So let’s begin this post with a little history.
In late May 2020, John MacArthur, the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, announced that the church would return to face-to-face worship for the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak. When president Donald Trump declared that churches were “essential,” MacArthur promised to “fight any state government that tried to stand in the way” of Grace’s opening. MacArthur said that the Bible required him to submit to the governing authorities and, as he put it, “in the United States, there is no higher human executive authority than the president, who was speaking on a matter of federal and constitutional interest, specifically the First Amendment.”
MacArthur made this announcement on Friday, May 22. But on Saturday evening, May 23, he learned that the Ninth Circuit Court ruled in favor of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home order. This prevented churches from gathering in face-to-face settings. MacArthur was not happy about the decision, but he admitted that “the Ninth Circuit is sadly the law of the land in California, and we gladly submit to the sovereign purposes of God.”
In July, MacArthur changed his view again. He decided that Newsom’s ban on indoor religious services was intruding on his congregation’s right to worship. In a July 24, 2020 blog post, MacArthur said that civic rulers did not have any jurisdiction over churches: “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.”
The elders of Grace Church considered and independently consented to the original government order, not because we believed the state has a right to tell churches when, whether, or how to worship. To be clear, we believe that the original orders were just as much an illegitimate intrusion of state authority into ecclesiastical matters as we believe it is now. However, because we could not possibly have known the true severity of the virus, and 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. It is, of course, legitimate for Christians to abstain from the assembly of saints temporarily in the face of illness or an imminent threat to public health.
When the devastating lockdown began, it was supposed to be a short-term stopgap measure, with the goal to “flatten the curve”—meaning they wanted to slow the rate of infection to ensure that hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. And there were horrific projections of death. In light of those factors, our pastors supported the measures by observing the guidelines that were issued for churches.
But we did not yield our spiritual authority to the secular government. We said from the very start that our voluntary compliance was subject to change if the restrictions dragged on beyond the stated goal, or politicians unduly intruded into church affairs, or if health officials added restrictions that would to attempt to undermine the church’s mission. We made every decision with our own burden of responsibility in mind. We simply took the early opportunity to support the concerns of health officials and accommodate the same concerns among our church members, out of a desire to act in an abundance of care and reasonableness (Philippians 4:5).
But we are now more than twenty weeks into the unrelieved restrictions. It is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared. Still, roughly forty percent of the year has passed with our church essentially unable to gather in a normal way. 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. Major public events that were planned for 2021 are already being canceled, signaling that officials are preparing to keep restrictions in place into next year and beyond. 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.
On August 4, 2020, MacArthur told those in attendance at Grace Community Church that any congregation that submits to Newsom’s order and remains closed is not a “true” church. The congregation laughed and cheered. Meanwhile, Los Angeles County sued MacArthur and the church for continuing to hold in-person worship. Grace Community Church countersued. (More on this below).
On August 15, the Superior Court of the State of California in Los Angeles issued a temporary order that allowed Grace Community Church to hold worship services as long as the congregation wore masks and social distanced. MacArthur’s legal team, led by Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, celebrated the ruling. On August 30, MacArthur told his congregation that there “is no pandemic” and implied that those who believe otherwise had been deceived by Satan. Again, the congregation cheered.
On September 11, the Los Angeles Superior Court granted a preliminary injunction against Grace Community Church prohibiting MacArthur from holding indoor services. Los Angeles County attorneys sent the church a cease and desist letter, threatening arrest or a daily fine of $1,000. In the Fall of 2020, the church had a COVID-19 outbreak.
The Los Angeles County lawsuit and the Grace Community Church countersuit were settled out of court. Tonight, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will announce a settlement that may require the county to compensate the church $400,000 in legal fees and an additional $400,000 to settle the suit.
Now we learn, according to reporting from Sarah Einselen at the Julie Roys Report, that COVID-19 “swept through Grace Community Church last winter” and John MacArthur and his wife contracted it. This is the first time MacArthur has admitted this.
Here is Einselen:
For months, the church has resisted acknowledging the spread of COVID-19 among its congregants.
Multiple members of GCC told The Roys Report in December that they feared retribution for discussing the outbreak. A GCC leader said staff and members were being pressured not to report new COVID-19 cases to the health department.
MacArthur was absent from the pulpit Dec. 27, 2020, despite being scheduled to preach. That day, GCC Staff Pastor Tom Patton said MacArthur, 81, was “resting” and evening services that day would also be canceled so members could “spend more time with (their) family.” The following Sunday, Patton said MacArthur was home preparing for the Shepherd’s Conference scheduled for months later.
GCC held worship services in person during most of the outbreak, indoors and without requiring masks or social distancing, in defiance of county health measures.
A former student at The Master’s Seminary, which meets on GCC’s campus, also told The Roys Report the school was flagrantly violating its own COVID-19 measures during that time and mocking students who followed them. An older Master’s seminarian and GCC member in his sixties died in January after contracting COVID-19.
The Roys Report also reported that another church staff member, Phil Johnson, several attendees of an adult Sunday school class that had been meeting in person, and multiple members of the church’s Filipino ministry had COVID-19 during the December outbreak at the church.
Meanwhile, MacArthur was out for three weekends without further explanation. When he returned to the pulpit Jan. 17, he struggled to clear his throat and catch his breath, and said, pointing to his chest, “It’s in there still, so, you’re going to get it, later this morning.”
MacArthur first addressed the outbreak in an April statement to a California court. In the statement, MacArthur defended the church’s failure to report the outbreak, saying the church wasn’t aware at the time that so many people were sick with COVID-19.
Read the entire piece here.
I wonder how many people died or are still suffering long-term effects of COVID because MacArthur preached herd immunity. I wonder how many people at Grace Community Church are trying to climb out from under their hospital bills or passed COVID-19 to a vulnerable person because of what MacArthur taught them. We will probably never know.