In the midst of COVID-19, when many churches were shut down and just livestreamed sermons, Grace Community Church in Los Angeles and GraceLife Church in Edmonton, Alberta, decided to defy public health orders to hold services in person.
Setting themselves in direct opposition to the local authorities, the two churches quickly got embroiled in tensions with law enforcement and government officials.
Pastor James Coates of GraceLife eventually was arrested and spent 35 days in jail for not complying.
Meanwhile, John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church sued California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles.
In light of those experiences, Coates and Nathan Busenitz, a member of the pastoral staff at Grace Community, wrote “God vs. Government: Taking a Biblical Stand When Christ and Compliance Collide,” published on Tuesday.
Together, they outlined the circumstances of their churches during the pandemic and the broader question of religious freedom and how Christians should react when the government’s authority conflicts with spiritual authority.
Initially, when the pandemic began and the effects of COVID were still unclear, both GraceLife and Grace Community began having remote services out of an abundance of caution, though they were reluctant to stop meeting in person.
But after a few weeks, both churches independently decided that the virus was not enough of a threat to keep from gathering in person.
“We concluded that the measures that were in place were unnecessary and in some cases maybe even more harmful than the virus itself. And so with the biblical conviction that Christ is head of the church and that he sets the terms of worship, alongside of the reality that the virus was not as severe as was initially projected, opening our church was a matter of obedience,” Coates told The Western Journal.
Overall, both churches got an overwhelmingly positive response from their congregations over the decision to hold in-person services again.
However, doing so was in direct opposition to their cities’ public health orders.
Los Angeles’ “Safer at Home” policy banned gatherings of 10 or more people and said a violation of the order would be “a crime punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.”
But Grace Community elders decided that the teachings of the Bible trumped the order of the government and they had to obey the higher command.
“Christ is the one true head of His Church, and we intend to honor that vital truth in all our gatherings. For that preeminent reason, we cannot accept and will not bow to the intrusive restrictions government officials now want to impose on our congregation,” the elders confirmed in a statement on July 23, 2020.
Eventually, Grace Community filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles and got into a messy and very public legal battle.
It came down to the issue of whether the city’s and state’s health orders were a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom.
Finally, the Supreme Court ruled on Feb. 5, 2021, that it was unconstitutional to ban religious gatherings and lifted California’s bans. The state agreed to never again impose discriminatory restrictions on places of worship and paid $2.15 million in legal fees.
Meanwhile, in Edmonton, the government had limited places of worship to 15 percent capacity, the Edmonton Journal reported.
Coates, however, kept in-person services going and did not limit the numbers attending. He was in violation of the mandates and was fined.
Eventually, the pastor was arrested on ” two counts of contravening the Public Health Act and on one criminal charge for failing to comply with a condition of an undertaking,” the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported on Feb. 17, 2021.
But Coates remained rooted in his decision to keep his church meeting and was particularly confident in the convictions that dictated that decision.
“The thing that kept me from wavering was the conviction rooted in God’s word, my desire is to obey Christ and when it was clear and evident what Christ was calling myself and us to do, remaining committed to that wasn’t really the difficult part,” he told The Western Journal.
As he outlined in the book, the Canadian authorities seemed to want to make an example out of Coates, which is one reason they kept after him with fines and eventually arrested him.
“I think there was a desire within our health authority to penalize churches in particular, and because of the stance that we took and the way that it escalated and became very public, and I guess part of it too, just being my preaching ministry, given the authority with which I preach the word of God … they just saw me standing the tallest and sticking my head above the crowd and they thought, ‘Well we need to get him because if we can get him, we’ll be able to take care of the rest,'” he said.
The judge even tried to imply that Coates was being a political revolutionary. But as the pastor made clear in his statements before the court, he was obeying Christ and was not taking a political stand.
“I’m not trying to make a point. I’m not a political revolutionary. I have a responsibility before God to shepherd the people entrusted to me. I have a responsibility to be obedient to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and it’s simply that obedience that has me here in this place,” Coates said.
The courage and conviction of GraceLife in Canada and Grace Community in California were contagious, and Coates and Busenitz said they saw other churches emboldened by their examples.
Both churches showed fortitude and resolve.
“For us in the United States, it’s in our Pledge of Allegiance, right, that we are one nation under God. And that really is what it came down to is, when Christ and compliance collide, when God and government are at odds, we are going to obey God, even if that means being disobedient to a specific government mandate,” Busentiz told The Western Journal.
Now, both churches have been left alone by the authorities, for the most part.
Since there are still restrictions in Canada, Coates said, he has heard that police have been near GraceLife on Sundays, but there have not been more ramifications. He and Busenitz think that the whole debacle politically backfired on authorities.
“It went really poorly for them the first time, as much as they really wanted to shut us down and did their best to try and win that battle. It was a miscalculation on their part and politically did not go well for them,” Coates said.
However, though many churches followed the courageous examples of GraceLife and Grace Community, Coates and Busenitz were taken aback by the way COVID affected Christianity on the whole.
“But I think we were a little bit surprised that something like this could so quickly and seemingly easily shut down the larger church’s influence in the Western world,” Busenitz said.
However, the opposition that churches faced during the pandemic might only be the tip of the iceberg as government and Christianity are likely to keep colliding amid changes in Western culture.
Both Coates and Busenitz pointed out hot-button issues that they foresee putting churches and governments at loggerheads again, particularly sexuality and climate change.
“There’s certainly a sense in which this kind of felt like the dress rehearsal or the practice round for what may be coming down. Not so much in terms of health mandates, but other major social issues that are diametrically opposed to a biblical worldview,” Busenitz said.
“And I think this was a wake-up call to the church that we need to be ready for a relationship with the government that is not supportive of a biblical worldview but is actually antagonistic towards a biblical worldview,” he said.
While both churches took a stand that was biblical and not political, there has been a marked extension of government into issues where it previously assumed no authority.
“It would seem that governments are seeking ever-increasing authority. What I would even call a totalitarian authority. And when you seek to have total authority over society, you have to basically stamp out the other spheres of authority, both the home, the church, even the individual,” Coates said.
“And I think we can just see that the governments are ever-increasingly trying to grab hold of power, and they’re going to use all kinds of sophisticated ways to do that,” he added. “That doesn’t quite look like and sound like totalitarianism, but that’s exactly what it is.”
This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.