The oncoming second wave of government-mandated shutdowns has prompted some churches to defy state governments and hold services in an act of civil disobedience. One incident that has accrued considerable attention in Christian circles is the decision of Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, to reopen in resistance to statewide orders to remain closed.
During the first California shutdown, the church had complied with the state’s orders by terminating in-person congregational meetings, in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. California seemed to be handling the virus well, but an upsurge in new cases toward the end of June prompted a second statewide shutdown. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new constraints are particularly aggressive, and forbid churches in counties on the County Monitoring List, like Grace Community, from hosting their usual indoor worship services.
But this government-mandated shutdown has not stopped Pastor MacArthur from assuming his regular duties as pastor. In a manifesto published July 24, he writes, “Christ is Lord of all. He is the one true head of the church…. Therefore we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”
MacArthur sees government-imposed shutdowns on church activity as a breach of civil authority; the church is an institution in its own right free to operate under the will of God and, if need be, in defiance of the government. Throughout the rest of the statement, MacArthur cites theological and biblical justifications for his stance of civil disobedience.
He concludes, “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).”
This past Sunday, true to his word, MacArthur’s church gathered for worship indoors as usual. The church did not make mask-wearing mandatory, nor did they desist from indoor singing or limit their capacity to fewer than 100 attendees, as state regulations demand.
Grace Community Church is not the only institution to contest state governments’ orders to shut down, although it is one of the more openly defiant. From the beginning of these lockdowns, many churches have implemented all requisite mitigation efforts and still faced orders from their states to remain closed. A number of these churches have filed lawsuits against their states for prohibiting various forms of religious assembly, often while allowing other secular activities. Many of these lawsuits have been successful. On the other hand, a noncompliant Nevada church recently argued before the Supreme Court that their state’s mandate to limit congregational capacity violated the constitution. In this case, the court ruled 5-4 against the church. Grace Community Church, similar to this Nevada church in its noncompliance, might receive a similar ruling should the case be taken to court, although this is by no means guaranteed.
Incidents such as these raise important questions of whether the government should be in the business of dictating what lawful organizations should be allowed to operate and which should not, even for such a noble end as slowing the spread of a virus. When the lockdowns first started, many assumed that the government should do whatever it takes to fight the pandemic. But now that heads have had some time to cool, institutions like Grace Community Church are asking whether the government was right to criminalize the mere act of assembling, even if in the name of “the greater good.”