US Supreme Court sides with Puritan pastor Richard Baxter rather than John MacArthur

The United States Supreme Court has made a Solomon-like decision in asking California to modify their severe COVID lockdown rules for churches. On the one hand, some religious leaders like the well-known John MacArthur have carried on with mask-less , un-social-distanced services in his 3,500 seater Grace Community Church. On the other hand, the Supreme Court has come up with a formula similar to the advice of English pastor Richard Baxter from centuries ago.

Reflecting its post-Trump conservative majority, the Court has upheld the right for churches to open by a vote of 6-3. It rejected California Governor Gavin Newsom’s prohibition on indoor worship services. Instead, the Court ruled that a cap of 25 per cent of the normal attendance in a building should apply, and it maintained the ban on singing.

“California forbids any kind of indoor worship. Meanwhile, the State allows most retail operations to proceed indoors with 25 per cent occupancy, and other businesses to operate at 50 per cent occupancy or more,” noted three of the more conservative Justices, Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

“Apparently, California is the only State in the country that has gone so far as to ban all indoor religious services … When a State so obviously targets religion for differential treatment, our job becomes that much clearer. As the [Court of Appeals for the ] Ninth Circuit recognised, regulations like these violate the First Amendment unless the State can show they are the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest.” (The full spectrum of the Supreme Court opinion can be read here.)

In her first Written Judgment, Justice Amy Coney Barrett concurs with the three above, but was less keen on the ban on singing. “As the case comes to us, it remains unclear whether the singing ban applies across the board (and thus constitutes a neutral and generally applicable law) or else favours certain sectors (and thus triggers more searching review). Of course, if a chorister can sing in a Hollywood studio but not in her church, California’s regulations cannot be viewed as neutral … As the order notes, however, the applicants remain free to show that the singing ban is not generally applicable and to advance their claim accordingly.”

Now, the learned judges on the US Supreme Court might have never heard of Richard Baxter (1615 – 1691), the puritan pastor most remembered for his book The Reformed Pastor which is still in print. (There are six Catholics on the bench, one Episcopalian (Anglican) and two Jews) But Baxter’s words about government orders in pandemics echo down the centuries. Baxter is the main writer that the late J.I Packer studied for his doctorate and was one of the Puritans that many of those involved in a revival of Calvinism have read.

Here’s how Baxter addresses the topic of Christian worship gatherings during a public health emergency. A topic that was not an academic question for him. The Great Plague of London – a devastating outbreak of bubonic plague lasting from 1665 to 1666 – occurred while he was living just outside the city.

“If the magistrate for a greater good (as the common safety), forbid church assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him. 1. Because positive duties give place to those great natural duties which are their end: so Christ justified himself and his disciples violation of the external rest of the Sabbath. ‘For the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.’ 2. Because affirmatives bind not ‘ad semper,’ [always or forever] and out-of-season duties become sins. 3. Because one Lord’s day or assembly is not to be preferred before many, which by the omission of that one are like to be obtained.”

“If princes profanely forbid holy assemblies and public worship, either statedly, or as a renunciation of Christ and our religion; it is not lawful formally to obey them.” (From The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, the fifth volume, in his Christian Ecclesiastics.)

Unlike the churches seeking no restrictions in California during the pandemic – the Supreme Court case is listed as being brought by South Bay United Pentecostal Church, with Grace Community Church among others meeting in defiance of local Health Department restrictions – Richard Baxter took a moderate path.

He laid out the boundaries of when a church should co-operate with Government, even in closing its doors for a time.

And the Justices of the Supreme Court agreed with him.

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