The Essential Church: A Pastoral Review

Richard Henry

Remember 2020?

Remember “15 days to flatten the curve?” Remember when we were told that masks didn’t work, then they did, then they weren’t sure? Remember that magical distance of 6 feet? Remember when we were told not to meet for gatherings of more than ten people? Remember when children were kept home from school, markets turned into Soviet-style rationing retailers, and the church of Christ was told they could not gather for worship?

 I remember too, though it seems many have forgotten.

Thankfully, society is more or less back to normal, even in exceedingly controlling places like California and Canada. Even though the rules have been relaxed, the fact is that countless world governments shut down nearly all of society due to an illness that may or may not have been as deadly as all the “experts” claimed it was going to be.

Grace Community Church (GCC) in Los Angeles (LA), led by pastor John MacArthur, recently produced a documentary entitled, The Essential Church. This documentary film follows GCC’s legal battles with the city of LA and the state of California as a result of the church’s meeting for worship, which violated local and state health dictates during the pandemic. The film also focuses on the draconian measures implemented in Canada, highlighting two Canadian Pastors in particular – James Coates and Tim Stephens. Both of these pastors served jail time for meeting together as a church,  an act considered “illegal” by the governing authorities. The film sheds much-needed light on these three congregations and the prayerful decisions church leaders made in light of local “health orders” during a very trying time. 

The film production is well done, the images are striking, and the pace is steady. It is narrated by a Scottish pastor who also appears on screen to discuss several historical accounts of persecution focusing on the Scottish Reformation.

More to the Story

Originally, Grace Community Church, Fairview Baptist Church, and Grace Life Church all complied with local health orders and closed church services, like thousands of other churches in North America. They sought to do the right thing. Romans 13 after all, right? 

As time went on, it became evident that the sky may not have been falling like some had prophesied. Many people, not just Christians, began to wonder when things would let up and life would resume as normal.

2020 in California

On March 19, 2020, California’s Governor Newsom issued the legally enforceable “shelter-in-place” order, requiring people to stay in their homes and all “non-essential” businesses to close. and people were encouraged to stay at home and avoid going out. Hospitals began banning family and visitors from seeing patients. Everyone, not just Christians or churches, were to “lockdown” in nearly every place in the early stages of the pandemic.

The prescribed fifteen days turned into two months in most of North America, causing many people to become confused and frustrated. There was no eating out, working out, movies, sports, hiking, beach, school, or church. Most employees were forced to work from home.

On May 8, 2020, California allowed bookstores, clothing stores, florists, and sporting goods stores to open with some modifications. 

On May 18, 2020, most counties allowed sit-down restaurants and bars to open across the state as California moved further into “stage 2” of reopening.2 A few days later, casinos could reopen, followed by hair salons, nail salons, museums, and zoos. New measures and dictates were issued frequently, but the opening of churches was repeatedly ignored. Due to the prolonged mandated church closures, many began meeting outdoors on July 17.

The Essential Church highlights the simple fact that the church is essential, even more than restaurants, nail salons, and museums. The film establishes that community between people, and the body of Christ in particular, is absolutely essential for life and godliness, in spite of what government officials might determine. 

BLM and the Church

The death of George Floyd in late May 2020 embittered people across the political spectrum. Riots erupted across the country as supporters of Black Lives Matter (BLM) took their anger to the streets. LA was ground zero for much BLM activity. 

This film gets to the root of the issue of the motive behind the “health orders:” control. In both Canada and California, as well as many other places, numerous politicians ignored their own rules and dictates. They favored some organizations and businesses while closing or banning others. A perfect example of this was authorities who allowed and encouraged riots and protests, all the while telling Christians they could not meet together for worship. 

Some were allowed to meet or travel, while others were fined or jailed. This was hypocrisy of the highest order. 

In June of 2020, the Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti encouraged participation in BLM “rallies”. Garcetti justified defying his own health orders to march shoulder to shoulder with crowds of people in the streets of Los Angeles. The elders of Grace Community Church noticed this blatant bias. Meanwhile, without any invitation, more and more congregants and visitors kept returning to Sunday services at GCC.

The film documents the efforts of GCC’s elder board to come to a unanimous agreement to“officially open the church” on July 28, 2020. 

At this point, the proverbial cat was out of the bag. GCC and several churches in Canada were defying the health orders to be obedient to the Lord and not forsake their gathering together. This was not the end, but merely the beginning of their troubles. 

Many Christians who had sheltered- in- place for months were seeing violence and anger in the streets as tens of thousands were marching, looting, and meeting in close quarters. In light of this, Christians determined that it was only logical and right to meet for church. 

This documentary would not exist if the city of Los Angeles had simply allowed Grace Community Church to reopen on July 28. The City chose to go on the offensive. Pastors and leaders were fined, and/or threatened with jail time. The church risked the possibility of losing access to all public parking spaces around the church building. The County of Los Angeles was relentless in attacking GCC. The Essential Church details multiple court cases where GCC began to win and set legal precedents, unlike legal cases in other parts of the state.

The state prohibited singing, shaking of hands, communion, and the use of hymnals. All attendees were required to stay six feet apart at all times.

Pastor MacArthur and the leadership at GCC did not agree to any of the draconian restrictions placed on their worship. 

Some may scoff at this film and still believe that churches like GCC should have obeyed Romans 13 (which is discussed thoroughly in the film). Whether you agree with the decisions that were made or not, it is still important to see the prayer and thought process of each church as they made difficult decisions in a difficult time.

History Matters

The documentary incorporates many forgotten accounts of Christian persecution. These stories include the martyrdom of Stories like the one of the “two Margarets” in Scotland, who would not deny their firm belief in the authority of Christ as King and head of the church and confess that the King of Scotland was head of the church. As the ocean tide went out, the younger Margaret was tied to a post in shallower water, and the older was tied to a post farther from shore.

 The story goes that the local magistrates called on them to deny the authority of Christ as King and head of the church, but both refused. As the tide rolled back in, reaching the elder Margaret’s neck, the soldiers called for her to recant her views yet again, but she refused and slowly drowned. The younger Margaret witnessed this horrific, watery death, but when she too was asked to recant, she chose death rather than deny her Lord. 

The film also mentions John Bunyan, a 17th century preacher and author of the world-famous book, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan spent twelve years in prison for refusing to deny the true gospel or stop preaching it among the people of England. 

Several other accounts like these are beautifully retold in the film. They serve to educate the modern church regarding some of the persecution that has occurred since Pentecost. 

For me, an especially emotional point in the documentary was seeing Tim Stephens, husband and father of eight and pastor of Fairview Baptist Church, as he was hauled off to prison like a common criminal from his residential home in Canada right in front of his crying children and wife. 

Unlike Bunyan, he did not spend anything near twelve years in prison, but this injustice demonstrates how some people are willing to do unbelievable things to obey tyrants. 

I highly recommend that you see Essential Church for yourself. Though somewhat lengthy (the run-time comes in at just over 2 hours), it provides a crucial, indispensable argument for an immensely important time: the church, regardless of the dictates of tyrants is essential. 

To God be the Glory.

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