Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

John MacArthur: ‘Come Back To Church’

Influential Trump-trusting Evangelical pastor to re-open church with no masks, no social distancing -- and lots of singing
Screen Shot 2020-05-23 at 12.37.49 PM

The popular and influential Evangelical pastor John MacArthur announced on Friday that he is reopening his church, because Trump said churches should reopen. Here’s his short statement:

[UPDATE: As of Sunday morning, it has been taken down.]

In the clip, he frames the decision as being obedient to President Trump’s leadership. Note well that Trump did not order churches to open; the US president does not have that power, which resides with states. MacArthur is engaging in rhetorical sleight of hand here.

MacArthur says in the video that they are going to come to church on Sunday, and nobody is going to wear masks, because we all know that “masks don’t work” (he seems to believe that masks are prescribed to prevent one from catching the disease; in fact, they are intended to slow down the spread of viral particles from the mask-wearer, in case he is sick). If they are planning to do any kind of social distancing in the church, he didn’t mention it. He simply said that you can sit wherever you feel “comfortable.”

MacArthur is pastor of a non-denominational megachurch whose weekly attendance is just over 8,000. Here is a shot from a Grace Church video of MacArthur preaching to a normal Sunday congregation:

Get this: MacArthur says that his congregation is going to sing (“In fact, we’re going to sing our hearts out”), with eight or nine hymns. This is truly crazy! Singing in chorus is one of the worst things you can do in terms of spreading the disease. One superspreader in Washington state infected over 50 fellow choir members at practice in March; two died.

Judging from his video, MacArthur’s large and influential California church is throwing all caution to the wind, based on magical thinking and a weird “trust-Trump” twist on patriotism. Think of how much pressure this puts on other pastors to follow suit, even if they believe it’s too dangerous. Think of the message that Russian Orthodox bishop who was hospitalized with Covid-19 put out after his release, talking about how he and his fellow monks bowed to pressure from the crowd to have services, and most of them got sick with Covid as a result.

It is certainly true that some state governors have gone too far in their church lockdowns. But that still doesn’t change the fact that the coronavirus doesn’t care about our politics. What happens if there is a large Covid outbreak in that congregation (and those that follow suit) because MacArthur and his team chose to act like a viral pandemic is a political problem that can be wished away because Trump says so? How will that affect the faith of the people of the congregation? What kind of trust will they have in the church’s leadership?

Beyond the public health issues, this act by MacArthur, one of the most influential pastors in America now, as he construes it in that message above, ties Evangelicalism more tightly to Trump and Trump’s Covid-19 response. One hopes that nobody gets sick at that church (or at any church) from all that singing close-up … but what if they do? This week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on a Georgia Baptist church that had re-opened for services in April, but had to close down a second time after Covid-19 reappeared. That congregation reportedly followed social distancing guidelines, but still, it happened.

Either MacArthur (and those pastors following his lead) is showing rare courage, or rare recklessness. We are going to find out one way or the other over the next few weeks.

UPDATE: MacArthur and his church have announced that they will not open this morning, per a ruling from the federal Ninth Circuit.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now