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John MacArthur, Grace Community Church Defy State Regulations for Religious Gatherings

Grace Community Church congregants in Sun Valley gathered indoors and sang hymns on Sunday (July 26), defying California regulations that aim to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“This is a very special day in the life of our church family. It is for us a return to what we love the most, the fellowship of the saints and the worship of our Lord,” said Pastor John MacArthur from the pulpit, in a video posted on the church’s Facebook page.

The video stream of the service shows people singing and sitting near each other, many without masks.

MacArthur said the congregation has galvanized behind Grace Community Church. Those outside the church have not.

“Many people don’t understand why we would do this. We understand that. We understand that the world does not understand the importance of the church,” MacArthur said.

Sunday’s service was held amid a new round of closures that are in effect in California as COVID-19 cases have surged during the summer.

Gov. Gavin Newsom in mid-July once again shut down bars and indoor dining. Across more than 30 counties in the state, closures include indoor church services, gyms, nail salons and malls.

These rules apply to Grace Community Church as Los Angeles County remains on the state’s monitoring list.

Additionally, restrictions for indoor religious gatherings also include a ban on singing. Chanting and singing “negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing,” according to health officials. A number of churches have already sued the state for banning singing and chanting in places of worship but permitting such activities elsewhere.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in a statement provided to Religion News Service said its Environmental Health division “is investigating and will be reaching out to the church leaders to let them know they need to comply with the Health Officer Order.”

Grace Community Church has not yet responded to a request for comment.

On July 24, MacArthur and the church’s elders issued a statement entitled “Biblical Case for the Church’s Duty to Remain Open.” In it, MacArthur proclaimed, “Christ, not Caesar, is Head of the Church.”

The statement said Grace Community Church has always stood steadfast on biblical principles. It asserted that the government is charged with protecting civic order and well-being and that “[i]nsofar 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.”

And yet, MacArthur said, “God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church.”

“As His people, we are subject to His will and commands as revealed in Scripture,” the statement reads. “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.”

In response to questions spurred by the statement, MacArthur and the elders wrote an update explaining why they submitted to the original government order citing biblical grounds and are just now taking a defiant stance.

They said the original orders were “an illegitimate intrusion of state authority into ecclesiastical matters” but that “because we care about people as our Lord did, we believe guarding public health against serious contagions is a rightful function of Christians as well as civil government. Therefore, we voluntarily followed the initial recommendations of our government.”

But now, the updates reads, the restrictions have dragged on long enough. “Pastors’ ability to shepherd their flocks has been severely curtailed. The unity and influence of the church has been threatened. Opportunities for believers to serve and minister to one another have been missed. And the suffering of Christians who are troubled, fearful, distressed, infirm, or otherwise in urgent need of fellowship and encouragement has been magnified beyond anything that could reasonably be considered just or necessary…That forces churches to choose between the clear command of our Lord and the government officials. Therefore, following the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, we gladly choose to obey Him.”

A new survey of Protestant pastors found that those from evangelical churches were most likely to say that their church has met in person for worship.

On Friday, the Supreme Court turned down an appeal from a Nevada church, which challenged that state’s restrictions on large public gatherings.

Alejandra Molina

Alejandra is a national reporter for Religion News Service where she covers Latinos and religion. Her work has appeared in the AP, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Press-Enterprise, and Orange County Register.