John MacArthur, evangelist and pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, defied state orders to limit worship gatherings in a statement released Friday.
“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,” the statement said. “Faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services.”
On July 13, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced new restrictions, requiring certain counties on a “monitoring list” to stop indoor worship services. Los Angeles County, where Grace Community Church is located, was one of 30 counties on the monitoring list as of July 13.
“In these counties, we have added a requirement that we close indoor operations” for certain sectors which include worship services, Newsom said in an announcement. He also suggested that restrictions would not end anytime soon. “Until there is a vaccine or effective therapy, we will be mitigating the spread of COVID-19 for the long term,” read one of the slides Newsom presented. “Californians must adapt to new behaviors if we are to slow the spread.”
In response, MacArthur and the elder board of Grace Community Church have a clear message for the state of California. “We cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings,” they said.
When officials restrict church attendance to a certain number, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the saints to gather as the church. When officials prohibit singing in worship services, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the people of God to obey the commands of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. When officials mandate distancing, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible to experience the close communion between believers that is commanded in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. In all those spheres, we must submit to our Lord.
The statement represents a shift for MacArthur and his church, which previously issued a statement acquiescing to a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court that barred churches from meeting in late May. “The Ninth Circuit decision is sadly the law of the land in California, and we gladly submit to the sovereign purposes of God,” the church had said.
But now, after more than 20 weeks of restrictions, Grace Community Church is letting Newsom know they’ve had enough. “Roughly forty percent of the year has passed with our church essentially unable to gather in a normal way,” MacArthur and the elders said, noting that the lockdown measures they originally conceded to were supposed to be short-term. “The church by definition is an assembly. … A non-assembling assembly is a contradiction in terms.”
MacArthur’s church isn’t the only one to defy California’s restrictions on worship. Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena, California, held an in-person service on Sunday and is suing the state for the right to continue assembling. “We’ve been essential for 2,000 years,” said Pastor Ché Ahn.
Calvary Chapel of Ukiah, Calvary Chapel of Fort Bragg, and River of Life Church in Oroville are suing the state over its ban on congregational singing. South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista renewed a lawsuit over the state’s decision to shutter churches, noting that government favoritism toward the George Floyd protests while churches are forced to stay shut “has caused amazing harm in the form of a general loss of confidence by the American people in the merits of the pandemic restrictions at all.”
MacArthur and his church firmly noted the importance of respecting the rightful authority of government. “Insofar as government authorities do not attempt to assert ecclesiastical authority or issue orders that forbid our obedience to God’s law, their authority is to be obeyed whether we agree with their rulings or not,” their statement said.
They also noted, however, that government authority does not extend over Christians’ freedom to assemble as the church. “We do not need the state’s permission to serve and worship our Lord as He has commanded,” they insisted. “Freedom of worship is a command of God, not a privilege granted by the state.”
MacArthur and the elders of Grace Community Church encouraged other congregations to join them in their decision to gather for worship. “It has never been the prerogative of civil government to order, modify, forbid, or mandate worship,” they said. “When, how, and how often the church worships is not subject to Caesar. Caesar himself is subject to God.”