Fighting for Freedom of Religion?

If you have been following the news regarding Grace Community Church and its pastor John MacArthur’s battle in the courts of California, you might be thinking this is one of those complex issues confronting Christian churches across the country. 

The claim that California is prohibiting the freedom to worship is simply not true. As of September 13, the LA County Public Health Department states in their Health Officer Order, “You may attend in-person faith-based services, including weddings and funerals, if they are held outside and social distancing and infection control requirements in the County’s Protocol for Places of Worship are posted and followed.”

“There is nothing inherently wrong with MacArthur and others taking issue with a governor’s executive order.”

While the State is prohibiting gathering together en masse, whether large church gatherings, movie theaters, or sporting events, it does so in the interest of public health and slowing the spread of the Novel Coronavirus. In spite of prohibiting cultural gatherings, Californians, as do all Americans, still have the freedom to worship, just as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” 

The real issue here, it seems, is how one defines worship and church. MacArthur and others clearly define it as necessitating a preacher and building. However, I’m not so certain that was in the minds of the New Testament authors. Nevertheless, there are cultural particularities that allow for an understanding of a church to focus on buildings and pastors in spite of the fact that the first archeological evidence for a church building dates to 241AD. For nearly 200 years, it appears that the church not only met in smaller groups in homes, but grew from 120 disciples to more than 3 million while enduring empire-wide persecution and at least two plagues!

So, what might motivate MacArthur and others to make such claims about the government? I have no doubt that they have good intentions but wonder if they are misinformed or misguided. It is also altogether possible that the issue is simply cultural and theological, not necessarily one of right or wrong.

Here are four possible theological reasons for why churches and pastors take action against public health concerns:

  1. Theological – the belief that the church needs a building. Just as the Jewish Temple was a place for Jews to worship en masse, there is a similar belief among Christians that “church” is a “temple” where many gather. While there were large gatherings in the first century, Christians mostly gathered in homes to worship, pray, fellowship, and to hear the Scriptures as they continued to stay on God’s mission (Acts 2:42-47).
  2. Theological – the belief that the church will be persecuted by governments. This is an allusion to Revelation 13 where there is a clear persecution of Christians by political authorities. In some forms of the doctrine of the end times, Christians look at Revelation as being fulfilled in our day. That being the case, they see justification for perceived persecution as they interpret the Bible. While Revelation 13 accounts for the political authorities (beast with ten horns and seven heads, Rev 13:1) persecuting the church (saints), these events had probably already taken place although they might also be prophetic in as much as John is preparing the seven churches of Asia Minor for the end times. The picture that is portrayed in Revelation, however, is that all the saints are suffering this persecution, not one or a small group of churches.
  3. Theological – the belief that a pastor is the primary preacher of the word and therefore must have an audience. This notion is foreign to the New Testament as there were not people called pastors. Pastor is the English translation of a Latin word (pastor), which is itself a translation of the Greek word for shepherd (poimēn). It is only used once in the New Testament in its noun form in relationship to a role in the church (Eph 4:11) and 11 times in its verb form, and refers mostly to the function of a group of leaders who were to care for Christians as shepherds cared for a flock of sheep (1 Peter 5:2). There were actually many different roles these leaders played in the New Testament, not simply that of a shepherd (e.g. overseer, elder, deacon, apostle, prophet, evangelist, teacher). Nevertheless, there are those who believe that some of these roles no longer exist and have been superseded by the position of a pastor whose primary role is preaching on Sunday mornings.
  4. Theological – the belief that forsaking the gathering together is forbidden in Scripture. An appeal to Hebrew 10:25 is often used as a command for the public gathering in buildings for the sake of encouragement. While true, the author of Hebrews wrote to those who would have been gathering together in house churches. Such types of small gatherings are not restricted by most COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

The motivation for gathering together as a church might also have human qualities:

  1. Financial – church buildings often have significant mortgages as well as maintenance and upkeep needs that requires people to give financially to ensure that the buildings are properly maintained. They would argue that keeping a church building open is a stewardship issue. People are less likely to give to a church if they do not benefit from the use of the facility. COVID-19 has exposed how reliant churches are for the Sunday gathering in order to ensure people still give financially.
  2. Financial – the pastor and his full time staff are paid positions in a church. Preaching has become the pastor’s occupation and he will often spend up to 40 hours or more preparing for that Sunday event. Holding Sunday services justifies, in part, his remuneration.
  3. Social – people like to gather together in large groups. It helps them have a sense of identity as well as belonging.

There is nothing inherently wrong with MacArthur and others taking issue with a governor’s executive order. Perhaps, however, one should consider whether or not such action might hurt the reputation of the people of God. After all, if we are genuinely looking out for the welfare of our neighbor (Matt 22:39; Rom 13:10), should we not desire to demonstrate our love for them by showing concern for their health (Rom 15:2)? Right in the midst of the lockdown in Los Angeles county, we interviewed Brad Watson, one of the equipping elders at Soma Culver City. Here is what one church is doing to engage their community for Christ while caring for the health of others. Brad and Soma are seeing some neat things as they introduce the city to Jesus:

Learn more about the first century church in Ephesiology: The Study of the Ephesian Movement

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