California pastor John MacArthur said in a sermon Sunday his church will continue to meet in-person despite a state-mandated ban on such gatherings, saying that Christ – not the state – is the “head of the church.”
“I can't think of anything worse than to put an entire world into fear and then shut down the only place they could go to have their fear finally and completely removed,” said MacArthur, a well-known author and preacher at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., whose sermons are syndicated on radio stations nationwide. “We're fulfilling our Lord's design.”
Churches in at least 30 counties have been ordered by the state to close again due to rising COVID-19 cases. MacArthur’s sermon came three days after the elders of Grace Community Church released a public statement saying the congregation “will not bow” to the state restrictions because the state itself had exceeded its authority.
“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,” the elders’ statement said.
MacArthur, in his sermon, said Grace Community closed during the initial stages of the pandemic as a voluntary measure to protect its members.
“We were told millions were going to die. It was just sensible and rational to be protective. As time went on, however, we found out the virus was not as deadly as predicted,” he said. “And the commands not to assemble didn't apply to protesters and riots.
“... The death rate is .02. 99.98 percent of people will not die from this,” he said of California’s death rate, adding that half of the deaths are among individuals “over 80.”
“That just does not equate to the response this society has had,” MacArthur said.
MacArthur’s sermon examined the role of government and the responsibility of the Christian. He also spotlighted Daniel 6 and the story of Daniel praying to God despite a ban on prayers to any being or individual except the king.
MacArthur quoted data on deaths from alcohol, cigarettes and abortion, and noted all three remain legal.
“Kill people with alcohol, kill people with cigarettes, kill people with the diseases because the hospitals don't function,” he said, referencing hospitals not accepting certain patients during the outbreak. “Lock people up so that everybody's under stress and make sure churches can't meet where [it's] the only place they could find hope and help. We will not bow to such bizarre standards. We’ll follow our Lord and trust him.”
The universal church, he said, “always refines its convictions under duress.”
“This is not a problem to be feared. This is a triumphant hour for the church to be the church,” he said.
The elders’ statement said “Christ is the one true head of His church.”
“For that preeminent reason, we cannot accept and will not bow to the intrusive restrictions government officials now want to impose on our congregation. We offer this response without rancor, and not out of hearts that are combative or rebellious (1 Timothy 2:1-8; 1 Peter 2:13-17), but with a sobering awareness that we must answer to the Lord Jesus for the stewardship He has given to us as shepherds of His precious flock,” the statement said. “To government officials, we respectfully say with the apostles, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge’ (Acts 4:19). And our unhesitating reply to that question is the same as the apostles’: ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).”
The elders said their prayer is that “every faithful congregation will stand with us in obedience to our Lord as Christians have done through the centuries.”
But outside Grace Community Church, some Christian leaders expressed disagreement with the decision.
Jonathan Leeman, editorial director of the church-equipping ministry 9Marks, penned a response and said “civil disobedience may not be the only legitimate or moral course of action at this moment.” Leeman said he agreed with much of the statement but wanted to “open up a little space of Christian freedom for other churches to make different judgments.”
“It’s not immediately evident to me that a government’s original orders back in March and now again in July are, in MacArthur’s words, ‘an illegitimate intrusion of state authority into ecclesiastical matters.’ One could argue they are doing their job by seeking to maintain peace, order, and the preservation of life, as hundreds of people gather, potentially infect one another, and then scatter into the wider community,” Leeman wrote.
“I’m sympathetic with Grace Community’s concern about the indefinite elongation of this time,” Leeman added. “Still, if the state does have the authority to tell church leaders, ‘If you try to bind the consciences of church members by telling them they should attend a gathering that could physically harm them, we will intervene,’ then we should be patient even as that time extends for a while. Christians have endured the inconveniences of persecution and pandemics for years, even decades, before.”
Photo courtesy: ©Grace Community Church
Video courtesy: ©Grace Community Church
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.