On Christian Compromise – and Treason

What happens when Christians renounce their faith in order to please the state?

My title may sound a bit ominous, but this piece is actually an exercise in theology and church history – with some contemporary application. The main issue I wish to address is how the church should look at the matter of compromise – even apostasy – especially as found among church leaders. And the church has had to deal with this before.

Let me mention just one such famous case of this from long ago. Although it is a rather more complex situation than this brief description lets on, let me discuss the Donatists of the fourth century – a schismatic and heretical sect. This cult-like group decried the established church of the day, proclaiming that they were the one true church.

Donatus (313-355) was an early bishop of Carthage. He and his followers (the Donatists) were willing to see a schism in the church to keep it pure and weed out immoral leaders. Others, such as Augustine, rejected this, arguing that the church would always have a mixture of true and false believers, and that church unity should be preserved.

The background is this. The “Great Persecution” had taken place under Diocletian from 303-305. During this time of heavy persecution, Christian leaders were ordered to hand over their Bibles and Christian writings to be burned. Some of these folks did so.

Those who did were called traditores (from the Latin word tradere, which means ‘to hand over’) by other Christians. We get our English word ‘traitor’ from this Latin term. But a major dispute arose once the persecution ended: What was to be done to those who compromised? Should these priests be allowed to keep ministering?

The Donatists regarded these believers as apostates, and said they were not part of the true church. But the church allowed them to remain and administer the sacraments. The Donatists rejected this and pulled out, demanding a pure and uncorrupted church. Thus there was a major split in the North African church.

Donatus insisted on the priority of the purity of the church, and the need to break away. Others like Augustine and the earlier Cyprian stressed the need for Christian unity. Augustine recognised the sin of compromise but felt that the disruption of the church was an even more serious sin.

He appealed to Matthew 13:24-30 where Jesus spoke of the wheat and the tares growing up together, and how their separation would only occur at the final harvest. Augustine spoke of the church as a corpus permixtum (a mixed body) – it contains both saints and sinners.

Much more needs to be said about this, and there is some biblical truth to be found in the positions on both sides of the debate. Christian unity is vital, but so too is faithfulness and dedication to Christ – even in times of persecution. But this and other cases like it do offer food for thought for contemporary Christians.

Relevance for today

As I was on my morning prayer walk, I was seriously wondering how long this would be allowed. Victoria is going berserk on lockdown madness, and things will likely get much worse in the days ahead, with all of us perhaps being fully locked in our own homes indefinitely. Victoria is quickly becoming one massive internment camp under this dysfunctional Labor government.

It did occur to me that we certainly are nowhere near as bad off as places like North Korea and many Muslim-majority nations. But who knows where these police state sort of measures will end? And while Christians are being tempted to compromise and even renounce their faith in those other countries, in limited ways at least we are finding similar situations in the West now because of the corona crisis.

The closure of churches is one obvious issue. In many places in the West church attendance is banned, while it seems all sorts of other “essential services” are being allowed, be they liquor stores, abortion mills, strip clubs or brothels. Indeed, in some places such as Portland in the US, people are being allowed to riot and burn Bibles on the streets, but Christians are not allowed to worship and read their Bibles together in churches.

Quite early on during this crisis I wrote about this matter. I said Christians need to think carefully about how we respond to the state closure of churches. You can see my thoughts here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/04/01/closing-churches-during-the-corona-crises/

And I also wrote about how the state is not absolute. While Christians generally are to submit to governments, that is not always the case, and there can be occasions when civil disobedience is required.  See here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/05/15/the-state-is-not-absolute/

When the state orders Christians to do things that they cannot do in good conscience, and when the state forbids Christians from doing what they ought to do, then there can be a place for Christians to say yes to God and no to the state. So the question is, when Scripture commands us not to ‘forsake the assembling of ourselves together’ (Hebrews 10:25), and the state says the churches must remain closed, is this one of those situations where Christians must disobey?

You will get Christians on various sides of this issue. In California right now we have some famous Christian pastors taking different views on this. John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, says he will defy Governor Newsom’s recent orders on this.

Although he could face fines and even arrest for keeping his church open, he said yesterday in a Fox News interview that the draconian lockdown is “just not warranted.” He said Jesus is Lord, and the government “is usurping a role that they don’t have over the church” in this regard. He said “we are not spreading anything but the gospel.” https://www.foxnews.com/media/california-pastor-coronavirus-church-newsom-order

Franklin Graham concurred and said this: “I agree with Pastor MacArthur and appreciate his call for ‘the church to be the church in this world.’ If I were in Southern California this weekend, I would love to attend their service tomorrow—and if you live anywhere in southern California, I urge you to get up tomorrow morning and go!”

Other Christian leaders have sided against MacArthur on this. For example, Pastor Gavin Ortlund of First Baptist Church in Ojal responded to him and said that he is concerned he is putting the “importance of worship” ahead of “love for neighbor,” “obedience to government,” and “maintaining a good witness.”

Then some other church leaders took a somewhat compromised approach. For example, Greg Laurie, pastor at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside has been using a large white tent of late to hold his services in. https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/august/california-church-worship-covid-john-macarthur-greg-laurie.html

Debate continues as to what is the proper and most biblical Christian response to these state orders on keeping churches closed – or greatly restricted. And this issue may not be as severe as being forced to turn your Bibles over to be burned. But what we can see is that these are all areas in which the state is coming into conflict with the church.

And for those who do compromise or give in or just do whatever the state demands, is this a problem? Are they being – at least in somewhat lesser ways – traditores? How far should Christians and Christian leaders go along with various state edicts, while still remaining true to Christ? Which laws can we all obey and which laws must we break?

Is there a place for civil disobedience? If so, when? I look at this issue more fully here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2008/11/02/christians-and-civil-disobedience/

But the matters of faithfulness to Christ, the nature of compromise, and even apostasy, and how we should deal with those who do compromise – will always be matters for Christians to think carefully and prayerfully about. And we can learn some lessons from church history in this regard.

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25 Replies to “On Christian Compromise – and Treason”

  1. Bill, I think Dr James Dobson has also challenged the CA Governor on this issue.

  2. I for one fully support Macarthurs decision to continue to worship. I’ve just joined a new church (left previous church because Lgbtq agenda began to infiltrate) here in SA (I believe another lockdown is imminent) and I sure hope the elders/pastor/leaders will defy closing shop.

    I would be prepared to face a fine and even arrest. We have headed into times where easy christianty/church life is OVER, and so, are we prepared to sacrifice? Walk the talk. God grant me strength to do so.

  3. Hi Bill

    In my view, if churches were singled-out, that would be reason enough to disobey. But as things are, the measures are largely across the board. It also seems relevant that Australian churches were closed in 1919 with the Spanish Flu. Back then there could be no suggestion that the Australian authorities were hostile to Christians as they are now.

    Even so, our church has been ‘closed’ for months now. It’s getting to the stage where I am burdened by whether we should re-open, regardless of the state of play.

    It’s fraught because if churches defy the executive overreach and meet together, they will be accused of spreading Covid-19, and there may prove to be some truth to that given how contagious the virus is. But the facts clearly show that the threat of the virus has been overblown and that the responsive measures are disproportionate.

    Nick Davies

  4. Paul wrote large sections of the NT locked down in prison or under house arrest for long periods of time. The Gospel is not in chains.

    I believe the lesson at this time is to take an account of your life in the Body. Do you have church members you regularly pray, fellowship with at homes and are serving in love? If not why not? It only takes 2 or 3 gathered in His Name for a Royal visit. Don’t hold back if you love Him with all of your heart.

    The church has been meeting in homes since the very beginning. Recent Stats from the Barna institute had pre-covid Sunday church attendance at 1 meeting a month for the average church member and only 20% of members attended any meetings or groups outside of a Sunday service. Such a part-time lukewarm to stone cold state is well within His judgement to warrant having a lamp-stand removed.

    The message at large for the church is to repent and earnestly seek His face for forgiveness. Australia is facing prolonged and escalating judgement unless His church pleads for mercy and humbles herself. Holding a hard heart towards Him and His Body is not abiding in Him. Some branches will be cut off, collected and burnt.

    Yes the state can overplay its power over the church. We however have a bigger problem – a fatal heart condition with time running out. Don’t delay repent earnestly and seek His face today.

  5. I totally agree with what John MacArthur and his decision to make a stand we need to make a stand if we truly believe in Christ and that is what John MacArthur is doing and I stand with him as a believer in Christ and declare we need to make a stand for his sake our saviour Jesus Christ our lord.

  6. Thanks Bill for getting us thinking again. There are definitely some things we cannot do at the moment like shaking hands or giving each other a holy kiss like the Bible says. Each country, state and area is different, so I think if a pastor warrants opening their church they should apply to the government to do so especially if over 100 people are coming and then rely on the Holy Spirit’s leading as what to do if it is denied which may be going against the law.
    The lastest BLM protesters in Sydney were stopped, however, the mosque at Auburn Sydney got approval for 400 people and have to obey some corona laws. That’s ok, let them be the testing zone if you like. If there is an outbreak in Auburn or the Muslim community in Sydney then we will know not to have any gatherings over 100 people. But if everything goes ok in two to three weeks time then maybe the bigger churches can apply to reopen with more than 100 people.

  7. Hi Bill,
    I think this current dramatic increase in noticeable changes in state involvement in our lives really forces Christians to think about civil ethics, which have been neglected. I say ‘noticeable changes’ rather than that that it is something new, because I would contend that the state was already far too large before all this, but in any case now we have really reached a point where we will have to face up to these questions. Another issue in socialist Victoria is that apparently weddings are now banned in Melbourne. Note that “partners” are still allowed to visit one another. Given that one of the purposes of marriage is the “prevention of uncleanness” (WCF 24.ii, also see 1Cor 7:9), the current situation actually prevents marriage and promotes premarital sexual activity. So we have a situation where the state has left its defined role of the “punishment of evildoers and praise of those who do good” in favour of a monster-state who tries to keep its people “safe” from one particular danger in life, COVID19.

  8. “…the Donatists of the fourth century – a schismatic and heretical sect.”
    Having once given a lecture at Macquarie University on Donatism, under the auspices of the Society for the Study of Early Christianity, I need to correct this point. The Donatists never denied the cardinal truths of Christianity. While there were some who charged them with the Arian heresy, it was no less a person than Augustine who set the record straight on that one. Augustine had dialogue with several of the more moderate Donatist leaders, and even convened a major conference between the two parties, Catholic and Donatist, in 411 A.D. Indeed, the fact that Donatism was not heretical, but yet outside the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” (Nicene Creed) was for Augustine a major theological dilemma.
    Thus in summary on Donatism: schismatic – yes; heretical – no.

    As to John Macarthur, I fully support his stand. I have both heard his sermon declaring that the Newsom government had exceeded its powers, and I have looked at various responses to the sermon; and the critics strike me as weak, ill-informed, and sycophantic. Two points in particular:
    1. They regard Rom 13 as absolute, when it is not. There are other points to bring to bear on the issue, e.g. Daniel’s stand on the king’s decree in Dan 6:10. The king had no power under God to intrude into his devotional life. Moreover, Rom 13 envisages a government which promotes what is good and is a “terror” to one who does evil. But what, as now when this is reversed, when the state promotes what is evil, and punishes those who do good? What then? Gavin Newsom’s government is profoundly evil: I have seen reports that he has even instructed home Bible studies to cease—under the pretext of COVID-19.
    2. John Macarthur only sends where the early Christians stood: “Christ, not Caesar!” The critics have not really addressed this, believing (erroneously) that Caesar has ultimate rights to Christian obedience. Moreover, he stands where the Scottish Covenanters stood: “Christ shall be Lord in His own house!” The critics show a woeful ignorance of church history

  9. Yes Murray I did expect someone to raise that point. As I said in a radio interview yesterday about this matter, it depends on who you talk to as to whether they were genuine heretics or not. We know that the Donatists were condemned as heretics by Pope Miltiades (310-14), and by the Council of Arles (314), and many Protestants would concur with Catholics as to some of their dangerous beliefs. The main issue which was in dispute was not full-blown heresy, but a very important theological matter nonetheless: whether or not the administration of the sacraments was efficacious for the recipient depending on the moral character of the priest. The opponents of the Donatists of course argued that the sacraments are effective and powerful because of what they are, and not because of the moral condition of the one administering them.

    And yes I tend to side with MacArthur on the matter of church openings and closings.

  10. There are two issues being raised here:
    1. is the disparity of enforcement of rules between Muslim and Christian congregations (or similar discrimination against Christians).
    2. whether we are to obey God or man,

    Throughout history discrimination/persecution against Christians is a constant and common plight – we are told to expect it. Yes it is grossly and openly unfair, but just because it happens doesn’t change *anything* in regard to how we, as Jesus’ disciples, should handle the issue of whether we are to obey God or man.

    So how do we handle the times when we believe we need to choose between God and man?
    There are “matters of conscience”, and then there is outright apostasy. Being told by the authorities we can’t have bibles or read the bible and then acquiescing to that is apostasy – plain and simple. I agree with Donatus, not Augustine here. People who do not stand up for such clear matter of faith are not fit to lead others.

    But this is a matter of conscience.

    I both agree and disagree with Macarthur
    – he believes he should take a stand, then he must answer to God and God only. I most certainly do think that every culture and all authority should be viewed in light of God’s edicts, not the other way around.
    – But I also disagree with Macarthur, because of the incorrect view of Western church leaders regarding to what “the church” is and how it should conduct itself in the first place.
    There are other (and better) ways of living out an authentic Christian faith and of congregating.

    There are some major blessings coming out of this crazy period and one of them is that this is
    a) forcing Christians to start congregating more in their homes and be more mindful of their neighbours and the spiritual plight of those around them. They are starting informal home gatherings and fellowshipping with others in a real way – communion, bible study, prayer, evangelism – and seeing real growth and real fruit.
    b) those who have been languishing in the “feed me” mentality who totally ignore the “Go” edict of Jesus as something that is left up to pastors and missionaries (who might want to read some Jonathan Edwards or William Carey) might now be encouraged to reconsider this
    c) among all the pastors whose mantra is that people must come to “church” so as to not “forsake the assembling of ourselves together” and this is where it all happens, who are losing their congregation to (often better) online content and fear this, some are actually recognising that this is a real opportunity to encourage Christians to actually do what Jesus has commanded us to do.

    The early church, and many Christians in the centuries since, and even today, understood that growing the church was about going *Out* into the community (not building a building and expecting the community to come to it) and witnessing, about inviting their neighbours to study the Word within their homes (anyone who wanted to come along) and then multiplying that outwards into other homes and neighbourhoods and other regions. One by one. If everyone in your “home study” group prays for and invites someone then disciples them, then in a few months you double your congregation of believers. And then teaches them to do the same, and the multiplication accelerates.

    The modern Western “church” still believes that “if it builds it they will come”. It was a great movie – but just plain wrong theology. And the “they” who come generally grow very little in their faith or knowledge because they are not living it in their home situation. We are told to “go” not “sit and stay”.

    So in regard to whether Christians should be “standing up against the authorities” about attending church – maybe that is actually the wrong question in the first place. We can still obey authority, but behave more like Jesus’ disciples as the the scriptures paint by simply doing it from home with family and neighbours instead. We become the “sent” ones, instead of the “church club on Sunday” ones.

    So the “most biblical Christian response to these state orders on keeping churches closed – or greatly restricted” is simply to renew our thinking and start doing the right way. Francis Chan is not the only one who has forsaken “the Corporate Church” for home church. Millions of others have been doing it for a lot longer. The persecuted/underground churches gather in secret – we still don’t need to do it in secret but we should continue doing it, just not in a church building.

  11. Thanks Garth, I am basically with you. But a main problem arises right now, at least in Victoria, with the option of home churches. We are in a massive, destructive and indefinite lockdown! So not only has the dictatorial Dan Andrews shut down all our churches, but home church is fully banned as well of course. We are all under house arrest, and Victoria is becoming one mass internment camp. Which again raises the question: At what point must we disobey the State in order to obey God?

  12. Yes, Bill, absolutely.

    Victoria is a forerunner of where things are heading – we are being pushed to a point where we will now have to make personal and corporate decisions to take some sort of a stand if we are to continue. As you know, I have a son who lives in Melbourne too, and he is now wrestling with this farcical situation too. He and others are using technology as much as possible to meet and keep relationships going.

    But when does the temporary start becoming the (semi-)permanent? I would suggest that that time has passed, and things are coming to a head.

    If QLD follows down this path, I for one will not be restricting people visit me or gather in my house.

  13. Ah love, either thy neighbor or others, how much compromise has been done in thy name?????? And maintaining witness how many a mouth has been silenced by you?????? Obedience to government? Ah yes do what Caesar commands and ask NO questions. Submission to all, but God, that’s the Christian ticket. Sounds a lot more like a different so called religion. We render everything to Caesar and hope he will allow us to also render worship to God. But we cannot have two masters both the state and God say “You will have no other gods before me” but only one is worth listening too.

    We no longer seem to understand rights come from God not from government.

    Right now they are allowing us to be Christian but for now long??? How many will choose God when the time comes??

    On a somewhat related note some actually think one can take the mark of the beast and still be a Christian and God will heal you of the mark at the second coming. Like one could be a secret agent for God going undercover in the beast’s kingdom. We can’t identify with Caesar, or satan, and then pretend we are still God’s children.

  14. Another thing is family and friends lead to much compromise. look no further than homosexuality. How many have stood strongly against homosexuality UNTIL a family member or good friend came out as gay then they “reevaluate” the bible position on homosexuality. We forget the Jesus came to bring division that he would be what would come between parents and children between siblings between friends even spouses. Sometime trials expose where our loyalties lie. NOTHING should be above GOD. I am not a AMERICAN christian but a CHRISTIAN american. Family, friends, nation, ethic background, or anything else these must be secondary to CHRIST. But far too many christians compromise for the sake of one or more of these. We can be loyal to family and friends yes but we cannot allow that loyalty to come above our loyalty to God. But too many do they want to stay loyal to God but cant bring themselves to disavow family or friends etc. Those traditores were probably friends possible family and loyalty to them meant too much. Even today we see a lack of discipline in the church most of whom are friends and family and we allow those ties to prevent us from doing what God commands. It is said “judgment begins with the house of the Lord” but too often we act as is the house of the Lord is exempt. If we can not be harsh on ourselves if we cannot hold ourselves up to the Lords standard and see how we have fallen short how can we hold anyone else up?? Or be harsh on them?? I am not say we have to be perfect but if we cant see our own flaws what right do we have to point out others flaws. (I think that it what the whole plank and spec verse is about).

    We must put OUR house in order, no matter how hard or whose feelings are hurts by it (we might be the only family member left in church but better to be the only one of your family in heaven than be in hell with your whole family), before we others houses or even the nation in order. We let people in as members of the church without being sure they are believers their word is good enough. The church rolls are FAT with nonbelievers and Laodiceans but so many pastors have given themselves to mammon and are afraid of loosing the money these extra people bring so they don’t call them out or send them out they actually cater to them. When the church acknowledges it’s failure and then repents of it roll in the decline and fall of society and the world THEN God will move mightily amongst her and her preachers will be on fire and the fat will disappear. Hangers-on aren’t going to stick around when their worldly entertainment and worldly feel good sermons and programs are gone. Once the church returns to fire and brimstone preaching that was practice by the saints only those who are truly christian and those truly seeking christ will remain.

  15. This seems as good as place as any to mention that I saw, a few days ago, an article from Britain with the headline ‘Rugby player stands as team kneels’. There was a photo of the player, and I thought – it looks like Israel Folau! And of course, it was, now playing in France with the Catalan Dragons. I could have predicted that Israel would not bow down to anyone but God. You are very fortunate to have such an unwaveringly faithful Christian man from Australia. I wish I could name some here ( I am in Canada), but I can’t think of any. Perhaps I should emigrate!

  16. Just came to this site today, July 6, 2022 and read this article and comments.
    And I was just wondering if everyone still holds the views they held about the church closures in 2020, and the role of the state… especially if they have educated themselves on Covid and the vaccines in the last two years.

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