Pastor John MacArthur of California’s Grace Community Church announced that his church would continue to hold in-person services despite state-mandated restrictions banning in-person worship services.
About two weeks after California indefinitely closed churches and other businesses in more than 30 of the state's 58 counties as part of its response to the coronavirus, author and theologian MacArthur has given a biblical basis for his decision. “Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands,” he wrote in a statement to the congregation on Friday.
“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,” MacArthur wrote.
Christ is Lord of all. He is the one true head of the church (Ephesians 1:22; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). He is also King of kings—sovereign over every earthly authority (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14; 19:16). Grace Community Church has always stood immovably on those biblical principles. As His people, we are subject to His will and commands as revealed in Scripture. Therefore we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.
Some will think such a firm statement is inexorably in conflict with the command to be subject to governing authorities laid out in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Scripture does mandate careful, conscientious obedience to all governing authority, including kings, governors, employers, and their agents (in Peter’s words, “not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable” [1 Peter 2:18]). 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. In other words, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 still bind the consciences of individual Christians. We are to obey our civil authorities as powers that God Himself has ordained.
However, while civil government is invested with divine authority to rule the state, neither of those texts (nor any other) grants civic rulers jurisdiction over the church. God has established three institutions within human society: the family, the state, and the church. Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected. A father’s authority is limited to his own family. Church leaders’ authority (which is delegated to them by Christ) is limited to church matters. And government is specifically tasked with the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community. God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church. The biblical framework limits the authority of each institution to its specific jurisdiction. The church does not have the right to meddle in the affairs of individual families and ignore parental authority. Parents do not have authority to manage civil matters while circumventing government officials. And similarly, 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.
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. 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. His rule is mediated to local churches through those pastors and elders who teach His Word (Matthew 16:18–19; 2 Timothy 3:16–4:2).
Read the full statement here.
On July 13, the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that churches, fitness centers and businesses in several industries in 30 California counties would be ordered to shut down again unless they can operate outside or through pick-up services. As of Saturday, the order now applies to some 33 counties with two others on a government monitoring list.
MacArthur said the government is “specifically tasked with the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community.”
“God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church,” he continued. “The biblical framework limits the authority of each institution to its specific jurisdiction. The church does not have the right to meddle in the affairs of individual families and ignore parental authority. Parents do not have authority to manage civil matters while circumventing government officials.”
The pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, therefore, “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,” he added.
In late May, immediately after President Trump declared churches to be essential and said they should be allowed to reopen as long as they adhere to the CDC's health guidelines, the Ninth Circuit decided in favor of Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home order and rejected an emergency motion to allow for in-person religious services to proceed in California. Follow the Ninth Circuit's decision, the elders of Grace Community Church said they would continue to delay the church's reopening "and leave it in the hands of God.”
“For a state like California to decide that abortion providers, marijuana dispensaries, and liquor stores are ‘essential’ while churches are forced to the back of the line via a seemingly endless series of moving goalposts and ever more restrictive hoops to jump through, is the very essence of upside-down Romans 1 immorality,” the church stated at the time. “We stand against it plainly, and moving forward, we are striving to pursue every biblical and legal means to oppose it.”
However, the church’s statement added, “Even so, for now, the Ninth Circuit decision is sadly the law of the land in California, and we gladly submit to the sovereign purposes of God.”
Other California pastors are also deciding whether to continue to comply with Newsom's second round of lockdown restrictions ban in-person church gatherings indefinitely or to defy the order and meet in-person.
Greg Fairrington, pastor of Destiny Christian Church in Rocklin, California, said in a Facebook video posted July 14 that he would be holding in-person services.
"I believe my mandate as a pastor is to obey the Word of God. And part of what we do is worship together as a church," Fairrington said. "We are not going to allow our government to use data that is not supported factually to shut the church down."
However, Pastor John Cox of Riverpark Bible Church in Fresno told The Christian Post in an earlier interview that Romans 13:1 tells Christians to submit to government.
"It put us in a tricky spot. We want to be who God ordered us to be. But also, [we] want to be gracious and submit to leadership," Cox said. "We don't want to worship in defiance or to stand against the government, but as the people of God."
Cox said that Riverpark services would be online and not in-person for the time being. The primary issue, according to Cox, is the vagueness of the order. He said, knowing what is permitted and what is not can be difficult to distinguish.
Last week, the Pasadena-based Harvest Rock Church, which has campuses throughout the state, and Harvest International Ministries, a nonprofit corporation with 162 member churches statewide and over 65,000 affiliates worldwide, filed a complaint in federal court against Newsom’s COVID-19 executive order that they say also bans church members from holding Bible studies and other small group meetings in their homes.
“As part of the exercise of its sincerely held religious beliefs, Harvest Rock’s Church campuses also have numerous Life Groups, which meet in the homes of members of the Church to worship together, engage in Bible study, fellowship with one another, and minister to the needs of each other,” the complaint explained.
“Harvest Rock has and exercises a sincere religious belief that Life Groups are an essential way for the church to fulfill its mission and to foster a healthy, vibrant, and growing Church community such that its members can gather together to grow in the Lord, mature in their faith, and understand the Scriptures better.”