The Essential Church is a documentary put out by a Californian church, Grace Community Church, that refused to stay closed during the COVID lockdowns. It is their defense, aimed at fellow Christians more than at the world, and when I heard about it, I was interested to hear them out. Then I learned the closest screening was at a theater 2 hours away, and I wasn't quite that interested.
That changed when I discovered that John MacArthur, the pastor of Grace Community, believes the American Revolution was a violation God's call in Romans 13 to be submissive to the governing authorities. How is that for an interesting twist? In a country where everyone defends the rejection of British authority 200 years ago, the one pastor who thinks it was sinful is also one of the only pastors to lead his congregation in a revolt against his own government. What is going on here?
I had to know, so I had to go.
Thankfully, it was worth the trip. Here's some of what was on offer.
1. THE KING DOESN'T RULE OVER ALL
The film begins with a picture of a three legged stool. It belonged to a Scottish woman by the name of Jenny Geddes, long admired for her strident stance against an English King's impositions on the Scottish church. The year was 1637, the English King was Charles 1, and his imposition was the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which he required the Scottish churches to use. When an Anglican cleric climbed into the pulpit of the Scottish Cathedral of St.Giles and began to read out of the Book of Common Prayer, Geddes was having none of it, and threw her stool at him. She took her stand against a king who thought he could rule the Church.
Geddes seemed to be holding to, and the film arguing for, a form of sphere sovereignty: God has given authority not just to the civil government, but also the Church "government" and the family "government," to exercise each in their own "spheres."
Two other terms are introduced early on: the "Erastian" and "Papist" positions. Eurasians hold that God has given all earthly authority to the civil government who rules over the Church and Family.
This is what Charles I held to. Though are own governments today don't recognize God, they act as Erastians when they presume that their authority extends to every corner of life. Since this is how our modern government's act, it is the model Christians are most familiar with. It is easy then, to just assume that because today's civil government is domineering and inserting itself everywhere, then that is the natural order of things.
ut it hasn't always been this way. The Papist position was commonplace until a few centuries ago, with the Church holding the top position, and kings and princes deferring to the Church.
So when God says we should submit to the authorities, Grace Community thinks the question we should be asking is, who are the authorities in this situation? And, why would we just assume it must be the civic government and not the Church or Family government?
2. GOD DOES RULE OVER ALLAfter the introduction to Geddes, we're taken on a trip down memory lane to 2020. News clips flash by, telling us about the many who were getting sick, but there are also stories about children who struggling with lockdown isolation, depression, and other mental health matters. We hear about a woman whose father was diagnosed with cancer and how she wanted to take him to church. We learn about seniors who died with no one to comfort them.
Grace Community's argument doesn't depend on sphere sovereignty or rejection of the Erastian position, but does need Christians to consider what it means that God rules over all. Then it isn't simply His command in Romans 13 to submit to the government that we have to consider, but all His commands. That includes His call to worship (Heb. 10:24-25), His command to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31), to honor our elders (Ex. 20:12), to love and protect our children (Ps. 103:13), and to proclaim His gospel (Acts 5:28-29). Yes, we are called to obey the governing authorities, but, as Peter proclaims, there is a limit to that authority. When there is a conflict between God and government, then we must obey God, rather than Man.
3. CIVIC LEADERS WEREN'T ALWAYS SINCERE
I think most Christians will agree that there is a degree to which our obedience to any government church closure orders is going to hinge on our assessment of whether there is a real emergency or not.
If, for example, they tried to shut churches to slow the spread of the common cold, we might all agree that was an order we couldn't obey. Yes, worship might exacerbate the spread of colds, and some people might even die from catching the cold, particularly among the elderly. But in our risk assessment, we would say, that is not reason enough to disobey God's call to worship. In contrast, if something like ebola, with its 50% fatality rate, broke out, I think even Grace Community would obey whatever closure orders the government might issue.
Among the news clips we see reports of the Black Lives Matter protests that were allowed to go on, even as churches were closed. Politicians joined the protests, even as they continued to say we had to remain isolated. I don't think the argument here is that we can disobey our rulers because they are hypocrites. I think, rather, it is that their actions exposed the lie in their words. If the politicians, on the one hand, said going to church might kill your grandmother so it wasn't worth the risk, but on the other hand said that the protests were so important that allowing them and encouraging them and joining them was worth the risk to grandma and everyone else, then God's people, with our very different, but God-given understanding of what really is important in this world, might come to a different risk assessment.
4. CANADIAN CONNECTION
John MacArthur's church wasn't the only to open, so about halfway in, we're introduced to some Canadian pastors who also defied government lockdown restrictions. The one I'd heard the most about was James Coates, pastor of GraceLife church in Edmonton, Alberta, in part because when a Mormon friend wanted to check out a church, this was the only one open for me to send him to.
I think there were two separate compliance issues to wrestle with – church closure orders, and mask mandates – but in both MacArthur's Grace Community and Coates' GraceLife churches, their defiance extended to both. However, The Essential Church doesn't really offer much of a case against mask wearing. I would have been very interested to hear more on that point, or to hear from any churches that defied the closure order, but obeyed the mask mandates.
Pastor Coates got a lot of criticism from fellow Christians, and one accusation I saw repeatedly was that he was putting on a performance, making it all about him, and simply grandstanding. If you know anyone who thought or wrote something like that, this is a must-see for them. After listening to Coates and his wife share what they were facing, you might still disagree with him, but I don't know that you could still be left questioning his intent.
Though this well-produced, well-argued, and important, at just over 2 hours, it tested my attention span. But as of Aug 31, it will be available for streaming, and it'd work out fantastic at home, where it can be scheduled with an intermission, so as to fit in some great discussion, and allow time for snack bowl refilling.
The only caution I'll offer is that there is just the one side on offer here. I think they are pretty fair, but they have their stand, and they are arguing for it. And they are aggressive about it, because they want the Church to be ready when the next crisis happens.
I'd recommend this for adults, generally, but kids as young as 11 or 12 might enjoy it too, if they have a political or theological bent.
You can find out more at EssentialChurchMovie.com. including information on how to stream it. The trailer is below.