LOS ANGELES (RNS) — Grace Community Church in Sun Valley announced Friday (Feb. 12) it would postpone an annual three-day ministry conference after Los Angeles County public health officials expressed concerns about the event’s potential to spread COVID-19.
The Shepherds’ Conference, scheduled for March 3-5, had scheduled more than 30 speakers to address audiences of hundreds of pastors and academics from Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington state. The Rev. John MacArthur, pastor of Grace Community Church, said in a promotional video that the conference would be “polemical” and “passionate” as “we endeavor to reclaim true evangelicalism.”
But in Friday posts on Facebook and Twitter, the church said that because California and L.A. County threatened action to stop the event, “we have decided that the most prudent course of action at this time is to postpone the Shepherds’ Conference.”
Although a Supreme Court ruling lifted a ban on indoor worship in California, county health officials said they had determined that the Shepherds’ Conference didn’t qualify as a worship service.
A conference hosted by a church or anyone else is prohibited, county officials said in a statement provided to Religion News Service.
“A gathering of thousands of people from around the country and the world can turn into a superspreading event and can be deadly,” the statement read.
The church seemed to allude to the Supreme Court decision in its Facebook announcement. “We will be deposing the key health officers and county officials and requiring them to answer for their oppressive actions under oath,” its post said, “and requesting all documents and information supporting their arbitrary attempts to restrict our religious liberty as a church.”
The Los Angeles Times, in a story on Friday about the conference, reported that two men from Washington, including a 90-year-old pastor, died of complications from COVID-19 a few weeks after attending last year’s Shepherds’ Conference. It’s unknown if their cases were connected to the conference.
In its statement, the church said its “leadership remains firmly committed to the truth that Christ is the head of the Church. … we will not yield to government’s infringement upon the biblical command to worship and gather together. We intend to steadfastly defend this truth and obtain appropriate constitutional and legal protections and further relief from the Court.”
The church has been embroiled in a legal court battle with the county as MacArthur has openly defied public health restrictions during the pandemic. Since July 2020, MacArthur has held in-person services with congregants singing and sitting next to each other without masks.
On July 24, MacArthur and the church’s elders issued a statement entitled “Biblical Case for the Church’s Duty to Remain Open.”
The statement said that Grace Community Church has always stood steadfast on biblical principles. It claims that while the government is charged with protecting civic order and well-being, “God has not granted civic rulers authority over the doctrine, practice, or polity of the church.”