance movement within my own Eastern Orthodox tradition. So while a number of my friends have jumped on the “Christ not Caesar” bandwagon, I have been more hesitant, unsure exactly what the implications are of saying the government has no jurisdiction over worship.

Since The Essential Church addresses these questions, I was eager to watch it. Last week I finally drove myself to the closest cinema showing the movie, which takes a deep dive into the theological questions about the proper jurisdiction of church and state, as well as the legal battles that ensued against pastors who resisted, and their various victories.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I will hold off discussing the movie until a future post. In this article, I want to clarify the questions and concerns I had going into the movie.

How it All Started

In August, 2020, Grace Community Church in Southern California made national headlines by defying California stay-at-home orders. The church, pastored by John MacArthur, explained their decision with a statement titled, “Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church: A Biblical Case for the Church’s Duty to Remain Open.” In their statement, the pastors and elders of the megachurch argued for the doctrine of “sphere sovereignty,” which is the idea that the institutions of family, church, and government (“Caesar”) each exercise authority over separate jurisdictions. Here’s how they explained this theory:

God has established three institutions within human society: the family, the state, and the church. Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected. A father’s authority is limited to his own family. Church leaders’ authority (which is delegated to them by Christ) is limited to church matters. And government is specifically tasked with the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community. God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church.

Based on this three-institution framework, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church concluded that all mandates impacting church services – whether stay-at-home orders that effectively stop public worship from occurring, to distancing and masking requirements impacting how people behave during worship – are cases of government overreach, and a violation of the principle of sphere sovereignty. Indeed, it was widely believed that restrictions on church gathering were, in principle, no different than if the state were to try to change the liturgy or edit out parts of the Bible.

Putting this theology into practice, the pastors and elders of Grace Church proceeded to disobey the shutdowns. In August 2020, Pastor MacArthur announced to crowds of hundreds gathered indoors: “The good news is, you’re here, you’re not distancing, and you’re not wearing masks.”

Other church leaders, inspired by MacArthur’s fighting words, staged their own events of civil disobedience. When there were legal consequences, many took this as a sign that persecution against Christians had finally come to this land. Signs and various slogans began to appear with the words “Christ not Caesar.”

In much of the de facto political theology that began to emerge, the issue of masks became central. Douglas Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow Idaho, captured the growing mood when he explained that his church would not be requiring masks: “Christ is the head of the church, and He is the only one who can set the terms for how He is to be approached in worship.”

Uncomfortable Questions

During those highly publicized controversies of 2020, some Christian thinkers were laboring in relative obscurity to try to clarify exactly what was being claimed about sphere sovereignty. One such thinker was my friend, Dr. Brad Littlejohn. Littlejohn and other scholars never made national headlines like Pastor MacArthur, and their work was confined to small Christian journals that most of us have never heard of like Law & Liberty, Mere Orthodoxy, and the Davenant Institute. These thinkers urged Christians throughout North America to carefully think through what we mean when we say that Caesar has no jurisdiction over the church. Does the messaging do justice to the reality that government and church have concurrent overlapping jurisdictions?

This last question was posed by Dr. James R. Rogers in the journal Law & Liberty. Drawing on the Westminster Confession of Faith, Rogers noted that “church governments exercise authority over the spiritual well-being of their congregations; civil governments exercise authority over physical bodies in this age.” That sounds simple enough, but working out what this means in cases of pestilence is tricky, as Rogers explains:

Because humans are embodied souls—that is, both bodies and souls—civil and church governments necessarily hold concurrent jurisdiction over Christians. Americans are familiar in a different context with two different governments holding concurrent power over the same people at the same time: State governments and the national government share jurisdiction over the same people, each having its own purposes. Both governments can sometimes assert conflicting interests in the same person, as when a given individual violates both state and Federal law.

Rogers goes on to point out how these concurrent jurisdictions can create conflict between the two governments:

To protect physical life the civil government may want to prevent people from meeting together; to protect eternal life church governments may want people to continue to meet together.

There is no formula for quickly settling dilemmas like this, but a good place to begin is to recognize that the problem is complex, and not one that can be adequately addressed with simply a handful of proof-texts and appeals to “the plain meaning of Scripture.” If, in the interest of foreclosing on the complexity of the problem, we lapse into simplistic tropes and formulas (i.e., “Christ not Caesar”) we may find we have opened up a theological can of worms that will come to haunt us later on.

I was among those asking these types of questions throughout 2020 and 2021. The same week the Grace Community Church statement was published, I raised the following question on my blog:

Why, in every other area of civil law (zoning regulations, plumbing codes, maximum occupancy requirements, sexual abuse laws, fire safety, contract law, electrical codes, etc.), do we routinely accept the state’s authority over the churches but then, when it comes to COVID-19 regulations, suddenly we change our principles and argue that government does not have authority over the church? Here it may be helpful to clarify exactly what it would mean if the jurisdiction of government really did not extend over churches. In his article, “Our Lives or Our Freedoms: The Fear of Tyranny in a Time of Pandemic” Brad Littlejohn pointed out that such a position would entail that when the cathedral of Notre-Dame was burning in Paris, firefighters would not have had the authority to cancel services while they fought the fire, or to suspend services in the months following the conflagration until the building was deemed safe. Or again, in situations where the church is a crime scene, police would have no authority to suspend services to investigate and dust for fingerprints. Moreover, if the government really did have zero authority over places of worship, then why do pastors routinely submit to plumbing codes, contract law, zoning regulations, fire safety codes, and so forth? And do we really want to live in a nation where places of worship are immune to criminal law? I don’t think so! In reality Christians throughout history have recognized that the jurisdiction of the state does indeed extend over churches. So my question is simply why, in the case of COVID-19, are some conservatives drawing an arbitrary exception to this long-established principle?

Here it is important to clarify what I am not saying. I am not claiming that anyone seriously thinks the church does or should have immunity from things like plumbing codes, fire safety regulations, etc.. Rather, the question is whether we can consistently affirm that the government has jurisdiction over these areas while still affirming a strong “Christ not Caesar” position. Thus, the example about police closing down worship while they dust for fingerprints is not a red herring but a counterfactual, like saying “if kangaroos had no tails, they would topple over.” I am claiming if government has no jurisdiction over the church, then the police would have no authority to close down worship while they dust for fingerprints.

Questions like these rarely got a hearing, given that the most vocal churchmen involved in the COVID controversies were driven by a polemical agenda, with little time for the nuances of political theology. Douglas Wilson reflected this anti-intellectual spirit when he wrote that what we need is not academic scholarship but pastoral leadership. Or as one person pointed out to me during a conversation about these questions, “You can try to get around it anyway that you like, but the bottom line is that the government canceled Easter in 2020.”

But while the questions I was raising struck many people as odd, irrelevant, and disconcerting, they are actually the bread and butter of political theology, as it has been practiced for hundreds of years. I realize many readers may not be familiar with political theology, so it will be helpful to take a little excursus.

Perspectives From Political Theology

Part of the reason it’s easy to take a dismissive approach to the type of distinctions that Christian scholars were trying to raise in response to Grace Community Church, is because the contemporary Christian community is largely ignorant of our rich heritage of political theology and the wider tradition of moral reasoning in which political ethics is situated.

Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the church became a dominant political force, while the Pope came to assume many of the responsibilities previously resting with the Roman emperor (including possession of lands, known as the papal states). This resulted in frequent power clashes between ecclesiastical and political authorities, and confusing questions about the proper jurisdiction of each. Can the Pope excommunicate a king for an unjust war? What is the relation between civil law, canon law, and natural law? Do bishops have to obey the king? Can churches be taxed? What role should the Bible play in shaping a nation’s laws? Under what conditions is armed resistance an act of Christian piety?

Out of these seemingly interminable conflicts between church and state, there emerged a rich discourse of political theology that included a toolbox of methods for clarifying questions of potential jurisdictional conflicts. Throughout the centuries, various philosophers, priests, and professors contributed to this corpus of work. Some of these thinkers will be familiar names: Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Carolingian Renaissance thinkers, Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin.

There are many reasons for taking an interest in this corpus, not least because what today we call “the conservative mind,” can be directly traced back to this older tradition of political theology, as Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony have shown. Another reason is that, more than providing a body of specific answers to all our questions about church and state, this body of literature helped clarify and frame questions we still ask today. Indeed, it provides a toolkit for intellectuals struggling to clarify the types of questions we were dealing with in 2020 about Christ and Caesar.

To try to address the questions our nation faced in 2020-21 without reference to our rich tradition of political theology would be like trying to understand the mind-body problem without reference to Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, etc., or attempting to fathom predestination without reference to the work of theologians like St. Paul, St. Augustine, and John Calvin.

Let’s zero-in on one aspect of political theology to see how it can help clarify some of the debates initiated by the Grace Community Church statement.

Were Churches Targeted During COVID-19? Understanding the Role of Intent

If we were to give the benefit of the doubt to the position adopted by Grace Church and similar congregations (that is, if one were to offer a “steel man,” of their viewpoint), one possible way of answering the above questions might be something like the following.

We must distinguish between the strong “Christ not Caesar” position from the more moderate position. According to the strong position, the government has no authority whatsoever over the church, even in areas like electrical and plumbing codes. The church is truly an autonomous political entity. But this is not what the congregations who resisted believe. Rather, they advocated a moderate “Christ not Caesar” position that runs as follows: while the government does indeed have jurisdiction over the church in areas such as criminal law, fire safety, building regulations, etc., that power ends whenever the government would presume to disrupt the church’s authority over worship. In such cases of overreach, the state is assuming an authority it does not actually possess. Accordingly, while in principle government can legitimately introduce regulations to protect public health in the cases of pandemics, floods, pestilence, fires, etc., this authority ends the moment it impacts any matters falling under the church’s prerogative, such as how, when, and where to worship. Such governmental overreach is no different, in principle, to Communists insisting that priests teach Marxism during services. So if the fire department declares a church building unsafe, or if police need to close part of the building off to dust for fingerprints, the moment this impacts worship it is up to the church whether to consent.

Now let’s use some of the classic tools of political theology to evaluate this argumentation. The Christian political theology tradition acknowledges that in questions of practical ethics, the concept of intent is central. This is because moral reasoning is rarely ever about choosing good vs. bad, but choosing between competing goods, and using situation-specific prudence to compare intended ends against drawbacks. (For a popular discussion of the virtue of prudence in moral reasoning, see Edward Sri’s The Art of Living: The Cardinal Virtues and the Freedom to Love.) However, discussion of intended ends necessarily positions the concept of intentionality as central to the moral legitimacy of a law or choice. Most of us recognize this intuitively when we might praise or condemn the same action based on the intent of the agent. For example, we would consider donating money to a charitable cause with intent to help to be a praiseworthy action, though we would condemn the same action if the donation was intended to manipulate or gain influence.

Christian ethicists have sometimes emphasized the importance of intent by talking about a principle known as “the law of double effect.” This law recognizes that morally permissible actions often bring about harmful consequences. Aquinas explains this principle by noting that “Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention.” As an example, Aquinas imagines someone using force against an attacker; an unintended consequence of self-defense could be the death of the assailant. This is morally permissible provided that the assailant’s death was not the defender’s primary intent. That is to say, the agent was not defending himself with the intent of killing the other person, as would be the case if the defensive violence was an excuse or ruse merely to kill the other person.

See Also

Christian political theology recognizes that intent is also central to law, especially when considering the problem of “spheres.” Let’s think about the following situations:

  1. laws directly targeting church practice, as when officials in the Soviet Union disregarded the church’s rules for ordination and installed KGB operatives as priests;
  2. laws that address a public concern and do not directly target church practice, but still impinge on the church indirectly. An example of this would be if the elders of a village were to declare that a bridge is unsafe, with the consequence of this declaration being that people cannot get to church or must worship elsewhere.

Here the intent of the law is crucial. If village elders were to declare a bridge unsafe specifically to target church practice, then this would be comparable to Situation A. There are plenty of situations from history (including contemporary China) where seemingly innocuous regulations have been introduced with the intent of targeting churches. To be sure, many people felt that this happened during the COVID restrictions, and they were quick to point out that the rules that applied to churches didn’t apply to abortion clinics, liquor stores, and casinos. Yet on closer examination, it is not obvious that this proves an intent to target churches. Here again, I can’t do better but to quote from Brad Littlejohn’s “response to John MacArthur.”

While abortion clinics are an abomination that should not be open at any time, we live under a legal regime that has long treated them as an essential medical service. As such, there is nothing surprising or arbitrary about them being permitted to remain open alongside other essential medical services; indeed, it would be surprising and arbitrary if the opposite were the case. Liquor stores might seem to be non-essential by any standard; however, our society had a very bad experience the last time it tried to shut down the sales of alcoholic beverages a century ago, and that no doubt informs current policies. If lawful liquor sales were suspended, many alcohol-buying customers would find unlawful ways of acquiring liquor, with consequences probably more dangerous than allowing socially-distanced liquor stores to remain open. Casinos, like abortion clinics, probably should not be legal at all, but if they are, they can make a plausible claim to be able to operate if they can prevent large numbers of people from congregating; in fact, sadly, the most lucrative parts of their business are those which entice individuals to spend hours alone staring at a screen. Gathering in large groups, on the other hand, is almost part of the definition of a worship service. There is no doubt that some statutes, like the Nevada order that was unsuccessfully appealed to the Supreme Court, have been unfair, allowing other types of businesses to open so long as they abide by certain restrictions, while not even providing churches the opportunity to demonstrate that they can abide by those restrictions. But many policies that seem at first unfairly burdensome to churches turn out, on closer inspection, to have at least plausible rationales, and we should be slow to conclude that they are tyrannical or intentionally anti-religious.

(To explore these questions further from the standpoint of political theology, I recommend Littlejohn’s article for Breaking Ground, “We’re All Marsilians Now: No, you are not being persecuted for your beliefs.)

Now to be sure, none of this means that the COVID restrictions were justified. Indeed, I happen to think that COVID policy was driven by a truncated criteria for public health together with unacknowledged metaphysical assumptions. And while I also recognize that there was significant inconsistency and unaccountability in how the regulations were applied, I have never seen evidence the mandates were designed with the specific intention of closing churches. Indeed, the same regulations that impacted churches also applied to clubs, fraternity organizations, and concerts.

You Aren’t Being Persecuted For Your Beliefs

Throughout 2020 and 2021, those who took up the “persecution!” rallying cry routinely failed to distinguish between (A) and (B) above, and consequently tended to neglect the concept of intentionality. Given this confusion, there began to emerge a new type of ad hoc legal theory which claimed that “religious freedom” gave citizens the right to break the law provided they were engaged in religious activities at the same time.

For example, in September 2020, members of Christ Church in Moscow Idaho staged a Psalm sing in the Moscow City Hall parking lot as a protest against the city’s masking and social distancing mandates. When members of the congregation were hauled off to jail for allegedly refusing to identify themselves and on suspicion of resisting or obstructing officers, many claimed this was religious persecution, and that they were arrested for singing Psalms. Similarly, when James Coates was incarcerated in Canada for refusing to follow Alberta’s public health rules, Tucker Carlson claimed Coates was “sitting in prison for preaching a sermon.” But this confuses the occasion of civil disobedience from the act of civil disobedience, as if reprisals against the latter are a response to the former. Here I cannot do better than quote again from my friend Brad Littlejohn, this time from his “Letter to a Christian Protester.”

From the standpoint of law enforcement, it is properly irrelevant what other activities the individuals may have been engaged in when breaking the masking ordinance. I have a constitutional right to talk to my wife, yell at my children in the backseat, or indeed sing praises to God while driving my car. But I do not have a constitutional right to exceed the speed limit while doing so. Should I be cited by an officer for speeding, he should be entirely uninterested in the question of how devout my religious exercises were while I was careening along at 84 mph. In fact, if I should insist on my piety to try and get off the hook, I would probably be guilty of a Third Commandment violation. (I happen to think speeding regulations a rather precise analogue for masking ordinances, given that both are promulgated chiefly to prevent the reckless endangerment of others in public places….)

Here I want to be clear what we are not saying. We are not claiming that civil disobedience is never justified. Nor are we saying that people like Pastor Coates are equivalent to vigilantes who have no respect for the law. Maybe Alberta’s rules were draconian and needed to be defied. But when civil disobedience is justified and Christians are willing to suffer the legal consequences, let’s be upfront about the reasons for those consequences. No, pastor Coates was not arrested for preaching a sermon; he was arrested for defying Alberta’s public health rules. Had he been defying those rules while organizing a musical jam session, the resulting arrest would not have been a crackdown on music. This is all independent of whether pastor Coates was justified; indeed, had I believed he was justified, I would feel even more strongly that we must not confuse the occasion and act of civil disobedience.

This distinction will become more crucial in the days ahead as the church enters an era of possible persecution. When civil disobedience does become necessary, Christians will need to openly acknowledge why they are justified in disobeying sinful laws, and this will be impossible if we conflate the occasion of civil disobedience from the act of civil disobedience. For example, it’s possible in the days ahead that mothers could be arrested for addressing their children with traditional pronouns. If, God forbid, such a time arrives, will we have the courage to own our actions, and acknowledge, “I was arrested for using traditional pronouns”? Or will we try to evade the import of our actions by saying something like, “I was just arrested for asking my child to do her chores,” as if it is now illegal to do chores? While this may seem pedantic, the church’s witness during times of civil disobedience hangs in the balance.

An Appeal to Tradition and Wisdom

Whether we agree with the way Brad Littlejohn and others have conceptualized these issues, it behooves us to recognize that there is a debate happening, and that discussions of sphere sovereignty and civil disobedience can be situated in a larger discourse of political theology. Yet when the controversies erupted in 2020, this larger body of thought tended to be neglected, as if the entire issue could be settled by simple appeals to prooftexts like Mark 12:17 (“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”). This larger tradition of political theology was dismissed in favor of the plain meaning of scripture. As John MacArthur remarked, “I’m not going to pay any attention to tradition.”

But more is at stake than historical amnesia and disregard for tradition. In the days ahead, the church in America may stand or fall on whether we can think clearly about religious liberty. I’ll leave you with this warning from Littlejohn’s response to John MacArthur.

We live in an age almost entirely bereft of sound political theology or thoughtful Christian moral reasoning. Lacking such tools, our preferred method of problem-solving is to follow a prominent Christian leader. There are no doubt thousands of church leaders across this country who will be galvanized to action by the Grace Church statement without pausing to closely consider its reasoning or implications. The results could be ruinous for the American church’s public witness at a time when the church is facing impending attack on many fronts to its freedom and integrity….Even those relatively unconcerned about the virus need to be sufficiently aware of their context to realize that being seen to flout restrictions and precautions could permanently damage their local witness. And those who are so loudly blowing the trumpet of religious liberty need to be able to look more than a week or a month down the road to see the real threat to our Christian freedom. Especially given the recent Bostock Supreme Court decision, we may not be far off at all from the day when public officials, claiming a grave danger to the mental health of gay and transgender people, demand that churches cease their discriminatory teaching, hiring, and church discipline practices. When we, faced with such an unacceptable demand, insist that it is in fact our religious obligation not to budge, how will they respond? “Oh, just like it was your religious obligation to gather in crowds of 1000 and sing, whatever the risks to public health?” Surely, we cannot be so short-sighted. If we abuse our liberty now, we may not have the opportunity to use it later.

In my follow-up article, I explore how these themes have been taken up in the recent documentary The Essential Church. To read it, click on the link below:

Christ not Caesar? Review of “The Essential Church”

Further Reading

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