Joseph Backholm is Director of Biblical Worldview and Strategic Engagement at Family Research Council. This article appeared on Townhall.com on September 3, 2021.
During the height of the COVID-19 lockdown controversy, Grace Community Church in Southern California, led by John MacArthur, got a lot of attention because they defied Governor Gavin Newsom's order to stop having church.
Aside from an initial closure, the church met anyway and was repeatedly fined for doing so. Lots of people, especially other Christians, condemned the church's decision. Some condemned them because they believed it was reckless and others condemned them because they saw it as a failure to submit to the governing authorities as Scripture commands Christians to do.
Grace Community Church's belief was that the county and state governments were violating the Constitution by telling churches not to do something they had a constitutional right to do while at the same time allowing abortion clinics, liquor stores, and marijuana dispensers to re-open. Instead of listening to those who encouraged them to cooperate with the government orders, the church sued.
This week, the church settled the case. Instead of paying seven figure fines to the government, the church received $800,000 from Los Angeles County and the state of California.
It turns out the church was right. In the conflict over whether the government could order a church not to meet, it was the government, not the church, that was in violation of the law.
Grace Community Church is not the only church that pushed back against government mandates to be vindicated in court.
In May, Harvest Rock Church, also in California, won a $1,350,000 settlement against the state of California. In July, Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) was awarded $220,000 from the District of Columbia to pay the legal costs incurred while defending themselves against similar restrictions from the District of Columbia. Worth noting is that city refused CHBC’s request to meet outdoors (with masks while maintaining social distancing) but allowed protests (attended by thousands) to take place.
Scripture commands Christians to obey the governing authority, but in the United States, unlike many other places, what a single politician or branch of government dictates is not always the governing authority. While they have legal authority, to be sure, the governing authority is the law itself. It is the law that must be obeyed and the duty to obey the law applies to a governor or president as much as it applies to the pastor of a local church.
Our form of government is defined, in part, by our separation of powers. We have three branches of government; the legislative branch creates the law, the executive branch enforces the law, and the judicial branch interprets the law—ensuring that the other branches of government stay in their lane.
The reason our founders wanted to prevent too much power from falling into the hands of any one person is because, as James Madison once quipped, men are not angels. This truth is repeated in Scripture as well. The depravity of the human heart is the reason we don’t want our freedoms subject to the whims, prejudices, or moods of any one person.
But lately, many of us have been more inclined to simply do what we’re told.
Whether we were scared and wanted someone to make us feel safe or feared the conflict associated with resisting government overreach, many in the church publicly opposed the now vindicated decisions to push back against government overreach.
Those calling for the church to simply comply often cited Romans 13:1 in doing so: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
Though likely well-intended, it’s possible that those voices made the mistake of conflating subordination to politicians with respect for the law.
People within the church will likely never agree completely on the threat posed by the coronavirus, the utility of masks, or the appropriateness of vaccine mandates, but we should all put to rest the idea that obedience to the law is the same as obedience to the politicians.
As this case illustrates, a politician can violate the law just as easily as a church can. Let's not discourage each other from going to the effort to prove it if it happens.