When the Apostle Paul was about to be beaten by the Roman authorities, presumably for disrupting the public peace, Paul spoke up and said, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?”
Paul used his rights as a Roman citizen to defend himself, and he used those rights to his advantage to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. We must use our rights to do the same.
Today, the city of Los Angeles threatened pastor John MacArthur with legal action if he did not cease holding indoor services at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA. Penalties may include a $1000 fine for every day the church refuses to close, or John MacArthur may be thrown in jail.
Jenna Ellis, one of the attorneys representing the church, said, “The state has absolutely no power to impose the restrictions it is demanding. This is not about health and safety, it is about targeting churches.”
She’s right. Just as the laws of Rome were on the side of the Apostle Paul, the laws of these United States are on the side of John MacArthur. The Constitution is on the side of the church, but most importantly, the Lord is on our side.
Following the example of the Apostle Paul, I encourage you to know the rights afforded to you, wherever you may live. Use those laws to uphold the common good for ourselves, our families, and others, and as Christians we may continue to rejoice in and proclaim the life-saving message of the gospel of grace. If we don’t use our rights, we will lose our rights.
A Government’s Response
On March 11, when the Wuhan COVID-19 coronavirus was declared a pandemic and fear began to grip our nation, some state governors began to declare the shutdown of churches. Not grocery stores or restaurants, not even filthier places like bars or casinos, and especially not strip clubs or abortion mills. The first space targeted for closing was the church.
The governor of the state of Kentucky, Andy Beshear, called on churches to cancel services for that coming weekend before he singled out any other place of patronage. “Why would the Kentucky governor recommend churches cease meeting in order to halt the spread of COVID-19, but not recommend other indoor assemblies cease meeting?” asked one Southern Baptist minister on Twitter.
Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, said, “Churches were singled out and commercial business and athletic events were not mentioned.”
Of course, other businesses, meeting places, and spectator events soon followed, but even during the shutdown and shelter-in-place orders, many leftist leaders continued to entertain their totalitarian fantasies against places of worship. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio threatened churches and synagogues and said if they continued to meet, he would, “take additional action up to the point of fines and potentially closing the building permanently.”
Governor Gavin Newsom of the state of California, where Grace Community Church resides, has issued an order to ban singing in churches. At the time of this writing, a church in California can operate only at 25% capacity. Yet race and gay pride marches have gathered by the tens of thousands, and abortion clinics are still permitted to murder unborn children. Nationwide, destroying property has become heroic, but going to church has become illegal.
My state of Kansas was listed among the states that still allowed worship gatherings on Sunday, but that was hardly true. Governor Laura Kelly, who hails from New York City, issued an executive order that limited church gatherings to no more than 10 people. Our local sheriff made a statement comparing churches that continue to hold services with the murderous Muslim radicals he fought against in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the face of these threats against our religious liberties, I began making statements online that I will never cancel church on Sunday, nor will I turn anyone away or limit the size of our church body—not out of fear of a virus, nor out of fear of man. As God’s prophet said in 1 Samuel 12:23-24, “I will instruct you in the good and the right way. Only fear the Lord and serve Him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things He has done for you.”
A Patient Response
Within a couple of days, I began to scale back such public statements, but it was not in fear of retaliation. I curtailed my speech for two reasons. The first reason I did so was out of respect for fellow pastors. I visited with ministers in various parts of the country, and I could see that they had difficult decisions to make. A few lived in areas where COVID-19 was a greater threat to the lives of people in their church. The wise option for them was to encourage people to stay home and move services online for a little while.
For their sake, I curbed the expression of my convictions. I did not want others to get the impression that by stating I will never close my church, I was condemning other pastors who were not holding in-person services. They were not bowing to the government; they were serving one another. I want to encourage these brothers, not discourage them.
The second reason I pulled back on publicly declaring my commitment to weekly services was for the sake of my own church. My heart’s desire is to honor Christ, not defy Caesar. I wanted to continue preaching the gospel every Sunday, especially during a time of panic and fear. Jesus, the sovereign Lord, is our hope and our peace. The people of God need to hear the word of God. If making open statements against the Governor’s orders did not help my church, then there was no reason to make such statements.
I still declared to my church that no matter what, I would preach on Sunday, and if anyone came to church, the doors would be open. I said so in e-mails I sent to the church; I said so in the introduction to the sermon videos; I said so in the occasional podcast episode. If someone called the church, even the answering machine said, “We’re still having church—please come join us!”
Lest anyone think I’m reckless, there are 35,000 people in my county and less than 200 positive cases since March. There is no reason my church should close. Each church must exercise wisdom in dealing with the threat of this illness. But I don’t believe any church should close because the government tells them to. We must “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). To whom does the church belong?
While many have been wise and courageous, many others have been fools and utter cowards. Hypocrites have encouraged Christians to attend race marches, but they have discouraged Christians from going to churches. They have said “Love your neighbor!” means not going to a church gathering lest you spread a virus, but go to a Black Lives Matter gathering lest you be found a racist.
As the governing authorities continue to flex their might and false teachers lead many astray, a bolder stand is needed. For the sake of each other and for the sake of the gospel, we must know our rights, we must defend them, and we must use them. Most of all, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
A Bold Response
On July 24, the Supreme Court of the United States, announced a decision regarding the case Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley v. Steve Sisolak, Governor of Nevada. The church had sued the governor for doing as our own governor had done—issuing an executive order that limited the number of people who could attend church. Yet Casinos were allowed a higher patronage of persons than churches, a clear violation of the first amendment. But SCOTUS dumped on the case, and the governor’s order was upheld in a 5-4 decision.
In his dissenting statement, Judge Samuel Alito said, “For months now, States and their subdivisions, have responded to the pandemic by imposing unprecedented restrictions on personal liberty, including free exercise of religion… Now four months have passed since the original declaration. The problem is no longer one of exigency, but one of considered yet discriminatory treatment of places of worship.”
The United States government has declared that it is safe for you to join the flood of debauchery at a Casino, but it is not safe for you to join the flock of God at a church. This is not about a virus. The church being discriminated against. A long-standing member of the Supreme Court said so himself.
Governing officials have declared that a church is a non-essential service. Sadly, even many ministers and evangelical leaders have capitulated and likewise declared, in other words, that church is non-essential. But the church is essential. Moreover, the in-person gathering of the church to worship God is essential. It is deemed so essential, our founding fathers declared it so in our nation’s founding documents.
The First Amendment of the Constitution offers clear and special protections for “the free exercise” of religion. It does not offer special protections for going shopping at the grocery store, and it especially does not offer special protections for throwing dice at the craps tables. But even without the constitution that protects our God-given rights, the church of Jesus Christ must still stand boldly and declare, “We must obey God rather than men.”
“Hold on!” someone may argue. “Doesn’t God instruct us to obey the government?” Indeed, He does. Romans 13:1-2 says, “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. Therefore, whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
So do I go against God’s word when I go against my own governor, and our church gathering exceeds the governor’s restrictions? By no means! I’ve not broken God’s law, nor have I broken our nation’s laws. I have upheld the law, but my governor has not.
After Governor Kelly limited attendance in church gatherings to less than 10, the Kansas state legislature overturned her executive order. On April 9, she retaliated by suing the legislature claiming they were unconstitutional. On the contrary, it was Governor Kelly’s action that was unconstitutional.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” But wait, that says Congress shall make no law. What about state governors? Well, that’s just it—governors do not have that authority. Congress makes laws (Article I), and Congress is prohibited from making a law prohibiting the free exercise of our Christian faith (Amendment I). Governor Kelly was going against the law by issuing the executive order in the first place.
As Dr. Tom Buck pointed out in a recent article, we are a nation governed by laws, not men. You are not above the law, and neither are your elected officials. An official’s job is to uphold the laws that protect our freedoms.
In the Constitution of the state of Kansas, the second amendment says, “All political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and are instituted for their equal protection and benefit. No special privileges or immunities shall ever be granted by the legislature, which may not be altered, revoked, or repealed by the same body; and this power shall be exercised by no other tribunal or agency,” including the governor (emphasis mine).
The seventh amendment of our state’s constitution says, “The right to worship God according to the dictates of conscience shall never be infringed.” It is our right to worship God in obedience to His word, and our state’s own laws agree. The Constitution does not become null and void because of a pandemic—especially one that has hardly been a threat to our way of life here in the state of Kansas.
The Constitution is on my side. But most importantly, “The Lord is on my side” (Psalm 118:6). As a pastor, it is not my desire to lead in lawlessness but to lead in love. I will not bow before the throne of tyranny. I bow before the throne of grace. My only judge is Christ, “For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with Him is plentiful redemption” (Psalm 130:7).
We gather as a church because God commands us to (Hebrews 10:24-25). To those who would prohibit us, we respond with the words of the apostles: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard,” in the gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:19-20). I encourage you to join us and the others who still meet in difficult times.
A Needed Response
Before the Apostle Paul was about to be executed for preaching the gospel, he wrote to Timothy and said, “At my first defense, no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth” (2 Timothy 4:16-17).
John MacArthur said, “This is not an hour to be feared. This is a triumphant hour for the church to be the church.” We must obey God rather than men. We must stand together as the church God has called us out from the world to be. We must preach the gospel God has commissioned us to proclaim. True freedom is given not by men but by God. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we are set free from sin and death to live in righteousness unto Him.
Paul used his rights as a Roman citizen to share the gospel. May we use our rights as American citizens to do the same. As 2 Timothy 4:18 concludes, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into His heavenly kingdom. To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”