The pastor and elders of a prominent evangelical church in California issued a statement on Friday explaining why they will no longer comply with the state’s mandate ordering them to refrain from in-person gatherings.
John F. MacArthur, the 81-year-old senior pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, also claimed that the state had overstepped its legitimate, God-given authority. Citing Christ and the Bible as the ultimate authority over his congregation, MacArthur wrote in the lengthy blog post replete with scripture that “we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”
Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church: A Statement from John MacArthur and the Elders of Grace Community Church https://t.co/tObjChOfcI
— Grace to You (@gracetoyou) July 24, 2020
MacArthur went on to explain the church’s view that God has given different spheres of authority to the family, the church, and the government, and that “when any one of the three institutions exceeds the bounds of its jurisdiction it is the duty of the other institutions to curtail that overreach.”
MacArthur also suggested that the statistics government officials have offered as justification for their sweeping mandates may not be accurate. “History is full of painful reminders that government power is easily and frequently abused for evil purposes,” the statement reads. “Politicians may manipulate statistics and the media can cover up or camouflage inconvenient truths. So a discerning church cannot passively or automatically comply if the government orders a shutdown of congregational meetings—even if the reason given is a concern for public health and safety.”
Citing the historical precedent of Christians often being persecuted by their own governments, MacArthur warned, “As government policy moves further away from biblical principles, and as legal and political pressures against the church intensify, we must recognize that the Lord may be using these pressures as means of purging to reveal the true church.”
The church’s move comes less than two weeks after Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued another round of lockdown orders on July 13, after initially rolling back the ones from March. Thirty counties, or about 80% of the state’s population, were placed under the new order, which shuts down houses of worship as well as restaurants, bars, gyms, and other types of businesses.
In a few paragraphs appended to the original statement, MacArthur explained why his church at first obeyed the initial lockdown order, but have since changed their mind, writing in part:
When the devastating lockdown began, it was supposed to be a short-term stopgap measure, with the goal to “flatten the curve”—meaning they wanted to slow the rate of infection to ensure that hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. And there were horrific projections of death. In light of those factors, our pastors supported the measures by observing the guidelines that were issued for churches.
But we did not yield our spiritual authority to the secular government. We said from the very start that our voluntary compliance was subject to change if the restrictions dragged on beyond the stated goal, or politicians unduly intruded into church affairs, or if health officials added restrictions that would to attempt to undermine the church’s mission. We made every decision with our own burden of responsibility in mind. We simply took the early opportunity to support the concerns of health officials and accommodate the same concerns among our church members, out of a desire to act in an abundance of care and reasonableness (Philippians 4:5).
But we are now more than twenty weeks into the unrelieved restrictions. It is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared. Still, roughly forty percent of the year has passed with our church essentially unable to gather in a normal way. Pastors’ ability to shepherd their flocks has been severely curtailed. The unity and influence of the church has been threatened. Opportunities for believers to serve and minister to one another have been missed. And the suffering of Christians who are troubled, fearful, distressed, infirm, or otherwise in urgent need of fellowship and encouragement has been magnified beyond anything that could reasonably be considered just or necessary. Major public events that were planned for 2021 are already being canceled, signaling that officials are preparing to keep restrictions in place into next year and beyond. That forces churches to choose between the clear command of our Lord and the government officials. Therefore, following the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, we gladly choose to obey Him.
(Read the full statement here.)
MacArthur’s church is the latest to test the limits of the tension between civil and ecclesiastical authorities in the age of coronavirus. On Friday, the Supreme Court denied a petition from Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley, a church in Nevada that appealed the governor’s order that capped the number of worshippers who could attend at 50.
Referencing the fact that hundreds are permitted to mill about in Nevada casinos, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in his dissent: “In Nevada, it seems, it is better to be in entertainment than religion. Maybe that is nothing new. But the First Amendment prohibits such obvious discrimination against the exercise of religion. The world we inhabit today, with a pandemic upon us, poses unusual challenges. But there is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel.”
MacArthur, who is also an author and radio show host, discussed the limits of legitimate state authority in a 2018 interview with The Daily Wire’s Editor Emeritus Ben Shapiro. “We also are commanded necessarily to dissent in our speech when the government is asking us to do something that is wrong, or that God is telling us to do one thing, they’re telling us to do something else,” MacArthur said at the time, adding:
An illustration in the New Testament: the apostles go out, they preach Christ, and the Jews arrest them and say stop. And so they said, ‘You judge whether we obey God or men.’ And they went right back out to preach Christ. Freedom of speech, for us, is freedom to preach the truth of Christ, even when the society says that’s against the law. And then, you don’t get an army. You go to jail. They went to jail, they took the consequences.