COVID-19 has raised many issues about religious liberty for many people of faith, including Christians. In California, where my wife and I live, everyone has been ordered by Governor Newsom to stay at home unless we need to go to the grocery store or go to the hospital. The Governor’s office followed that up with the order that churches would be closed; therefore, churches with the technical capability began online broadcasting only. From March until May of 2020, most churches kept their doors shut to parishoners. Eventually they were allowed to open again, but only for a brief period. A couple of weeks later, they were told that now only meeting outside was permissible, and only while maintaining other social distancing mandates.
Recently, the Pew Research Center did a survey where they discovered that about 8 of 10 Americans (or approximately 79% of those surveyed) thought that houses of worship should be required to follow the same rules about social distancing and large gatherings as other local organizations in their areas. The survey further concluded that 19% found that houses of worship should be allowed more flexibility than other business when it comes to rules about social distancing.
In Los Angeles people were told by the Mayor that churches will have power and electricity shut off if they allow people to meet inside at this time. One very prominent pastor, Dr. John MacArthur, and others have taken a stand in the state of California against Governor Newsom’s edict. MacArthur has clearly articulated what he means by people ‘gathering’ and explained it on his church’s website. As he has posted for parishoners to read prior to making the decision to attend his church, he has told his congregation that they can meet either inside or outside for worship. To that end, he has provided options for both while maintaining safety for people, and ensuring their comfort.
MacArthur’s stand is for the idea that local churches should be deemed as essential to the life and well-being of people. Recently, Dr. MacArthur’s church, Grace Community, hired Jenna Ellis—a private counsel to President Trump and a fellow at the Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty. They also hired Charles LiMandri—the founder of the Freedom of Conscience Defend, and a prominent attorney, to help in any legal struggles that may arise due to the current mandates from the Governor of California. Ellis and LiMandri have filled suit on behalf of Dr. MacArthur and Grace Community church in the Superior Court for the State of California in Los Angeles. Today (August 14, 2020) Jenna Ellis announced on Twitter that the judge hearing the case will allow indoor services with singing and no attendance cap and Grace Community agrees to adhere to mask and social distancing until the full hearing.
Growing up in Seattle, I was well instructed in liberal ideology and was taught (as fact) that the separation of the church and state was not to be questioned, because it was one of the ‘principal values.’ As I’ve grown and studied American History, I’ve learned that this principle is not a “fact” of history, but rather one of fiction. Thomas Jefferson was the author of this concept of ‘separation of church and state’; the phrase/idea was initially penned in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. In that particular letter, Thomas Jefferson spoke of the establishment clause in the Constitution as a “wall of separation between the church and the state.”
The first clause Jefferson was referring to is found in the Bill of Rights, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” With these laws in place, what Jefferson was reflecting on was the idea of religious liberty—namely the concept that all people are to be free to worship as they see fit and without government interference. This concept has since been warped into the idea that the ‘separation of church and state’ meant that all religion should be forced out of state institutions (such as public schools), to ‘maintain’ the separation. As you can see from the quoted Bill of Rights above, however, this was not what was intended by this law.
Recently, the Department of Justice has issued a warning to Governor Newsom, stating that he has crossed the line. The DOJ has warned him not to violate the people’s religious liberty. Dr. MacArthur has argued that his congregation has the right to gather to worship, not only from the First Amendment, but also as given by God. The First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits the government from encouraging or promoting the establishment of religion in any way. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment gives people the right to worship (or not) as anyone sees fit within the law (i.e. no human sacfrice/murder as worship, etc.). The rule of law, which governs the American idea of the justice system, argues that the law must be applied equally—in all instances—and not unfairly.
As a Christian, the right (and command) to gather to worship comes not from the local, state, or federal government, but from God Himself. Some people are outraged that Dr. MacArthur is making a bold stand for corporate worship, and what constitutes as the Church. Since marijuana despensaries, abortion clinics, and outdoor protests are allowed, there is no reason then, under the Constitution, why Christians should not be allowed to worship how they want—whether inside or outside. The question is not whether churches can meet inside or outside; the question is why are the same people who are decrying churches gathering are not also saying the same thing about violent protests? The particular issues that I’m raising are, in my estimation, a matter of the law being applied equally and impartially. In this situation, it isn’t, which is a violation of the First Amendment.
Of also recent note was that John Lewis, a civil rights leader, died. Many of the most vocal voices in the Far Left of the Democrat party, who decried the gathering of church congregations indoors, including Former President Barack Obama, were present at his funeral, which was held inside a local church. During Lewis’ funeral, there were no social distancing practices being upheld within the building; in fact, the church was packed. The same people who have railed against faithful Christians meeting inside church buildings, are those who packed out John Lewis’ funeral.
Meanwhile, in the states of California and Oregon, people are allowed to protest in large numbers in cities like Los Angeles and Portland for what they see as the ‘inequality’ of race in our society. In California abortion clinics, liquor stores, and marijuana shops are open, and people are allowed to protest outside, but religious people are not allowed to gather for church inside.
People of faith need to be allowed to worship inside (within the guidelines of social distancing, using percentage of capacity). The right to worship is not a man-made right, but a God-given right; as such, no man or government can tell the Church whether it is essential or not. The argument that the prohibition of indoor church services is “for the care and preservation of people”, while many other businesses or organizations are open, is known as a straw man fallacy.
The government’s job is to ensure that the right of all people, of all faiths, is not hindered in any way, and therefore they should be allowed to worship freely and safely. It is not whether people of faith can worship inside or outside that is at stake here. The real issue is one of equality and justice. People of faith are being told that they will worship according to how the government requires, which is a violation of the First Amendment. Per the Constitution, the goverment cannot tell a person (or people) how to worship. Such an act is a violation of the rule of law.
While many Christians disagree with Dr. MacArthur’s stand (and I understand their reasons), as an experienced Christian leader, I stand with him and agree with his bold and courageous stance. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord, stand firm on His Word, and worship Him alone. No matter what the government officials tell us, we will obey the Lord our God and worship Him as the Word prescribes. Whatever may come as a result is up to the sovereign Lord, in whom my life, my trust, and my confidence remains. He is my rock of refuge, because He alone is my hope and confidence.
Dave Jenkins is happily married to Sarah Jenkins. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon. Dave is a lover of Christ, His people, the Church, and sound theology. He serves as the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, the Host and Producer of Equipping You in Grace Podcast, and is a contributor to and producer of Contending for the Word. He is the author of The Word Explored: The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy and What To Do About It (House to House, 2021) and The Word Matters: Defending Biblical Authority Against the Spirit of the Age (G3 Press, 2022). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, or read his newsletter. Dave loves to spend time with his wife, going to movies, eating at a nice restaurant, or going out for a round of golf with a good friend. He is also a voracious reader, in particular of Reformed theology, and the Puritans. You will often find him when he’s not busy with ministry reading a pile of the latest books from a wide variety of Christian publishers. Dave received his M.A.R. and M.Div through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.