In a gripping portrayal of contemporary religious freedom in America, a groundbreaking film titled “The Essential Church” emerges as a testament to the enduring struggle between church and state. Directed by Shannon Halliday, a devoted member of Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, the film centers on the remarkable legal journey of John MacArthur and his congregation, who defied California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Covid-19 mandates to keep their church open, ultimately winning a three million dollar settlement against the County of Los Angeles.
Unveiling the intricacies of constitutional first amendment rights and the broader implications for religious institutions, “The Essential Church” offers an unflinching look into the conversations, events, and ideas that galvanized this high-profile act of civil disobedience. “When we decided to open, we were very divided, and lots of people left our church. We thought it would be great to show those folks the whole story because I think they came to their own conclusions pretty quickly about us, why we were doing it, and what’s really going on at Grace Church. And it really bothers me sometimes when people say that my pastor runs roughshod over people. They assume that about him, but he’s not like that. It’s not just one man choosing to do whatever he wants,” said Halliday.
Drawing upon prominent figures like Jenna Ellis, renowned for her association with former US President Trump’s legal team, Scott Atlas, the former healthcare policy advisor in the White House, and Voddie Baucham, a professor at the African Christian University, the film navigates the complexities of religious liberty in the modern era.
The film employs animated cinematography, meticulously sculpted in 3D, to recount the historic protest of a Scottish woman named Janet Geddes in 1637. Her defiant act of throwing a three-legged stool at the presiding minister in St. Giles Cathedral in protest of a mandated book of prayer sets the stage for the film’s overarching exploration of the historical interplay between State and Church.
“I hope that this film emboldens and inspires churches and makes them think about things they weren’t thinking about before: the headship of Christ. People in the 1600s died over that idea. The point is that the State’s job is not to lead the church in any way,” said Halliday. “I hope they walk away with a more solidified conviction concerning the head of the church, and that they are inspired to make a stand in the future, to hold the line; to put steel in their veins; and this is why church history is such a big part of this: to show that a baton has been passed to us through the generations. There are people from the past we can learn from. I also want unbelievers to hear the Gospel through this film,” Halliday added.
At its core, “The Essential Church” seeks to reaffirm the unequivocal belief that Jesus Christ alone is the head of the Church, asserting the Church’s autonomy from State intervention. Under Shannon Halliday’s visionary direction, the film masterfully weaves historical context with contemporary challenges, providing a profound understanding of the Church’s relationship with the State.
The film delves into philosophical debates, scrutinizing the application of neo-Marxist ideology as a framework for Statist totalitarianism, especially in the context of pandemic lockdowns. In a thought-provoking juxtaposition, “The Essential Church” raises poignant questions about the preferential treatment of mass protests over the closure of places of worship during the pandemic, exposing the complex nature of government decisions in safeguarding both public health and religious freedoms.
While the film’s confrontational tone may challenge certain viewers, particularly those who voluntarily complied with pandemic-related restrictions, Halliday hopes to bridge the divide by offering a candid glimpse into the internal struggles faced by Grace Community Church during their pivotal decision-making process. The film compassionately explores the church’s internal divisions, showcasing the evolution and transformation of its elder board in the pursuit of biblical truths.
“I hope that our critics watch the film. This movie, in a way, is made for them; it’s giving them a peek behind the curtain and to see how Grace Church worked. I think some folks think that we are so self-righteous. Our elder board was divided, we had disunity in our church, and had to deal with that. There was a lot to work through, and it wasn’t easy,” said Halliday. “Not all our elders were on the same page; they had to evolve and study God’s Word and learn these concepts and exercise that muscle in a way they hadn’t before, and change. So, If our elders can change because they are seeking God’s Word, then other pastors out there can change too. And they shouldn’t be afraid of that. If they have an argument against it, and think we have done it wrong, they should watch the film before they just disagree with us,” Halliday added.
“The Essential Church” film offered some shocking scenes, and none more profound than that of church leaders being arrested for keeping their churches open in Canada. The film shows footage of Canadian Pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Alberta, Tim Stephen, being arrested in front of his family, with his children distressed and in tears as they see their father being taken away to jail. Scenes of Pastor James Coates reuniting with family after 35 days in a maximum security prison make the film feel relatable and relevant. These emotive scenes make the film engaging and compelling in a manner that invites viewers to connect with the humanity of some of its key characters.
The film was released in theaters on July 28th garnering praise from churches worldwide, “The Essential Church” struck a resonant chord with a global audience, sparking conversations on religious liberties far beyond American shores.
In this era marked by challenges to religious freedoms, “The Essential Church” emerges as a potent historical document, providing a precedent for future legal battles in defense of faith. As Shannon Halliday envisions, this film stands as a timeless testament to the enduring quest for religious autonomy, capturing the essence of an age-old struggle that continues to shape societies around the world.