Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

MacArthur defends worship

Religious Liberty | California churches push back against tighter restrictions in the state
by Steve West
Posted 8/10/20, 05:37 pm

Pastor John MacArthur stood behind the pulpit at his Southern California megachurch on Sunday and said, “I’m so happy to welcome you to the Grace Community Church peaceful protest.”

Though the church in Sun Valley, Calif., initially complied with the state’s coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, it has held packed indoor and outdoor worship services on the last three Sundays after church leaders issued a statement defending civil disobedience in response to tighter restrictions. California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s most recent order closes all places of worship in the state’s most populous counties, including Los Angeles County, where Grace Community is located. The shutdown currently affects 80 percent of the state’s population. In counties where indoor services are allowed, attendance is limited to 25 percent of a building’s capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower. The Democratic governor also banned indoor singing and chanting during worship. Outdoor services are permitted throughout the state, provided social distancing protocols are followed.

Last week, Grace Community’s leadership retained a personal lawyer to President Donald Trump as part of a litigation team in case the county responds with legal action. Attorney Jenna Ellis, working in her capacity as a special counsel for the Thomas More Society, confirmed on Friday that county officials, through private counsel, sent a cease-and-desist letter to MacArthur on July 29 threatening fines or arrest. She declined to discuss the church’s next steps other than to say in an email, “We are considering all remedies available to defend the church’s constitutionally protected right to be open.”

Other congregations also have pushed back against California’s strict gathering limits. Pasadena’s Harvest Rock Church, which also is in Los Angeles County and has met since Newsom issued his latest orders, sued the state to bar enforcement of the gathering ban. A federal court hearing in the case is scheduled for Wednesday.

Last week, neighboring Ventura County, Calif., sued Godspeak Calvary Chapel and Pastor Rob McCoy for violating its gathering ban. After a hearing on Friday, a state court temporarily barred the Newbury Park church from meeting until an evidentiary hearing takes place.

“I wish it didn’t have to come to this, I really do, but we will be violating the judge’s order,” McCoy said in a message on Saturday to members. “We will be open this Sunday.” During Sunday’s service, demonstrators for and against the church scuffled outside, KABC-TV in Los Angeles reported.

Not all church leaders share MacArthur’s belief that COVID-19 restrictions necessitate civil disobedience. Jonathan Leeman, editorial director of the 9Marks ministry, said Grace Community’s decision to meet in person and inside is “a legitimate decision to make, but it’s not the only decision a church can make.” He noted that the church and state have overlapping spheres of authority.

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a WORLD News Group board member, concluded on the Aug. 3 episode of his podcast The Briefing that “in the main, Christian churches and Christian leaders should respect all temporary, neutral, and generally applicable guidelines that are handed down by appropriate government and health officials in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

While affirming the Biblical principles in Grace Community’s statement, Mohler said Scripture addresses neither the frequency nor place of worship, noting “the reality is that Christians have had to be adaptable throughout the Christian centuries, more than two millennia of Christian experience.”

Editor’s note: WORLD has updated this article to clarify California’s current restrictions on worship.

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Steve West

Steve is an attorney and freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet or at his blog.

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  • Justin858
    Posted: Mon, 08/10/2020 07:17 pm

    "California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s most recent order bans all in-person worship—including in private homes—in the state’s most populous counties...The Democratic governor also banned singing and chanting throughout the state."

    That is not true. The state has closed indoor operations for places of worship for counties on the county monitoring list. The state has not banned in-person worship. Our church is in a county on the county monitoring list and we meet outdoors every Sunday morning. And there is no restriction on singing outdoors, so that statement is also false.

    People are looking for reasons to disagree and argue with each other. Please get the facts straight.

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Tue, 08/11/2020 11:40 am

    We have edited that section of the article to clarify Gov. Newsom’s current order.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Tue, 08/11/2020 01:41 pm

    Good work, Justin858. (Those  are my favorite numbers as well.)

    Posted: Tue, 08/11/2020 04:03 pm

    Glad to see a pastor not afraid to stand up in courage and give in to the fears of the world.

    Posted: Wed, 08/12/2020 09:28 am

    Serious question: What if "standing up" to Gavin Newsom means endangering vulnerable people in your congregation? Is it possible for a church to stand up in courage while also mitigating the danger of COVID-19?

  • Sue Wilson
    Posted: Tue, 08/11/2020 05:49 pm

    The title of this and most of the article indicates, " MacArthur Defends Worship."  Why then did the article end with dissenting voices? It seems to imply Mohler disagrees with MacArthur. Yet without the reader taking the time to research Mohler's podcast it appears unclear exactly what he was saying. What did he mean by "in the main, Christian churches and Christian leaders should respect all temporary, neutral, and generally applicable guidelines?" From all reports Governor Newsom's orders are anything but temporary, or neutral and what is meant by generally acceptable guidelines? Does that include telling worshipers how they can worship, e.g., not singing or chanting? Did Mohler read MacArthur's original statement where he described the church as an assembly and how can one be that if not allowed to assemble? God did not intend His followers to live in isolation which is exactly the conditions politicians are creating. If prominent church leaders do not fight back against what is a clear pushing of boundaries between church and state, we may very well see the destruction of church buildings such as what the Communist Party of China did to The Golden Lampstand Church when it dynamited it in 2018. I am thankful MacArthur AND his elders have been bold in their path forward.

    Posted: Wed, 08/12/2020 09:17 am

    I think there are two issues, at least, here. One, of course, is religious liberty. I think that MacArthur has taken a principled stand for the autonomy of the church, and I think this is important ground to stake out, pandemic or not.

    Having said that, I am deeply concerned by the cavalier disregard for their parishioners many churches are exhibiting. I know of several churches right now that flouted mitigation recommendations and are experiencing outbreaks.

    My own church is taking several steps to protect parishioners, although they may not be enough. But it is unfathomable to me that Walmart, casinos, marijuana dispensaries, and liquor stores are doing more to protect their customers than many churches are to protect vulnerable members and visitors. How can we be faithful in caring for peoples' souls when we do not take basic steps to protect their lives? In that situation, we are not being "faithful in that which is little;" how can we expect God to entrust us with "much"?