Pastor Doug Wilson on the Authority of the Church to Require Masks

In response to Brad Littlejohn’s Christ and Caesar: A Response to John MacArthur
, Pastor Doug Wilson, August 10, 2020,
Littlejohn, MacArthur, and the Binding of Conscience writes

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.

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.

This just isn’t right, and I’m amazed to see Pastor Wilson write it. He is saying that the church cannot regulate worship. It cannot require everyone to wear a mask. Note that this is not a statement about church and state. I was shocked by it, because for the first two thirds of his blogpost I was nodding along as he said that the government should not interfere in worship, and, indeed, that when the government has lied and reversed itself and generally show itself to have no idea what it’s doing, people should think the authorities are fools and rascals. But this is something quite different. Now, he is not talking about whether John Macarthur’s church in California is right to defy the county and sue it in court on the grounds that the county’s regulation is unreasonable and unconstitutional. No– now he is talking about the church in South Dakota that has decided people attending church should wear masks even though the government doesn’t require it.

Let’s think about that church in South Dakota. It might be of various polities, various governances. What matters is that Pastor Wilson is saying that whatever its polity, the church has no authority to tell attenders to wear masks. Let’s suppose, so we match the reader’s chosen polity, that the pastor, the denomination, the leading men of the congregation, the leading women too, and a large majority of the membership all agree that people who attend the morning service should wear masks. They provide masks at the front door, and they gently tell people that they can’t come in if they won’t put on a mask. (We’ll have them make an exception if you say you have a medical excuse, such as one lady I know does who finds that her pulse oximeter shows her blood oxygen collapses if she wears a mask– but let’s not sacrifice the normal for the abnormal.)

The universal historical practice of the church is that the church has authority to regulate worship. The church gets to choose which hymns are sung, and in what key. If they pick “Onward Christian Soldiers” and you sing “Amazing Grace” at the top of your lungs, you’ll get thrown out. Not literally, and not immediately, but if you insist on disrupting worship, you will be required to leave. If they say you have to wear shoes and a shirt, and you want to come just in your undershorts, too bad. You shouldn’t complain that the elders are adding to what the Bible requires; that they are turning away someone who just wants to worship God; that they are binding people’s conscience on legalistic matters that do not affect one’s eternal salvation. No: you should respect authority. You are in grievous sin, not just because worshipping in your underwear is disrespectful to God, sacrilege, but because of contumacy: you are fighting the Church on a matter that is adiaphora, spiritually indifferent–except for that principle of authority.

The question of whether it is wise to require masks is, of course, entirely separate. It might be that it is not. But the church has the authority. If they say to wear masks because they think 2 Timothy requires it, even though that is ridiculous, every member and every person who wants to drop in and attend there ought to comply. If they say it is because otherwise we will die of covid, even though that is ridiculous, we should comply. Even if they say we should wear masks because respect for civil authority requires it, and they are wrong in that, we should comply.

This last point needs elaboration, because I think it is why Pastor Wilson went off track. Let’s make it more concrete. Suppose the mayor has said churches must have masks, because he hates Christians and wants to make life difficult for them, and he doesn’t even conceal that reason. The churches have sued him, and he has lost in court, which says he doesn’t have the authority. Your church has decided to require masks anyway, though, because it has decided that the mayor nonetheless is the civil authority, not the court or the constitution, and it doesn’t matter that his motives are bad. Should you defy them and refuse to wear a mask in church? No. It’s not your call. It may hurt worship, and make you less able to worship God with all your heart, but so does a bad choice of hymn or setting the thermostat too high, and it wouldn’t be right for you to sing a different hymn or sneak over and change the thermostat when nobody’s looking. You still must obey, and while, to the extent that discussion is edifying, you may criticize the choice, you may not complain about it.

We can even go further. The church still has authority even if the church acted through prudence or cowardice. If the church leaders, the elders or the membership, choose a policy in obedience to the mayor not because he is the legitimate authority, but because he will send in the police to bust up the sanctuary if the church defies him, the church decision is still legitimate. Again, remember that wearing a mask is not that big a deal. If a mugger came up in a dark alley and instead of robbing me, told me I had to wear a mask for half an hour, I wouldn’t think he’d done me much harm, and he certainly wouldn’t have made me violate the law of God. It would be humiliating, just as it is humiliating that the church is compelled illegally to do something, but it is not an offense against God to comply, and perhaps it is even good for the church’s pride. For the dissenting member, wearing a masks is not humiliating at all. He is just complying with the rules of the church he freely chose, and he even gets to say to himself that he would have saved the church from humiliation if he’d gotten to make church policy. Even if the church made its policy from pure funk, because the mayor was obviously bluffing but they’re scared anyway, you still should recognize that it is the church’s decision, not yours.

5 replies on “Pastor Doug Wilson on the Authority of the Church to Require Masks”

Well, at that point it’s probably time to leave that church, when they have such a heretical view of Romans 13 and completely misunderstand who the authorities in America are. They are now teaching submission to evil and are not worthy of their posttion.

Don’t disobey your church authorities lightly. In the above hypo, the church authority submits to mayor’s discriminatory mask policy. Church obeys. Does congregant obey? Rasmusen says yes. I agree, though it is painful to bear.

In Indiana con law, to overturn a statute that allegedly interferes with protected speech, and other liberties (I presume), jurists use the “material burden” standard; a man trying to overturn such a statute must prove that his interests were not only affected, but materially burdened. Some measures affect an man’s interest (no screaming obscenities as police arrest you) that don’t materially burden his rights (to express himself). In Rasmusen’s hypo, a church knowingly submits to an unjust mask order from mayor’s animus, likely for the virtue of submitting, but maybe for more weasley reasons. This hasn’t triggered the material burden standard yet and we should submit. The threshold for not submitting should be high. The church, on the other hand, agrees to comply with a gov’t order adding a BLM committee member to the elders board. This I might protest.

Submission is a jewel. Jesus submitted to unrighteousness. Was that so we never had to again?

Interesting, in the OT, the word ענה meaning “submit” also means to be oppressed/to humble yourself.

Eric, it sure appears from your quotation of Doug Wilson’s blog, that you’re reading between the lines, and demonstrating a straw man fallacy. Can you show, from the text Doug wrote, that he’s actually saying that cannot regulate worship? Reading the quote, and his original piece, that’s not what he’s saying, though you conclude differently. Can you clarify?

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