Grace Community Church in Los Angeles County is the latest Christian congregation to challenge California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on religious gatherings in 30 Golden State jurisdictions.
Grace is led by Pastor John MacArthur, one of the nation’s most influential evangelical Christian pastors and authors. His ministries encompass books, translations of the Bible, radio and digital programs seen around the world, missionary works and multiple other outlets.
In a July 24 statement issued by him, other members of the pastoral staff and the elders of Grace, it was announced that:
“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. Faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services.”
Newsom issued revised restrictions July 13 aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus novel that barred until further notice in 30 California counties indoor dining at restaurants, church gatherings at outdoor and indoor facilities, closing of bars, gyms, hair salons and barbershops, and all other businesses deemed non-essential by state officials.
MacArthur and Grace’s elder leaders earlier this year counseled members of the congregation to comply with Covid restrictions after the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Newsom’s directives, including those limiting church gatherings.
Other California churches that have defied or filed legal challenges to Covid directives include Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, River of Life Church of Oroville, Destiny Christian Church in Rockland, and South Bay United Pentecostal in Chula Vista.
A civil liberties lawsuit was filed this month by Liberty Counsel on behalf of Harvest Rock arguing that Newsom’s order is a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, especially the order’s ban on Bible studies meeting in private homes. First Liberty Institute has also gone to court in defense of several congregations in California and elsewhere.
Earlier in July and continuing through yesterday, a series of revival meetings (see photo above) called Saturate OC held on Huntington Beach in Orange County, California, have been attended by hundreds of people and have seen numerous baptisms. See the accompanying video:
Senators, Representatives, congressional staffers and others in policy-making and influencing positions in the nation’s capitol who find the church rebellion puzzling or confusing should understand the congregations are responding to principles embodied in three passages as well as others in the Old and New Testament.
In Romans 13:1-7, Paul tells his readers:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3
“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good.
“But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6
“For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
But at Acts 5:29, historian Luke tells of Peter and the other apostles being ordered by the Jerusalem authorities to stop preaching that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the grave three days after being crucified on the cross:
“But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.'”
And at Hebrews 10:25, the readers are told to “not neglect meeting together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another …”
In other words, according to the New Testament, Christians are to submit to the governing authorities as long as those authorities do not overstep their boundaries. Maintain just peace, ensure justice in economic and social relations and otherwise allow people to live their lives as they choose, and Christians will be loyal and respectful citizens of the realm.
But when officials seek to compel believers to act or speak contrary to Scripture, which is understood to be the Word of God (See John 1:1-14), then the choice must be to do what He says rather than what they command, even at the risk of death.
Meeting regularly for worship of God, instruction in the Word, and fellowship with other believers has from the very beginning of the Christian faith been understood to be mandated by God.
Yes, these scriptural injunctions can at first glance seem to be odds and deciding how to respond to state and local government mandates issued in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been a dilemma for congregations all over the country.
“Government does not have carte blanche, even in a pandemic, to pick and choose which First Amendment rights are ‘open’ and which remain ‘closed.’”
The problem is that government too often abuses its authority or is inconsistent in its administration. As Judge James C. Ho wrote in a recent decision:
“At the outset of the pandemic, public officials declared that the only way to prevent the spread of the virus was for everyone to stay home and away from each other. They ordered citizens to cease all public activities to the maximum possible extent—even the right to assemble to worship or to protest.
“But circumstances have changed. In recent weeks, officials have not only tolerated protests—they have encouraged them as necessary and important expressions of outrage over abuses of government power. For people of faith demoralized by coercive shutdown policies, that raises a question: If officials are now exempting protesters, how can they justify continuing to restrict worshippers?
“The answer is that they can’t. Government does not have carte blanche, even in a pandemic, to pick and choose which First Amendment rights are ‘open’ and which remain ‘closed.’”
There are multiple secular analogies to the logic of the churches and believers in these cases. Courts declare statutes unconstitutional regularly and citizens are not obligated to follow them once such a finding is issued.
Also, members of the U.S. military are not obligated to follow a superior officer’s command to do something illegal or in violation of the military code.
There will be multiple cases raising these and related First Amendment issues in state and federal courts in coming days, but the Supreme Court has issued major decisions favoring religious freedom in recent weeks, so the ultimate outcome is likely to be encouraging for Christians around the nation.
In the meantime, people of good will on all sides of the issues should seek to better understand the arguments involved and to treat those with differing views with respect. Above all, seek to honor the Constitution (and, for those who are Christians, God and His Scripture).
UPDATE: MacArthur preaches to packed congregation on Sunday after announcing Grace Community Church will not comply with California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on worship gatherings.
And PJMedia’s Paula Bolyard wonders if California authorities will now start cutting off gas, water and electricity utilities to Grace and other churches that defy Newsom’s restrictions. HT Stephen Green on Instapundit.