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Three North American Christian pastors who endured legal punishment from state and federal governments for defying authoritarian COVID orders to keep their churches open amid the pandemic are featured in a new documentary set to hit select theaters nationwide on Friday.
“The Essential Church,” produced by Grace Productions and starring Grace Community Church Pastor Dr. John MacArthur, is a feature-length documentary that explores the struggle between Church and government throughout history.
“This upcoming feature-length documentary explores the ancient struggle between the Satanic World System and Christ’s people through the story of Grace Community Church’s legal battle, church history, and the church during worldwide lockdowns,” according to the film’s website.
Beginning with the Scottish Covenanters back in the 1600s and interwoven with stories about modern-day pastors, the film details through scientific, legal, and Biblical perspectives why gathering in person remains essential, especially at a time when the world faced unprecedented health fears exacerbated by federal agencies, state-run media outlets, and politicians at every level of government.
Shannon Paul Halliday, the film’s director, told The Daily Wire that he wanted his debut documentary to focus on presenting a timeless element for viewers about a moment in history that will stay relevant for years to come.
“I really wanted it to transcend the lockdowns or transcend COVID,” Halliday said. “I think a lot of people have COVID fatigue — I have COVID fatigue — so I didn’t want it to be just a completely science based type of argument. We needed to tell the story of the church, and when you do that you’re dealing with theological concepts.”
In the Summer of 2020, Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, garnered national attention after becoming the center of controversy when MacArthur and church elders stood up against state and local health guidelines by returning to in-person church gatherings. While the church reopened and members of the congregation returned to the sanctuary, the film gives an inside look at division MacArthur and Grace Community leaders faced with the government and among each other.
“There’s never not any drama or anything like that,” Halliday said. “So to show our elder board and the division they had and how they worked through it I think is going to be really interesting to people out there and might entice them to want to see the film.”
After months of battling with Los Angeles County officials, the Southern California church was ultimately rewarded with an $800,000 settlement based on Supreme Court rulings earlier that year, which declared that churches in California could be exempt from enforcement of some of the state’s coronavirus policies.
Also included in the documentary are Canadian ministers Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary and James Coates of GraceLife Church of Edmonton in Alberta. Both pastors were among several clergymen imprisoned in Canada for refusing to shutter their churches as ordered by the Crown, receiving legal fines, public scrutiny enhanced by legacy media outlets, and more than 20 days of imprisonment.
Halliday said that tying in Coates and Stephens was crucial to the story because they communicated the real stakes when church leaders stood up to totalitarianism.
“They made a sacrifice for conviction — a Biblical conviction — that Jesus Christ is the head of the church,” he said. “And there isn’t any context or any emergency act that we should ever compromise for that.”
Actor and outspoken evangelist Kirk Cameron said the film will “open your eyes to the darkness of our cultural moment and shine bright rays of hope and courage for the Family of Faith.”
“When churches in the communist state of California were closed under COVID house arrest by order of Governor Newsom, Grace Community Church courageously opened their doors to help the hopeless and the hurting and hold back the storm of authoritarian control,” Cameron said, according to The Hanford Sentinel.
Halliday urged “anybody and everybody” to watch the film.
“People shouldn’t just assume they know what went on with Grace Community Church and with the global church,” he said.
“The Essential Church” opens on July 28, 2023, in select theaters nationwide.