Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, is defying state orders that his church remain shuttered during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — and the move is sparking intense discussion and debate.
The preacher spoke about his decision in a recent episode of the "Edifi With Billy Hallowell" podcast, explaining that Grace Community Church initially complied with California's restrictions before changing course in recent weeks.
"I've been here 50 years; the church is 63 years old, and this church has never had any kind of mandate from the government to close," MacArthur said. "So, when they came up with this mandate it seemed to be so rare and so unusual that we were listening."
Upon hearing dire predictions about the death toll, MacArthur said it was "enough to make anybody with common sense" pause and take steps to ensure no one was endangered. The church initially moved to a livestream model and closed down in-person services — but within a few weeks, MacArthur said parishioners started showing up again.
Listen to MacArthur explain why his church is defying orders:
"They were beginning to realize that it wasn't what they said it was going to be," he said of the COVID-19 impact, estimating that about .02% of California's population had died. "There were 8,500 deaths [in California] — half of them were people over 80 with obvious comorbidity issues."
MacArthur continued, "It just seemed to me that 99.98 is pretty good odds to come to church, and people were crying out to open the church because of the fears — and then of course the church is the center of life for people who love the Lord, and they were cut off from their friends."
And thousands of people have flooded back to the pews since Grace Community Church reopened, with around 3,000 attending the first weekend and an estimated 6,000 the second. And despite threats of government crackdowns over defiance, MacArthur said he has no plans to change course.
"Grace Church is going to meet … and we're going to continue to meet and we're going to always meet because Jesus Christ is the head of the church. Jesus is Lord," he said. "And government has a certain purview given by God, but it doesn't cross over into the realm of the kingdom of God, so we're going to meet."
MacArthur noted that the church has hired attorneys and that leaders will do everything they can within the court system to defend themselves and to continue meeting.
"I don't know what that's going to look like. … this is not the America that I've known for many, many decades," he said. "It's just a bizarre reality that we haven't navigated in the past. I'm not a prophet, so I can't predict what's going to happen, but I can say this: Grace Community is going to meet."
Critics have taken issue with the fact that the church is in violation of government orders and is allowing crowds of people to congregate at a time when social distancing orders are being heralded for helping stop the spread of coronavirus. Still, debate persists surrounding how far these orders should go.
Debate and discussion aside, MacArthur believes California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) simply doesn't have the authority to deem churches "nonessential" entities.
"The governor said the church is not essential. Some things were essential — liquor stores were essential, abortion clinics were essential, grocery stores were essential but the church was not essential," MacArthur said. "Based on the Constitution, the governor doesn't have the authority to say what is essential … the governor has no constitutional authority to say the church is not."
In the end, MacArthur believes "intentional discrimination" is unfolding "against biblical Christianity and the church." And he said there's no end insight to the restrictions ushered in by COVID-19.