A California megachurch is openly defying Los Angeles County’s coronavirus guidelines by welcoming its thousands of congregants to worship inside its doors.
John MacArthur, the 81-year-old conservative Christian preacher and writer who leads Grace Community Church in LA’s Sun Valley neighborhood, has been painting the government’s efforts to restrict the church’s large gatherings as a form of persecution ― similar to the persecution that Christian martyrs have faced over the centuries.
“Although we in America may be unaccustomed to government intrusion into the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, this is by no means the first time in church history that Christians have had to deal with government overreach or hostile rulers,” Grace Community Church’s elders wrote in a statement first posted on the church’s website on July 24. “Persecution of the church by government authorities has been the norm, not the exception, throughout church history.”
On Tuesday, church leaders urged congregants to email Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors with messages declaring that “church is essential.”
“Our government is obligated to protect our liberties and freedoms, especially our free exercise of religion, and we ask you to fulfill that obligation to us,” they wrote in a sample email offered to parishioners.
The email campaign is the latest salvo in an ongoing battle between Grace Community Church and state and local authorities. The megachurch initially closed its doors in mid-March and moved services online in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Church leaders decided to reopen on July 26, defying the county’s restrictions on indoor worship services.
As of July 29, the county’s guidelines for houses of worship allow for outdoor services that are socially distanced. Indoor services are limited to a maximum of 100 people or 25% of the building’s capacity, whichever is lower. The guidelines also require houses of worship to discontinue indoor singing and chanting because those activities “negate the risk reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing.” (Indoor choir rehearsals and performances have been linked to outbreaks of COVID-19 around the world.)
Grace Community Church has been ignoring these guidelines. MacArthur told CNN earlier this month that his indoor services have been attracting up to 7,000 people. Video of the church’s Aug. 16 Sunday service showed orchestra members playing woodwind instruments, children singing from the stage, and a musical conductor standing at the pulpit encouraging parishioners to sing. Footage from a July 26 service showed hundreds of people packed tightly into the pews of the church. Many appeared to be unmasked.
A video recording of Grace Community Church’s July 26 morning service can be seen below.
The county sent MacArthur a cease-and-desist letter noting that violating its health orders is a crime punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and imprisonment of up to 90 days. Each day of indoor services is counted as a separate offense, the letter stated.
The church, represented by the Thomas More Society, a conservative public interest law firm, filed a lawsuit against California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and county officials on Aug. 12, arguing that the restrictions on houses of worship were unfair and unconstitutional. Los Angeles County filed a dueling lawsuit the next day, insisting that the church’s actions put people’s health at risk.
“The County always wants to amicably resolve these issues with all members of the community, including churches, We use education as the primary step in gaining compliance; however, when compliance is not achieved, we must use the other tools at our disposal,” Los Angeles County said in an Aug. 13 statement obtained by NBC News.
Last Friday, a county Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the church, allowing services to go forward as long as congregants wear masks and socially distance. Los Angeles County pushed the matter further and on Saturday, the California Court of Appeal granted a temporary stay of the lower court’s order because the case involved “difficult questions of law” that couldn’t be resolved quickly. The appeals court set a Sept. 4 court date to hear arguments from both sides in the case.
The temporary stay effectively barred Grace Community Church from holding in-person worship services indoors. But that didn’t stop MacArthur from moving forward.
On Sunday, MacArthur told his congregation that the order was a blessing in disguise.
“The good news is that you’re here, you’re not distancing, and you’re not wearing masks,” MacArthur said from the pulpit, eliciting loud and hearty cheers from the pews.
“And it’s also good news that you’re not outside because it’s very hot out there,” he added. “So the Lord knew you needed to be inside and unmasked. So he did us that gracious favor.”
MacArthur has led Grace Community Church, a non-denominational Protestant congregation, since 1969. He’s a popular pastor whose Bible commentaries have influenced generations of conservative evangelicals, particularly those who subscribe to Calvinism. He’s also the founder of The Master’s Seminary, a pastoral training program in Santa Clarita, California.
MacArthur has carved out a reputation for making statements that are controversial even among other evangelicals. In 2018, he helped put together a statement decrying the social justice movement as anti-Christian and disparaging the idea that systemic racism exists. MacArthur has also fiercely criticized female preachers, insisting that women should not assume positions of authority over men in the church or in society at large.
Grace Community Church’s refusal to comply with government orders now places it in a difficult theological position because of MacArthur’s previous teachings about the submissive relationship that Christians should have with the government ― a discrepancy that church elders tried to smooth over in that long statement on its website.
The statement referred to Bible passages, such as Romans 13, that instruct Christians to obey governing authorities. Under the Trump administration, evangelical leaders have often cited passages about submitting to the government to justify their support for policies that could seem uncharitable. In the past, MacArthur himself has interpreted Romans 13 quite literally ― even claiming that the American Revolution was sinful because it violated the Bible’s call for Christians to submit to authority.
Now, MacArthur is promoting a more nuanced approach to this passage. Church elders initially complied with coronavirus restrictions because they believed “guarding public health against serious contagions is a rightful function of Christians as well as civil government,” their statement reads in an Aug. 19 addendum. But now they believe that “the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared” and that the spiritual consequences of not worshipping together in person are too great. In this particular case, the elders suggested it’s fine to disobey authorities because the government has meddled in the affairs of the church.
“It has never been the prerogative of civil government to order, modify, forbid, or mandate worship,” the elders originally wrote. “[Pastors and elders] have no duty to follow orders from a civil government attempting to regulate the worship or governance of the church.”
While evangelicals have been at the forefront of movements to reopen churches during the pandemic, there appears to be some disagreement within this religious group about whether houses of worship should get special treatment. Most evangelicals (62%) agree that houses of worship should be required to follow the same rules about social distancing and large gatherings as other organizations or businesses in their local area, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in mid-July. And only about 44% of evangelicals who regularly go to church said they had attended in person within the last month.
Evangelical leaders have also been divided about whether and how to reopen churches. Ronnie Floyd, a prominent voice in the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote on Twitter that he’s praying for MacArthur and “other pastors across the country who are facing government encroachment on the fundamental rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of assembly.”
On the other hand, J.D. Greear, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, has taken the position that the church hasn’t closed just because the community isn’t meeting in the same building. His own North Carolina church has said that it will be hosting small gatherings in congregants’ homes for the remainder of the year.
On Wednesday, a group of evangelical leaders published a statement calling on Christians to follow the advice of public health experts during the pandemic.
Grace Community Church’s elders said in July that they hoped other congregations would follow their example in standing up to the government’s restrictions on worship. Pastors who fail to do so will effectively be abdicating their “responsibility before their Lord,” the elders wrote.
“We must recognize that the Lord may be using these pressures as means of purging to reveal the true church. Succumbing to governmental overreach may cause churches to remain closed indefinitely,” the elders wrote. “How can the true church of Jesus Christ distinguish herself in such a hostile climate? There is only one way: bold allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
California now leads the country with the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, with over 640,000 people infected, according to data from the Los Angeles Times. Over 11,000 people have died. The statewide positivity rate among those tested has increased to 6.8%.
Los Angeles County has seen over 224,000 confirmed cases. According to the Times, the number of confirmed infections in the county is now doubling every 117 days.