A Christchurch pastor has told followers that listening to science is the opposite of listening to God, just days after his church appeared to gloat that it had deliberately violated the Government's COVID-19 regulations.
Murray Watkinson, the controversial leader of Wainoni's evangelical Celebration Centre, took to social media earlier this month to question whether world powers "have our best interests at heart".
Days earlier, the church posted photos of a busy meeting room with the caption "altars full over 100", indicating it had deliberately allowed more people to attend a service than are allowed under alert level 2 mass gathering rules.
This post was deleted after a backlash, but the church later doubled down on its position, writing: "You will not get covid from God".
Newshub approached Watkinson for an interview, but a Celebration Centre representative said he had no comment to make.
The posts were passed on by a former Celebration Centre attendee, who told Newshub he was worried these attitudes were being espoused by such a prominent Christian leader.
He had called police to report mass gatherings of more than 100 people and other alleged breaches back in August, and was told officers would attend a meeting that weeked to remind Celebration Centre of the rules.
Police were unable to confirm they attended - they don't comment on specific premises - but said officers were taking an "education-first approach" to encouraging Kiwis to comply with alert level 2 rules.
Social media posts from earlier this month indicate the church has now embraced COVID-19 protocols such as social-distancing and the use of partitioned areas with a maximum of 100 people.
'People lie, governments lie': What Watkinson wrote
In a Facebook post shared by Celebration Centre in early September, Watkinson said Christians are reluctant to speak up about what they believe because of the threat of persecution.
The millionaire pastor also cast doubt over whether those in positions of power have been telling the truth about the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We know at times what we are being told is not all together (sic) true. People lie, Governments lie, financial institutions lie, Jesus said Satan was the father of lies," he wrote.
"Something does not sit right concerning the covid scenario or the unusual world's response to it. We are being told it's for our safety, the world powers have our best interests at heart.
"Judging on past performance, I feel it is legitimate to ask the question. Do they have our best interests at heart? Or does God have our best interests at heart?"
In another post, Watkinson told church members: "We are being told we must listen to science. By implication this means don't listen to God."
"If God's people and the prophets present an opinion that opposes the worldly narrative we are conspiracy theorists," he wrote.
"Satan is real, he is constantly inspiring people to do unlawful and harmful things, his plan is to deceive the world separating humanity for eternity from God."
The former attendee who alerted Newshub to the posts said he was worried by the "dangerous" messages Watkinson was sending to church members in his post.
"Here's misinformation going to what is probably one of the largest churches in New Zealand," he said. "The promotion of conspiracy theories from the pulpit should be concerning."
It's not the first time the pastor has drawn derision during the pandemic. In June, he came under heavy fire for a contentious sermon in which he called police brutality victim George Floyd a "villain" and said bisexuals were "gutless" and "don't know who they are".
He came under increased scrutiny a few weeks later, when Stuff revealed the Celebration Centre Trust had taken more than $90,000 in wage subsidies despite having more than $500,000 in the bank.
'To see churches rebel on this I find extremely sad'
Wesleyan Methodist minister and media chaplain Frank Ritchie describes the resistance to following the Government's COVID-19 rules by Watkinson and other Christian leaders as "extremely sad".
He says Watkinson's posts - which pit faith against science, and religious leadership against civic leadership - present a false dichotomy.
"God has given us brains, God puts leadership in place, so we're following the words of people who, one could argue, God has gifted with the ability to guide us through these sort of situations," he said.
"Jesus encouraged us to love our neighbour. We've been given very clear instructions here on how to love our neighbour by experts.
"By following the rules, we're looking after the vulnerable, we're looking out for people who are susceptible to having their lives ripped apart by the virus."
Ritchie says standing up to mass gathering regulations is not a hill Christians need to die on.
"I don't think there's anything damaging to the church going on in any of what we're being asked to do, so to see churches rebel on this I find extremely sad," he told Newshub.
"We exist in a time where I think lots of people are looking for an excuse to put the boot in on churches and Christianity and religion in general.
"This gives them an opportunity to do it, when we could be seen to be taking the lead on doing the things that need to be done to look out for people who are vulnerable."