Littlejohn, MacArthur, and the Binding of Conscience

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Introduction

Shortly after John MacArthur announced the stand that Grace Community was taking with regard to Gov. Newsom’s shutdowneries, to wit, that they were going to worship the Lord anyhow, despite the mandate forbidding it, Brad Littlejohn wrote a lengthy response in which he argued that the principles appealed to by MacArthur were overdone, underdeveloped, and misapplied.

They were overdone, Littlejohn argued, because the claims made by the Grace Community statement were sweeping and cosmic, asserting the exclusive Lordship of Christ over the church in such matters. They were underdeveloped because there was not enough nuance in them. They did not appear to allow for the necessary overlap of jurisdictions, for example. And they were consequently misapplied, and we all need to be a lot more careful.

The Basic Problem Here

What Littlejohn accomplished was to state (pretty well, actually) certain key reformational principles concerning the intersection of civil and ecclesiastical governments, but the difficulty was that he stated them in such a way that was more or less beside the point. It is the difference between academic scholarship and pastoral leadership. Littlejohn’s flight was smooth, but the landing was bumpy.

For example, Littlejohn quoted Baxter, as he was addressing just the issue at hand:

It is one thing to forbid [services] for a time, upon some special cause, (as infection by pestilence, fire, war, etc.) and another to forbid them statedly or profanely . . . 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.

Richard Baxter

The odd thing about Littlejohn’s point is that this is precisely what Grace Community did. When the emergency was first declared, under the special cause of “pestilence,” they accepted it and did their part. But when it became apparent how profanely California was treating her churches, they took a stand. And this reveals how Littlejohn’s appeals to historical theologians misses the point. They stated the principle, but we still have to figure out how to apply it.

In formal logic, an argument can be valid but still in error. A valid argument is one in which, provided the premises are true, the conclusion necessarily follows. While this is not an exercise in symbolic logic, it does provide us with an analogy. In this case, whether the premises are actually true are questions of fact, and therefore cannot be settled with an appeal to the historic Reformed divines, whether Baxter or Hooker, or anyone else. Hooker doesn’t know whether or not we have experienced a global panic or a global pandemic. Baxter doesn’t know whether or not our governing authorities have been guilty of minor inconsistencies or if they have entirely discredited themselves.

Epidemics do occur, but so do mass panics. Governments can act responsibly, as in South Dakota, but they can also act like a weather vane in a dust devil.

Discredited Authority?

Now Littlejohn, to his credit, acknowledges that the civil authorities did really blow it in their early “messaging” about the virus, thus creating the plausible accusation that they were moving the goalposts, and that they were in fact disappointingly inconsistent in their support for BLM rallies and protests. But while he sees these problems, and acknowledges the fact of them, he does not weight them the same way I would. How many untruths do they get to tell us before we have the right to disregard everything they say? Littlejohn thinks that that number is north of the fibs they have told thus far, and I think of the number as way south.

Again, to his credit, he does acknowledge what we are talking about.

Not only that, but our leadership has gone out of its way to forfeit trust at key junctures of the crisis: failing to clearly communicate the virus suppression strategy at the outset (so that people would later complain that leaders were “moving the goalposts”), not merely tolerating but enthusiastically endorsing violations of their own orders so long as these were done in the name of social justice, and enacting a patchwork of confusing and apparently arbitrary and self-serving restrictions that put disproportionate burdens on certain citizens and institutions.

Littlejohn

But despite this, he still wants us to listen to them. But why? If Littlejohn acknowledges that they have forfeited trust, then why does he chide us for not trusting them? My point on this is not difficult to argue. You can’t throw something away and still have it afterwards. Littlejohn is not acting on the basis of what he acknowledges, and MacArthur has acted on the basis of it. Littlejohn cannot really argue that they have forfeited trust, and then turn around and say that we have a responsibility to trust them.

The early messaging about “flattening the curve” was not ambiguous. It was about as clear as any governmental messaging could be. And then, without adequate explanation, it was simply abandoned. Medical professionals who argue for the benefits of hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID are treated, not as ones offering a possible medical solution that should be examined further, but as heretics asking to be burned. This crisis has seen multiple examples of Rapid Onset Orthodoxy. Data is massaged into propaganda in ways that an average high school sophomore should be able to see through — as in, “cases have surged.” Might that be 18 new cases in a city of 10 million? What’s the denominator, friend?

An Actual Pandemic?

We all have our default settings, right? There is a certain kind of conservative, and I would number myself among them, who tends to believe that two thirds of our government is doing bad stuff, and the rest of them are up to no good. And so when they warn me that something is going to be really, really bad, I tend to take a more optimistic view. But in taking that optimistic view, I grab my wallet first. I don’t think it will be all that bad. I do, however, think that the wallet-grabbing is going to be that bad. I am a pessimist in that department. This tendency is not necessarily one of my virtues, and I acknowledge that I must continue to address it with seasons of incessant prayer. Otherwise, how will I maintain my fabled balance?

Anyone who has seen Brad Littlejohn’s Facebook feed knows that there has never been a hurricane warning that he didn’t immediately embrace and follow minute by minute. He believes in impending disasters. I dare say that his seasons of incessant prayer need to focus on another tendency. His factory settings are certainly braced for the Dire Event.

So running in the background of all Littlejohn’s analysis is his simple acceptance of the reality of the pandemic as a true pandemic. He does not think of it, as I do, as a severe flu season, buried under a tsunami of government-induced panic. He wants the government to mitigate the infectious disease. I want the government to stop fomenting panic. This is a question of fact, and historical theology is not going to be any help there.

For the Section That Follows

If someone believes then, as I do, that our public health and governmental officials have disgraced and discredited themselves in this whole affair, and if I believe that their behavior is continuing to panic everybody, and that it is targeting churches in unconscionable ways, such that even the Supreme Court placed casinos over churches, then nobody should be surprised when we say that it is time to kick.

And we can kick without kicking Baxter.

If our governmental officials have not discredited themselves, and if this is a true pestilence, like the plague that ravaged London in the 17th century, then our duties are one thing. If the government directives are a tangle of self-serving discrepancies, and if the problem facing us is simply a worldwide emotional stampede, then our duties are entirely different. And we have to determine the facts on the ground before we know what side Hooker and Baxter would be on.

And that brings us to the next point, which, for Christians trying to maintain the bond of peace within our own ranks during this trying time, should be the central thing.

Binding the Conscience?

We must ascertain what it means to bind someone’s conscience. Littlejohn’s conclusion says this about the Grace Community statement:

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. Again, perhaps this is not what they meant to do. But this is what their words did, from a very prominent pulpit, and they should own the consequences.

Littlejohn

But there is a real problem with this. Binding the conscience is an act of authority. It can only occur when someone under authority is required by an authority to act contrary to what that person believes to be right. Binding the conscience doesn’t happen unless there is actual binding. As in, you know, making someone wear a mask.

Consequently, if the civil magistrate requires that everyone wear a mask, then this is binding the conscience. If the elders of a church require all the parishioners to wear a mask in order to come to worship, this is also binding the conscience. But when it comes to matters of faith or worship, the Christian conscience is supposed to be “free from the doctrines and commandments of men” (WCF 20.2). And to “believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands” is to violate true liberty of conscience. This only happens when somebody is making somebody else do something.

So let’s say that I live in a region where mask-wearing is not required by anybody. And say also that I am in a conversation with a dogmatic neighbor or fellow church member, and he says that it is his view that God wants me to wear a mask. Because he is not in authority over me, he is not binding my conscience. He cannot make me do anything. He cannot threaten me with punishment, or withhold anything of value from me. The only pressure he can apply is the cogency of his arguments.

Now such a conversation could easily reveal to me that if this guy were ever put into a position of authority, and a comparable situation came up, he probably would bind my conscience. But that would simply result in me writing a “note to self” that reminded me not to vote for this fellow in any race for city council, or to support him within the church in an election of elders. He has the disposition to bind consciences, but no opportunity as of yet.

Now John MacArthur’s statement, if true, does apply to all churches. And a lot of church leaders should feel uneasy in their conscience because they are not following his good example. But if it is false, it doesn’t. But binding the conscience doesn’t even enter into it. MacArthur is a Baptist, and Baptist church polity insists that no one church has any authority whatever over any other church. That means that binding the conscience here is not what is happening. What is happening is something that is much more 21st century, and that is that some people are being triggered by MacArthur’s courageous example. Somebody in their congregation might start wishing that they had a courageous pastor, and what will the harvest be?

I mean, think about it. This is what is happening every time any Christians with a doctrinal disagreement discuss anything. If I talk about infant baptism with a Baptist, or if an Arminian talks about Romans 9 with a Calvinist, or if a postmillennialist is debating with a premilliennialist, what is happening? They all appeal to Scripture as the Word of God, and they think the other fellow ought to come around. But nobody is binding anyone’s conscience. They are simply doing what every Christian ought to do with their doctrinal convictions–claim that they are derived from Scripture.

And even within the membership of Grace Community, where there is genuine authority, I am certain that no one would be turned away from worship if they did wear a mask. In other words, those who treat adiaphora as adiaphora have the high ground here. Those who require conformity are the only ones who are binding anyone’s conscience.

Our Practice at Christ Church

At Christ Church, we have taken the posture of respecting individual liberty from the beginning. The civil magistrate requires mask-wearing under certain conditions, but we do not require our members to mask up in order to worship God. We don’t have that authority. 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. The officers in His church administer His terms, but they have no authority to invent new ones. Neither do they have the authority to go along with the governor and mayor if they invent new ones.

Binding the conscience only happens when someone makes something mandatory, and when someone else helps them to police the requirement. Your governor might be doing that, and your elders might be helping him. Brad Littlejohn, to my knowledge, is not binding anyone’s conscience, but he is in agreement with those who are. John MacArthur is not.

So we don’t require masks. At the same time, we have repeatedly emphasized that anybody who does want to wear a mask needs to be welcomed, loved and accepted on an equal footing with everyone else. This is not binding the conscience. It is the opposite.

We have saints to come to worship in masks. We have members who wear masks during the fellowship time before and after worship, but who unmask during worship itself. We have individuals, the majority, who don’t wear masks at all. Because nobody is making anybody else do anything contrary to their conscience, nobody is binding anyone’s conscience. This is the way of love.

If a church determined that a person wearing a mask could not come, that would be binding the conscience. If a church determined that a person not wearing a mask would be turned away at the door, that too is binding the conscience.

Now any church that practices church discipline is willing to bind the conscience. But I am only willing to do this if I have black letter Scripture to back us up, the issue is one of the weightier matters of the law, and we have glued the whole case down and have three-inch screws in every corner.

If someone wants the church to tolerate their adultery, or their contempt for parents, or their theft, then sorry, can’t do it.

“They who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty, which is, that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord, without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our life.”

WCF 20.3