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How the Pandemic Revealed a Greater Health Crisis within Evangelical Christianity

So how could Grace Community Church justify their unwillingness to enforce any health mandates? The answer comes from a surprising new variable entered into the equation – mental health.

So we were told at the beginning that millions were going to die. Millions of people are going to die from COVID. And just simply stated, we don’t want to kill millions of people. So I said fine, let’s just do live stream.

– Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church, Grace to You, and the Master’s University/Seminary.

John MacArthur made this statement on October 3 of 2020, when asked by Josh Boice of the G3 Conference Podcast about his response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Grace Community Church (GCC) locked down for several weeks in early 2020. This entailed moving church services almost entirely online via live stream. But this initial response wouldn’t last long.

On July 24, 2020, Pastor MacArthur and GCC began a virulent campaign against restrictions placed on church gatherings in California. This narrative shift was further solidified on Sunday, August 9th of 2020. Herein, the Pastor welcomed thousands of unmasked congregants into a church service free of the health mandates being enforced elsewhere throughout Los Angeles. He would also invite an LAPD chaplain to his pulpit, reinforcing what he now dubbed a “peaceful protest” – borrowing language from the nationwide protests over George Floyd’s murder on May 25th, 2020.

GCC elder Phil Johnson retweets two photographs of the August 7th church service, wherein MacArthur publicly asserted his new stance of civil disobedience.

Separate from this well-publicized spectacle, Pastor MacArthur began a media campaign defending the new position of his church. On the July 30, 2020 episode of the Eric Metaxas Radio Show, MacArthur stated,

…in the state of California there are 40 million people, and 8500 who died with COVID – not necessarily of COVID. So that’s 0.002 [sic]. So in California you have a 99.99 [sic] chance of surviving the pandemic – if you want to call it that.

MacArthur cites faulty mortality statistics on the Eric Metaxas Radio Show, attempting to downplay the severity of COVID-19.

How did Grace pivot from a desire to “save millions of lives” via a church-wide lockdown, to continuing mass gatherings and defying local health orders? According to an elder letter on July 24, 2020, it was now “The Church’s Duty to Remain Open.” In a sermon that very Sunday – July 26 – MacArthur asserted that “We Must Obey God Rather Than Men,” citing an unverified statistic that “if you are under 80” there’s a “99.99% chance you will live through this whole thing.” This would also mark the beginning of GCC’s call for other churches to, “Stand with us in support of the biblical mandate to gather for corporate worship.” And while LA County successfully pressured GCC to cancel their 2021 Shepherd’s Conference, MacArthur would still take the stage via a March 3 live stream, encouraging pastors to, “be a man and open your churches.”

This new position of civil disobedience hinged on the church’s ability to downplay the virus’ effect on their own congregation. In an apparent attempt to lower their case numbers, GCC allegedly silenced congregants infected with COVID-19. Grace was also silent when a Master’s Seminary Student and GCC attendee died from COVID-19.

So what changed?

Again to G3, MacArthur justified GCC’s newfangled rejection of COVID-19 health mandates,

…you can lock down an entire nation and destroy people; destroy them. And then lock down the world and destroy people all over the world, and even with multiple millions of people negatively affected and even dying because of the lockdown. They still don’t lift the lockdown.

MacArthur, in response to a question from Josh Boice.

And regarding his own church, he proclaimed, “…we (GCC) haven’t had an outbreak of anything.”

With official reports of an outbreak at Grace surfacing, the church shifted from a defensive position to an offensive one. GCC began to reframe their rejection of lockdowns as the only logical and moral position. Traditionally ascribing to a rigidly deontological normative system of ethics, Grace would now pivot to utilitarian rhetoric.

MacArthur’s narrative reversal was readily apparent on October 11, 2020 – when the pastor spoke for FRC Freedom Sunday,

“Church needs to be open. We’re not going to kill people by being open.” 

So what would kill people?

Phil Johnson, a prominent and boisterous elder at GCC, propagated unsubstantiated claims that suicides and drug overdoses increased due to lockdown measures.

Mitigation efforts suggested by the CDC to slow the spread of COVID-19 prove effective at lowering virus-related fatalities. So how could Grace Church justify their complete unwillingness to enforce any health mandates? The answer comes from a surprising new variable entered into the equation – mental health.

John MacArthur, Phil Johnson, James Coates, and others of the GCC/TMS family would begin asserting a truly unprecedented concern for those struggling from suicidal ideation, addiction, and clinical depression. These societal woes, they argued, were far more pressing than the dangers of COVID-19. This logic would represent a new moral calculus akin to John Stuart Mill’s “Greatest Happiness Principle.”

Notice the value judgments made in GCC’s July 24, 2020 statement entitled “Christ, not Caesar, Is Head of the Church: A Biblical Case for the Church’s Duty to Remain Open,”

…because we could not possibly have known the true severity of the virus, and because we care about people as our Lord did, we believe guarding public health against serious contagions is a rightful function of Christians as well as civil government. Therefore, we voluntarily followed the initial recommendations of our government. It is, of course, legitimate for Christians to abstain from the assembly of saints temporarily in the face of illness or an imminent threat to public health…there were horrific projections of death. In light of those factors, our pastors supported the measures by observing the guidelines that were issued for churches.

Excerpts from the July 24, 2020 statement drafted by GCC’s elders.

Clearly, MacArthur and company had no issue following health mandates at the onset of this Pandemic. But the July 24, 2020 narrative shift necessitated a move away from deontological ethics. Value judgments were created and skepticism advanced.

It is apparent that those original projections of death were wrong and the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared.

Excerpt from the GCC elders’ July 24 statement.

The value judgment is immediately evident in the above statement. In fact, the British COVID-19 Response Team revealed the much-publicized Imperial College Study on March 16, 2020 – which stated, “In total, in an unmitigated epidemic, we would predict approximately…2.2 million [deaths] in the US, not accounting for the potential negative effects of health systems being overwhelmed on mortality.”

Note that this alarming 2.2 million number could have been reached, were it not for national lockdowns and social distancing measures. But, even with mitigation efforts, the death toll has surpassed 800,000 in the U.S. as of this writing.

Since the 2.2 million estimate simply represents a counterfactual, GCC can assert the implausibility of said outcome ever actualizing. These conclusions are easily asserted ex post facto, without factoring in mitigation efforts.

With opposition to the church’s civil disobedience mounting in the Fall of 2020, GCC shifted its argumentation to highlight the tole of isolation resulting from lockdowns, which supposedly increase mental illness-related deaths.

Via extrapolation, we must infer that 800,000 lives lost does not reach the threshold of legitimacy, “for Christians to abstain from the assembly of saints.” Yet, presumably, the “horrific projections of death,” (i.e. the 2.2 million Imperial College estimate) would have been sufficient. This would represent a utilitarian-calculus foreign to most deontological systems or Divine Command Theory itself. Sadly, these calculations ignore certain key variables, such as the detrimental long-term effects of COVID-19. Ironically, Long Haulers’ COVID has been shown to have detrimental effects on mental health.

Although MacArthur and his evangelical associates continue to reject the existence of the Pandemic, they still acknowledge that people have died from the virus. But they argue this number pales in comparison to mental illness related death and devastation. Pastor MacArthur and others bring up suicide, alcoholism, and drug addiction as spiking during the Pandemic lockdowns – because people are unable to have normal social lives at church and elsewhere.

But are deaths from suicide and drug overdoses truly greater than COVID-19 deaths? As will be shown, the data simply doesn’t support these assertions.

On February 14, 2021 – James Coates, Pastor of Gracelife church in Edmonton and lauded graduate of The Master’s Seminary, said in a sermon,

Our government has no responsibility or culpability for the virus…Deaths resulting from their (government’s) actions (lockdowns) … there is culpability then before God.” Risk mitigation regarding the virus is on each individual, the government’s only role is to defend your inalienable, God-given rights…God is responsible for the death rate, not (the Premier).

Pastor James Coates, in a sermon on Romans 13.

This radical narrative shift is apparent in arguments being made from both Grace pulpits.

On Sunday, July 26th, 2020, John MacArthur officially pivoted from submission to civil disobedience. In a sermon labeled, “We Must Obey God Rather Than Men,” MacArthur made his new stance clear. On this Sunday, MacArthur boldly exclaimed,

Fourteen thousand people die every year from accidents. Five thousand people from suicide – and that’s going higher this year as well. How could they close the hospitals when these people are in jeopardy for something that can affect only 0.01 percent [sic] of the population?

Pastor MacArthur, July 26th 2020.

Here is the first example of MacArthur using a value judgment to assert that lockdowns are more deadly than the Covid-19 Pandemic. He would again make this assertion in a Q&A Sunday church service on December 6, 2020,

This approach (lockdowns) to the virus obviously has a devastating impact on many people. In Japan in one month, there were as many suicides as there have been in covid deaths through the entire almost year-long siege.  We know about that.

John MacArthur, in response to a congregant’s question during the sermon titled, “Bible Questions and Answers, Part 76.”

MacArthur likely borrowed this rhetoric from then-president Donald Trump. During a March 2020 press conference, Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci were asked,

“Dr. Fauci, could you speak to that — the idea that there might be mental health and suicide related to this? Would that outpace, at some point, the virus’s impact on the society?”

Instead of deferring to Fauci, Trump handled the question himself.

“I could ask Dr. Fauci to come up, but it’s common sense,” Trump said. “You’re going to have massive depression, meaning mental depression. You’re going to have depression in the economy also. But you’re going to have mental depression for people. You’re going to have large numbers of suicides.”

He continued, warning that the country would see drug addiction “more than anything else.”

“You will see drugs being used like nobody has ever used them before,” Trump said. “And people are going to be dying all over the place from drug addiction, because you would have people that had a wonderful job at a restaurant, or even owned a restaurant.”

By some estimates, suicides in 2020 actually dropped by 5%, compared to 2019. The Washington Post disproved faulty predictions in the article, Efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic didn’t have the death toll Trump seemed to predict.

MacArthur’s assertions may have stoked faux-outrage and contrived concern for the mentally ill, but his narrative was never truly based in fact. Again and again, MacArthur has confidently asserted faulty COVID statistics from the pulpit.

But a more important question remains to be answered – if Pastor MacArthur is truly concerned for the mentally ill, why isn’t he helping them? Perhaps he is merely using individuals with mental illness as pawns in a game of “compassion chess.” Unfortunately, Grace Community Church, The Master’s University, and The Master’s Seminary all have a checkered past when it comes to mental health. Those suffering from mental health crises at these institutions have been told they’re in sin. That psychology is a farce. And that health disorders are simply signs of weakness, wickedness, or worse. This subsection of Christianity has rarely extended empathy for the mentally ill – a pandemic, mass deaths, and lockdowns can’t change that fact.

In upcoming articles, I will contend that a lack of empathy in the evangelical church has led to a mental health pandemic. My vision is for the normalization of compassion directed toward the mentally ill within Evangelical Christendom. That struggling individuals would be viewed as children of God – not expedient statistics or burdensome sinners. I believe empathy is foundational for an ethic seeking to emulate Christ as the ultimate man of virture. I pray that the COVID-19 pandemic would wake the church up to the importance of altruism – putting others first.

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