As pretty much anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock now knows, John MacArthur and Grace Community Church made a big stir a couple weeks ago by not merely declaring their intention to defy California Covid-19 restrictions, but also by appearing to justify those actions in terms of fundamental claims about the relationship of church and state. In doing so, they risked not merely making a bad call or offering a bad witness, but binding (or burdening; see below) the consciences of other believers to do likewise. After all, if Caesar has no business whatsoever limiting worship, then it follows that, as the statement puts it, “Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.” Absent clarifying qualifications (which were indeed strikingly absent), it follows that any other churches throughout the country that are complying with state Covid regulations are disobeying Christ. Accordingly, I took up my pen (or keyboard, alas) to unpack the dangers in this flawed political theology, in a lengthy post for The Davenant Institute that struck a chord in many quarters (or rather, several different chords, some melodious and some dissonant).

The most substantial response came from Doug Wilson, who more or less agreed with my historical-theological principles, but thought my application of them naive and misguided. Given that Wilson raises a number of questions and objections that I’ve encountered from other quarters, I thought it was worth taking time to engage them at some length. And yes, I’m afraid I do mean some length–as this response perforce ranges through several different sets of concerns. The impatient reader should feel free to skim and hone in on the headings that address his or her particular concerns.

First, let me offer a brief recap of my original essay, and clarify the spirit in which it was offered. It proceeded in two main movements: in the first, I addressed GCC’s stated rationale for their decision to defy state worship restrictions, which was a categorical argument. That is, they had insisted not merely that these particular restrictions were, for particular reasons, invalid, but that all state restrictions that impinged on worship (without any qualifications at least in their statement) were invalid as such. In other words, the logic of their statement was such that it didn’t matter whether Covid-19 was a mild flu or the Black Death—either way, the magistrate had no relevant authority. For reasons both obvious and not-so-obvious, I thought this was confused and confusing, and had to be called out in no uncertain terms.

In the second part of my post, I basically asked, “Even if GCC reached their conclusions in a deeply flawed way, might it be that they still (their hearts being better than their heads, as it were) reached the right conclusions?” I thus sought to charitably supply stronger arguments than they themselves offered in their statement—stronger in the sense of more likely to succeed, because more qualified. (I would note in passing that I would thus object to various attacks I have since received for uncharitably “tearing down” rather than “building up” my Christian brothers at GCC, for using logic and history to pick them apart rather than to shore them up.) These arguments were hypothetical or contingent rather than categorical in their structure: “If X condition is met, then Y conclusion may follow.” I offered three possible lines of contingent argument for why state or local restrictions might be invalid and churches might be justified in defying them: (A) the threat justifying the restrictions is greatly exaggerated; (B) the restrictions are inconsistent or arbitrary; (C) the restrictions have been unevenly and unfairly applied in practice. (There is a fourth line of argument I did not explore in the post for the sake of time: a constitutional objection that, in many cases, such restrictions have been put in place by somewhat questionable executive authority rather than legislative authority.) In each case, I offered some brief counter-arguments as to why I myself was unpersuaded by all three of these arguments, though others may read the situation differently.

It should go without saying that I am much less concerned about Christians with whom I disagree on any of these contingent arguments than with whom I disagree on the categorical argument. If we reach different prudential conclusions on the basis of different assessments of the facts on the ground—well, that is simply to be expected. I do think there is a high burden of proof to be met by anyone calling for civil disobedience, so I would have a number of pointed questions for Christians adopting one of these contingent lines of argument, and I think it is critical that we all hold our conclusions on these difficult matters with grace and humility—something that has been very lacking in most discussions I have seen. But if you’ve got a good argument, sifted through a wise (and geographically diverse, if possible) body of Christian leaders that, given the specific circumstances, specific restrictions, and specific enforcement context of those restrictions, churches should defy mandates, I’ll happily hear you out and extend the right hand of fellowship. What I will not budge on is the idea that the leaders of the local church have a God-given right and duty to assert their autonomy from the state’s temporal jurisdiction—or, more broadly, any assertion that it is “just obvious” that the church is under attack and needs to resist. It is not obvious what needs to be done, and anyone saying so is selling something—and it’s not Scripture.

In his response, Wilson essentially tackles my two main lines of argument in reverse order. First, he contends that, since he is convinced on the basis of one of the contingent arguments (namely Argument A noted above) that defiance is legitimate, my entire essay is, as it were, beside the point. This seems strangely short-sighted for anyone who has been in public ministry for so long. Surely he recognizes that what matters above all is that we form our convictions on sound and biblical principles, not that we happen to haphazardly stumble on the right practical conclusions in a particular case. If he genuinely agrees with the theological principles I offer in the first half of my post, then he should see me as an ally on the things that matter most, even if he happens to arrive at the same destination as MacArthur by another route. In any case, though, this first section of Wilson’s critique raises some really crucial epistemological questions: if this is indeed a contingent argument, if it does all hinge on what is in fact the case?, then how on earth do we figure that out? Whom do we trust in forming our convictions and framing our actions? This is a very important question that deserves lengthy exploration; I will offer some provisional thoughts below.

Second, however, he then tackles the first half of my essay, arguing that while MacArthur’s arguments may be theologically flawed, I am much too alarmist in framing it as a dangerous endeavor to “bind the consciences of believers.” Wilson seems unable to see why we need critique the GCC statement as anything other than a misguided effort at theological persuasion. He then goes on, in a baffling final section, to suggest that the real conscience-binders are those civil authorities commanding people to wear masks. Based on past interactions, I feel sure that Wilson understands the fundamental distinction between binding actions and binding consciences, but he seems to forget it here. As this distinction is both profoundly important and at the same time profoundly difficult for many moderns to grasp, it probably merits a fuller treatment at a later date, but let me try to clear up two key confusions now.

Binding Consciences and Burdening Consciences

Wilson first accuses me of a category confusion on what it means to bind the conscience:

“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…. 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?”

While I recognize that my original formulation should have been clearer, this analysis strikes me as startlingly naïve. The fact of the matter is that authority comes in many forms, and formal institutional authority is only one of them. For instance, I have gradually had to reckon with the fact that as a writer whose arguments may be read by thousands of people, including many Christians in leadership, I am acting as a functional authority for many potential readers. Hopefully they will be thoughtful and discerning rather than overly impressionable, but if someone takes my rash words to heart and does something foolish with them, I bear some responsibility. If I were sloppy with my biblical exegesis and selective in my citation of historical examples, so as to create the false impression that “in this circumstance, all faithful Protestants should do X, and will be guilty before God if they do otherwise,” then I would be guilty of unbiblically binding consciences, in the way I am using the phrase.

But according to Wilson, that’s nonsense, because I have no formal authority over anyone. And John MacArthur, as a Baptist pastor, has authority only over one congregation. In that case, then, binding consciences is no great worry in modern day evangelicalism, because formal authority is so scattered and dispersed. On my reading, though, binding consciences is a grave danger in modern evangelicalism, and happens all the time. Why? Because never before has so much authority been wielded over so many by so few with so little accountability. Functionally, when someone like John MacArthur speaks, people listen. Hundreds of pastors may be swayed by his mere authority, or even if they try not to be, many of their parishioners will, and will ask why their pastors are being such cowards, and can’t be heroes like John MacArthur.

That said, perhaps this matter could be helped by some tighter terminology. In conversation with Jonathan Leeman about this, he suggested that perhaps we could distinguish between “binding consciences” as an abuse of formal authority and “burdening consciences” as an abuse of informal authority. I would have to do more reading into historical usage to see if this distinction is necessary, but I do think it is useful. If we adopted these terms, I would rephrase my charge against MacArthur, but the charge would remain; after all, Christ rebukes the Pharisees for precisely such “burdening” of consciences.

Wilson wonders whether this concept isn’t too broad: how is it not binding/burdening consciences any time any Christian tries to persuade another that the Bible teaches X or Y? Well, it depends—on whether the Bible really teaches it, and on how humbly the argument is made. If I confidently pronounce to you, in very categorical terms that leave little room for uncertainty, that the Bible requires X, and on examination, it does no such thing, then I am seeking to bind or burden your conscience beyond Scripture. If I am actually right about what Scripture teaches, or if I concede that the exegesis is difficult, or that prudential application may differ, and invite you to reason along with me, then even if I turn out to be wrong, I do not think there is great danger of consciences being bound or burdened.

Now, it may well be that GCC intended to make a more modest statement along these lines; I have heard that in various subsequent videos, they tried to qualify their statement to allow room for faithful disagreement. Perhaps I should have given them more of a benefit of the doubt. That said, as written, it did not leave room for qualification or compromise, and I have also heard from several pastors for whom the GCC statement made life very difficult as a result.

Binding Consciences and Binding Actions

While accusing me of a category confusion, Wilson committed what I fear is much more serious one of his own.

“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.”

Wilson, in short, is equating binding actions with binding consciences. This is a common confusion in the modern church, but our Reformational forebears were crystal-clear about the need to draw a sharp distinction. After all, if this equation were true, no authority could ever require any subordinate to do anything that was not already authorized in Scripture!

“This opinion, even if applied no further than to this particular issue, shakes the universal fabric of government; leads to anarchy and confusion; dissolves families; dissipates colleges, corporations, and armies; overthrows kingdoms, churches, and anything that is now, according to God’s providence, upheld by power and authority.” (Richard Hooker, Laws, V.71.4, modernized)

As chance would happen, I wrote my dissertation, The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty, on this precise question, and so I have much more to say about it than I can fit here. I will just try to offer a very brief sketch of the difference in the concepts, and if you want to read more about the Reformational background, and how this relates to the concept of Christian liberty more generally, you can check out my book, or this PDF of a lecture I gave a few years ago at Colorado Christian University (which incidentally also engages Wilson).

Briefly, though, does every human law, every command of authority, bind the conscience? The magisterial reformers wrestled carefully with this question, and said, “No, not per se, but only per accidens.” That is, every Christian is under a general obligation before God to honor and submit to lawful authority, which means that every command of lawful authority that does not contradict Scripture becomes, indirectly, conscience-binding. But it is not directly conscience-binding, and this is important. Let’s try to understand why.

Take eating meat during Lent. The Roman Catholic Church said, “You are bound in conscience before God not to consume meat during Lent; the act itself is unholy, and the cessation from it is holy.” You had to not merely conform outwardly to the practice, but submit in heart to it as well, acknowledging that what the Church said about it was true. But what if, say, a Protestant magistrate wanted to continue to ban meat during Lent in order to support the fishing industry? This question actually arose in certain contexts. In that case, the magistrate was saying, “Look, there’s nothing wrong with the meat as such; don’t get your conscience hung up on meat vs. non-meat. You don’t even have to agree with our protectionist rationale. You can think that this is a dumb policy. But you just have to abide by the law.” In that case, the Reformers said, your actions were bound, and your conscience was bound inasmuch as you conceded the magistrate’s right to command, but your conscience was left free regarding the thing itself.

Let’s bring this back to masks, church services, and John MacArthur.

  • The Christian who says (in the absence of any command from civil authority), “Every Christian anywhere who loves their neighbor needs to be wearing a mask in church” is binding (or at least burdening) consciences. You are being asked not merely to do something, but to do so on the basis of a particular rationale before God that is categorically binding on all.
  • The Church that says, “We want everyone attending our services to wear masks because your leaders think that’s the right thing to do,” is binding actions, not consciences. You are left free to disagree with their reasoning, to believe that, up until the moment they issued their guidance, you could go unmasked guilt-free. But you are obliged to comply simply out of respect for their authority.
  • Likewise, the State that says, “Everyone in Virginia needs to wear masks while attending church services” is binding actions, not consciences, or only binding consciences per accidens—inasmuch as you are conscience-bound to obey God-given authorities, whether or not you share their beliefs about the situation. You can wear the mask because you cheerfully agree it’s a great idea, or even though you think it’s a stupid idea. The State does not demand that you agree, just that you conform for the sake of order.
  • Contrariwise, if a Church says, “Christians everywhere should refuse to obey state ordinances on mask-wearing because these are an affront to God,” they are calling on you not merely to act in a certain way, but to do so on the basis of a certain belief. They are binding consciences per se rather than per accidens because they are saying that in this situation, obedience to God directly requires said action.

The same principles apply at all different levels of authority. Parents can command their children to do chores, and bind their consciences only per accidens, but they can also bind their consciences per se when they legalistically teach their children that the only way to please God is to engage in certain devotional practices or adhere to certain moral shibboleths.

Let’s now turn attention back to the first half of Wilson’s rebuttal, which engaged my more contingent arguments for caution when it came to civil disobedience.

A Question of Credibility

At the heart of this section of the argument is a question of credibility—given that we are faced with devilishly difficult questions of fact and policy, whom should we trust? So it should perhaps come as no surprise that Wilson goes to some lengths to discredit me as a reliable witness in such things:

“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.”

If the charge is one of an obsessive love of extreme weather, I stand guilty as charged. This is, to be sure, the oddest and most inexpungible of my hobbies and obsessions, as anyone who gets to know me soon discovers. But if the charge is one of alarmism, as Wilson seems to suggest here, then I would suggest that he can’t have been paying very close attention to my Facebook feed (fair enough, I suppose; if hurricanes aren’t your thing, you probably just tune out such posts). While I do get somewhat perversely giddy about big storms, when a big one is impending you’ll usually find me patiently dissecting the media hype and explaining to worried friends on various coastlines that it’s only something to worry about if they live here or here, that the models are uncertain, that the storm may well weaken, etc. And anyone paying close attention to my Facebook feed during coronavirus would have seen something similar. For instance, on February 26th, before the virus was known to have begun spreading in the US, I offered an analysis of possible scenarios, in which I said that I believed there was a 70% chance that the final US death toll would be under 250,000. Although that may have looked alarmist at the time, it now looks like something between sober realism and giddy optimism. On June 10, when people were worrying that the waves of protests would lead to a big spike in new Covid cases, I suggested that while we would likely see a rise in cases over the next few weeks, it would be a gentler rise than the Spring. Again, my prediction proved a bit too optimistic, though more or less accurate. In mid-July, as the national media was frantically sounding the alarm and wringing its hands over a nationwide surge in cases, I posted a patient explanation of the data, pointing out that such alarm was overblown and the second wave would likely peak soon—as indeed occurred.

Does this track record make me a Covid-19 expert? I should hope not; Reformation political theology is the only area in which I would—with some fear and trembling—claim the mantle of expertise. I don’t think anyone out there should just be taking my word for it on Covid. But I can say that Wilson’s characterization of me as a reflexive alarmist is laughable to anyone who knows me, and while I do accept “the reality of the pandemic as a true pandemic” (at least, as I would understand the word “pandemic”; perhaps Wilson has a higher bar), that is not out of any “simple acceptance”; rather, it is a highly qualified acceptance, with little patience for the distortions and hype in the mainstream media, that was borne out of countless hours of anguished decision-making as the headmaster of a Christian school this spring. And far from simply going along with a blind panic, my own personal view at present on the ideal virus mitigation policy is considerably more relaxed than what seems to be the prevailing consensus.

If I am a tainted witness, the charge could be very readily turned around on Wilson himself—as indeed he himself admits. He grants that his default setting is profound skepticism of whatever the government tells him and rosy optimism about predicted catastrophes. To this, I might add that he lives in small-town north Idaho, not exactly the best place for gaining a clear perspective on the threats of a pandemic that disproportionately affects high-density population centers. He has also, from the very outset of the pandemic, dismissed it almost out of hand as irrational panic and used the moniker “just a bad flu,” which he continues to employ even as our Covid hospitalization and death toll soars beyond that of any flu pandemic since, well, 1918. He continues to regularly repeat conservative talking points about the nature of the virus and the public health response that range from highly colored to, in my view, flatly inaccurate. I say that not to question his clearly formidable intellect. The fact is that this virus would be confusing enough even without wildly inconsistent political leadership and news media muddying the waters; many people are confused, and many different viewpoints have taken hold in various quarters. His viewpoint makes a lot of sense in his own context.

Clearly, though, neither myself nor Doug Wilson is, taken alone, a very reliable witness for adjudicating the factual question of what public health response this virus requires. But, given that we need to know that in order to determine what the church should do, how should we act? Whom can we trust?

Do We Need to Know?

The first thing we should say is “Do we need to know?” I mean, sure, we’d all like to know just how bad Covid really is, and just what the optimal public health response would be (and inasmuch as the optimal response will never happen, what the most practical response should be). But the fact is that if by “know” you mean anything approximating certainty, even the experts don’t have that. And the rest of us certainly don’t. We might have some hunches, bred out from a combination of bias, common sense, and factual investigation in different proportions, but nothing more. We are condemned to a standpoint of really quite profound uncertainty.

And this is precisely part of my argument. God didn’t tell us to submit to the governing authorities in Romans 13 because God is a grumpy old patriarch in the sky who likes to see ordinary people knuckle under and obey. He told us that precisely because, in the ordinary affairs of life, we usually do not know for sure what the heck is going on, and what the heck the right response is. And God’s point is That’s OK. It’s OK to be uncertain, and, when in doubt, to obey the decisions of our governing authorities. Not because they’re always right. Not even because they’re more right than private citizens will be (although in general, they will at least have more relevant information and more experience). But because there are times when someone has got to make a decision, and God has blessed us with governments of every sort (in family, church, business, and civil society) to make those calls in uncertain matters.

Now, I freely grant that our current governing authorities are way too willing to take way too many decisions for us: “Here, let me just take that burden off your shoulders” is the dominant theme of the modern state, which is increasingly unwilling to trust its citizens to navigate uncertainty. That said, there are times, when rash individual choices could do far-reaching harm, that it is appropriate for our governing authorities to assume that burden of decision-making. And when they do so, there is a very high burden of proof that must be met by individual citizens who want to challenge and disobey it. Romans 13 doesn’t say, “Let every person who has carefully weighed the laws in the balance and found them entirely to their own satisfaction be subject to the governing authorities.” Implicit in the idea of obedience is obeying even when you’re not sure the policies are wise; indeed, even when you’re pretty sure they’re unwise.

Wilson falsely presents this whole discussion as if it’s taking place on a neutral playing field of uncertainty. “Oh, so you think Covid is a serious threat? Ok, fair enough, wear a mask and stay home.” “You don’t think it’s a big deal? Ok, cool, I’ll join you at a big unmasked cocktail party next week.” He is attempting to apply the pre-law decision-making logic to a post-law situation. Once the public authority has acted, the epistemic situation changes. It is no longer, “Ok, persuade me that coronavirus is really a big deal.” It’s “You’ll have to compellingly persuade me that it’s not a big deal and that continuing to obey these laws is deeply harmful.”

So our first principle for navigating these kinds of situations, as much as it chafes at our American sensibilities, is: assume the law is just until proven otherwise.

When to Trust

This principle explains something about my initial post that baffled Wilson:

“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.”

There is no inconsistency here, rather an attempt to faithfully apply the directives of Westminster Larger Catechism:

Q. 127: What is the honor that inferiors owe to their superiors?
A. 127: The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.

Don’t get me wrong; if this is indeed part of what the Fifth Commandment means, then it is an exceedingly hard command to follow, and I myself fall short of it constantly.[1] Still, I do think the Westminster Divines were right on the principle, even if we may debate particular applications. Wilson writes as if “trust” were an all-or-nothing thing. It is indeed one of our most common human temptations to treat it so. If someone lets us down once, we are apt to dismiss and ignore them henceforward. Descartes elevated it into an epistemic principle: “I resolved that it is unwise to trust anything which has deceived me once.” But anyone who actually followed this principle would be incapable of human relationships. Friends and authorities let us down all the time; they forfeit trust in large measure; and yet, we must be very slow to relinquish our trust altogether. While Wilson claims to have lost all trust in his governing authorities, I suspect that he still daily entrusts his very life to the trustworthiness of his local police force, to our national military, to the sanitation authorities who keep his tap water free of poisons and the transportation authorities that try to keep the roads up to standards. As a student of history, I am constantly struck by the ways that even relatively incompetent governments tend to succeed in keeping conditions much better than mere anarchy would provide.

It is true that I have lost less trust in our magistrates these last few months than Wilson has, because my own reading of the situation tells me that on balance, their policies on Covid have been largely (perhaps 50%?) rational and well-intentioned, whereas on his reading of the situation, they have been mostly irrational and driven by bad intentions. Even if I shared that factual assessment, though, WLC 127 would compel me to still be very slow indeed to reach the conclusion: they have forfeited their authority; my obligation to respectfully obey is gone.

That doesn’t mean we might not have reached that point. “Very slow” does not mean “not at all.” But if it is the case that Covid is a manufactured panic, that our governing authorities have forfeited all credibility, and that the way lies open for us to resist their orders, then I would submit at the very least that anyone who reaches this conclusion should not be so arrogant as to pretend this conclusion is obvious, and that anyone who doesn’t see it is a blind sheep. A little more humility is in order from those who pride themselves on their skepticism.

Some Principles for a Healthy Skepticism

We live in an age that prides itself on its skepticism; skepticism is almost our default mode. On the Left, this manifests itself in a withering skepticism toward traditional morality and historic cultural identities; on the right, in a withering skepticism toward political and epistemic authorities. As an historian, I have been trained in the art of skepticism, specifically in a skepticism toward efforts to derive broad or universal generalizations from particular cases. And so I find that this trained skepticism has led me to be skeptical of the ideology of modern skepticism: as a meta-skeptic, I am skeptical of those whose default is to discredit whole institutions, classes, or traditions on the basis of particular errors and grievances. And thus it is that I have found myself, somewhat surreally, decried on every side these past few months as a credulous sell-out.

I agree with Wilson that a healthy skepticism is in order when it comes to Covid-19 and prevailing public policy. But a healthy skepticism does not begin from a blanket distrust of all experts and civil authorities, whom Wilson unceremoniously lumps together (despite the fact that when it comes to Covid, public health experts have repeatedly and loudly clashed with civil authorities over policy). It would take a separate lengthy post to sort through all the sorts of questions that a healthy skepticism ought to ask, but for now I will just briefly outline a few tests we can apply:

  • Relevant expertise: All things being equal, someone with long-cultivated expertise in a given field is to be preferred to the uneducated opinion of the ordinary citizen. We are all apt to deride and mock expertise nowadays, but it is telling that everyone only ever does this about experts in other fields. The trained and experienced electrician or plumber who talks trash about doctors and lawyers while repairing your wires or pipes would have no doubt that he was far more authoritative on the subject of wires or pipes than they or you were. Gripe as we might, we all know deep down that while experts aren’t perfect, and are usually prone to overconfidence, we’d much rather have an expert than a novice when there’s a difficult job to do or question to decide. (To be sure, when it comes to something like Covid, you need different sorts of experts to tackle different aspects of the problem, but it is striking that the doctors and the economists have been singing almost identical tunes in recent months.)
  • Degree of consensus: All things being equal, a majority opinion of qualified experts is to be preferred to a minority report. Of course it is true that consensus can be manufactured by power or nourished by reflexive groupthink. But it is also true that minority reports can be manufactured by special interests who benefit from sowing doubt, or nourished by reflexive contrarianism. In our present situation, there is no question that, while dissenting voices certainly exist, there is a robust international majority view that Covid-19 is an urgent public health threat that requires drastic policy action. I myself am skeptical of many elements of the consensus view, but I am even more skeptical of my own expertise on the matter.
  • To whose benefit?: Wilson might grant the points above, all things being equal, but would insist that all things are not equal, because we have to take motive into account, and vested interests. Don’t public health experts have a vested interest in exaggerating and prolonging the crisis, so that they can elevate and perpetuate their own importance? No doubt they do (although no doubt this is subconscious in most cases; I don’t mean to throw stones at their intentions). Don’t civil authorities have a vested interest in exaggerating and prolonging the crisis, so that they can increase their power and extend their control? No doubt they do. However, it is worth noting that they also have strong motives in the opposite direction, as we have seen vividly in the response of leaders like President Trump here in the US or Bolsonaro in Brazil. Nothing is more important to a politician than a strong economy, and there is thus a great temptation to minimize the virus, tell everyone to keep calm and carry on, and try and preserve a robust economy, especially in an election year. The fact that most leaders have decided not to do so, and that most who tried this tack were quickly forced to backtrack, suggests that the virus perhaps cannot be wished away so easily. Moreover, there are perverse incentives in other directions too. Each of us has a very strong bias toward normalcy and freedom, toward being able to do whatever we want to do whenever we want to do it. This means that many of us have a built-in bias to minimize the threat of the virus and to deny the necessity of lockdowns and restrictions. Will Wilson deny that it makes life easier for him if the virus is no big deal? Each of us is prone to distort this situation to serve our own self-interest, and we must be as distrustful of our own intentions as we are of our mayors and governors.
  • Uncorrelated consensus: For the reasons above, a consensus that spans many different countries, contexts, and ideological backgrounds is a very compelling one. It is much less prone to groupthink (although the increasing integration of global elites means even trans-national groupthink is a growing threat), and it is much less likely that biases and self-interest will line up the same. Do the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have the same interests at stake as the mayors of small town Idaho? Do the authorities in Saudi Arabia placing draconian restrictions on the annual hajj have the same perverse motives as the South Korean bureaucrats cracking down on a super-spreading cult? There is some overlap, to be sure, inasmuch as all governing authorities have a managerial bias and are afraid of being blamed if things go wrong. But as soon as we expand our viewpoint from our parochial American concerns and see how Covid-19 has played out on a global scale, it becomes harder and harder to maintain the firm conviction that this is simply a manufactured crisis to take away our freedoms, especially religious freedoms. That’s not to say that those who otherwise want to take away our freedoms won’t try and capitalize on this crisis—of course they will. Anyone with a strong agenda and a quick wit will try to find ways to capitalize on this crisis. But these agendas are very diverse and tend to cancel each other out.

Conclusion

In short, authority is a devilishly difficult thing. It is a God-given good to help us live in a world of uncertainties, but it can readily be abused. It comes in many different forms—political and ecclesial, institutional and epistemological, formal and informal. Very often, in fleeing abuses of one kind of authority, we run headlong into another set of equal or greater dangers.

Indeed, we should recognize that, broadly speaking, there are two ways in which authority can offer us relief from uncertainty: either it can direct our actions, calling us to pragmatically submit to a single norm of behavior, even while withholding judgment on whether it is ultimately best; or it can direct our minds, offering us a comforting conviction that we do in fact know what is best, and we can act accordingly, even in defiance of political authority. The Christian conscience, set free from fear to serve the neighbor, must recognize that there is a place for each, but that each can also offer a false security blanket, a shortcut to avoid the tensions of serving both Christ and Caesar in an uncertain world. Certainty is what we crave above all, but we won’t have it until the eschaton; in the meantime, faith, hope, and love will have to be enough.

Footnotes

[1] Indeed, I am sensitive to the concern that my critique of MacArthur itself was an example of falling foul of this admonition. I am inclined to say that having never been a member of churches where MacArthur exerted even a significant informal influence, he is not a “superior” of the sort that WLC 127 has in mind. I would also say that WLC 127 does not rule out spirited but respectful critique when one is convinced the situation calls for it. However, I am certainly challenged to continue examining myself for consistency on this score.

Posted by Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.

3 Comments

  1. With regard to authority, is there a “functional” kind? No compulsion exists over those not in the GCC community to conform to its dictates or the pronouncements of John MacArthur. He certainly possesses influence, but authority? Maybe I am missing something.

    As to our response to civil authority in the context of Romans 13, it would be helpful to define terms and make certain distinctions. For example, is disobedience to a civil magistrate biblically sound when that individual is violating the law? In present context, that is a real issue, as certain state governors have implemented measures beyond their constitutional authority to do so. We do live in a political system designed to curb such arbitrary exercise of power. Maybe for another day?

    Thanks for your input. Some things to chew on.

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  2. Very helpful. Thank you.

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  3. Excellent article. Thank you so much for writing this. There are many Christians who have had their consciences bound by these unfortunate events, and I am one of them. COVID has shaken the foundations of so many things we hold dear, and it has also revealed the character flaws, stubbornness, arrogance, and poor decision making of many Christian leaders previously held in high esteem for decades. Watching John MacArthur, James White, et al, naively dismissing the dangers of this disease, persuading congregations to stop wearing masks, and rejecting social distancing guidelines established by governmental authorities, etc., has been very painful. Loving thy neighbor seems to be lost on them. It is mind boggling. Perhaps they genuinely believe that COVID is a hoax dreamed up by those in power for the primary objective of removing religious freedom to usher in persecution of Christians. If that is the case, then their actions may be contributing to a self fulfilling prophecy. Those of us who know persons who have died of COVID and/or know persons suffering with this disease are simply astonished that many Christians could be so callous and cruel. There is no doubt a very strong delusion that has gripped many.

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