Last month, Harvest House Publishers released God vs. Government: Taking a Biblical Stand When Christ & Compliance Collide. This book looks at how, and more importantly, why, two churches—Grace Community Church in Los Angeles and GraceLife Church of Edmonton, Canada—reopened in defiance of local health orders issued during the COVID-19 pandemic. The authors, Nathan Busenitz and James Coates, are Master’s Men. Dr. Busenitz is the executive vide-president, dean of faculty, and associate professor of theology at TMS. And for his preparation to lead GraceLife Church of Edmonton, James Coates has an MDiv and DMin from The Master’s Seminary.
In the summer of 2020, Nathan Busenitz was one of the Grace Community Church elders who signed “Christ, Not Caesar, is Head of the Church”, which gave a biblical explanation for why Grace Community Church was reopening, despite local government restrictions on gatherings. Several months later, in February of 2021, James Coates was arrested and spent several weeks in jail because his church was not complying with local mandates.
Dr. Busenitz and Pastor Coates were gracious enough to answer a few questions about their new book, and the biblical principles and circumstances that led their churches to reopen in defiance of government restrictions.
1.) Why did you two decide to write this book? What audience do you have in mind? And how are you hoping this book will serve churches everywhere?
James: When Nathan approached me about joining him in this venture, it was easy to see the need for it. The pandemic exposed a number of weaknesses in the broader evangelical church, ranging from the church and the believer’s relationship to governing authorities to a biblically robust ecclesiology. Beyond that, the stories of GCC and GLC needed to be told. They provide a compelling illustration of the kind of conviction and courage that is much needed in light of the changing landscape of our culture.
Nathan: The evangelical church in North America is not accustomed to facing the kind of government overreach we experienced during the pandemic. While COVID-19 represented a unique season, we expect governing authorities to continue to encroach on the church and the family. So, we wrote this book to encourage believers to respond to such matters with both the clarity Scripture provides and the courage God calls us to exhibit.
2.) The COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented crisis for churches everywhere. Certainly, churches in North America had never been ordered to close before. What did this pandemic, and those closures, teach you about the importance of the local church gathering in-person?
James: We were already convinced of the critical nature of the corporate gathering. I had just completed my preaching project for the Doctor of Ministry program at TMS. In it, I argued from Scripture that preaching is the primary means of grace in the life of the believer. Given the corporate nature of preaching itself, the gathering of the church played a prominent role in that project. So when the pandemic began, we knew the virtual could not replace the in-person gathering.
In that project, I also thought through the other vitally important means of grace in the life of the church. For example, corporate prayer, corporate singing, the public reading of Scripture, the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and biblical fellowship. Given that a virtual gathering was a contradiction in terms, it was evident that restricting our services was cutting many members of the body off from vital means of grace.
From there, the pandemic shined a light on passages that have significance for the corporate gathering but had often gone unnoticed since we had always taken gathering for granted. For example, take Ephesians 5:18 and the filling ministry of the Spirit. The command to be filled with the Spirit takes place in a corporate context. Though that ministry is not limited to the corporate setting, by not gathering corporately churches were limiting the filling ministry of the Spirit. This was severely detrimental to their health and holiness.
3.) Romans 13:1 says “every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities.” That’s obviously a command all believers should obey. But I’m wondering if the events of 2020 changed how either of you think about that text and what it means to submit to the government?
Nathan: Romans 13:1 expresses a command that comes with a condition—we comply with the government until doing so puts us at odds with our obedience to God and His Word. When government mandates run contrary to Christ’s commands, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). That theological reality is something I recognized prior to the pandemic. But my commitment to that truth had not really been tested until the lockdowns began. So, things that were grasped intellectually became entrenched as convictions. And I saw those convictions lived out courageously by the elders with whom I serve at Grace Church.
James: I’m not sure that my understanding of Romans 13 has changed, though it has certainly become more robust. Because of the circumstances revolving around government overreach, it was necessary to apply greater scrutiny in how that theological conviction was applied. There’s always been a recognition of the different spheres of authority. We recognize there are limits on ecclesiological authority. We recognize there are limits on a husband’s authority. And we have always recognized there are limits on governmental authority (Acts 5:29). But for a long time, the government was over there doing its thing, and we were over here doing ours. Then for the first time, the government was actually reaching into the life of the church and meddling with an aspect of its life that is so fundamental to its mission.
Because of that collision, it was necessary to drill down into the appropriate texts to determine a proper biblical response. One of those texts is Romans 13. A thorough treatment of it, especially in the context of the whole of Scripture, shows that governmental authority is limited and has a particular purpose; namely, to praise good and punish evil. As such, when it is out of its God-ordained purpose and is infringing on other well-defined spheres of authority, compliance may very well result in disobedience to Christ. When that line is triggered, submission to government is no longer an option and the governing authorities must be resisted. And to limit the trigger point to only that time when we are prevented from preaching the gospel is both a biblically and historically indefensible position.
4.) James, this question is for you. What did you learn about God, the church, and the ministry from your time in prison? And how did you see the Lord work through those difficult circumstances?
James: The biggest thing that stands out to me with respect to God is His providential care. He is the Good Shepherd and I experienced the same shepherd care during my imprisonment that I have come to know and love in all of life and ministry. The truth of Psalm 139 shined brightly. Whether I make my bed in heaven or in Sheol, I cannot flee from His presence. Even in prison, His hand was there to lead me, His right hand laid hold of me. God has always blessed obedience in my life and this was no exception. Though obedience ushered me into circumstances that could have turned out extremely detrimental to me on a human level, I have been immensely blessed. I cannot think of a single way obeying Christ to imprisonment has negatively impacted my life.
As it relates to the church, I have experienced firsthand that Christ “will build His church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt 16:18). Suffering and persecution provide incredible opportunities for the gospel to go forth with power. The government sought to shut us down, and in the end, not only was our church strengthened in every way, but the church abroad was strengthened as well. It is in the darkest hours that the light shines the brightest.
In terms of ministry, it is worth noting that even imprisonment cannot keep you from this most blessed work. Though it was difficult to be away from my flock, and though it even took a spiritual toll on me, there was work to be done while in prison. There were opportunities to proclaim the gospel, to teach, and to pray. And so, though ministry looked a little different, it carried on.
5.) Nathan, this question is for you. Those COVID-19 pandemic has created a whole series of issues that have divided Christians: masks, vaccines, social distancing to name a few. Yet this book does not dig into any of those issues. Why not? Why focus on this particular issue: the gathering of the saints?
Nathan: While we tried to address some of those things in a tangential way, emphasizing the principles of Christian liberty, conscience, and charity from Romans 14 and other passages, we deliberately spent more time focusing on the essential nature of the local gathering. Hebrews 10:25 is clear. Believers are not to forsake the regular assembly of the local church. So, when governing authorities suspend church gatherings, the issue becomes clear cut from a biblical standpoint. God commands the church to meet. We must obey Him, even if it puts us at odds with those in positions of secular authority. Furthermore, we must be willing to accept the consequences for that obedience, counting it a joy to suffer for the sake of our Savior.
6.) In the future, it’s not unlikely that churches will again be at odds with government restrictions. Perhaps that will be another pandemic. Perhaps it will be issues of morality and religious freedom. Whatever the next government intrusion looks like, how can this book be useful for pastors and local church leaders as they navigate that crisis?
James: First, it can be used to equip the church with a sound theological framework to discern when and how to practice civil disobedience. The pandemic has proven that this is a question the broader evangelical church has not thought much about. And yet it is an issue that will likely come up again and believers need to know how to navigate the government overreach that appears to be on the horizon.
Second, the respective stories of GCC and GLC can prepare the church for what to expect when practicing civil disobedience. Each story takes you behind the curtain to appreciate the difficulties that will inevitably arise. Thus, the reader is given a living illustration of what the book is seeking to establish; courage and conviction in the face of government tyranny.
Nathan: It does seem like the pandemic was a dress rehearsal for the church, preparing American evangelicals for a future in which the government is increasingly antagonistic towards biblical Christianity. Other issues are coming that will likely prove to be a much greater threat to the church. Our hope and prayer is that, having been armed with biblical truth, believers will be ready to obey Christ courageously, no matter the cost. That kind of preparation begins with faithful pastors and elders, who equip their people with sound doctrine and live out the Christ-honoring convictions that produce that kind of courage.