Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., announced on Friday that it would continue to hold in-person services despite a new edict by Gov. Gavin Newsom shuttering churches, restaurants, bars, fitness centers, hair salons, and barbershops in dozens of counties “indefinitely.”
“We cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings,” the church, led for the last half-century by Pastor John MacArthur, explained in a statement on its website. “Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands” to meet together for worship. “The church by definition is an assembly,” the pastors and elders of the church explained. “That is the literal meaning of the Greek word for ‘church’—ekklesia—the assembly of the called-out ones.” As a result, “no earthly state has a right to restrict, limit, or forbid the assembling of believers.”
“Therefore, in response to the recent state order requiring churches in California to limit or suspend all meetings indefinitely, we, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction, and faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services,” they wrote.
“History is full of painful reminders that government power is easily and frequently abused for evil purposes,” the church argued. “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.”
The church explained that there are three God-ordained spheres of authority—the church, the government, and the family—and the biblical framework “limits the authority of each institution to its specific jurisdiction.” As a result, “government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders.”
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The government, by banning worship services, has exceeded its authority, said GCC.
“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,” GCC declared. “Therefore, when any government official issues orders regulating worship (such as bans on singing, caps on attendance, or prohibitions against gatherings and services), he steps outside the legitimate bounds of his God-ordained authority as a civic official and arrogates to himself authority that God expressly grants only to the Lord Jesus Christ as sovereign over His Kingdom, which is the church.”
“In short, as the church, we do not need the state’s permission to serve and worship our Lord as He has commanded,” they wrote. “Said another way, it has never been the prerogative of civil government to order, modify, forbid, or mandate worship. When, how, and how often the church worships is not subject to Caesar [the state]. Caesar himself is subject to God.”
The leadership team acknowledged that while Christians are commanded to honor earthly governors and magistrates, that mandate “does not include compliance when such officials attempt to subvert sound doctrine, corrupt biblical morality, exercise ecclesiastical authority, or supplant Christ as head of the church in any other way.”
When the pandemic first emerged, GCC initially agreed to follow the state’s edicts. Phil Johnson, executive director of Pastor MacArthur’s teaching ministry, warned a few weeks ago that the state might go too far. “How long until the government-ordered quarantine is undeniably excessive, or we conclude that it’s targeted persecution against our worship and therefore an illegal attempt to make us disobey Hebrews 10:25?” said Johnson. “That time may come, and when it does, we may have to implement the principle of Acts 5:29,” when Peter and the apostles declared, “We must obey God rather than men.”
“The question of whether we have already passed that point is another subjective issue,” he added.
“But now,” Johnson wrote on Friday, “I don’t see it as altogether ‘subjective.’ In our congregation, by every metric I can conceive of, the amount of hardship, suffering, death, and disaster inflicted by the quarantine far exceeds whatever grief has been caused by the virus. It is time—past time—to get the church back together.”
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The church’s statement pointed out that while the First Amendment expressly protects religious liberty, “The right we are appealing to was not created by the Constitution. It is one of those unalienable rights granted solely by God, who ordained human government and establishes both the extent and the limitations of the state’s authority (Romans 13:1–7).” Their argument, therefore, “is purposely not grounded in the First Amendment; it is based on the same biblical principles that the Amendment itself is founded upon. The exercise of true religion is a divine duty given to men and women created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27; Acts 4:18–20; 5:29; cf. Matthew 22:16–22). In other words, freedom of worship is a command of God, not a privilege granted by the state.”
A network of California churches sued Newsom last week, saying the governor’s restrictions violate their constitutional rights. Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry said in their complaint that Newsom is “imposing discriminatory and disparate prohibitions on the types of activities that Plaintiffs may engage in at their own church buildings.” Further, “while the Governor has unilaterally and significantly restricted the number of individuals permitted to ‘gather’ in Plaintiffs’ churches, he has imposed no similar restrictions on the untold thousands of protesters who have gathered all throughout California cities with no threat of criminal sanction, and no social distancing or restrictions whatsoever. And, the Governor explicitly encouraged such large gatherings of protesters while condemning churches for signing hymns in their churches.”
Several other churches throughout the state have vowed to continue holding in-person worship services despite the state ban on gatherings.
Newsom has not announced how the state will handle mass civil disobedience related to church closures. Grace Community Church alone has a reported weekly attendance of more than 8,000 on any given Sunday. Will Newsom send Health Department goons to arrest the 81-year-old MacArthur and perp-walk the pastor to make an example of him? I wouldn’t be surprised.
A week ago I would have said that challenges to these unconstitutional orders would be upheld as they worked their way through the court system. With Friday’s Supreme Court ruling that the state of Nevada was within its rights to keep casinos open but shutter churches, all bets (no pun intended) are off. One would have expected Chief Justice John Roberts, reportedly a devout Catholic, to be an unapologetic defender of the First Amendment, but he instead voted with the liberal wing of the court, declining to even explain his reasoning—perhaps because it’s indefensible—a cowardly move by any measure.
Christians have throughout history been persecuted for their faith. It was baked into the DNA of the church when Jesus warned that the world would hate them on account of their love for Him. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you,” Jesus said, as recorded by his beloved friend John. “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” He added that while Christians should expect tribulation, we are to “take heart” because He has “overcome the world.”
The United States throughout its history has been a haven for Christianity and we’ve been the beneficiaries of unprecedented religious liberty for 244 years. The window on those freedoms, I’m afraid, is quickly closing.
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