Thinking About a Pastor in a Canadian Jail

"To answer these questions, I think we need to understand something about how Canadian law works and something about the circumstances of this particular case. When we grasp these matters, I am confident that we will have a good idea how to proceed." - Don Johnson

Related: What You Need to Know about the Arrest of Pastor James Coates

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

A couple of passages in 1 Peter have been coming to mind frequently over the last year. Apparently, some in his day were inclined to bring legal trouble onto to themselves and frame it as persecution.

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. (1 Pe 4:12–16)

15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, (1 Pe 3:15–18)

Peter seems to see it as a "gospel issue."

Don's article points out problems with this "sphere" idea... (#3)

The pastor of the Calgary church, Fairview Baptist, put together a video describing his views of the relationship between church and state, which he calls “sphere sovereignty.” He asks, near the end of the video, “When is it prudent or permissible to disobey an earthly authority in obedience to Jesus?” He proposes three scenarios in which this is allowed:

  1. When an authority forbids what God commands
  2. When an authority commands what God forbids
  3. When an authority commands what is not within their “sphere” to command

...

Are we seriously arguing that such measures are “outside” the “sphere” of government? In some cases, government measures failed. In others, they apparently have some success. In my own opinion, most of the measures of our governments against Covid-19 are ineffective at best. We see widely different strategies in various jurisdictions, with essentially the same results. However, does my opinion of the effectiveness of my government’s policies give me leave to simply ignore those policies?

I'm not as cynical about the effectiveness of what governments have attempted to do. There are many variables from place to place. But I agree w/Don that this is really not the issue. We don't get to turn Romans 13 into "obey the governing authorities unless you think they're being ineffective" or "unless you don't like their policies" or even "unless you think they're overreaching."

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

dgszweda's picture

I agree Don.  Chapter 24 of the LBCF 1689, states

Chapter 24: Of the Civil Magistrate

1. God, the supreme Lord and King of all the world, hath ordained civil magistrates to be under him, over the people, for his own glory and the public good; and to this end hath armed them with the power of the sword, for defence and encouragement of them that do good, and for the punishment of evil doers. ( Romans 13:1-4 )

2. It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate when called there unto; in the management whereof, as they ought especially to maintain justice and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each kingdom and commonwealth, so for that end they may lawfully now, under the New Testament wage war upon just and necessary occasions. ( 2 Samuel 23:3; Psalms 82:3, 4; Luke 3:14 )

3. Civil magistrates being set up by God for the ends aforesaid; subjection, in all lawful things commanded by them, ought to be yielded by us in the Lord, not only for wrath, but for conscience sake; and we ought to make supplications and prayers for kings and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty. ( Romans 13:5-7; 1 Peter 2:17; 1 Timothy 2:1, 2 )

While I agree that the health orders may or may not be effective, I am not sure this is the "sword to die on" when it comes to persecution.  It appears to be persecution because it is a change from the status quo.  But in reality, churches have all kinds of government appointed mandates and rules before this that we were all fine complying with.  We have to have so many parking spaces, we could only have as many people in the building as fire code dictated.....  While I find the rules a bit stifling, they are not restrictive and churches can find ways to accommodate them.  We should submit to government and be a light that shines in the world around this when we can accommodate it.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Are we seriously arguing that such measures are “outside” the “sphere” of government?

Why wouldn't the definition, nature, and practices of the at least potentially be outside the sphere of government? It seems to mere there is a very serious and legitimate argument to be made here.

These lingering questions remain. While it is easy to harp on those who make different choices, it is harder to thoughtfully engage the issues. Here at SI, it seems we keep talking around it. It is continually asserted that we must obey the government. And then it is admitted that we don't have to. This very conundrum happened this week here at SI. And unfortunately, there is no real discussion of the issues, IMO. The Bible clearly gives evidence to for disobeying government but that is generally waved away without much explanation other than "this is clear." So here goes again in an attempt to get some thoughtful interaction.

What biblical principle gives government the authority to mandate the definition of a church or the practices of the church? 

At what point would you cry foul and stop obeying the government? What biblical principle would you appeal to to identify this line and distinguish between things on either side of it?

As a thought experiment happens when the government declares climate change a public health issue and forbids driving on weekends to cut down emissions?

As a second thought experiment, what happens when government declares sexuality and gender to be public health issues and forbids speaking on these topics?

Don't respond with "that's too far-fetched and won't happen." It's not that far-fetched but more importantly, draw the line for us between the pandemic and climate change or sexuality issues. Tell us where that line gets crossed and why.

As I have said before, I am not sure exactly where the line is and I am not convinced this pastor did the right thing or the wrong thing. I am willing to grant him his conscience on it and leave it at that. But as always, the underlying questions are more significant to me.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

"Will happen" vs. "is happening"... the important distinction here.

Another: does or does not the NT give citizens permission to disobey government when they think it's overreaching?

Is there anything Christian about bringing 'persecution' on ourselves by defiant conduct?

The rest is distraction.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Larry's picture

Moderator

"Will happen" vs. "is happening"... the important distinction here.

Another: does or does not the NT give citizens permission to disobey government when they think it's overreaching?

Is there anything Christian about bringing 'persecution' on ourselves by defiant conduct?

The rest is distraction.

Aaron, not to be blunt but, well, I can't help notice the complete lack of interaction on substance. Why not address the questions? I am honestly coming at this with an "I don't know" mindset because I am not sure where the line is. We haven't really had to face this here because churches were always exempt from penalty. But you are not helping that by non-answers.

Will vs. is is not an important distinction at all. It is, in fact, the point itself. You have said what "is" is not enough. So where "will" or "might" be enough? Where would "will happen" cause you to say we should disobey the government?

On permission to disobey for overreaching, it is two things: First, a command to obey God. When the government overreaches and calls for disobedience, their is not just permission, but I would say a command to disobey. Again, we can debate whether or not this is that time. But if not, shouldn't we have some rubric for when that time comes? Second, the responsibility to be good citizens--to live in peace and quietness (among other things). In our American context, that includes the right of protest and of civil disobedience to call attention to injustice. This is how the civil rights movement got started. One could be excused for thinking that you might defend slaveowners and returning slaves to their masters during the Civil War era because the government commanded it, or for thinking that segregated water fountains and restaurants are not to be objected to because there is no biblical command to drink from the same fountain. Other examples could be multiplied. So how would you distinguish these things?

On persecution and defiant conduct, the obvious answer is yes. The apostles defied repeatedly governmental commands and suffered persecution including death. And that was distinctively Christian because it recognized the authority of Christ over that of government. A "distinctively Christian" view says we must obey Christ over others. The apostles defied, as in, "You do what you want, but we will keep preaching." They didn't offer to do it in smaller groups or in private places. Should Peter or John or Stephen have simply stopped preaching and said, "I will evangelize another way. I have no biblical command to do it in front of this many people at this time and location"? How do you distinguish these things?

Again, we can debate the right line and that is actually the discussion I would like to have. But you won't respond to that discussion.

So again, I ask (numbered this time for clarity and emphasis):

  1. What biblical principle gives government the authority to mandate the definition of a church or the practices of the church? 
  2. At what point would you cry foul and stop obeying the government? What biblical principle would you appeal to to identify this line and distinguish between things on either side of it?
  3. As a thought experiment happens when the government declares climate change a public health issue and forbids driving on weekends to cut down emissions?
  4. As a second thought experiment, what happens when government declares sexuality and gender to be public health issues and forbids speaking on these topics?

Or consider just last week (I think) where you admitted a place for disobedience to the government after all this time calling for obedience. What's the difference?

Here's another question: Was Daniel sinning by refusing the government edict on prayer? Would he have been more righteous to close his windows and do it behind closed doors (or windows)? How would you compare that?

Why are these questions for clarity a distraction? And what are they a distraction from?

Larry's picture

Moderator

But in reality, churches have all kinds of government appointed mandates and rules before this that we were all fine complying with.  We have to have so many parking spaces, we could only have as many people in the building as fire code dictated.

These aren't really the same kind of restrictions though, are they? This claim is often made but it seems rarely considered as to what the restrictions are vs. pandemic restrictions.

For instance, the Bible does not command a certain number of parking places (or any, for that matter). It does command us to sing. Therefore, these restrictions are not of the same nature. One goes to the command to the church and one is simply practical. There is no biblical disobedience in parking the right number of cars. There is a biblical disobedience in not singing.

Or the Bible does not limit the size of a church (people committed to, among other things, meet together); it simply commands "the church" (the people who have committed to meet) to meet. The government, however, has decided to limit the number of people who can "church" (to verb a noun) thus preventing people from obeying the biblical "one another" commands that requires the assembly to fulfill. Let's face it: Some have not obeyed Col 3:16 for almost an entire year because the government said not to. How is that not a serious matter of disobedience to Scripture?

The closest equivalent to the pandemic is this: limiting the number of people in a building. But in cases of code, that has to do with fire safety and is well-published to the point that a church can seek another place of meeting or limit the number of people who are allowed to commit to that body. In this case, that is not permissible practically. Which is why the temporary nature of this is perhaps not a justification for the limits but an actual argument against them. IF the church is non-essential, how do we evangelize?

Even on testimony and light to the world, I am not convinced that is a great argument anymore. I have had people object asking what message we are sending when we accept that we are non-essential and we will allow the government to dictate our religious practices.

Again, I don't know where the line is exactly. But I think we need to have the discussion. 

How would you answer these questions:

  1. What biblical principle gives government the authority to mandate the definition of a church or the practices of the church? 
  2. At what point would you cry foul and stop obeying the government? What biblical principle would you appeal to to identify this line and distinguish between things on either side of it?
  3. As a thought experiment happens when the government declares climate change a public health issue and forbids driving on weekends to cut down emissions?
  4. As a second thought experiment, what happens when government declares sexuality and gender to be public health issues and forbids speaking on these topics?
dgszweda's picture

Larry wrote:

How would you answer these questions:

  1. What biblical principle gives government the authority to mandate the definition of a church or the practices of the church? 
  2. At what point would you cry foul and stop obeying the government? What biblical principle would you appeal to to identify this line and distinguish between things on either side of it?
  3. As a thought experiment happens when the government declares climate change a public health issue and forbids driving on weekends to cut down emissions?
  4. As a second thought experiment, what happens when government declares sexuality and gender to be public health issues and forbids speaking on these topics?

My take is:

1. The mandate in Scripture is much broader than the church.  It says obey the authorities.  Not just because God told us to, but because they are specifically ordained by God.  Not a lot of things are highlighted as ordained by God in Scripture, but God classifies government in that realm.  Puts it at a pretty high pedestal.  Which means, while there are limitations, we are to give deference to it.

2. I would cry foul if 1) the restriction was targeted solely at a church and no other entity.  2) the restriction is not temporary, and 3) if it is direct violation of the teachings of Scripture.  In that order.  I feel that if there is safety involved, and the restriction is broad around the gathering of people, until such time that the situation is resolved, which has a fairly near term forseeable future, than I would be hesitant to resist.  I would look for ways to accommodate it.  For the most part churches can accommodate this.  Maybe not so easily.  But Scripture does not limit "the assembly of ourselves" to a single service of 1,000 people inside of a large church building or campus.  We can still assembly in groups of 25 and still be within the structure of Scripture in my opinion.  When 5,000 were added to the church in the first century, it wasn't like they were added to a single church building.

3.  Cross that bridge when we get there.  Throwing out wild hypotheticals to justify a condition today is not helpful in the thought process in my opinion.  Besides the Mennoties already follow this and they have a robust model to assemble and worship together.

4.  Again, cross it when we get there.  I am not going to take a hypothetical on gender to practice civil disobedience around a health crisis that is killing people.

I think people are overplaying this issue.  They are seeking a way to throw out the persecution card and are very quick at leveraging it.  I agree with Don.  This is not persecution.  Many, many churches are meeting with no issues.  My in-laws church is meeting in Canada with no issues whatsoever.  Even in California they met just fine, regardless of what MacArthur wanted to paint.

Don Johnson's picture

In British Columbia, we are not permitted to meet at church at all. A few churches are defying this order and are in court about it. I would rather that they had launched a class action suit rather than defy the order, but that is where we are. There was a hopeful ruling last week, but we will see how this plays out.

The orders in British Columbia are more discriminatory. Support groups, like AA, can meet, even in church buildings, but they can't then turn into a worship service. The stores are open, schools are open, but churches are closed.

Since government regulation of health authority is a legitimate part of their mandate, I don't believe we can defy a health order. I think we can appeal, and I have done and will continue to do what I can to appeal the orders. Our church is too small to bear the legal costs alone, but I am perfectly willing to join and support a group effort. There are other avenues I can try as well, we will see how things go.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

dgszweda's picture

Don Johnson wrote:

In British Columbia, we are not permitted to meet at church at all.

Do you have a link to the BC rules?

Larry's picture

Moderator

Thanks for the response. A couple things of interest.

I would cry foul if 1) the restriction was targeted solely at a church and no other entity.  2) the restriction is not temporary, and 3) if it is direct violation of the teachings of Scripture.  In that order.

So do I understand correctly, based on your order that you would be fine with a direct violation of Scripture (#3) so long as it was required of everyone (#1)? I don't want to misunderstand you here but it sounds like you would be in a place of arguing that disobedience is acceptable so long as everyone is required to do it. Again, please clarify if I have misunderstood that.

But Scripture does not limit "the assembly of ourselves" to a single service of 1,000 people inside of a large church building or campus.  We can still assembly in groups of 25 and still be within the structure of Scripture in my opinion.

This would go to the definition of a church, would it not? I would say Scripture defines a church as a group of believers who have, among other things, committed to each other to meet together for biblical purposes. They key definition is an assembly of believers. It places no number on that. So if 1000 people have committed to each other to meet together for biblical purposes, isn't the government redefining church when it limits and says only X% of a church can meet at any given time? To me, talking about it in terms of numbers (e.g. 1000 vs. 25) is missing the point. The point, in my thinking right now, is that it has to do with what a church is: people who assemble based on commitments. 

This is the issue I think is most easily solved ... by church planting. Don't have a second service. Have a second church. And for temporary reasons, I could stomach this were it necessary but I think it is a major problem and "temporary" is not very temporary at present.

Throwing out wild hypotheticals to justify a condition today is not helpful in the thought process in my opinion.

I think it is helpful to explore the limits. If we all agree that A is acceptable and Z is not, at some point between A and Z we cross the line. Discussing where that line is and why before we get there helps us to be prepared so we aren't making it up on the fly under pressure. I think it helps us to wrestle with why one thing is on one side of the line and one thing is on the other side of the line. Why would the line be at M and not K? Or at R and not S? Thought experiments are for the purpose of helping to clarify thinking.

Aaron has said that a law against counseling homosexuality is an acceptable disobedience but a law on meeting together is not. Why is one on one side of the line and one on the other side of the line? No attempt at justification was given, that I recall. And if we are to obey government and "it's that simple," then why disobey in this case?

I think people are overplaying this issue.  They are seeking a way to throw out the persecution card and are very quick at leveraging it.  I agree with Don.  This is not persecution. 

Here are two interesting articles on persecution:

https://dbts.edu/2021/02/24/what-counts-as-religious-persecution/

https://thecripplegate.com/why-pastor-james-coates-imprisonment-is-actua...

Many, many churches are meeting with no issues. 

But many are not. Here's another interesting article: https://www.charismanews.com/us/84466-maine-congregations-faced-with-sta...

From the article: 

Mills initially banned all worship, then raised the number to 10 and now 50. Substance abuse treatment centers were deemed "essential" and have no numerical limit.

The CRD residents can receive counseling, but as soon as the Bible is opened and they worship, the assembly becomes illegal. And that continues to this day.

Under Mills' COVID orders, secular programs can serve any number of people assembled. But the moment a group of 50 or more worships, the entire meeting comes under the restrictions on places of worship.

This goes to your point #1 about equal treatment. Don Johnson has indicated a similar thing in BC.

Now, for my part, I am not convinced that "equal treatment" is a biblical principle or a judicial one. In our American context, religion was singled out for special treatment when other types of assemblies and other types of activities were not. Why the singling out unless it is to guarantee special treatment and separation? And I don't see a biblical case for disobedience so long as everyone else is treated equally. 

These are just thoughts I have. As I say, we have not really had to worry about it because our governor exempted churches from penalty from teh beginning, essentially rendering the directive as "good advice" since a law without penalties is simply good advice.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Larry wrote:

Many, many churches are meeting with no issues. 

But many are not.

I agree that it makes no difference that many churches can meet to any church that cannot, seeing as how there are different governing authorities.  That fact is completely irrelevant to the argument, unless it's being argued that people should travel to a different jurisdiction if they wish to act as a church.

Quote:
...we have not really had to worry about it because our governor exempted churches from penalty from the beginning, essentially rendering the directive as "good advice" since a law without penalties is simply good advice.

We are in a similar situation to you, and the language is very clear.  Our governor tried to restrict churches and wanted to keep them restricted, but having lost a court case on the issue, his executive orders now always contain a clause that specifically exempts worship and spiritual gatherings from any restrictions (including mask orders) in the executive order, though we are "strongly urged" to comply anyway.  Hence, though we have some people who are considered at risk and cannot attend, and some who consider themselves at risk and don't come, churches in our state can still meet, sing, and act in every way as a church.

We are praying for those, like Don and his church, that have more governmental restrictions.

Dave Barnhart

Don Johnson's picture

dgszweda wrote:

 

Don Johnson wrote:

 

In British Columbia, we are not permitted to meet at church at all.

 

 

Do you have a link to the BC rules?

Here they are.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Don Johnson's picture

I also want to emphasize that our options in Canada are, in my opinion, more limited than those in the USA. That is because of the opposite nature of our nations. I explain it in detail on oxgoad, briefly in my piece that opens this article (with a link to oxgoad). Here is the link to my oxgoad article.

In brief, Americans are founded on the unalienable rights of the citizens, Canada is founded on the decree of Queen Victoria (and thus on her heirs). Your's is a bottom-up country, ours is a top-down. The Crown grants us fundamental freedoms (Clause 2 of the Charter), but has the power to limit or restrict them (Clause 1).

That means if we challenge the restrictions in court, we have to do it either on the basis that the restrictions are themselves unreasonable in themselves (a difficult task to prove in the current environment) or unjust  because unevenly applied. The latter is where I think we could win if we had the resources to fight it.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3