Culture

CA Church Defied Gavin Newsom and Remained Open. Here's How That Turned Out.

(Twitter screenshot @Phil_Johnson_)

It’s taken a while for this case to wind its way through the courts, but Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., announced this week that it had reached a settlement with the State of California and Los Angeles over lockdown policies that ordered houses of worship shuttered in March 2020.

The city and state agreed to pay $400,000 each in “prevailing party” attorney’s fees to the church after courts issued injunctions prohibiting them from imposing discriminatory restrictions on churches.

After initially closing the church in deference to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 lockdown orders in March 2020, Pastor John MacArthur and other church leaders announced on July 23 that the church would reopen:

After careful deliberation, the elders of Grace Church agree that the church can no longer abstain from assembling. They publish the official statement, “Christ, Not Caesar, Is the Head of the Church,” which asserts the God-given authority of the church to hold worship services, regardless of the opinions or directives of the government. The elders affirmed that:

“Christ is the one true head of His Church, and we intend to honor that vital truth in all our gatherings. For that preeminent reason, we cannot accept and will not bow to the intrusive restrictions government officials now want to impose on our congregation.”

Throughout the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matters rioters were running rampant in Los Angeles County and across the state. Rather than shutting down the protests, government officials turned their attention to harassing churches, including GCC. The church was threatened with fines, and, in an apparent act of retaliation, the church’s 45-year-old parking lease was abruptly terminated by the county.

On Sept. 10, a judge issued an order prohibiting the church from holding indoor, in-person services. The church defied that order the following Sunday, holding a packed worship service.

In a powerful statement titled “Christ, not Caesar, is head of the Church,” church leaders wrote, “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.” The statement continued:

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. Caesar himself is subject to God. Jesus affirmed that principle when He told Pilate, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). And because Christ is head of the church, ecclesiastical matters pertain to His Kingdom, not Caesar’s. Jesus drew a stark distinction between those two kingdoms when He said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Our Lord Himself always rendered to Caesar what was Caesar’s, but He never offered to Caesar what belongs solely to God.

As pastors and elders, we cannot hand over to earthly authorities any privilege or power that belongs solely to Christ as head of His church. Pastors and elders are the ones to whom Christ has given the duty and the right to exercise His spiritual authority in the church (1 Peter 5:1–4Hebrews 13:717)—and Scripture alone defines how and whom they are to serve (1 Corinthians 4:1–4). They have no duty to follow orders from a civil government attempting to regulate the worship or governance of the church. In fact, pastors who cede their Christ-delegated authority in the church to a civil ruler have abdicated their responsibility before their Lord and violated the God-ordained spheres of authority as much as the secular official who illegitimately imposes his authority upon the church.

Read the whole statement here. It’s well worth your time to learn about the God-ordained roles of the church and the government—and how Christians should respond when a conflict arises.

Related: Churches Wrestle $2M From Gavin Newsom Over COVID Lockdowns

In the wake of the church’s reopening, several months of legal wrangling ensued, culminating in a Feb. 5 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court ruled in South Bay United Pentecostal Chuch v. Gavin Newsom that the State of California could not impose more severe restrictions on churches than it did other establishments.

“Since the arrival of COVID–19, California has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses.” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in one of three concurring opinions. “California worries that worship brings people together for too much time. Yet, California does not limit its citizens to running in and out of other establishments; no one is barred from lingering in shopping malls, salons, or bus terminals.”

“As this crisis enters its second year— and hovers over a second Lent, a second Passover, and a second Ramadan—it is too late for the State to defend extreme measures with claims of temporary exigency, if it ever could,” Gorsuch added. “Drafting narrowly tailored regulations can be difficult. But if Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry.”

The church announced on August 31 that the state and county had agreed to pay a combined $800,000 to cover the church’s legal fees.

“A year after this trial began, we have settled our lawsuit with the county,” the church wrote on its website. “In the opinion of our lawyers, this settlement is nothing less than a total victory and complete vindication of our position. In exchange for resolving the lawsuits, the State of California and County of Los Angeles agreed to drop all legal charges, lawsuits, injunctions, fines, and other penalties they were attempting to claim against GCC. In addition, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District agreed to fully reinstate the rental agreement for the parking spaces that they previously tried to terminate, an action that we and our lawyers viewed as retaliatory and improper.”

The settlement “appears to be a clear recognition that they would never prevail against us,” the church said.

Pastor John MacArthur said in a separate statement, “We are very grateful for our Lord’s protection and providence throughout this past year. Our commitment to the Word of God and His church has never wavered. We have simply continued to stand firm, as we always have and always will.”

“We put our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ who is the head of the church,” he added “Over the past year, our congregation has seen His hand of blessing in ways like never before, and the Lord’s promise has been realized: ‘I will build My church and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.'”

He thanked his legal counsel, Thomas More Society special counsels Jenna Ellis and Charles LiMandri.

“The church is essential. Religious liberty and the Constitution won today against the overbroad, arbitrary, indeterminate, and clearly unconstitutional mandates from Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles County,” Ellis said in a statement. “I am so very proud of Pastor MacArthur’s steadfast leadership and refusal to abdicate headship of Christ’s church to the state. I hope this hard-fought result encourages Californians and all Americans to stand firmly with the protections our Constitution rightly provides, and against tyranny.”

LiMandri added, “This was a very hard-fought case every step of the way. Pastor MacArthur and Grace Community Church refused to bow to government tyranny and they finally obtained the excellent result they deserved. Thanks to their courage and perseverance, justice prevailed and the First Amendment was vindicated. No longer can the County of Los Angeles and the State of California treat people of faith like second-class citizens. This result is a victory for all Americans who cherish religious liberty.”

“The persecution of Grace Community Church and MacArthur, known worldwide for their ministry and seminary, was surprising to many,” the Thomas More Society said in a press release. “The church and its lead pastor have enjoyed an impeccable 65-year history of serving the Los Angeles community in person and having a reputation for good citizenship and deference to legitimate state authority.”

MacArthur said the proceeds of the settlement will go to the Thomas More Society. The organization said it will use the money to support other organization with similar missions.

As an aside, I’ve been listening to a wonderful podcast from the MacArthur Center for Expository Preaching at The Master’s Seminary, recounting the history of GCC and the preaching ministry of Dr. MacArthur. It’s fair to say that MacArthur has been one of the most influential pastors of the last century. To its credit, the church rejected the disastrous trend of the marketing-based seeker-sensitive movement in favor of a focus on expository preaching—and God has blessed the ministry beyond measure. Indeed, the reach and impact of the church will not be fully known until we step into eternity. Listen here.