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John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church is at loggerheads with Los Angeles County.

They are still holding indoor church services, despite curtailment of indoor worship during the coronavirus pandemic.

Yesterday’s post looked at the legal background and how MacArthur’s church decided to resume indoor worship.

Today’s will excerpt the church’s statement of July 24, explaining how it complies with Romans 13:1-7 and similar verses on obeying civil authority.

The statement is entitled ‘A Biblical Case for the Church’s Duty to Remain Open’ and ‘Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church’.

Emphases mine below.

The statement begins by saying that Christ is the head of the Church and:

As His people, we are subject to His will and commands as revealed in Scripture. 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.

The statement explains why this is not in violation of Scripture’s commands to obey civil authorities:

Some will think such a firm statement is inexorably in conflict with the command to be subject to governing authorities laid out in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. Scripture does mandate careful, conscientious obedience to all governing authority, including kings, governors, employers, and their agents (in Peter’s words, “not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable” [1 Peter 2:18]). Insofar as government authorities do not attempt to assert ecclesiastical authority or issue orders that forbid our obedience to God’s law, their authority is to be obeyed whether we agree with their rulings or not. In other words, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 still bind the consciences of individual Christians. We are to obey our civil authorities as powers that God Himself has ordained.

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. God has established three institutions within human society: the family, the state, and the church. Each institution has a sphere of authority with jurisdictional limits that must be respected. A father’s authority is limited to his own family. Church leaders’ authority (which is delegated to them by Christ) is limited to church matters. And government is specifically tasked with the oversight and protection of civic peace and well-being within the boundaries of a nation or community. God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church. The biblical framework limits the authority of each institution to its specific jurisdiction. The church does not have the right to meddle in the affairs of individual families and ignore parental authority. Parents do not have authority to manage civil matters while circumventing government officials. And similarly, government officials have no right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in a way that undermines or disregards the God-given authority of pastors and elders.

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. 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. His rule is mediated to local churches through those pastors and elders who teach His Word (Matthew 16:18–19; 2 Timothy 3:16–4:2).

Therefore, in response to the recent state order requiring churches in California to limit or suspend all meetings indefinitely, we, the pastors and elders of Grace Community Church, respectfully inform our civic leaders that they have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction, and faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services.

Later in the statement, we read:

In short, as the church, we do not need the state’s permission to serve and worship our Lord as He has commanded. The church is Christ’s precious bride (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:23–27). She belongs to Him alone. She exists by His will and serves under His authority. He will tolerate no assault on her purity and no infringement of His headship over her. All of that was established when Jesus said, “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18).

Christ’s own authority is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And [God the Father has] put all things in subjection under [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:21–23).

Accordingly, the honor that we rightly owe our earthly governors and magistrates (Romans 13:7) does not include compliance when such officials attempt to subvert sound doctrine, corrupt biblical morality, exercise ecclesiastical authority, or supplant Christ as head of the church in any other way.

The biblical order is clear: Christ is Lord over Caesar, not vice versa. Christ, not Caesar, is head of the church. Conversely, the church does not in any sense rule the state. Again, these are distinct kingdoms, and Christ is sovereign over both. Neither church nor state has any higher authority than that of Christ Himself, who declared, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18).

My post on Romans 13:1-7 has several quotations from one of MacArthur’s sermons on said verses which would seem to contradict the church’s statement. He gave the sermons in 1985.

It says:

… how you behave under the authorities in your country, your nation, your city, whatever it is, will demonstrate your faith, the legitimacy of your faith, to that society. And so we are to submit then to the king, to the governor, to anyone who is over us in authority.

Also:

It was not consequential whether the Roman emperor was kind or good, whether he was a persecutor of Christians, or a lover of Christians. It was not consequential whether he was elected by the people, whether he was appointed by the senate, or whether he took over in a military coup. It was not consequential worker the assertion of imperial authority by Caesar was just or unjust, whether he was wicked or whether he was basically good. None of that was consequential.

It was simply and only that government, as it exists in any situation, is for the purpose of God in that situation. And resistance and rebellion against that government is resistance and rebellion against God. Now again I say, unless it is obvious that the government has overstepped its bounds and is forcing you to do that which is contrary and counter to all that Scripture indicates. God operates in the maintenance of government. We obey …

So government is divinely decreed, and to resist it is to resist God. Now I want to take you to a third thought as we wrap up. Those who resist will be punished. Look at verse 2, again. “They that resist shall receive to themselves judgment.” If you resist the government, you’re going to be punished. That’s the way it is. The word is krima. It’s a word that means judgment.

However, his sermon also has this:

Even when government and the Word of God conflict, we should not disobey overtly until we have done all we can to try to resolve the conflict peacefully. Did you get that? To try to resolve the conflict peacefully.

Well, the church is definitely doing that by going through the courts.

Back to the statement, which briefly acknowledges the Constitution but is based on a biblical defence of the church’s actions:

History is full of painful reminders that government power is easily and frequently abused for evil purposes. Politicians may manipulate statistics and the media can cover up or camouflage inconvenient truths. So a discerning 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.

The statement ends as follows:

As government policy moves further away from biblical principles, and as legal and political pressures against the church intensify, we must recognize that the Lord may be using these pressures as means of purging to reveal the true church. Succumbing to governmental overreach may cause churches to remain closed indefinitely. How can the true church of Jesus Christ distinguish herself in such a hostile climate? There is only one way: bold allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Even where governments seem sympathetic to the church, Christian leaders have often needed to push back against aggressive state officials. In Calvin’s Geneva, for example, church officials at times needed to fend off attempts by the city council to govern aspects of worship, church polity, and church discipline. The Church of England has never fully reformed, precisely because the British Crown and Parliament have always meddled in church affairs. In 1662, the Puritans were ejected from their pulpits because they refused to bow to government mandates regarding use of the Book of Common Prayer, the wearing of vestments, and other ceremonial aspects of state-regulated worship. The British Monarch still claims to be the supreme governor and titular head of the Anglican Church.

But again: Christ is the one true head of His church, and we intend to honor that vital truth in all our gatherings. For that preeminent reason, we cannot accept and will not bow to the intrusive restrictions government officials now want to impose on our congregation. We offer this response without rancor, and not out of hearts that are combative or rebellious (1 Timothy 2:1–8; 1 Peter 2:13–17), but with a sobering awareness that we must answer to the Lord Jesus for the stewardship He has given to us as shepherds of His precious flock.

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.

No doubt the church’s prominent legal counsel will be able to put that into more secular language in court.

The church has a press release issued this month which presents the lawyer’s arguments. Excerpts follow:

The Thomas More Society announces that nationally renowned attorneys Jenna Ellis and Charles LiMandri will represent Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, California as Special Counsel …

the State of California is using COVID-19 as a pretext to attempt to force churches to close indefinitely. This illegitimate, over-broad, and unconstitutional order to indefinitely cease assembling, and exercising their religion and sincerely held religious beliefs, forced Grace Community Church to defy the order and continue exercising their rights, seeking shelter in the guaranteed religious freedom protections of the United States and California constitutions. By unanimous vote of the Elder Board, led by Pastor MacArthur, Grace Community Church issued a statement July 24, 2020 explaining their decision.

That is the statement I have cited above.

The press release also has statements from Ms Ellis and Mr LiMandri:

The City of Los Angeles through a cease and desist letter has threatened Grace Community Church and Pastor MacArthur specifically with a daily fine of $1000 or arrest.

“Pastor MacArthur and Grace Community Church are not disobeying the Constitution; it is California’s Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor Eric Garcetti that are defying their constitutional obligation to protect religious freedom and church assembly,” said Ellis. “Our American system of government specifically recognizes that our individual, fundamental right to free exercise of religion and freedom of assembly is a pre-political, God-given, inalienable right. That right is not given by the government or the Constitution, but rather, government is mandated by the Constitution to preserve and protect it for the church. Grace Community Church has every right to assemble without impossible and unreasonable infringement from the state, and the state has absolutely no power to impose the restrictions it is demanding. Church is essential, and the government has no power to arbitrate whether religious organizations are essential. This is not about health and safety, it is about targeting churches.”

LiMandri said, “It is unconstitutional for Governor Newsom and the State of California to discriminate against churches by treating them less favorably than other organizations and activities that are not protected by the First Amendment. Pastor MacArthur and his church, as well as all churches, are entitled to practice their religion without government interference. This is especially the case when the government has given free rein to protestors, and is not similarly restricting marijuana dispensaries, large retail outlets and factories, and abortion providers. The government orders are also unconstitutional because there is no compelling need for the onerous restrictions on the churches at this time. The hospitals are not overwhelmed and the percentage death rate from COVID-19 is now extremely small. It is time for Governor Newsom and Mayor Garcetti to recognize what President Trump has already proclaimed: Churches are providing an ‘essential’ service to the people. Therefore, they must be allowed to serve the people in the manner in which God has called them.”

I can hardly wait to see how this turns out come September 4, the date of the hearing.

I certainly hope that Grace Community Church wins this battle.

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