The Battle Between Church & State

By Mark A. Kellner
Posted August 06, 2020

On a recent Sunday morning, congregants at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, a Los Angeles suburb, stood, cheered, and applauded when Pastor John MacArthur opened worship services in a filled-to-capacity, 3,500-seat auditorium. Few, Christianity Today reported, wore face masks or maintained social distance. The 81-year-old pastor, who’s spent more than 50 years leading the congregation, told an interviewer that he and his congregation “didn’t buy the narrative” about such measures.

MacArthur has attracted national attention for his refusal to buckle under when California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered churches to remain closed and to halt singing in indoor worship.

At roughly the same hour, Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, conducted its worship service, but in an outdoor tent, with congregants spaced out among folding chairs and wearing masks. A sign read, “Just leave room for your Bible—and another 5½ feet.” Temperature scans were conducted on those attending, and congregants were asked to wave at each other instead of the more usual hugging. Christianity Today did not indicate whether or not the Harvest congregation sang during the service.

Obey God or “Caesar”?

The key question for churches—whether Grace Community or Harvest Fellowship—is just how far they should go in complying with government mandates. Greg Laurie, who pastors the Harvest Fellowship Church and who, like MacArthur, is well known in evangelical circles, says he’s willing to submit to government regulation in order to resume in-person worship.

 “I’ll be honest with you. One of the things that kind of irritates me is the way some people are not really responding appropriately to the very real threat of the coronavirus,” Laurie said in an April Los Angeles Times interview.  “Sometimes people are just ignoring it as though this has not been asked of us, and I think we want to be considerate of others,” he added.

Over at Grace Community Church, however, members viewed the situation differently, rejecting the government’s mandate to limit the size and manner of religious gatherings.

In a statement, MacArthur and other leaders declared, “When officials restrict church attendance to a certain number, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the saints to gather as the church. When officials prohibit singing in worship services, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the people of God to obey the commands of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.”

Scott McConnell, executive director of Southern Baptist-owned LifeWay Research, has yet another point of view: “Given the flare-ups in some places, the churches that reopened have been following in many cases some rigid standards, but, at the same time, is that enough? Those questions I think will increasingly be asked,” McConnell told Religion News Service (RNS).

It is no secret that the conflict between obeying God and following the directives of state or local health officials has been a contentious one during this pandemic. While Grace Community and Harvest Fellowship have responded in their own ways, other churches have begun legal proceedings.

Despite the Supreme Court of the United States twice ruling against churches seeking to bypass such mandates, three churches in California are suing Gov. Gavin Newsom over restrictions. These churches, however, are located in counties where indoor worship is still permitted. The point of contention instead lies in the California ban on singing in indoor places of worship while, at the same time, permitting similar activities elsewhere. 

“Banning singing in California churches is an unconstitutional abuse of power,” RNS quoted Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, as saying. “And to do it in the name of a pandemic is despicable.”

A Soon-Coming Conflict Over Worship

Even MacArthur acknowledged the Bible’s injunction in Romans 13:1, 2, which reads, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”

The Grace Community Church statement reads, “We are to obey our civil authorities as powers that God Himself has ordained.” But it also adds, “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.”

MacArthur’s objection, it appears, is when government steps in to regulate specific activities of the church. At the same time, as some critics have noted, the dogmatic approach of the Grace Community Church manifesto has alienated other churches. In essence, Grace Community has effectively stated that its way of responding to government restrictions is the only way to exercise faith in Christ. Anything less or anything other than open defiance of civil authority is treachery against God.

Will this kind of spirit play a part in leading the world to the very last battle over worship? 

Certainly, this disagreement somewhat mirrors what Sabbath-keepers are going to encounter in the last days: a government-religious power that will attempt to dictate when and how people will worship. Those who comply will be able to participate in commercial activity, including the buying and selling of food. Those who resist will be persecuted. The Bible tells us that our own Christian churches are going to take an active role in this.

Amazing Facts Study Guide 20

Our free online Bible Study on “The Sabbath and the Mark of the Beast” outlines the ins-and-outs of this crucial end-times conflict. A careful study of this guide will help you understand some of the dynamics at play today—and what is most definitely going to happen in the not-too-distant future.

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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