When COVID-19 turned the world upside down in 2020, many U.S. churches followed government policies and switched to online services, while others met on a limited scale with social distancing and masks.
A smaller group of churches opposed official mandates, railed against government oppression, opened church doors without precautions, experienced the predicted COVID outbreaks and faced the legal consequences.
Three churches led by rebel pastors are the focus of The Essential Church, a new independent Christian movie that attempts to persuade viewers that their ordeals are equivalent to the suffering of Christians in centuries past who sacrificed their lives.
The film dramatizes the exploits of John MacArthur, pastor of California’s Grace Community Church, and is produced by Grace Productions, the church’s film ministry. Promotional material calls it a “docufilm” and a “documentary,” but a better descriptor is hagiography.
MacArthur and Grace Church didn’t suffer too badly. He and other members experienced bouts of COVID, and the church initially lost members and income for its stand. But it now claims to have more of both than it did before, and the church won an $800,000 settlement from the state of California and Los Angeles County.
Two Canadian pastors had it worse. Tim Stephens, pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary, spent 21 days in jail. James Coates, pastor of the Grace-affiliated GraceLife Church of Edmonton, was jailed for 35 days after declining to agree to bail conditions that would have required him to comply with health regulations. He is the author of God vs. Government: Taking a Biblical Stand When Christ and Compliance Collide.
“When churches fall silent, the only religion left is the state,” says one of the film’s many grim talking heads.
Another is equally apocalyptic, saying, “As the government gets more corrupt and more corrupt, its totalitarian control has to increase (until) the last thing standing is going to be the church.”
Other featured experts include:
- Scott Atlas, who spread public misinformation during his brief and tumultuous time on President Trump’s White House Coronavirus Task Force. In the film, he charges health officials with “gross incompetence.”
- Pastor Voddie Baucham, who joined MacArthur in signing the Frankfurt Statement opposing “emergent totalitarianism” and elites intent on “undermining human agency.”
Another expert, attorney Jenna Ellis, fought MacArthur’s COVID legal battles. “This wasn’t about health and safety, this was all about control and opposition to religious freedom,” she says in the film.
But unlike a typical documentary, this one doesn’t tell viewers that Ellis is untrustworthy. She served as part of Rudy Giuliani’s “crack team” of lawyers unsuccessfully seeking out 2020 election fraud, and in March she admitted to lying and was censured by a Colorado judge.
The film’s somber commentary is spiced up with two kinds of footage:
- Animated sequences that show Christian martyrs being shot, hanged and drowned.
- Clips of riots designed to show the “gross hypocrisy” of officials who “ordered houses of worship to shut their doors while permitting deadly, destructive riots to sweep through major cities unchecked.”
The film’s experts repeatedly claim vaccine mandates are just the tip of an iceberg of anti-Christian repression ushered in by hypocritical, atheistic, leftist, Marxist officials. Movie merchandise includes a T-shirt reading, “Christ, not Caesar.”
MacArthur says he wants the film to make pastors who cooperated with the government feel guilty, while first-time director Shannon Halliday said his goal was to embolden and edify the church while also making it crystal clear that MacArthur isn’t “some kind of tyrant who runs the church.”
Say “independent Christian movie” today and many people will think of Sound of Freedom, a film about the battle against sex trafficking that has grossed nearly $150 million. But audiences have declared The Essential Church is no Sound of Freedom. The film took in only $250,000 in its opening weekend.
How John MacArthur loves the Bible but not his neighbor | Analysis by Rick Pidcock