John MacArthur, the well-known evangelical pastor-teacher at Grace Community Church, faces possible fines and arrest for defying California’s COVID-19 shut-down order and reopening his church.

According to The Christian Post, “County officials have allegedly threatened Grace Community Church in California with fines and possible arrest for reopening his church in defiance of lockdown orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom during the pandemic.”

MacArthur and church elders posted a defense of the church resuming services on the Grace Community website, “Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church: A Biblical Case for the Church’s Duty to Remain Open.”

After pointing to Scripture proclaiming that Christ is sovereign and Lord over earthly authorities, the article discussed Scriptures’ mandate of “careful, conscientious obedience to all governing authority.” The article describes three human institutions established by God, “the family, the state, and the church.”

“When any one of the three institutions exceeds the bounds of its jurisdiction, it is the duty of the other institutions to curtail that overreach,” the defense says. “Therefore, when any government official issues orders regulating worship (such as bans on singing, caps on attendance, or prohibitions against gatherings and services), he steps outside 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 as sovereign over His Kingdom, which is the church,” the document continues.

MacArthur defended holding church services on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, saying that it was a First Amendment right and that “the government can’t intrude in worship, we stand on that amendment.”

The pastor added that 40 million people live in California, but there had been only 8,500 deaths. As of August 3, the state had a death rate of 24 per 100,000 people. He asked, “So why would you shut down the entire state, and particularly when people are frightened, and sometimes, terrified that they’re going to die, shut down the church, where most of the intense relationships in our society exist?”

MacArthur also explained that Grace Community had already endured 21 weeks “with no ministry to a thousand little children, to a thousand university students, to junior high students, high school students, senior adults.” “We’ve had no funerals, no weddings. I can’t go to the hospital. I’ve had to go on the phone to talk to dying people at the hospital,” he added.

Gov. Newsom signed the initial statewide shelter-in-place order on March 19, 2020, in order to protect Californians and slow the spread of the coronavirus. The order included “up to $1,000 in fines or six months imprisonment” for violators.

In April, he announced “six critical indicators” that must be met before any reopening. These include the ability to monitor and protect communities through testing, contact tracing and isolation; the ability to protect high-risk individuals; and the ability of the state’s health system to handle surges in patients.

Newsom reopened much of the state on June 12, allowing indoor religious services and businesses like restaurants, retail stores, bars, and gyms to reopen. On July 1, the state added a ban on singing and chanting during worship services. California’s guidelines for “Places of Worship and Providers of Religious Services and Cultural Ceremonies” also limited indoor attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower.” A lawsuit from three churches is challenging those orders.

Then, on July 13, due to rising numbers of coronavirus cases, Newsom announced that 30 counties, with about 80% of the state’s population, were on the state’s “watch list,” and indoor businesses, including places of worship, would be shut down again. The list has now grown to 38 counties.

At the same time, Newsom allowed casinos, hotels, campgrounds, outdoor recreation and a variety of industries to remain open.

MacArthur told Carson that he started preaching in his empty church several weeks ago, and members just started coming back. Now, he’s speaking out more about remaining open, despite the ban. Grace Community had an average weekly attendance of 8,258, before the coronavirus. About 3,000 people attended services in the past two weeks.

His document defending the reopening concludes with a statement to state political leaders, “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).

“Our prayer is that every faithful congregation will stand with us in obedience to our Lord as Christians have done through the centuries.”

Related articles and resources:

California Bans Singing in Church, Pastors Claim Religious Liberty is Being Violated

CalMatters Timeline: California reacts to coronavirus

Covid-19 Industry Guidance: Places of Worship and Providers of Religious Services and Cultural Ceremonies

Lawsuit Challenges California Ban on Singing in Church

SCOTUS Rejects Lawsuit from Nevada Church, Permits Casinos Greater Reopening Capacity Than Churches

Supreme Court Turns Down San Diego Church Request to Open on Same Terms as Malls, Businesses

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