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PHIL: Well John, I know you’re not much of a movie buff, and yet there’s a film that’s being released and premiered this week that I know you’re very excited about called The Essential Church. Talk about that. How did that come about? Why is it called The Essential Church? Tell us a little bit about the background of this.

JOHN: Well, this is a full-length, two-hour documentary that our very talented people have put together to tell the story of Grace Church in its conflict with the state of California and Health Department, the city of Los Angeles, governments. We had such an unusual situation because we did not comply with the health orders. We didn’t follow the commands of social distancing, masks, vaccinations, and only so many people; we paid no attention to any of it, really; and we were in contempt of court, and we were getting violations every week, and there were fines and prison sentences with the violations. It was just an amazing, amazing story.

We just believe that the Word of God requires us to be faithful as a church and stay open. And when we came to the point that we knew that the statistics were not true, not honest, and people weren’t going to die en masse, our people started coming back to the church. And so many churches didn’t do that; they shut down, they shut down for a long time; and when it was all sort of over, I said we need to tell the story because we need to make sure we give churches the motivation that they need to take a stand the next time, because I don’t think this is going to be the end of persecution of the church.

The culture is so debauched, and it’s going to hate the church. It’s not going to be necessarily an epidemic, a flu bug next time; I don’t know what it’ll be. But I wanted us to tell the story for the glory of the Lord as to what He did, how we fought that case, how we won that case, and how important it was. So we set it in the context of comparing it to the covenanters in the 1600s in Scotland, when the English government tried to oppress the church there.

We were thinking this is just going to be a tool to help pastors and church members in the future see how faithfulness is rewarded, because it was just our church, but others who were a part of it as well. That was the goal. I had no idea it would be this good, this professional, this powerful. It’s an amazing story.

PHIL: It is powerful. I’ve seen it, and it sort of sets the experience of Grace Church—and not only Grace Church, but churches in Canada who went through the same battle—sets it in the context of church history, as you said, with the Covenanters and others who have found it necessary to draw a line and say, “We’re going to render to God what is God’s, and Caesar needs to stay in his own domain.”

JOHN: Well, in fact, a few weeks into this thing we produced a document called Christ Is Head of the Church, Not Caesar. Very definitive, very specific, and we made the case. And at the time, it wasn’t so much we were making a case for the unbelieving world, but we were making a case for Christians, for evangelicals, for other pastors to open their churches and stay open; and we said all of that. And we were trying to clarify in that document what the church’s responsibility is to the government—and it’s not 100 percent responsibility. We respond to the government when the government does what government is supposed to do; and God never designed the government to run the church. So we were following a pattern in Acts 5, “You judge whether we obey God or men.”

And along the way there were all kinds of amazing things going on. Just getting our own elders on board for this. We have medical doctors who were told that the hospitals were going to be overrun, and emergency wards were going to be filled with people, and we had to slow the spread. We remember all of that.

PHIL: Right.

JOHN: It became apparent to me and to others in our leadership that we were not being told the truth, and as a result of that, we did what was right. So it was just the church being the church. And I made one statement that what we did is not rebellion, it’s obedience. It looks like rebellion from the government’s viewpoint, but it was really obedience; and the Lord honored it.

PHIL: Right. And this explains the title of the documentary: The Essential Church. What we’re saying is church is essential; because here in California, when the government closed everything down, they said, “We’re going to close everything except that which is essential.” And then over the next few weeks they allowed things like casinos to open, they allowed riots in the streets, but they continued to say that the church is non-essential. So our argument was the church is essential.

JOHN: Well, that is the keyword: essential. Markets were essential, drug stores were essential, as you just said; but casinos, essential? And other selective kinds of operations. So it was clear to us that in the pandemic—well, in just all the time, church is essential. But in a pandemic, when people are disoriented, can’t find the truth, don’t know what’s going on and don’t know who to believe, don’t know what the future is—

PHIL: And they’re losing hope.

JOHN: —losing hope and having escalating fear, the church became even more essential, and it showed up in a flood of people. Humanity just started pouring into Grace Church.

PHIL: Yes, I remember that well. In the first few weeks of the shutdown when it really wasn’t clear how dangerous the virus might be, so you preached to a nearly empty auditorium. When I say nearly empty, I mean in an auditorium that seats, what, close to three thousand people, there were eight, maybe ten of us. But then people just started naturally to filter back in and just come; and within a couple of months, the building was half full, and that was before we even announced, “We’re just going to open the church.”

JOHN: Yeah. The church opened and was packed before we ever made it official.

Looking back people have said to me, “Why did you take that stand? Where did you get the courage to do that?” and I said, “That’s not courage, that’s just consistency. This is the church, and we meet because that’s what we’re demanded to do.”

PHIL: It is consistency, too. One of the moments in the documentary shows a clip from a tape that you preached back in 1975. So it’s, what, close to fifty years ago in which you said—and these were your exact words—“If, for example, some ordinance came along and tried to close down Grace Community Church, would we say, ‘Oh, it’s all right. We forgive you. We’ll all go home and just forget the work of God’?” And then you say, “Not on your life. We’d be down there with every sort of legal thing you could imagine, trying to prove that we had the right to exist and the right to exercise religious freedom.” You said that in 1975.

JOHN: Well, I mean, that was the truth. It didn’t predict the future, but it was a promise that we would be faithful when whatever future came.

PHIL: And it was exactly what happened.

JOHN: Yeah. And people said to me, “You know, you’re wasting your ammunition on this. You’ve got to choose what you’re going to fight. You’ve got to choose the stand you’re going to take. Why would you do it when it’s just a flu ordinance?” And I can’t remember how many conversations I had with people where I said, “We fight everything that comes against the church. We’re not sitting down and saying, ‘Is this a 3 on a 1-to-10 or an 8,” or whatever. No. If it threatens the church and the ministry and mission of the church, at that point, we are faithful; and without reservation, we fight. So we would have done that no matter what; and we’ll continue to do that.

PHIL: That’s right. And in fact, it became clear that this was an attack on the church the longer it went on, long after the threat of the pandemic was clearly not such a big thing. The government in California—governments, local governments and the state government—were still targeting churches with attempts to keep them closed or force them to mask and all these restrictions on worship. The governor even said, “Churches shouldn’t sing hymns.”

JOHN: Oh, yeah; that was a big thing, “You can’t sing.” We paid no attention to that. We did the kind of things that we thought were expressions of faithfulness. That didn’t necessarily mean we were going to win the case. And what was fascinating to me was we sued the city, the county, the Health Department, and all of that. And our attorneys—these are outside attorneys who took on the case—said they did not think we had any chance to win. That’s our attorneys. In fact, I think the number floating around was, “You have about 1 percent chance to win the case.”

PHIL: Right.

JOHN: And they’re professionals. They could not see an avenue to win that case. But in the kindness of the Lord, we did win the case. And what we did was—well, it was vindicated spiritually, and then vindicated legally. The spiritual vindication of staying open is still flourishing because we had—well, I think right about now we are at a number of two thousand new members that joined our church during COVID.

PHIL: Wow.

JOHN: Yeah. So I’m so thankful to the Lord for letting us make the documentary. I’m even more thankful for the genius of the people that put it together, because it is amazing. It’s an amazing story told so beautifully.

PHIL: And you talk about consistency. That is one of the things that comes through in the documentary. This is not a new message for you. The document that the elders produced was called, I think you said, Christ Is the Head of the Church, Not Caesar, or something like that. That’s not a new message for you. Going back, I recall in 2006 you spoke at the national meeting of Ligonier, their National Conference, in March of 2006; and your message was titled “Jesus Is the Head of the Church,” and this was your theme. And interestingly, I went back and listened to that message recently, and a lot of what you said in that message actually follows a similar train of thought to what we see in this documentary. You started with the story of Jenny Geddes. Talk about her.

JOHN: Well, Jenny Geddes was a little lady who lived in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1600s—

PHIL: 1637.

JOHN: 1637 is the date that she started what amounted to a revolution. But Jenny Geddes went to the St. Giles’ Cathedral on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh on the Lord’s Day to worship. And a bishop had come from England under the authority of the King of England, who was demanding that the Scots accept a new English prayer book.

PHIL: Yeah, he wanted them to be basically like the Church of England.

JOHN: Yeah.

PHIL: Episcopalian.

JOHN: Right.

PHIL: And the Scots were mostly Presbyterian style.

JOHN: Exactly, and they didn’t want to conform to that.

PHIL: Right.

JOHN: So there was resistance in the hearts of the people who were there. But Jenny funneled all of that into an amazing act. She was sitting on a stool, and while the bishop was speaking up on one of the podiums, she picked up the stool and threw it at the bishop. Well, that triggered what became the Scottish rebellion against the Anglican Episcopacy of England.

So it was a monumental moment, a courageous lady. And out of that, the Scots began to rally, and they developed what is called the National Covenant. The whole country signed the covenant, and it was that they were going to be faithful to the Lord as head of the church. They were going to be faithful to their convictions about the Scripture, and they were not going to succumb to political power and threats.

PHIL: And this was their argument: that Christ is the head of the church, not the king.

JOHN: No. And I think even in those years, Christian people believed Christ was the head of the church spiritually, but I don’t think there were very many people who believed He was the head of the church governmentally. In other words, He really did have authority in the church to the degree that no other monarch could match. And that’s all this whole thing is about. Christ is the head of His church.

You know, the Lord has granted to the government the public’s fear to punish evildoers and protect those who do good. God has granted to families the responsibility to pass righteousness from one generation to the next and raise godly children. Fathers don’t intrude in the government’s territory, the government doesn’t intrude in the family, but the government has always, always seemed to intrude into the church; and that’s exactly what happened in the pandemic, and it’s been happening through church history.

An easy way to understand it is no matter where persecution breaks out, the arch-persecutor of the truth is always going to be a government power because the government alone can jail people, kill people, fine people. The neighborhood’s not going to do that. People may be hostile to the gospel, but it’s government that is the persecutor of the church; and in many cases, of course, throughout Middle Ages, these governments were also synonymous with the national religion. So even religious governments had no right to step into the realm of the church and exercise authority; and that was behind the entire Covenanters movement in 1600s, and it was precisely behind what we did during COVID.

PHIL: Back to Jenny Geddes. I’d like to talk about the importance of what she did and the far-reaching nature of it and what it was she actually objected to. You said people had asked you, “Is this really the hill you want to die on?” Consider what she was protesting. It was that King Charles wanted the Scottish church to follow a prayer book, which was essentially the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. There’s nothing in that that’s heretical, right?

JOHN: Right.

PHIL: But what she and other Scottish believers objected to was the idea that the king was telling them how to organize their worship. It was the formalism of it. In fact, when she threw the stool she said, “How dare you say Mass in my ear!”

JOHN: Yeah, that’s a really important word to introduce because Anglicanism was more sacerdotal, it was more sacramental, whereas Presbyterianism was more Word-driven. I mean, they had the Lord’s Table and baptism and all of that, but that was a Reformed church, truthfully, even in the 1600s. So they had been influenced by John Knox, who had been influenced by John Calvin.

So they knew what was at stake. And they also knew that the King of England claimed to be the head of the church in no uncertain terms; and there was history on that. I mean, Bloody Mary, the queen, went out and massacred hundreds of people because they protested against the Mass itself, something very religious; but that brought about a death penalty. They then, of course, during the Covenanter period, the English came and killed Covenanters. There’s a place in Edinburgh called Grassmarket Square, and it still has all the history sort of etched into this big round stone, telling the story of how the English slaughtered the faithful Covenanters. They threw them out of their churches; and they went out into the hillsides and the valleys and the mountains and held church anyway. And they were hunted down, and they were executed, imprisoned, and all of that.

So government has been resisted in the past; and that kind of resistance could come again, where you’re really—

PHIL: I think you could argue it is coming again. It is—the harbingers of it are here. There’s a thread through history that you can trace with this same thing. What Jenny Geddes objected to was the mandated use of an Anglican prayer book. That’s exactly what the Puritans objected to as well, and why so many Puritan ministers were ejected from their pulpits—because they didn’t want to follow orders from the king on how to conduct worship.

JOHN: Well, that’s right. They were called Nonconformists because they wouldn’t conform. And actually on one Sunday the monarchy threw a couple thousand of them out of their churches; and they did the same thing that the Covenanters did. Many of them just went out into the countryside, wherever they needed to go, and continued to do what they did. Some of them actually at that time came to America and were part of planting the early churches in our country.

PHIL: Yeah, John Cotton and Richard Mather both had been ejected from their pulpits.

So there is also a clear connection, I think, between that view of the Puritans, where they objected to the idea that Caesar’s telling us how to organize our worship. And what Grace Church did during the COVID thing is the same thing, where the government is saying, “You must wear masks. You mustn’t sing. You can’t gather in large numbers.” These restrictions did affect our normal Sunday worship in a way that really made it impossible if we had followed the orders.

JOHN: Well, and beyond the fact that it shut down the fellowship and worship of the church, it isolated people. And some of the most horrible stories of all stories were people dying in a hospital, older people from our church family dying in a hospital. No one could go there—no pastors could go there, no family members. There was amazing fallout that was profoundly impactful on the people who suffered.

PHIL: Now I don’t want to give a spoiler on the ending of the documentary, but it turns out good in the end, doesn’t it?

JOHN: Well, all things work together for good.

PHIL: Amen. I’m glad for that.

JOHN: I mean, if you just do what you are commanded to do, if you do it with joy and do it with grace and do it with love, you’re going to get the outcome that God wants. Now it could be martyrdom, it could be a prison; I mean, that could happen, and that did happen to Tim Stevens and to James Coates, two pastors in Canada. It could have been that for me.

PHIL: Their stories are told in the documentary. It’s very moving, too. It’s very hard to watch it and not have tears come to your eyes.

JOHN: No, no; it’s a powerful, powerful story, and it’s so effectively taught—the music, the score. The original score of music is just magnificent, it fits everything. The experience of reenacting in a very dramatic way, using technology to reenact the drowning of the two Marys, which was a part of that whole Covenanter situation, when you had these two women who wouldn’t recant, they wouldn’t recant, they wouldn’t deny Christ and their commitment to the gospel.

So it is true that the Lord chooses for many to suffer. I mean, every time I pick up a newspaper I’m reading about people in Bangladesh and India who claim to be Christians, getting executed, murdered, killed in their sleep, all of that. So that hasn’t gone away.

PHIL: You know, you mentioned the two Marys. There’s also in the St. Giles’ Cathedral a monument to Jenny Geddes—has a little replica of her stool. And the interesting thing—as I see that and think of it, a typical evangelical today would be scolding her for creating a disturbance in the church, and, “You shouldn’t throw your stool at the man who’s speaking,” and we’d probably agree that that’s not maybe the best reaction. And yet what she did—maybe not how she did it, but what she did was heroic, and she deserves to be honored for that.

JOHN: Well, you know, she didn’t do that in a vacuum either. She knew the reality of the conflict; she couldn’t escape it. I mean, it was the dominant story of the time, the battle between the English and the Scots over how they were going to worship. So she knew what was at stake. Everybody else knew also, it’s just that the Lord chose her to be the point of the spear.

PHIL: Because, as Scripture says, He uses the weak and despised things to confound the wise.

JOHN: Yeah, and that’s an important thing to remember. It wasn’t some Scottish hierarchical leader or some well-known cathedral pastor, it was a humble little lady who said, “Enough of this!” And God used her.

PHIL: Amen. Well, now, Grace Church has never made a documentary before, as far as I’m concerned. But Grace Church is listed as the producer of this, right?

JOHN: Yes. And I don’t know of a church that has produced a documentary, certainly not one of this caliber and quality. But I didn’t want years to go by before somebody would sit down and write this story, because by then it’s not current, and people have forgotten it. And the way to capture it in the moment was to produce the documentary. And everybody who saw it since it’s been completed has just raved about the quality of it. Grace Church has an amazing array of talented, gifted people, and they did an incredible job.

PHIL: Yeah, they did a great job. So that will be premiered this week, and we want to encourage Grace to You listeners, if you’re in an area where it’s showing in a theater, you definitely want to go see it.

JOHN: Yeah. You will be amazed at the story; you’ll be riveted; you won’t be able to take your attention away from it. And I would even suggest that the second time you see it and the third time you see it, it’s even going to get better because there are multiple stories woven into this one grand story that it takes a few showings to absorb.

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Unleashing God’s Truth, One Verse at a Time
Since 1969


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