Church-State Battle Over Worship Continues

By Mark A. Kellner | Posted August 18, 2020

In what is shaping up to be a contest of wills—and attorneys—an evangelical Protestant church in a remote corner of Los Angeles County has drawn a line in the ongoing battle over whether or not they can hold indoor worship in person, without social distancing or compulsory wearing of masks. And if this sounds like a reprise of an issue raised here just two weeks ago, you’re right.

Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, whose senior pastor is noted radio preacher John MacArthur, defied a last-minute court order and hosted those services anyway, media reports indicate.

On August 15, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant ruled Grace Community Church could hold indoor worship services, denying a request by the county health department to ban such gatherings. Judge Chalfant’s order did require social distancing and mask-wearing, however.

Initially, the Associated Press reported, MacArthur sounded a conciliatory note in a statement responding to Chalfant’s ruling: “I am very grateful the court has allowed us to meet inside and we are happy for a few weeks to comply and respect what the judge has asked of us. This vindicates our desire to stay open and serve our people.”

Some 24 hours later, however, a three-judge panel of the California 2nd District Court of Appeals overturned Chalfant’s order and mandated that Grace Community Church not hold indoor worship services. “Were we to not issue a stay of the trial court’s order, the County would be barred from enforcing that provision and the Church would be able to conduct its services indoors, even though indoor church services have been a ‘source of outbreak’ of COVID-19,” the judges wrote.

Following that late-night ruling, it appears MacArthur moved on another declaration he’d made after the first ruling: “We will stand firm to protect our church against unreasonable, unconstitutional restrictions,” the AP quoted him as saying.

Is Defiance God-Honoring?

So it was on Sunday, Aug. 16, that the Grace Community congregation piled into the Sun Valley sanctuary and held worship. MacArthur greeted them warmly: “We’re not meeting because we want to be rebellious. We’re meeting because our Lord has commanded us to come together and worship him.”

It appears that the lack of compromise on the part of county officials may have sparked this backlash. “They’re not willing to work with us; they just want to dumb us down. But we’re here to bring honor to the Lord,” MacArthur stated. Grace’s defiance comes with a risk of fines of $1,000 per day and possible imprisonment of church leaders.

An argument could also be made that outdoor worship in a warm climate—weather reports said the temperature at 9:00 a.m. that Sunday was 93 degrees—might have been harmful to some worshipers. MacArthur told his congregation, “It’s very hot out there. So the Lord knew you needed to be inside.”

For whatever reason, MacArthur is firm in his belief that worship at his church should happen indoors, and that no authority can prolong a ban on such worship. Grace Community Church agreed to the initial shutdown when the pandemic forced a near-national lockdown but eventually chafed under the restrictions. (For a look at Grace’s responses in leading up to this court order, see our previous blog on this subject.)

But it is valid to ask whether or not its members should practice social distancing and mask-wearing. Not even the harshest critic is hoping for an outbreak of COVID-19 infections among those who’ve attended the church’s in-person worship services, yet some critics have predicted such will be the outcome of the congregation’s defiance. So far, MacArthur has insisted there has been no transmission of the disease there, according to media reports.

What’s a Christian to Do?

When told by the religious authorities of his day not to preach the good news about Jesus, the apostle Peter had a simple answer: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). That verse has been quoted down through the centuries to justify civil disobedience in the face of religious suppression, whether it was the Waldenses in northern Italy, the Puritans in England, or the Baptists in the New World.

Yet Paul, writing to the early church at Rome, said the civil authority “is God’s minister to you for good” (Romans 13:4) and should be obeyed in matters such as taxes, customs, respect, and honor. 

So what is a Christian currently to do considering this biblical counsel? There is a virus that has swept the globe in a matter of months that must be taken into account. During a time of pandemic and illness, what is also relevant is protecting your health and the health of others. Wearing a mask and keeping socially distant may be inconvenient, but they’re not insurmountable restrictions to sharing the gospel.

The New Heart Series with Pastor Doug

At the same time, it’s incumbent upon governments—who, after all, are supposed to represent the people they serve—to make sure they work with those being governed. The seemingly arbitrary actions and continuing restrictions imposed without legislative consent are not encouraging trust in the civil authority. There needs to be the kind of give-and-take our legislative process was designed to foster. When it doesn’t happen, reactions such as MacArthur’s are unsurprising.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that we are in a difficult and spiritually challenging time. Recently, Pastor Doug Batchelor spoke about the need for a “revival of true godliness” among believers in his 10-part series, The New Heart. In these turbulent days, these programs will revive your spirit and offer the guidance we need most of all, God’s Spirit.

Mark Kellner
Mark A. Kellner is a staff writer for Amazing Facts International. He is a veteran journalist whose work has been published in Religion News Service, The Washington Times, and numerous computer magazines.

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