Rex non debet esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege—the king should not be below man, but below God and the law.

John MacArthur: ‘We didn’t do this to be rebellious. We did it to be obedient.’

John MacArthur said his church’s victory over the State of California and the County of Los Angeles was not rebellion but obedience. MacArthur and Grace Community Church fought the state and local orders that restricted worship at the church during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“When we wrote an article called ‘Christ not Caesar is the Head of the Church’ that was our declaration that we would follow Jesus Christ, and where the government told us to do something He told us not to do or the government told us not to do something He commanded us to do, we would follow Christ,” Pastor John MacArthur said during a church service.

Essentially, John MacArthur outlines why he and his church would have disobeyed the commands of local government even if there were no constitutional safeguards for religious liberty. This is an important doctrinal position following the New Testament example that Christians must obey God rather than men.

However, fortunately for us and Pastor MacArthur, we enjoy constitutional protections. This is what MacArthur and his lawyers at  the Thomas More Society argued.

“So August 12th of 2020, Grace Community Church filed a lawsuit against the Governor Newsom and Mayor Garcetti and the others who we felt were involved in this the county and the health department (whose) actions violated the California constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion as well as the United States Constitution,” MacArthur said.

He continued explaining, “We didn’t do that to be rebellious. We did it to be obedient. And I’ve said this a few times our obedience is to Christ. We understand the sphere of government and in the government sphere we submit gladly and happily as part of our duty to God. But when government steps in and tries to tell the church what to do, it has overstepped its bounds and that’s why we took the stand that we took.”

MacArthur bases this entire process on the state’s usurpation of the Church sphere. In MacArthur’s view, obedience to the state is a Christian duty—if it is confined to its sphere.

This is true—as far as it goes.

However, MacArthur’s view of obedience to state power in the past placed MacArthur (and many of his followers) against the American Revolution. The general claim is typified in MacArthur’s conversation with Ben Shapiro and in an essay posted by Master’s Seminary on submission to government.

It boils down to “Christians don’t start revolutions,” as MacArthur told Shapiro. “We live quiet, according to the New Testament, peaceful lives. We pray for those over us.”

Again, this is true—as far as it goes. Christians are commanded to pray for leaders and live peaceable lives. Yet, that does not mean Christians refrain from resistance. As MacArthur affirms, Christians sometimes disobey. Further, as the New and Old Testaments affirm, individuals have rights and are free to assert those rights.

In the Bible, the individual is shown to have legal rights. Rights are not a bad thing to be eschewed. Rather, rights such as cross examination in legal cases, defense of property, defense of life, and due process (see Paul’s interactions with Rome) are all good things.

Contracts and covenants are routinely enforced and are given high place in the Bible—being used as a motif to describe God’s special relationship with Israel. Violations of covenants are punishable by action. (This has special significance for Americans as our government founded in the Constitution is a contract between government and the people. But that is another matter for later.)

The American Revolution was not a rebellion but a restoration

Since individuals are free to assert their rights and privileges under the biblical examples and commands, it seems reasonable to examine if the American Revolution was justified under these principles.

The answer is—Yes.

The American Revolution was predicated on the general rule that government in the Common Law system at the time protected citizens from tyranny. This was the principle recognized at least since Magna Carta in 1215.

Winston Churchill explained of Magna Carta, “its importance lay not in details but in the broad affirmation of the principle that there is a law to which the Crown itself is subject. Rex non debet esse sub homine, sed sub Deo et lege—the king should not be below man, but below God and the law.”[1]

In fact, Churchill explores further explaining that the significance of Magna Carta was not that it was new law or innovation but simply the expression of existing law in England since time immemorial.

The principle is that the State is under God—something man instinctively knows—and the state is under the law

Thus, the state cannot act contrary to law.

Actions contrary to law, under the English system, are void. Actions are legitimate in restoring the status quo ante. Thus, as Hannah Arednt explains in On Revolution, the work of Oliver Cromwell was not considered as anything new. Rather, it was but the “restoration” of England to its previous order, or “namely as ‘freedom by God’s blessing restored’, as the inscription runs on the great seal of 1651.”[2]

Also, “The revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which to us appear to show all evidence of a new spirit, the spirit of the modern age, were intended to be restorations.”[3]

The American Revolution was a continuation of this process—the process where abuses were corrected, and the law reestablished.

In this sense, John MacArthur’s actions were the continuation of that American legacy. MacArthur was obedient not only to God but to America’s sovereign power—the Constitution. And because of his stand, the tyrants of California were restored to their proper boundaries.

In America, sovereignty is retained by the people and delegated to government through the Constitution. This is important for two reasons. First, the Constitution recognizes the source of American sovereignty originates in We the People. Second, the Constitution itself is limited and powers defined with all other powers reserved to the People or their other government creations, the states.

Since, as MacArthur rightly noted in his message to Grace Community Church, the state actions against the church were in violation of both California’s state constitution and the US Constitution, fighting the state action was not only reasonable but a duty. MacArthur’s loyalty was to the principle in the Constitution and not politicians who fleetingly hold office.

MacArthur was obedient to the Constitution. The state was not. Thus, MacArthur’s fight was obedience to the supreme power in America—the Constitution. It was the state who was disobedient.

Recognizing this, perhaps Benjamin Franklin was righter than he realized when he declared, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

[1] Churchill in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. 1 The Birth of Britain, Kindle loc: 206.

[2] Arendt, On Revolution, p. 34.

[3] P. 33.