Capitol Hill Baptist Church
Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. | (Wikimedia Commons)

Mark Dever’s Church Sues D.C. over COVID-19 Worship Limits

By Julie Roys

A prominent church headed by author and pastor, Mark Dever, is suing the District of Columbia and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser for banning indoor and outdoor worship services of more than 100 because of COVID-19.

The complaint filed yesterday by the 850-member Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) alleges that Mayor Bowser has been discriminatory in her application of the ban. The suit notes that Bowser appeared at a massive anti-racism protest in June and even assigned city police to the event.

“The Church takes no issue with Defendants’ decision to permit these gatherings, which are themselves protected by the First Amendment,” the complaint stated. “The Church does, however, take exception to Defendants’ decision to favor certain expressive gatherings over others.”

D.C. is currently in phase two of a four-phase re-opening plan. In phase two, church gatherings must be limited to 100 people or 50-percent of a building’s capacity, whichever is fewer. In phase three, houses of worship would be capped at 250—a limit that would be lifted only in phase four, which requires a COVID-19 vaccine or therapy.

“The Church takes no issue with Defendants’ decision to permit these gatherings . . . The Church does, however, take exception to Defendants’ decision to favor certain expressive gatherings over others.”

In the complaint, CHBC asks for permission to gather as a congregation while adhering to “appropriate social distancing practices.” The church also is asking the court to require D.C. to pay its attorneys’ fees and expenses.

The church said it first asked D.C. for a waiver to meet in June but didn’t get a response from the Mayor’s Office. It again petitioned the Mayor’s Office in September and was rejected.

In response to CHBC’s suit, Rev. Thomas Bowen, director of the mayor’s Office of Religious Affairs said that the “pandemic has placed us all in a tough situation. . . . We have engaged with congregations to ensure houses of worship can plan their services in a way that is safe for everyone.”

According to the Washington Post, CHBC members voted on Sunday to pursue litigation, with 402 voting in favor and only 35 objecting.

According to Justin Sok, a CHBC lay pastor, no church members were strongly opposed to the lawsuit. However, some were concerned about how pursuing a lawsuit “would affect (the) church’s witness.”

CHBC has been meeting for several months in a field outside a church in Virginia, where restrictions are less stringent. But according to the suit, CHBC cannot negotiate with large outdoor venues if D.C. refuses to give the church a waiver.

According to a tweet by Pastor Mark Dever, the church has not been livestreaming its services “Because a video of a sermon is not a substitute for a covenanted congregation assembling together . . .”

Similarly, the lawsuit states: “For CHBC, a weekly in-person worship gathering of the entire congregation is a religious conviction for which there is no substitute.”

This argument is similar to one offered earlier this summer by prominent pastor and author, John MacArthur, of Grace Community Church in California. MacArthur wrote that “freedom of worship is a command of God.” And he stated that submitting to restrictions on congregational worship “would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.”

Grace Community Church also sued government entities over restrictions that the church contends are unconstitutional. Grace noted in its lawsuit that authorities were “unequally” restricting the church’s free exercise of religion, while allowing racial justice protests.

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23 thoughts on “Mark Dever’s Church Sues D.C. over COVID-19 Worship Limits”

  1. Retaining WilmerHale to sue the mayor and D.C. is certainly an interesting use of tithes and offerings.

    Maybe the $150k – $350k PPP loan is helping them offset billable hours.

    I guess it is all just part of God’s strange providence…

    1. I really don’t see how live-streaming is a biblical issue. If the city has a dual standard then by all means take them to court because that is not right. We both live stream and social distance ourselves and have church with masks on.

    2. You can say that again! I hadn’t thought of the cost of the suit. And the PPP loan What is a Covenanted gathering anyhow? I missed that in the Bible.

    3. I suspect that for both Dever and MacArthur, the real concern is the reduction in tithes and offerings if services are not held in person.

      They both seem strangely unwilling to enact their own acceptance of God’s providence.

      1. “The real concern is the reduction in tithes and offerings if services are not held in person.”

        Yeah, that must be it. There can’t be any other reason.

        Even though Johnny Mac is 81 years old, the reason he’s engaging in civil disobedience is to keep the tithes and offerings flowing.

        Thank you for clearing that up. It’s helpful that you know their motives, which alleviates any confusion for the rest of us.

        1. As usual, Daniel, you put words in other peoples mouths.

          Financial motivation is certainly one option that should be considered.

          Megachurches require a great deal of money to keep going, and the conduct of celebrity pastors over time show that a love of money has been repeatedly a besetting sin.

          The eagerness of both these pastors to apply for PPP funding from the government (Dever received it, MacArthur claims to have returned the millions his ministry applied for, but only after their application was exposed and with convoluted excuses) is tellingly inconsistent with their pulpit stances decrying government involvement.

          1. “Financial motivation is certainly one option that should be considered.”

            I agree, that is a more fair way to put it.

            “I suspect that…the real concern is the reduction in tithes and offerings if services are not held in person.”

            That was not a fair way to put it, and I did not put words in your mouth. I simply cut and pasted what you wrote.

            It’s also possible that financial motivation has nothing whatsoever do with their engagement in civil disobedience. We don’t know their motives. Would you agree?

            Could it be that they are taking a stand on this issue? Even if you don’t agree that they should, can you acknowledge that it’s at least possible?

          2. I stated my suspicion as my suspicion, Daniel, not as a surety.
            That’s kind of how opinions work.
            I don’t know why you constantly want to quibble over wording in the comment section here.

  2. That’s not the way I want my tithes and offerings to be used. One things humans excel at is justifying their actions.

  3. Jesus: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

    Mark Dever and John MacArthur: “We refuse to lay down our convenience so that someone else might live”.

    1. If you think this issue is simply a matter of convenience, I’d urge you to carefully ponder 1 Cor. 10-11, the apostle’s clear convictions that church is meant to happen in corporate assembly, and Hebrews 10:25.

      Protestants are rediscovering you can’t have church without being in person. And for Reformed/Anglican/Catholic types, you certainly can’t have the Lord’s body and blood without it.

      1. I’d urge you to contemplate the Sermon on the Mount, David, held entirely out of doors.

        Gathering inside at one’s preferred location, not wearing a mask, and sitting close together are all, yes, matters of convenience.

        I stand by my statement.

          1. John 13:16: “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.”

        1. That’s funny; I missed the part where Dever’s congregation was going to be sitting close together and without masks. Carry on!

    2. I don’t view fines, lawsuits, court appearances, breaking of leases, and threatened jail time as convenience. Quite the contrary. Convenience would be to do nothing but comply with the world. I don’t know if you have watched any Grace live streams over this timeline, but if so you would understand that the congregation returned of their own accord, growing in size every week because they want to be in church. It is their decision to attend or not to attend. They were not asked nor are they being coerced to come back. The fact that they are overflowing with people every Sunday, are audibly animated and enthusiastic during the services…which rarely happened at Grace prior…and eagerly initiate standing ovations at the start of the service in support of meeting together as a body of Christ speaks volumes.

      Take a look at Psalm 139:16 and Job 14:5. Whether MacArthur or Dever hold services or not, a person’s days and months here on earth are already determined. No one’s life will be extended by not gathering or ended by gathering apart from what God has already planned before each was formed.

      Scripture is clear that an obedient believer will encounter push-back and even persecution. If we aren’t, we’re not living out our faith as we should. It’s not surprising that these Pastors who are taking a stand are being criticized and threatened by the world. The surprise and disappointment is how they are receiving the same from fellow “christians”. Evidence that the road is even narrower and less travelled than many think.

      1. Todd, thanks for your comments. Well said. Unfortunately, many people decided from the beginning that it was much more important to obey the leftist secular leaders and to quickly denounce any pastors who didn’t toe the line. As such, these pastors were accused of “not loving their neighbor.”

        I have a member in my extended family who loves their neighbor by scolding people twice her age if they are not wearing a mask in a store. And she is very proud of herself when doing so.

        This is the new culture that our leftist secular leaders have created amid this pandemic. And for many people, the mask is the new symbol which denotes who “loves their neighbor” and who doesn’t.

        1. “Wearing a mask” and “obeying leftist secular leaders” are not the same thing, Daniel, however much you try to make them so.

      2. “and eagerly initiate standing ovations at the start of the service in support of meeting together as a body of Christ speaks volumes”

        No, actually it doesn’t. “Standing ovations” are not found in Scripture as a way to evaluate whether or not a decision/event/movement/feeling is of Christ.

        “Whether MacArthur or Dever hold services or not, a person’s days and months here on earth are already determined. ”

        So whether I run the red light or not, whether I take my medicine or not, whether I smoke or not….it doesn’t matter because my days and months here on earth are already determined? No. We all take prudent measures every day to stay in good health and to honor the body we’ve been granted as God’s creative gift. In a time of pandemic that includes socially distancing, wearing a mask, and not gathering in crowds indoors. Your application of theology here is flawed.

        “Scripture is clear that an obedient believer will encounter push-back and even persecution.”

        Scripture is also abundantly clear that sometimes people face trouble because of their own foolish decisions–and that this is not persecution, merely reaping what they have sown. Multiple pandemic-denying pastors who have seen COVID outbreaks and deaths in their own congregations are now in this category.

        Frankly, it’s an insult to those precious believers who now and in the past have DIED for their faith to see Dever and MacArthur spending tithes and offerings to hire fat-cat lawyers from their posh offices while claiming “persecution” because they are unwilling to–I don’t know—worship outside or in small groups LIKE JESUS DID. As a Christian, I am disgusted by it.

        1. @Lea – actually Jesus did meet in a building. It is called a synagogue. Luke 4:15 “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.” What Jesus did in preaching outdoors wasn’t a worship service, it was evangelism. Similar to a Billy Graham crusade held in a stadium or could be some other outdoor venue. We are not mandated where to gather to worship. The church gathered to worship can be indoors or outdoors for worship. So Jesus met indoors to worship corporately, outdoors for mass evangelism. When Jesus preached, he wasn’t preaching to the church. The church didn’t begin until the day of Pentecost which occurred after Jesus ascended to heaven.

          1. Jesus *sometimes* met in a building. And sometimes he met outside.

            Like you said, “we are not mandated where to gather to worship”.

            So GCC should have no problem with gathering a different way than usual in order to protect both their own congregants and their neighbors during a public health crisis.

  4. Christian witness is severely compromised when church leaders insist that they don’t have to respect simple and proven health guidelines, especially when God has blessed us with alternative ways to meet and fellowship. What God provides as our daily bread, our manna, is apparently not up to His or our standards so we drag our witness through the courts demanding something better. All the while, others who might have paid attention to the hope that is in us look in in disgust at our hypocrisy.
    Please wake up, Church.

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