Inspired by the defiance of a prominent California pastor, a national ministry is asking Christian leaders to do what is best for their congregation.
Supporters of the Mississippi-based American Family Association received an “Action Alert” on Tuesday asking them to sign an online pledge that declared “now is the time to serve Christ first, not Caesar.”
“There are two basic issues at stake here,” explains Ed Vitagliano, a spokesman for the Mississippi-based American Family Association. “The first is when do Christians disobey the government. For a lot of Christians that time is coming now.”
U.S. was warned of 2.2 million dead
Out of respect for authority, with predictions of a plague-like epidemic, American churches obediently shuttered their doors in early spring when COVID-19 began to spread across the U.S. The public warnings at the time bordered on apocalyptic, since a United Kingdom study, published March 16 by Imperial College, predicted 2.2 million would die in the U.S. if dramatic steps were not taken to slow the spread.
It appeared, at least at first, that prediction was coming true. Ominous headlines reported FEMA was ordering 100,000 body bags, and hard-hit New York City was begging for ventilators after its emergency rooms were overrun with cases. ER doctors, rattled by their inability to save lives, took their own.
Elderly Americans were warned they are most vulnerable, so the public was ordered to turn off the lights and go home or risk killing your grandparents and elderly neighbors. And churches were no exception, since congregants literally shake hands and rub shoulders with dozens if not hundreds of others. As if to convince skeptics, The Washington Post and other media outlets reported on defiant pastors, who vowed to preach rather than go home, who were succumbing to the virus.
So tens of thousands of churches, joining tens of thousands of businesses, turned off the lights just before Easter weekend.
MacArthur: Church answers to God
Four months after that UK report went viral, Pastor John MacArthur informed the State of California his congregation would defy its government after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a second round of lockdowns July 13 after cases jumped in The Golden State.
In a lengthy blog post, MacArthur pointed out the first lockdown was a “stopgap” measure with the stated goal to “flatten the curve,” which meant attempt to slow the rate of infections so hospitals are not overwhelmed.
“And there were horrific projections of death,” the pastor wrote. “In light of those factors, our pastors supported the measures by observing the guidelines that were issued for churches.”
But the congregation at Grace Community Church, he continued, did not yield its “spiritual authority” to the secular government and after more than 20 weeks, with those death projections wrong, the church has spent nearly half the year unable to legally meet.
The pastor further wrote:
The church by definition is an assembly. That is the literal meaning of the Greek word for “church”—ekklesia—the assembly of the called-out ones. A non-assembling assembly is a contradiction in terms. Christians are therefore commanded not to forsake the practice of meeting together (Hebrews 10:25)—and no earthly state has a right to restrict, delimit, or forbid the assembling of believers. We have always supported the underground church in nations where Christian congregational worship is deemed illegal by the state.
MacArthur and other Californians are no doubt aware their liberal governor praised protesters who marched to oppose police brutality in the middle of the state's lockdown. Newsom posted photos of the marchers on social media after advising Californians to skip July 4th cook-outs with neighbors.
“People know what the right thing to do is. I encourage them to do the right thing,” Newsom told reporters. “And people also understand that we have a Constitution, we have a right to free speech, and we are all dealing with a moment in our nation's history that is profound and pronounced.”
MacArthur's views of Church and State have not changed. In a 2018 interview with Ben Shapiro, the pastor recalled the story from Acts when the apostles were warned to stop preaching the gospel but defiantly said they will obey God rather than men.
"And they went right back out to preach Christ," MacArthur pointed out. "Freedom of speech, for us, is freedom to preach the truth of Christ, even when the society says that’s against the law."
AFA: Let churches make choices
According to Vitagliano, the second issue that needs addressing is if a government can legally apply lockdown restrictions to a church while failing to restrict businesses. That violates the First Amendment, he insists.
“Are these governments targeting religion in general and especially Christianity?” he asks. “In some places, at least, it looks like the answer is yes.”
Unlike a government order, the AFA spokesman adds, the ministry is not demanding that churches meet but instead is urging them to exercise their First Amendment right without fear of government leaders punishing them for doing so.
“In some places where it's a hot spot, they may decide to stay shut down or to have services online,” he says. “What we're talking about here is that the government doesn't have the right to make that decision for the church.”