December 1, 2020 Standard Bearer preview article
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This article was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown and will be published in the December 1, 2020 issue of the Standard Bearer.
John MacArthur and the battle of indoor worship in California
John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California is embroiled in a legal battle with the County of Los Angeles (LA County) over the right to worship indoors during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Grace Community Church (GCC) is a nondenominational, evangelical congregation with an average weekly attendance in excess of 8,000 people.
On March 4, 2020 Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a State of Emergency in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has since issued a number of executive orders to curtail public gatherings in the State of California. An order on March 19, 2020, required almost all establishments, including places of worship, to close. On June 18, 2020 the LA County Health Officer, Dr. Muntu Davis, issued an order “allowing reduced-capacity indoor operations at houses of worship,” but subsequent orders prohibited “indoor operations at a variety of establishments, including houses of worship.” Those orders are still in force at the time of writing. In California, therefore, churches may worship only outdoors.1
On July 24, 2020, after GCC had voluntarily ceased indoor worship services for several months (MacArthur preached in an empty auditorium to an online audience), the elders issued a statement, “Christ, not Caesar, is Head of the Church.” While the statement acknowledges that the church and Christian must obey the civil authorities in obedience to Romans 13 and I Peter 2, “whether we agree with their rulings or not,” GCC rejects any government order “regulating worship,” since by such an order the government “steps outside of 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.”
The statement of GCC, which was modified on August 19, 2020, also declares that “government power is easily and frequently abused for evil purposes” and that “politicians may manipulate statistics, and the media can cover up or camouflage inconvenient truths.” Therefore, claims GCC, “a church cannot passively or automatically comply if the government orders a shutdown of congregational meetings—even if the reason given is a concern for public health and safety.”
An addendum to the statement explains why GCC initially complied: “We voluntarily followed the initial recommendations of our government. It is, of course, legitimate for Christians to abstain from the assembly of saints temporarily in the face of illness or an imminent threat to public health.”
On July 26, two days after the publication of their statement, GCC recommenced indoor worship services. Court documents quote MacArthur in a media interview: “Last Sunday, 3,000 of them came back, and they rejoiced, and they hugged each other, and didn’t wear masks, and they sang songs.” On July 29, the LA County Health Department wrote to MacArthur requiring immediate compliance with the public health orders: “Pursuant to the State and County health orders, Grace Community Church must immediately cease holding indoor worship services…. Unless written confirmation is received by…July 30, 2020 that Grace Community Church will comply with the law, the County will pursue further action.”
The following Sundays, August 2 and 9, GCC met again. Court documents note, “County officials…were denied entry. Video from the services show that large numbers of individuals were gathered indoors. Those individuals were not engaging in social distancing and not wearing masks, which would have been required if those services had been occurring outdoors as permitted.”
On August 12, LA County sought an injunction against GCC and MacArthur prohibiting them “conducting, participating in, or attending any indoor, in-person worship activities in violation of the Health Orders” and requiring them “to comply with the Health Orders with respect to outdoor services…including the wearing of face coverings and physical distancing.” The injunction was denied. Instead Judge James C. Chalfant ruled on August 14 that the defendants were “prohibited from conducting, participating in, or attending indoor worship services…unless, at all times, they comply with mandates of the Health Orders to wear face coverings and practice physical distancing.” That same day the County appealed the decision of the judge, seeking a temporary restraining order against GCC, which request was denied by Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff on August 25 ahead of a further hearing scheduled for September 10. The Court of Appeal “issue[d] a stay of that portion of the trial court’s order denying the County the right to enforce the Health Order’s ban on ‘indoor religious activity’ pending [their] final resolution of the County’s petition for a writ of mandate.” This decision meant that GCC was the only church permitted temporarily to hold indoor services in the State of California. Every other church was allowed outdoor worship services only. MacArthur viewed this as a victory for the GCC.2
Three days later, on August 28, LA County’s Department of Public Works wrote to GCC giving thirty days’ notice of the termination of the rental agreement with respect to the church’s parking lot: “The District will hereby terminate the Agreement effective October 1, 2020…. Grace shall vacate and remove all of its improvements and personal property placed on the premises… on or before October 1, 2020.” Commenting on the timing of the termination, Attorney Jenna Ellis of the Thomas More Society, representing MacArthur and GCC, said, “The church has peacefully held this lease for 45 years and the only reason the county is attempting eviction is because John MacArthur stood up to their unconstitutional power grab. This is harassment, abusive, and unconscionable.”
MacArthur’s legal victory was short lived, however, for Judge Beckloff granted a preliminary injunction, as requested by LA County, on September 10. In the ruling the Court declined to comment on the “constitutionality” of the case, since that is a matter for a future hearing. The Court, however, issued an injunction because it judged that LA County Health Order “does not discriminate on its face,” but “limits religious worship only because it applies to ‘all events and gatherings’— regardless of their purpose…. Thus the County Health Order is facially neutral.” In fact, the Court argued, “Religious services are ‘specifically allowed’ by the order…. The only reference to religion…is language specifically permitting ‘in-person faith-based services, provided that the faith-based service is held outdoors,’ for “[the Order] applies generally to all activities where people congregate indoors, often for long periods of time.”
Pursuant to this September 10 order for a preliminary injunction, GCC and John MacArthur are not permitted to conduct indoor, in-person worship services. Failure to comply with a legal injunction makes the non-compliant party liable to criminal and civil penalties, including fines, forfeiture of goods, and even imprisonment.
It remains to be seen, first, whether MacArthur and GCC will be successful when their case is finally adjudicated, a case they intend to bring to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. Observers will also be interested to see what, if any, penalties the judicial system might inflict on MacArthur and GCC. Does LA County really want the negative publicity of the arrest of an internationally renowned preacher such as Dr. John MacArthur?
I close with a few comments.
First, MacArthur’s case must be seen within the context of American evangelicalism. Americans rightly prize civil and religious rights, which are enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Other countries do not enjoy those privileges; yet they are called to serve the Lord in their own situations. As I write, our brethren in Singapore and the Philippines are severely restricted in their worship services. They have no recourse to the judicial system for relief. Should they refuse to comply with the government and face huge fines and the threat of imprisonment, or should they continue, wisely in my judgment, patiently to bear with the demands of the authorities?
Second, some Christians behave as if restrictions on their gatherings belonged to a huge conspiracy to destroy the church. If the State of California permitted movie theaters and other comparable assemblies to function without restrictions, while it singled out the church for closure, this argument would have some validity, but clearly that is not (yet) the case. It is incredible to imagine that the governments of the world would react thus to a pandemic, destroying their own economies in the process, just to harm the church, although, I suppose, the malice of Satan should not be underestimated. Third, it might be true (as GCC tried to argue in her submission to the Court) that the pandemic is not as serious and that the virus is not as deadly as public health officials present it. In fact, MacArthur stated in a sermon on August 30, “There is no pandemic,” to applause from his congregation. Neither MacArthur nor most readers of the SB (nor, for that matter, most politicians) are competent authorities on epidemiology. It is unwise to enter into such subjects in the course of a sermon.
Fourth, even if politicians have corrupt motives in restricting the free movement of citizens during a pandemic (God will judge), Christians are required to comply with all lawful commands: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (I Pet. 2:13). If we do not like the ordinance, and if we think that the ordinance is nonsensical or even counterproductive, we obey it, unless it involves us in the breaking of God’s commandments. Does the civil authority require the wearing of facemasks in public buildings, and in Christian schools, and in churches? We wear them. No commandment of God forbids the wearing of facemasks. Does the civil authority require that we sit six feet apart when in public places? We do so, without grumbling (Phil. 2:14), because, although we do not like it and even question the wisdom of doing it, we recognize their authority over us. Does the civil authority require that there be no more than a certain number of people in any public gathering, including ecclesiastical gatherings? We comply, not because we fear the virus—perhaps we think the virus is less dangerous than reported; perhaps we think that the government is overreaching its authority; perhaps we think that the government’s response is exaggerated—but because “the powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1). And if the consistory, seeking to comply with such orders, requires such inconveniences of us, we obey them in the Lord (Heb. 13:17). Moreover, we must exemplify this attitude of obedience before our children. We require obedience from them to all our lawful commands. They ought to see us obeying the authorities over us.
Fifth, there is a time when “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). If the civil authority says, “You may not preach in the name of Jesus,” we certainly must obey God rather than men. No pastor in the Western world has been prohibited from preaching in the name of Jesus. Some (in certain states) have been prohibited from preaching inside. Some in other states have been prohibited from preaching inside to more than a certain number of people at a time. If the civil authority says, “You may not preach about certain sins,” we obey God rather than men. No pastor in America or in Europe has (yet) been prohibited from preaching against certain sins, although the trajectory, especially in Europe, is certainly in that direction.
Finally, if the courts rule against MacArthur and GCC, and U.S. Supreme Court precedent suggests that they will, what will MacArthur do? Faced with the threat of heavy fines and even imprisonment for their pastor, will GCC accommodate? And given their size, will they be able to implement the measures that other small churches have introduced to comply with the state’s demands? Other churches, such as our sister in Redlands, CA, have been able to comply by meeting outside. Perhaps the mega-church will divide into smaller congregations. In these difficult days, let us pray for wisdom for our civil and ecclesiastical leaders, and let us pray for a spirit of Christian submission in ourselves to the glory of God.
1 In this article I will quote from relevant legal documents most of which can be found on www.thomasmoresociety.org.
2 The LA Times quotes MacArthur: “The good news is, you’re here, you’re not distancing, and you’re not wearing masks,” he told his congregation Aug. 16. “And it’s also good news that you’re not outside,” “Judge Denies L.A. County’s Request to Stop Grace Community Church from Gathering,” LA Times, Aug. 25, 2020, www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-08-25/grace-community-church-la-county-lawsuit.