Review of “The Essential Church: God vs Government”

Guest post by Rev. Harold Miller, Oak Lawn United Reformed Church

The title of this landmark movie is telling – “The Essential Church: God VS Government”. What this tells the movie-goer is that there is some construct of antithesis in the notion that the church is essential.  Indeed, powerful forces are aligned to destroy the idea that the church is essential. Who exactly are the antagonistic parties? About what are these parties in conflict? These questions are ably answered in this timely movie.

The Essential Church is a docu-drama explaining the conflict between civic government and the church of the Lord Jesus Christ during the recent actions of cozenage of the “pandemic.” This movie follows the battle between governments and three particular pastors. One pastor is the well-known American John MacArthur. Two are Canadians and less well known. All three come to a similar conviction as to government overreach in the efforts to bar entry into church buildings during those difficult months of Covid-19.

The substantive issue explored in the movie, the Essential Church is ‘Who has authority to determine whether the church shall come together for gathered corporate worship?’ The government, rejecting the claims of King Jesus in Scripture determined, both in America and Canada (and a myriad of other countries) that it possessed the authority to shutter the doors and bar access to congregations forbidding them to gather together. Exhibiting courage and biblical fidelity to their congregations and many others watching from distance Revs. John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, California, James Coates of GraceLife Church, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church, Calgary, Alberta each stood against tyranny. Rev. Stephens was jailed in maximum security for a total of 21 days, and Rev. Coates in maximum security for 35 days. The families of both of these Canadian pastors was included in the movie, including the heart-breaking footage of children weeping at the window of a police vehicle while dad, Pastor Stephens, was being driven to jail.   

There was a fair amount of time spent showing the development of the responses of both government and these churches to those pandemic days. For example, the movie helpfully pinged the unfair and unequal response of governments to bad actors with the riots and left-wing social groups. This detail in the movie was eye-opening and unexpected. However, to properly value the repressive tactics of government against the church it was helpful to see exactly how biased and hypocritical were the government’s actions toward these “favored”, left-leaning entities. Yet the movie was less about the actions of the government, as biased and unjust as they were, and more about the development of the decisions these churches made to the government’s actions. The struggles and actions of MacArthur’s Grace Community Church got the majority of the attention on this front.

Initially, Grace Community Church did a near-total shut down of gathered corporate worship. The perspective of this reviewer is that most churches in America took this as a first, wise step. MacArthur said something to the effect that ‘…like when you hear a hurricane is coming, you shut the doors to gathered worship with the intent to promote the safety of your members.” Indeed. But before too long the Elders of Grace Community were meeting to discuss if remaining closed was in keeping with Scripture. As told through the voices of some of her lead elders, the elder board considered various Scripture passages to work through their 50/50 split. Should they reopen? Should they remain shuttered? A key passage of their deliberation (with which many of us are familiar) was Romans 13. One of the elders, Rev. Mike Riccardi recounts a pivotal moment in this deliberative process when he came to understand the role of the church alongside of the role of civic government. The one is alongside the other as both are under King Jesus! Mike learned from reading Martin Lloyd-Jones commentary on Romans 13 what erastianism means, and that many churches in America have bought into this old lie in practical terms. Erastianism. Thomas Erastus was a Swiss (supposed) Calvinist and theological sparing partner to Caspar Olevian (Heidelberg Catechism) as to whether the church or the state should exercise discipline in the case of erring members. Erastus wrote 100 theses to ‘prove’ that such power belonged to the state, and Erastianism was born. Now that the age-old idea of state control over church life had an official name this lie flourished even more broadly.

But back to Romans 13 and Grace Community…the elders there wrestled with the question of correctly interpreting that text: Does Romans 13 teach that the government has the right to tell the church (ecclesia – called out ones) to not gather? Mike Riccardi learned from Martin Lloyd-Jones that the civil government most certainly does NOT have that authority. In fact, the role of the church at such moments in history is to speak prophetically to the culture and thus to the civil government saying that the church is under the Lordship of King Jesus Who calls His church to ensure they are “not forsaking the assembling of our ourselves together…” (Hebrews 10.25a). In this way the church tells the state that the church must answer to King Jesus while simultaneously informing the state that it must also answer to King Jesus. The elders of Grace Community Church voted to return to gathered worship, and the war was on.

A significant amount of time later in the movie is devoted to tracing out the lengthy legal battles of the Grace Community Church after suit was brought against the church by both the State of California and Los Angeles County. The movie does a very good job of also showing the even more draconian actions of the Canadian Government in Alberta against brothers Stephens and Coates and their churches. This material in the movie is important and relevant for churches and congregations as resource to counter future actions of government overreach.

The antithesis is real. Powerful forces are aligned to destroy the truth that the church is essential. Those forces failed at Calvary’s cross and failed in their assault against three ministers and their congregations. Meanwhile, many others have withered against the prospect of the battle. The cost is high, and it is high-time churches count that cost. The authority over every true church is Jesus Christ her Lord. He is our King, He wears the only crown the church should bow to in all of the practical matters of consequence in our day. It would be a real help to Christians and church leaders to watch and ponder the lessons sketched out in this important movie, The Essential Church.

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