Christ not Caesar? Review of “The Essential Church”

In my previous article, I explored some of the questions raised by Grace Community Church’s controversial statement, “Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church: A Biblical Case for the Church’s Duty to Remain Open.” This statement launched questions of political theology into the public discourse, including questions about the proper jurisdiction of church and state.

Readers will be aware from my previous article in this series that I was skeptical of the de facto political theology that emerged in 2020 following this statement. While not disputing the basic idea of sphere sovereignty, I suggested that Grace Community Church’s statement created a number of confusing questions, including:

  • If, as the Grace Community Church statement argued, the responsibility of government is limited to “the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community,” then does it follow that we are obligated to engage in civil disobedience against all laws that go beyond this charter, even when those laws don’t specifically impact the church?
  • If Caesar doesn’t have jurisdiction over the church, then is the church compromised every time it submits to plumbing and electrical codes, or food safety laws?
  • If a section of the church is a crime scene, do the police have no authority to close off part of it while they dust for fingerprints, even if this causes disruption to worship? If the answer is “yes,” is this consistent with teachings about sphere sovereignty?  Why or why not?
  • Have pastors and elders indeed been vested with sole jurisdiction over the temporal life of the church, or is such jurisdiction shared with the laity, including those in positions of civil authority?
  • In the case of a pandemic at the level of, say, the Black Death, are we still committed to affirming that it would be sinful for pastors to require masks or similar safety precautions (as Douglas Wilson said, referring to 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”)? Or do such requirements only become sinful when the pastors providing these instructions are doing so as an act of submission to the government?
  • If the state’s jurisdiction doesn’t extend over the church, then is the church an autonomous political entity? If the church is a separate political entity, then does it have the right to execute its own criminals and form diplomatic relations with foreign powers?
  • By treating the church as an autonomous, self-governing temporal institution independent of civil jurisdiction, has John MacArthur and the other pastors at Grace Community Church inadvertently veered towards the ecclesiology of Roman Catholicism that, in other contexts, they would be quick to eschew?

Hoping to get some clarity on these questions, I was intrigued when a full length documentary came out about Grace Community Church’s struggles. The movie focuses on how to rightly understand the theology of church and state. The film is far from a neutral assessment of events, but an apologetic for the stand taken by Grace Community Church and similar congregations.

The documentary tells the parallel narrative of pastors in Canada who were galvanized by Grace Community Church, and ultimately arrested for their stance. With flashbacks to stories about the Scottish covenanters, the film functions as a rousing polemic for the “Christ not Caesar,” viewpoint. As if anyone could be in doubt of the film’s agenda, the Grace Community Church website provides “Resist Tyranny” share squares, and “Christ, not Caesar” T-Shirts.

The documentary also walks the viewer through the legal battles faced by Grace Community Church after the state of California came after them, and the church’s victory in the wake of the precedent set by the Supreme Court decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York vs. Andrew M. Cuomo, Governor of New York.

I’ll be honest, I found the film’s messaging confusing. But first, let me share what I liked about it. Although produced by Grace Community Church, it has none of the amateurism often associated with church films, but is very professional in its cinematography and overall presentation. Moreover, I found it encouraging to see a major production taking such a deep dive into the Big Questions. Regardless of whether we agree with the conclusions of the documentary, we can be hopeful that it will launch a national conversation about these important topics.

Yet I did not think the film clarified the previous concerns raised about Grace Community Church. In what follows I would like to point out some areas where the messaging of the film was either confusing or downright problematic.

The Documentary Perpetuates Misunderstandings About Sphere Sovereignty

As one may have discerned from my earlier comments, I think it is far from straight-forward to determine the proper jurisdictional spheres for the temporal and spiritual orders. Yet The Essential Church treated the problem as Biblically obvious, a slam-dunk issue once one understands the proper interpretation of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-25. It’s as if we simply need to get the correct understanding of sphere sovereignty, and then go into the world to apply that understanding to whatever situations that might arise. With this methodology, there is little space for the role of situation-specific prudence that, I would argue, is essential to wise moral reasoning.

Moreover, the film never gave voice to the counter-arguments posed by thoughtful Christians, and when it did reference alternative views, these tended to be straw-man arguments and not the reasoned objections of Pastor MacArthur’s most thoughtful interlocutors. One such straw-man argument was the recurring false dilemma that either Caesar is head of the church, thereby implicating a type of Erastianism whereby the state has unlimited powers over Christian communions, or Christ is the head of the church in a sense that justifies (a) total ecclesial autonomy over gathering and (b) the type of civil disobedience practiced by the Scottish covenanters, should that autonomy ever be threatened.

This false dilemma isn’t softened by the fact that the film nowhere advocates the strong “Caesar not Christ” position that would exclude the state from oversight over things like the church’s electrical and plumbing codes. While the documentary supports a moderate “Christ not Caesar” position that would only identify governmental overreach in situations where civil regulations impact worship, this moderate position is never allowed to temper the false dilemma between total Erastianism vs. total ecclesial autonomy.

Even the moderate “Christ not Caesar” position of the documentary seems to deny that there can be any real and actual confusion between concurrent overlapping jurisdictions, since the entire question of jurisdiction is settled as a matter of principle before we even reach the practicalities of specific situations. But consider some hypothetical situations. Does the state have a right to intervene in church services when stopping a preacher from inciting a riot, or if a pastor is divulging state secrets in a sermon, or if the church is polluting a river? Are there times when it is appropriate for the church or state to intervene in the institution of the family? Questions like these show just how inadequate it is to try to settle these questions on a purely a priori footing. In reality, the jurisdiction of concurrent institutions constantly overlap, creating conflicts that must ultimately be assessed using situation-specific prudence.

Yet a viewer of The Essential Church might be forgiven for coming away with the impression that concurrent institutions never overlap, and that questions of jurisdiction can be settled on a priori rather than prudential grounds. This impression is fortified when the film cites John MacArthur saying, “There’s no room to share that headship with any government agency.”

“One reason these boundaries are so difficult to define,” wrote Brad Littlejohn, “is that the domains of family, church, and state are not mutually exclusive, as the ‘sphere’ metaphor misleadingly implies.” He continued:

On the contrary, they overlap constantly and in complex ways… The magistrate should not ban the observance of the Eucharist; however, one can imagine (in an earlier era, at least), a society without any domestic wine production whose wine imports were cut off by a trade embargo prompted by crucial national security concerns. In this case, churches might be obliged to alter their eucharistic practices, just as they might be obliged to alter their baptismal practices (or even suspend baptisms altogether) in case of a critical drought that led to strict water conservation regulations. In wartime, if the enemy is conducting nighttime bombing missions, the magistrate might order that all evening worship services be conducted only in candlelight, so as not to present a target, or only in daytime, or perhaps only in rural parishes out of harm’s way.

The Documentary Acknowledged Lack of Due Diligence

One of the more troubling aspects of The Essential Church was the lack of due diligence performed by the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church before taking their controversial stand. Some of the pastors and elders who were interviewed in the film were quite open about the fact that during the 2020 lockdowns, they wanted to find an argument for re-opening. They had already concluded that COVID was not very serious, yet they struggled to find a convincing theological rationalization for defying the government. As one pastor is cited as saying, “We didn’t really have a good articulation of why it was okay to break the law.” And so they went fishing for arguments, and somebody came across the notion of sphere sovereignty in a Bible commentary by Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

Pastors interviewed in the film were quite open about the fact that sphere sovereignty, and other concepts of political theology such as Erastianism, were previously unfamiliar to them. This itself should raise alarm bells, since it is a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that these pastors were untrained in some of the basic categories of political theology. In itself, there is nothing wrong with this ignorance, yet rather than initiating a process of due diligence to become familiar with the broader discourse on these topics, a few pastors drafted a statement that they rushed to ratify.

Thus it came about that on the evening of July 23, in an elder’s meeting, all the pastors and elders were presented for the first time with the statement, “Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church.” Rather than giving everyone time to go away and research the claims and talk to scholars trained in moral reasoning and pastoral theology, Pastor John MacArthur gave them an ultimatum: either unanimously approve the statement that very evening, or else he would go ahead and immediately publish the statement himself. While the statement was eventually unanimously approved, not all elders were happy and at least one resigned afterwards as a result.

A good dose of Proverbs wouldn’t have been amiss. Proverbs warns us against the temptation to rush to judgment quickly without the caution that characterizes the wise man’s deliberations. The text continually warns us against the allure of first impressions, the gut reaction that feels right yet collapses under scrutiny (1:31; 16:25 18:17). While the wise man’s healthy distrust of himself leads to due diligence (including seeking out possible criticisms of his position in the spirit of iron sharpening iron), the fool’s inflated sense of confidence leads to gullibility (14:15-16). Having unbounded confidence in his own judgment and trusting in own heart (28:26), the fool fails to genuinely search out a matter, and instead seeks out those who merely validate what he already believes, such as the flatterer or the gang.

If we merely adopt what seems right at first glance, as Grace Community Church ratified their controversial statement in one evening without a period of collective due diligence, we often miss the full complexity of the situation and the possible criticisms that should be considered. Indeed, to grow in wisdom is to become habituated in a type of learned unconfidence in one’s own judgment, a type of intellectual humility through which the wise man or woman is increasingly aware of the need to search out a matter before issuing judgment. This is seen in Proverbs 30 where the wise words of Agur the son of Jakeh include admissions of his own lack of understanding: “Surely I am more stupid than any man, and do not have the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom nor have knowledge of the Holy One.” (Pr. 30:2) This type of learned unconfidence incentivises the wise to test, cross-examine, and analyze before moving to judgment. Because the wise are aware of the limitations of their wisdom, they love correction and seek to surround themselves with those who can offer a good word in season (27:9, 17, 28:23). The wise constantly search out matters (25:2), engaging in the processes we call due diligence: investigating, probing, searching, scrutinizing, and engaging in self-challenge.

Often this type of self-challenge will involve conducting a literature review, or connecting with scholars who have devoted their careers to adjacent questions. In fact, a literature review could be seen as the contemporary equivalent to the multitude of counselors (11:14, 15:22, 20:18). In a largely oral culture, the multitude of counselors motif referenced in-person listening to wise men and entering into literal speech with experienced advisors. While this type of oral dialogue remains imperative even today, within typographical and digital cultures community stress-testing might also include such practices as becoming familiar with the discourse surrounding a topic before rushing to judgment. For inquiries involving complex philosophical and theological topics (as, I would argue, is the case with sphere sovereignty), this might mean conducting a literature review, or availing oneself of scholars that have already done the work of synthesizing large bodies of specialist material for a lay audience.

That brings us back to the tradition of political theology referenced in my previous article. This corpus of literature offers nuanced distinctions that might profitably have tempered the black-and-white thinking of Grace Community Church in 2020. As one example of where a political theologian helped to clarify similar questions, consider the Puritan Richard Baxter (1615–1691). In his work A Christian Directory, Baxter addressed the question “May we omit church-assemblies on the Lord’s day, if the magistrate forbid them?” Having lived through the Great Plague that ravished London in 1665, this was of more than hypothetical concern to the Puritan preacher. In his typical fashion, Baxter organized his answer as a series of bullet points and subpoints:

Question 109:
May we omit Church-assemblies on the Lord’s day, if the [government] for­bid them?
1. It is one thing to forbid them for a time, upon some special cause (as infection by pestilence, fire, war, etc.), and another thing to forbid them statedly or profanely.
2. It is one thing to omit them for a time, and another to do it ordinarily.
3. It is one thing to omit them in formal obedience to the Law; and another thing to omit them in prudence or for necessity, because we cannot keep them.
4. The Assembly and the circumstances of the Assembly must be distinguished:

a. If the Magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety) forbid Church Assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him. Because positive duties give place to those great natural duties which are their end: so Christ justified himself and his disciples violation of the external rest of the Sabbath. For the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.
– Because Affirmatives bind not ad semper, and out of season du­ties become sins.
– Because one Lord’s day or Assembly is not to be preferred before many which by the omission of that one are likely to be obtained.

If space allowed, we might profitably unpack the above passage, in which Baxter appeals to Christ’s teaching about the Sabbath to argue that the obligation to meet for public worship can be morally superseded by the demand to protect life, which he saw as the concern both of the church and the magistrate. And while Baxter’s view that the civil magistrate is obligated to serve the “greater good” may sound uncomfortably statist to modern Americans, we should remember that Baxter was a dissenter who spent time in prison for his convictions. But this is not the place to evaluate Baxter’s perspectives; rather, the point I wish to make is much broader: the passage from Baxter’s Directory is indicative of a long-running discussion from political theologians which requires careful study and due diligence. Yes, the Scottish covenanters and Martyn Lloyd-Jones are part of that discussion, but they represent only a small fraction of the larger discourse that even minimal due diligence would uncover.

The Documentary Undermines Christian Freedom

To the degree that the Grace Community Church statement positioned their reaction to health mandates as the only legitimate Christian response, claiming that anything else was “disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands,” did they undermine Christian freedom? Did they effectively condemn all the churches who chose to submit to Caesar? That was an important question for me going into the movie.

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The film recapitulated Grace Community Church’s original messaging, emphasizing not simply that they had freedom to disobey the mandates, but that they were required by the Bible to resist. In fact, the film cites people saying that for pastors to agree to outdoor services with masking and distancing requirements would be contrary to God’s Word, even a denial of the gospel, since it would acknowledge Caesar’s lordship over the church. Sure (the argument runs), people can wear masks to church or worship outside voluntarily, but good pastors will not require this. In fact, The Essential Church positions the duty to resist at the same level as the Scottish covenanters who were willing to face death rather than compromise. Thus, one could argue the film throws under the bus all the Christian pastors who did feel conscience-bound to follow health requirements. As Brad Littlejohn pointed out,

They framed their particular congregation’s response to a particular set of burdensome regulations as the biblical duty of all Christians in response to any attempt of civil authorities to impose regulations that impinged on the church’s public worship. In so doing, they elevated a difficult prudential question to a gospel issue, tacitly accusing the thousands of pastors who formed different judgments in different circumstances of cowardice and unfaithfulness…. By rashly insisting that we are duty-bound to assert our liberty, we find ourselves not the prophets of liberty, but new Pharisees, adding fresh burdens beyond what Scripture will bear.

Again, an historical perspective wouldn’t be amiss. The early Christians, while refusing to deny Christ, nevertheless employed elaborate means to stay out of trouble with the authorities, ranging from assembling in private to using secret symbols. Similarly, Chinese Christians today will often meet in private and intentionally limit the size of their gatherings in order not to attract attention from the authorities. Against this backdrop, it seems truly bizarre that the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church would condemn churches requiring masks and distancing. If our brothers and sisters in persecuted lands are willing to get up in the middle of the night and walk two hours to assemble in a cave in order to stay out of trouble with the authorities, why should we object to outdoor services or attendance limits in order to stay out of trouble with the authorities? Now to be sure, different times and places justify different types of responses, but that is precisely the point: by raising public resistance to the level of a gospel issue, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church inadvertently condemned Christians in other lands and other periods of history that felt compelled to take a different approach.

Is Civil Disobedience Ever Justified?

I want to make one thing clear: no human authority is absolute because all human authority is delegated by God. Consequently, there are many situations where disobedience to authority can be an act of piety. When it becomes necessary to disobey unjust laws, the rationale for challenging those laws will depend on the particulars of the legal system in question. Within the American legal system, we are blessed to have a variety of mechanisms for appealing unjust laws: we can appeal to state constitutions, courts, legislators, lesser magistrates; we can also appeal to state authority against federal authority, or federal authority against state authority. We can even appeal to natural law as recognized in the American legal system. In some situations, we may appeal regulations based on the inconsistent or baldly unfactual claims on which those regulations were based. We may also appeal regulations when bureaucrats illegally rule by fiat independently of due process and congressional ratification. For some particularly egregious statutes, we need not even construct a legal rationale and can simply disregard the law.

But when it is necessary to disobey unjust laws or regulations coming from a certain body or agency, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the body or agency in question is bereft of genuine authority to regulate in that area. While they might be exceeding their authority, that is a separate question. Consider a parallel case with parental authority. There might be times when an abusive father must be disobeyed—for example, if my dad told me to put my sister in harm’s way. That doesn’t mean that the father has no authority over my interaction with my sister; rather it means he has misused his authority and that disobedience is justified. Similarly, there may be times when it is inappropriate to follow instructions from a football coach: for example, if he told me to injure a member of the competing offense. However, merely because the coach misused his authority, it wouldn’t follow that he has no authority over my defensive maneuvers. Similarly, in times when the government makes draconian restrictions on church gathering, there is a great deal of difference between claiming that Caesar has misused his authority vs. saying that Caesar has no authority in that area.

Now to be sure, not all cases of misused authority rise to the level justifying disobedience. Yet clearly there are times when resistance to authority does become necessary. When that happens, it’s easy to be rash and claim, “so-and-so doesn’t have authority to rule in that area,” when we might actually only be justified in making the more modest claim, “such-and-such an order represents a misuse of authority and can be legitimately resisted.”


The Essential Church makes some good points about how the church is essential to society, in addition to exploring the harmful impacts of the 2020 lockdowns. Yet even these messages seemed to be situated within a larger context that I found confusing. For if it is really the case that the government has no authority to regulate church gathering, then wouldn’t this be true regardless of whether the church was essential to society? The documentary never made clear how the “church is essential” argument fit within the larger “Christ not Caesar” framework.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easy to have a prima facie sympathy for the arguments of the film, given the hysteria that started to emerge at the tail-end of the pandemic. But I wonder how convincing these same arguments—presented by the team at Grace Community Church in strictly a priori terms—would be in a situation like the Black Death. We know from history that during times of plague and pestilence, the church has played a role, not simply in caring for the suffering, but also in advocating practices like quarantine and hygiene. It would have been profitable if The Essential Church had acknowledged some of this past history, lest the strident anti-mask and anti-distancing rhetoric reinforce the impression that Christians are unconcerned about the human impact of sickness and suffering. But while the film shows the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church and the Canadian congregations taking a keen interest in the theological and constitutional issues, there is little acknowledgement about the church’s role in preserving and perpetuating health.

This absence of any health theology from the film may reflect the strange times in which we live. We live in a society where care for the sick and suffering—historically, the vocation of the church—has been almost entirely handed over to government-paid professionals and bureaucrats. In such a climate, it’s easy for the church to stop thinking clearly about sickness, and to even adopt confusing theologes of health. (I attempted to address some of these confusing theologies of health in chapter 14 of my recent book Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation: A Manual for Recovering Gnostics, in addition to briefly laying out the shape that a Biblical theology of health might take.)

I would contend that questions about the theology of health are just as important as the legal and theological questions about the relationship between Christ and Caesar. For example, here are some questions I wished The Essential Church had addressed:

  • When Grace Community Church reopened, did they tell people who were symptomatic to stay home? Had they done so, what would have been the theological basis for this?
  • Did the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church acknowledge the complexity of asymptomatic spread, based on the available (though admittedly incomplete) science at the time?
  • Given the nature of COVID-19, the people who were at highest risk were also the most vulnerable and neglected segments of our population, such as the elderly and sick. In the interest of showing love to these vulnerable people, what role did the church have in trying to stop unnecessary contagion and asymptomatic spread?
  • Did the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church and the Canadian congregations consider possible impact on public witness should their actions have resulted in a fresh outbreak of COVID deaths?

The neglect of questions like these in The Essential Church could easily give the impression that for the churches that resisted, it was more important to assert their rights than to show love and care to their communities. That is likely an unfair caricature, but the strident messaging of The Essential Church leaves itself open to that criticism.

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