On Saturday PJ Media reported that Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., had announced it would not comply with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s draconian COVID-19 order shuttering churches in counties that represent 80% of the state’s population:
“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.
As promised, the church met for in-person worship on Sunday:
John MacArthur preaching to a full Worship Center pic.twitter.com/cCJDlSQHIx
— Phil Johnson (@Phil_Johnson_) July 26, 2020
— Tom Buck (@TomBuck) July 26, 2020
Last night, Terry Thomas asked what the state’s response might be to churches defying the shutdown orders.
We plan to pray for @GraceComChurch specifically, and CA & NV churches in general give this and the SCOTUS ruling as part of our worship tomorrow.
Has anyone heard what state intends to do to churches/pastors who refuse to comply? @Phil_Johnson_ ?
— Terry Thomas (@volleyballdad) July 26, 2020
Phil Johnson, executive director of Grace to You, the teaching ministry of Pastor MacArthur, responded:
Mayor Eric Garcetti expressed frustration and outrage that some nonessential businesses remained open despite coronavirus restrictions and vowed Los Angeles would take action against them.
Garcetti said his office was still receiving daily reports of nonessential businesses that continued to operate as normal — behavior he called “irresponsible and selfish.”
He also announced a “Safer at Home” business-ambassadors initiative that aims to bring about greater compliance from businesses that are ignoring the city’s order to close.
Such businesses should also expect to get a warning call from local prosecutors before the city takes more aggressive action, including turning off their water and power, he said.
On July 13, Gov. Newsom ordered churches in several counties, including Los Angeles County where Grace Community Church is located, closed until further notice.
Most churches chose to abide by COVID-19 orders when the pandemic began, but as the shutdowns continue to drag on, many have lost patience, arguing that Christians cannot do what the Bible commands—meeting publicly, singing together, observing the sacraments, and proclaiming scripture—while obeying the orders of state and local authorities.
John MacArthur’s Calif. Church Will Defy Newsom’s Church Ban: ‘Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church’
In May I wrote about a group of Virginia pastors who implored Gov. Ralph Northam to allow churches to reopen:
“Because corporate worship is central to Christian life, it is extraordinary for churches to forego meeting for even a single Sunday,” they write. “Thus, with each passing week that corporate worship is banned, as churches stand ready to implement reasonable public-health precautions, the government pushes Christians closer to the point where they must choose to sin against God and conscience or violate the law.”
“Ultimately, as Christians, we are compelled to obey God’s law (Acts 5:29),” they say, citing the Commonwealth’s Constitution, Virginia’s Act for Religious Freedom, and Virginian James Madison, who said, “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”
“The ban on corporate worship prevents Christians who believe that Holy Scripture commands them to assemble for worship (Hebrews 10:24-25) from acting as their consciences – and God Himself – dictates,” they add.
The ongoing ban puts churches in a tough position. Most churches have chosen to abide by the stay-at-home order, with many of them offering streaming services, but most have acknowledged that the situation is untenable and cannot go on indefinitely.
“Corporate worship is commanded by Scripture and has been a foundational element of Christian life for nearly 2,000 years,” the pastors explain. “Alternatives such as live-streamed services and ‘drive-through’ worship are not adequate substitutes to the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) united together in corporate worship.”
Virginia has since allowed churches to reopen with strict social distancing protocols, but in other states, including Nevada, where a group of churches is suing the state, churches are subject to attendance limits or other untenable rules. The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that Nevada was within its rights to cap the number of attendees at worship services in a 5-4 decision that saw Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the liberals on the court. Justice Neil Gorsuch issued a scathing rebuke in his short-but-sweet dissent:
This is a simple case. Under the Governor’s edict, a 10- screen “multiplex” may host 500 moviegoers at any time. A casino, too, may cater to hundreds at once, with perhaps six people huddled at each craps table here and a similar number gathered around every roulette wheel there. Large numbers and close quarters are fine in such places. But churches, synagogues, and mosques are banned from admitting more than 50 worshippers—no matter how large the building, how distant the individuals, how many wear face masks, no matter the precautions at all.
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.
At least two pastors have already been arrested for flouting shutdown orders (see here and here), and while it hasn’t come to that yet in California, the threat of action against churches that disobey government COVID-19 orders looms large.
For Christians, suffering and persecution are to be expected. God has seen fit to allow Jesus-worshippers in the U.S. to largely escape the harsh conditions faced by Christians throughout most of Christendom, but as we’ve seen in recent months, our freedoms can be wiped away with the stroke of a pen. This time it’s a global pandemic that has our church doors closed. What will the excuse be next year?
Prediction: If Democrats take control of the Senate and presidency in November we’ll see a public health crisis declared to aid and abet transgenderism and gender confusion. What will your church do when ordered to either modify doctrinal positions on human sexuality or shut down? Now’s the time to be thinking through how we’ll respond when the real persecution begins.
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