Church Services, Covid-19, Civil Liberties, And The Culture War

Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA has been at the center of a heated theological and cultural controversy over whether churches should abide by public health orders (ostensibly) intended to curb the Coronavirus and if so, how. As previously chronicled in this space, Grace Community Church (GCC) last month resumed public worship services defying the latest round of Covid-19 regulations. In their initial service, which was preceded by a public statement by the church, and followed by a series of national media appearances by pastor John MacArthur, the church seemed to go out of its way not only to defy the ban on indoor gatherings but also to defy the regulations concerning social distancing and masks. Now, that controversy has also become legal as the City of Los Angeles has issued a cease and desist letter and threatened to fine GCC $1,000.00 a day or to arrest MacArthur if the services continue. In response, Aysha Khan reports, GCC has sued the State of California in which they accuse the state of violating that California constitution by ‘“unequally’ restricting their  free exercise of religion during the pandemic while allowing large racial justice protests to go unchecked.” Last Sunday, to much applause, MacArthur signaled this argument when he began services by announcing that the service was a “peaceful protest.” Another significant layer to the story is that, according to John Wesley Reid, President Trump’s “personal attorney, Jenna Ellis, and religious freedom expert Charles LiMandri” are representing MacArthur in the litigation.

Simultaneously, Rob McCoy, pastor of the Thousand Oaks, CA Calvary Chapel Godspeak [sic] congregation and a former Thousand Oaks city councilman, who recently resigned in protest of Gov. Newsom’s determination that churches are “non-essential,” says that his congregation has also been conducting services indoors, despite an August 7, 2020 emergency restraining order issued by Ventura County.  McCoy says that the services “have been attended by thousands, many of whom do not normally go to church but now wish to stand up for their liberties.” He told The Daily Caller News Foundation that they have been cleaning the church thoroughly but “his church has continued to hold church services and stopped social distancing and wearing masks when they perceived that Newsom was allowing protests to go on while banning religious services.”


These two episodes are obviously related by a couple of things: 1) the desire of Christians to be able to gather together for public worship; 2) the understandable and growing sense among Christians that they  are being singled out for discriminatory treatment by civil authorities. Regarding the latter, they are not alone. A minority of the United States Supreme Court (see the resources below) has expressed quite strongly and unequivocally the same concerns. That same concern has been echoed in this space and in the Heidelcast. It is incoherent for the civil authorities to permit and even encourage large public gatherings, whether in casinos, or in peaceful civil rights protests or riots or politically-charged funerals, but to restrict churches, mosques, and synagogues from gathering for worship. Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh are entirely right about this.

Thus, for all my criticisms of GCC for the way they gathered, I have not criticized congregations for practicing civil disobedience. I have, however, criticized them for needlessly provoking the authorities by refusing to acknowledge any of the public health concerns of the civil authorities. I have argued consistently that the biblical test as to whether we must disobey civil authorities is clearly articulated in Acts 5:29 (see the resources below for more on this). When the magistrate requires us to sin, then we must disobey. Christians disagree over whether the public health orders forbidding indoor gatherings for public worship are sin. GCC itself has been conflicted about this since they initially complied with the order but then reversed themselves when they concluded that the prohibition had continued too long. In effect, GCC disagreed with the County’s judgment on the threat of Covid-19 to public health. This is a weak position for a congregation to take. In that regard, the Calvary Chapel congregation is in a similarly weak position.

Tools In  The Culture Wars?

The more pressing issue for congregations now is whether they should allow themselves to become tools for one side or the other in the culture wars. In days following GCC’s initial defiance of the public health order it became clear that for many in America, e.g., Tucker Carlson and many private citizens, the significance of GCC’s act was not so much that they were gathering together before the face of the living God in holy, corporate, covenant assembly for public worship but that they were striking a blow for American civil liberties.

This is not a new place for the American church to be. During the Civil Rights movement  of the 1950s and 60s, black churches were frequently the site of civil rights rallies. The movement was led by ministers (e.g., the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, the Rev Ralph Abernathy, et al). Democratic politicians have long seen and used the black church as a tool for partisan political advantage. Who can forget candidate Hillary Clinton adopting a demeaning and insulting Southern accent as she drawled, “I ain’t no ways tired”? In the 1970s and 80s, it was a clergyman, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr., who lead “The Moral Majority” and whose church (Thomas Road Baptist) was the scene of many overtly partisan political rallies for the Republicans.

That it has been done commonly does not, however, make it right. The visible, institutional church is not a creature of any political party or movement, left or right. As a practical matter, the mainline (liberal) churches (e.g., the United Methodists, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Disciples of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church USA, and the American Baptist Church), i.e., the “Seven Sisters of the Mainline,” have long been identified with and extensions of the political and cultural left. As they have given themselves over to the spirit of the age they have been vitiated as each of them has lost about 70,000 members annually for decades. The mainline is quickly moving toward the sideline numerically. It will not be long before the PCUSA is no bigger (though it will be much wealthier) than the Presbyterian Church in America (c. 400,000 members). There is some evidence that this same vitiating alliance on the political and cultural right has cost conservative and evangelical churches too.

Pastor McCoy’s report that people, who do not ordinarily attend, are attending his congregation’s meetings in order to “stand up for their liberties” should trouble us. As I have been arguing throughout this episode, the Christian lives in a twofold kingdom (see the resources below). Insofar as we live in the common, secular, civil sphere with unbelievers we have much in common with them. We use the same plumbing and we vote in the same elections. American Christians who value civil liberties (including religious liberties) as I do, who believe that they are God-given liberties rightly recognized in the Constitution of the United States, have a deep and abiding interest in preserving our right “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We have a deep and abiding interest in seeing that the Congress of the USA make no law “respecting an establishment of religion” nor “prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”. When our liberties are infringed we have a civil right and even a duty to secure those liberties beginning with an appeal to the civil magistrate for and by seeking redress in the courts.

Nevertheless, insofar as we are also citizens of the heavenly city, which both Paul says (Phil 3:20) and Hebrews says (Heb 11:10) we are, the visible church is not to be the battleground of any culture war. There were many competing cultural interests in the first century. Paul alludes to the sorts of cultural tensions that might have split the church when he says that, in Christ, there is no slave or free, Scythian, Barbarian, Greek, Jew, male or female (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). We see not a single shred of evidence that the churches were instructed or allowed themselves to be used in any of the several political and cultural conflicts in the period. The visible, institutional church has been charged to

…Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19–20; ESV)

The basis for Jesus’ institution was his claim to universal authority. We should observe that when he prefaced the “Great Commission,” he did not apply it the way many American Christians (both left and right) have been tempted to do. He did not say, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18) “Go therefore and establish a Christian nation” or “Go therefore and take back America in my name” or the like. He commissioned his visible church, in his apostles, to preach the gospel, and to use the sacraments. This is a hard limit to obey, because we are mightily tempted to draft the church for our agenda, as the history of the church amply demonstrates. When we do so, however, we are being unfaithful to our divine charter.

This is not to say that Christians as citizens should not engage the culture. They should and arguably they must. Those who say that the “twofold kingdom“—this is Calvin’s phrase—approach to Christ and culture advocate “quietism” are without foundation in the facts or logic. Christians are free to form as many cultural associations as they will to pursue their civil or cultural interests. What they may not do is to say that in their cultural endeavor they represent the visible church.  The visible, institutional church is not a cultural-civil association. The visible church was instituted by Christ himself to pursue his agenda. As much as real Americans do and should love the Constitution, it is not the Word of God. It is not inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is a marvelous document, an excellent and abiding expression of the natural, God-given civil liberties of that belong to all image-bearers, but it is not Holy Scripture.

When The Spheres Intersect

Obviously, because Christians live in God’s twofold kingdom, our lives as members of the visible church, the Christ-confessing covenant community, intersect with our lives in the shared, secular sphere. Thus, it is entirely appropriate for GCC to seek relief in the courts for unequal treatment under the law but the distinction between the two spheres must be recognized. When GCC gathers, they ought to do so respectfully, humbly, and seeking to avoid offense to the magistrate as much as possible. They ought to do so to gather before the face of the living God, to confess their sins, to hear the gospel of free grace, to receive what the Reformed Churches call the “means of grace,”and to be edified and instructed.

Now that President Trump’s personal lawyer is involved in this case, GCC is clearly aligned with one side of the culture war. Wisdom suggests that it might have been wiser for them to thank the President for his support and to seek independent counsel to advocate for relief.

The Calvary Chapel congregation is allowing itself to be used in the culture war. It is wonderful to see people, some of whom may be unbelievers, streaming into church but we want to see them streaming in to hear the law and the gospel. We pray and long for them to be convicted of the greatness of their sin and misery and their need for the Savior and to see them being brought to new life and true faith by the Holy Spirit. It is not a source of joy to see them streaming in as an expression of their civil liberties or in order to support one side or another in the culture wars any more than it was a joy to see candidate Clinton in a Christian pulpit for nakedly partisan political ends.  The culture war is a secular matter. The church is a sacred institution. On this distinction see the resources below.

Consider the case of Madsen’s Bowling and Billiards in my hometown of Lincoln, Neb. The city issued a mask order requiring patrons of businesses to wear masks in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The business refused to obey this order. The city threatened to close the business until they complied. The case went to court. At one point the police did close the business but customers new and old streamed into the business in order to support the owner in his defiance of the public health order. This sort of defiance may be well and good for Madsen’s which is a secular enterprise but, to state the obvious, the visible the church is not a pool hall. It is ironic, however, to see folk streaming in to church and pool hall alike in order to strike a blow for civil liberty. It is ironic, of course, because, once upon a time, a place like Madsen’s would have been the subject of no little scorn from churches in Lincoln.

The question is not whether American Christians should seek legal and political redress using the avenues available to us. The Apostle Paul did that very thing.

But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I am a citizen by birth.” So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him (Acts 22:25–29; ESV).

The question is how we seek political and legal redress. Paul appealed to Caesar, as was his civil right as a Roman citizen (Acts 24:11) and, by the way, when appeared before the magistrate he took the opportunity to preach the gospel. He did not, however, use the Roman congregation or any other as a vehicle to achieve a cultural objective. Chemical abortions were commonplace in the 1st century Greco-Roman world. We know certainly that the ancient church opposed them (resources below) as they opposed the pagan practice of abandoning infants to their death (on the latter see the Ep. to Diognetus ch. 5). We find no reference in the New Testament to any ecclesiastical movement to end chemical abortions. There is some evidence, in Philemon, that the Apostle Paul opposed Christians owning servants but there no NT evidence  of an ecclesiastical movement against it.

Many American Christians are justifiably frustrated and angry at the manifest injustice of the state declaring an obviously essential institution, the visible church, “non-essential” even as the magistrate simultaneously gives privilege to other constitutionally protected groups and acts (e.g., civil rights organizations and protests). This is incoherent and clear evidence of bias. Nevertheless, the church must move beyond looking for culture-war heroes, strong men  who “fight back” and “stand up” for us especially when it that culture war comes at the cost of the definition of the church and her message to the world.

The bad news is that Christians and churches will suffer in this life. Nero burned Christians. Diocletian martyred Christians. American Christians are not being martyred but Chinese Christians are and so are Nigerian Christians and in considerable numbers. We do not need a “strong man” to stand up for us.  Jesus is our strong man. He will sort out unjust magistrates in his good time and some of them will regret their unjust treatment of Jesus’ little ones. Until then we are to “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you” (1 Thess 4:11; ESV) and to pray  “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2; ESV).

Thanks to Bob McDowell for his editorial help. All typos are the responsibility of the author.


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  1. Thank you for this analysis and identifying the necessary distinctions, Dr. Clark. Of course, another concern in the immediate case of GCC is the seeming change in conviction from the stated positions just under 4 months ago.

    On April 19, 2020, Pastor MacArthur answered a question about meeting and civil disobedience, with such statements as:

    But you can not defy the government. And I don’t think pastors should do this. You cannot defy the government and say, ‘We’re going to meet anyway because God has commanded us to meet, no matter what damage we do to people’s lives.’

    I mean, what should mark Christians is mercy, compassion, love, kindness, sacrifice. How are you doing that if you flaunt the fact that you’re going to meet; and essentially you’re saying, ‘We disregard the public safety issue.’

    As well as a dismissive concern over constitutionality:

    I’ve heard people say, ‘Well, this isn’t constitutional.’ That’s irrelevant. That is completely irrelevant. When you’re told by an authority to do something and it’s for the greater good of the society physically, that’s what you do because that’s what Christians would do.

    (This is from “Bible Questions and Answers, Part 72.” Full audio and transcript:

    As a pastor, I’ve certainly changed on how I view COVID19 and related health orders over the last 5 months, but the principles related to civil disobedience have not. There may be a published explanation for GCC’s change in convictions in this areas, but I’ve just not come across one yet.

    Personally, I didn’t agree with such absolute statements when they were made in April, but I think it’d help if an explanation of such a change was made public. Especially as of now many pastors and churches who agree with Pastor MacArthur’s position in April are now regularly accused of being unfaithful and cowardly, even by the group giving GCC legal representation.

    • Thanks for posting this, I was not aware of his earlier remarks. Certainly raises a few questions.

  2. These facts have not gone deep enough. The parent of one of the counselors for GCC attended Dr. MacArthur’s university, and the people streaming in to support Godspeak Chapel were not just people off the street, they were from another church.

  3. Dr. Clark, thank you for your lucid analysis – it is very helpful. I went to TMS and graduated with an Mdiv, but more importantly, I became truly reformed during my last years on campus thanks to RC Sproul, Van Til, Sinclair Ferguson, and many other Ligioner fellows who came to speak. I am now a PCA minister in Guam. From my time at GCC, JMA is just being like he always has been – a minister who likes to mix it up. It’s part of his fundamentalist background. He has a strong way of making his position seem to be the “biblical position” no matter what. I am sad by his actions late in his ministry.

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