In which we seek to understand why James Coates took his stand against the Alberta government
Startling events in Canada brought the long dormant question of the relationship of church and state to the forefront of Christian minds. On Feb 16, 2021, in Edmonton, Alberta, pastor James Coates turned himself in to the police because of repeated violations of orders from the Public Health Officer of the province. Pastor Coates refused comply with an undertaking to obey a court order until his trial date, so he remained in custody for 35 days. Three weeks after his release from custody, on April 7, the police fenced his church property and posted security guards so no one could access the building.
Some Christians applauded Pastor Coates, some other pastors in Alberta and Ontario. Despite this, most Canadian pastors disagree with Pastor Coates’ approach to the government orders. Many of these sympathize with his plight and that of his church, but can’t agree with the direction he took.
Through the many ages of Christian history, the church in various locations and at various times experienced some level of state persecution. Christians are sensitive about state interference with their activities. Especially in North America, where the United States of America enshrined religious liberty in its constitution and in Canada, where its Charter of Rights and Freedoms declares religious freedom to be a fundamental freedom of Canadian society, Christians question any government interference, even at the mildest level. In some senses, Bible-believing Christians expect trouble from the government. When the government shows up at the door, inquiring about church operations, believers wonder if this is the “next one” in the long series of historical repressions.
Nevertheless, Christians in North America traditionally have also held the government and law in high esteem. We applaud police officers and other first responders. We decry rising lawlessness in our society and the fecklessness of our justice system, which seems to coddle criminals and harass the innocent. We try to be good citizens. We try to contribute to the positive good of our community. So, though we expect the state to oppress, we still teach ourselves to do good and support the symbols of authority in our community.
The case in Edmonton shocks us, and when we hear, “Pastor arrested, in jail,” we react with horror and suspicion. This really is the “next one,” we think. “The time of trouble has come.” Well, has it really come? Is this the next wave of persecution, or is it something else? Why are most Canadian pastors refusing to follow the lead of Pastor Coates? Why is Pastor Coates taking the steps he is taking? What lies behind the thinking of Pastor Coates and others like him? This chapter will attempt to explain their thinking honestly. I acknowledge at the outset that this chapter will disagree with their rationale, but I want you to see it clearly so you can make your own judgement.
To get a good sense of where the “Covid rebels” are coming from, we will quote from the writings of these men: James Coates; Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary, Alberta; Aaron Rock of Harvest Bible Church in Windsor, Ontario; and Will Shuurman of Trinity Bible Chapel in Waterloo, Ontario. They are not all in the same denomination, but they are members of a group of pastors taking the position that the government overreached its authority in the Covid crisis and that the Church is under no obligation to obey the health orders. Instead, they say, the church is under obligation to meet for worship, no matter what the state may say. As we survey the documents posted under their names, we find that they argue their position in much the same way, sometimes referencing or quoting one another. (As an editorial note, I will refer to this group in general as the “Covid rebels” in what follows.)
These men hold that churches need not abide by government restrictions of churches. They need not refrain from holding services, they need not follow policies of social distancing or mask wearing, they need not submit to the Public Health Officer in any way. To justify their stand, they appeal to arguments from the Bible and from reason. We will survey the Biblical argument first. It rests first on an application of the command for Christians to assemble in church services and secondly on a limitation of the understanding of Romans 13, the passage calling for submission to governing authorities.
Responding to online comments, Will Shuurman writes, “True, the church is not a location. But the church is a gathering. It is an assembly. No assembly = no church.”1 [Emphasis his.] Most people agree that the point of a church is assembly. Even secular leaders agree. Public officials single out religious gatherings for the Covid restrictions because they know that absent the restrictions, the people of the church will gather. Gathering is the point, and given the communicable nature of the coronavirus, government officials moved to limit those gatherings (or prohibit them in some cases).
Pastor Shuurman, in asserting, “No assembly = no church” doesn’t mean to say that the church only exists when its members meet, but he does argue that a government ban on assembly is a ban on the church itself. “So in one sense, an assembly ban is a church ban. It’s a ban against ekklesia.”2
In support of the notion that “for a church to exist it must assemble,” Shuurman adds numerous unrelated passages showing the expectation of assembly. For example, the “one another” commands (“love one another, serve one another, greet one another”) are impossible of fulfillment without assembly. (This seems to load these commands with more weight than they can bear – surely two believers can fulfill some aspects of these commands without assembling the whole church.) Further, he argues, the commands to observe the communion service, to practice church discipline, to conduct orderly services, and to make disciples all demand the gathering of the church in assembly. While it is true that we cannot fulfill some of these commands apart from assembly, it seems a bit much to assume that these commands become commands to assemble. Shurrman seems to want to scrape every bit of data out of the Scriptures that he can find to support his position. For example, discipleship is often more of a one on one process than a group process. Does the whole church have to gather for discipleship to occur?3
Nevertheless, the church gathering is important and it is commanded, no doubt, as Hebrews 10.25 teaches. Shuurman points this out and notes the companion commands to “to stir one another in love and good works as well to encourage one another,” also found in the passage. Considering these commands, he maintains, “We cannot fully obey these commands according to these verses without gathering. Gathering then is required.”4 [Bolded text mine.] For Shuurman, perhaps, the church that cannot “fully obey” is no longer a church. He argued in his earlier post “When you watch an online service, you haven’t had church at home. You haven’t done ekklēsia. You haven’t ‘met together with the saints,’ (Hebrews 10:25).”5 In making that point, he makes these analogies:
“Watching an online worship service and concluding that you’ve attended a church gathering is like:
- “Watching the Raptors win the 2019 NBA Championship on TV and concluding that you were at the Oracle Arena when it happened.
- “Or watching a Sandals Resort infomercial and concluding that you’ve vacationed in Jamaica.
- “Or watching the 1969 Lunar Landing and concluding that you’ve walked on the moon.”6
These analogies have a show of wisdom, but consider this. Earlier this year (2021) I participated in a board meeting where all members met entirely on line. We discussed issues, conducted business, elected officers, and so on. Tell me, was I in the meeting or not?
No one would say that an on-line meeting is ideal, that it is the best way to meet, or that it is preferable to face-to-face in person meetings. Nevertheless, when our society finds itself confronting a threat like the global coronavirus pandemic, can we seriously argue that the government is persecuting the church or prohibiting its function by restricting or even suspending services for the time being?
I plan to do more work in a separate chapter on Hebrews 10, but we need to think about how woodenly we press the application of its precepts. Do we want to say that the passage means every Christian must meet with his local church every Sunday, or else be in sin? What about the mother who stays home with a sick child, is she in sin? In an article I wrote in 2020, I mentioned the churches in a little community in the hills of Tennessee. During the Civil War, they suspended services because, “there was too many Rebs in these parts.” Would someone like to argue that those Christians sinned against Hebrews 10 because of their prudence?
When we look back in history to regimes that aggressively tried to eliminate the church altogether, let alone prohibit their meeting, are we seriously trying to compare a temporary health emergency to anti-Christian dictatorial regimes? The communists in the Soviet Union severely attacked the churches that persisted outside the “state approved and managed” legal churches. Christians today in communist China face severe reprisals. It seems extremely presumptuous to equate ourselves with them, who endured far more for absolutely unjustifiable opposition.
To sum up, we agree that the church must meet. That is the expectation of the Scriptures. But the command to meet is not absolute, and the ways in which the church manages to fulfill the command is manifestly varied. Thank the Lord for modern technology that allows a means of assembly that can overcome our barriers to some degree. Can you imagine surviving this last year as a church without technology?
The arguments of the “Covid rebels” against submission to government, however, are not simply based on a woodenly precise obedience to the commands of assembly. The second plank in the platform is a severe reinterpretation of Romans 13 and the commands to obey those who God placed in authority over us.