Fear is a powerful motivation, and it has often been exploited for evil purposes. Fear of the wrong things always has catastrophic results. Jesus made that very point when He said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Our Lord was echoing the very starting point of biblical law: “You shall fear only the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:13).
We were created by God with an impulse to fear for good reason. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). The fear of God leads to everlasting peace, righteousness, and joy through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
But human fear is easily manipulated, so we end up being deceived by things we should not fear, while we have no fear of what should be truly terrifying.
Churches must keep the priorities in order. We cannot sacrifice robust spiritual health, the preaching of the gospel, and the gathering of the church for worship under the power of divine truth in order to guard people from something that is only slightly more threatening than the seasonal flu. We don’t “save lives” in any way that counts for eternity by putting a muzzle on our public proclamation of the Word of life.
The risk of dying from COVID-19 is quite low on the eternal scale compared to the never-ending anguish of “the wages of sin” — what Scripture refers to as “the second death” (Revelation 20:14). In other words, sin is by far the most deadly corruption that has ever infected the human race. It is a fatal defilement that threatens everyone with eternal disaster. The only cure is the gospel — the good news of Christ’s death as an atonement for sin and His resurrection from the dead. Here we have the irrevocable guarantee of God’s full forgiveness, promised to everyone who is united with Christ by faith. That is the message the church has been given to proclaim.
Jesus said Christians are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14). He was saying that no earthly institution is more essential than the community of believers. They are like salt, a preservative, restraining putrefaction in a corrupt culture. They are the light that dispels darkness, making the truth clear through the proclamation and dissemination of God’s Word and the promises of the gospel. That is the commission Christ gave His church, and the church is unique as the vital instrument through which God makes known to the world His righteousness, His saving grace, and the way of eternal life in Christ. Christ underscored the church’s essential importance when he said, “the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18).
Could anything be more callous than to cause people to fear a virus and then shut them off from the only source where they can have that ultimate fear finally and completely removed?
We, the church, cannot relinquish our duties before God in order to appease the arbitrary, mercurial, and onerous restrictions of a governor who imposes rules on others that he does not even follow himself. Our fear of forsaking the assembly of believers greatly surpasses the fear of being infected by COVID-19 (much less the fear of whatever consequences we might face from government officials). We will put nothing in the way of those who come to church for fellowship, instruction, worship, and the sanctifying benefits of hearing God’s Word proclaimed.
The gospel lived and proclaimed by the church is the only hope of the world. In my role as a pastor, God has given me enormous responsibility to care for the eternal souls of those in my flock — to feed them spiritually, watch over them, and protect them. COVID-19 has caused a scattering of our congregation (and congregations throughout the world). I would greatly fear the disapproval of my Lord if we neglected to gather His sheep.
Once we realized the threat of death from the virus was significantly overstated (and our people knew it), we desperately wanted to gather the church again to give full expression of our love for the Lord together. By mid-June, our congregation was spontaneously beginning to return on Sundays. They have been coming in greater numbers every week for almost two months now. Next week our children’s ministry will welcome back several hundred children to Sunday school — along with five hundred adult volunteers who coordinate those classes.
No state official has legitimate authority over the church to inhibit the free exercise of our right to worship. The American Bill of Rights begins with a formal recognition of the rights of free exercise of religion and assembly. Importantly, our state and federal constitutions recognize these rights are not given by government to us, but from God Himself. Our government’s primary function is to preserve and protect our rights, and our Founders considered church to be so essential that our right to worship is protected first. This is why America is so unique and exceptional. We begin by recognizing that church is essential. No state official has any authority to invade the kingdom where Christ is head and Lord.
The church of course is in the world, but we are not of the world. We belong to a higher kingdom. Like our Lord, we love the world of sinners — and that is precisely why we are compelled to proclaim and to personify the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
To pastors around the world, I remind you that you have not been given a pause from the divine mandate to let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16) nor to preach the Word in season and out of season (2 Tim 4:2). Let the church be the church. Let the light shine; gather your sheep; feed the flock of God; welcome the fellowship of the saints; celebrate the Lord’s supper; give your people biblical instruction — and most of all, persist in preaching the gospel.
The question of whether we should keep our churches open is without controversy. There is no other option if we are going to be faithful to our Lord. How we do that might vary based on geographical and legal circumstances, but dear pastor, it is you — not some elected or appointed civic official — who must be the one to shepherd your church under Christ’s authority as Lord. We cannot yield to Caesar that which belongs to God. May the Lord give us all wisdom, courage, and love to honor Him as so many of our spiritual ancestors have done in much harder times than these.
Dr. John MacArthur is the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. He is the author of more than 400 books, a featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry (gty.org), and is chancellor of The Master’s University and Seminary.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.