That is the question. As I write this, a pastor in Edmonton, Alberta is being held in jail on charges that he and his church are not complying with regulations that authorities have set in place in the attempt to control the spread of the Covid-19 virus. The pastor was given the option of bail while awaiting his trial but refused to receive it because one of the conditions of bail was stopping church services. Initially the church had not been required to stop gathering, but to adhere to the limitations authorities in Alberta have set in place, like social distancing among limited numbers when they gather, and wearing masks. It was for not adhering to these that the fines were issued, and then when in spite of the fines the church continued to ignore the regulations, authorities took the further step of stopping the services.
Most churches in Canada are cooperating with health authorities but some are not. In addition to the Edmonton church, I’ve heard of a handful of other churches in Canada that are disobeying the regulations. They give two reasons for this. (My readers in other nations will see readily enough that what I have to say in response to these reasons is applicable beyond the borders of Canada.)
1. They state that the regulations contravene the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Well and good, even the apostle Paul used his Roman citizenship to advantage when he was about to be flogged (Acts 22:25). But what about the rights of other Canadian citizens? Do they not have the right to be protected from the virus? There is no provision in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that prevents authorities from putting in place regulations for the public good. On this basis, one lawyer opined, the argument that the regulations contravene the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would not stand up in court.
2. They state that these regulations contravene what God requires of them, and so their conscience dictates that they must do the will of God regardless of government regulations.
It’s this matter that I want to speak to more closely, and it will mean “flying my colours” openly, at the risk that some will see me as having joined forces with the enemy and flying the Jolly Roger.
Certainly it is true that the Christian’s first priority is to do the will of God. And how does a Christian determine the will of God in this matter? Yes, our conscience must be our guide. But the word of God is to guide our conscience. So what does the word of God have to say about this? Here’s what Peter has to say:
Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. (1 Pt 2:13,14 NKJV)
That is clear, isn’t it? Ordinances set forth by man are to be submitted to—for the Lord’s sake. To refuse to submit is to find yourself disobeying the Lord Himself.
I hear the protests. “But there’s no evidence masks even work.” “Most people hardly even get sick.” “This is really hard on many people, too hard for some.” I am no expert on such matters and they could be true enough, but arguments such as these are not grounds for not complying with the ordinances. Even though the regulations make life hard for many people, and their effectiveness is hotly debated, according to the word of God to not comply is still disobedience.
I am aware that the Bible exhorts Christians not to “forsake the assembling of ourselves together” (Heb. 10:25). And that “we ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). But this latter verse is the apostles’ response to having been commanded not to teach in Jesus’ name at all. This was the second time they had given the authorities this response. The first time, the authorities had also “commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18,20).
That was absolutely the right decision, and, the grace of God helping me, I will be among the first to disobey any government regulation that forbids Christians to have anything to do with the name of Jesus. But no such thing is being laid on Christians in Canada at this time; we are only being asked, as citizens of the country we love, and in which all have freedom of worship, to do our part in a very hard time that is affecting the whole of society. We are not being told we cannot gather in Jesus’ name. Surely we grasp that. It is a matter of being in a pandemic. Unlike many nations of this world, like China, where churches are again being boarded up or torn down, Christians here are still granted religious liberty, as are those of other religions.
There are other instances in the Bible when believers rightly defied the authorities. To cite just two. Nebuchadnezzar decreed that all were to bow down before the statue he had made. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to obey. They did the right thing at the risk of their lives. Daniel disobeyed Darius’ statute that no one was to ask a request of any god or man, but only of the king himself. Daniel forthwith entered his house, opened his windows toward Jerusalem as was his daily practice, and prayed openly to God, for which act of disobedience he was cast into the lions’ den. The pandemic regulations are obviously not like these two instances. Christians are not being required to worship an idol or stop praying in Jesus’ name.
Respect God’s ministers
Now to add a word regarding the health authorities in our society along with our elected officials here in Canada. Have our authorities made the right decisions in all respects? Perhaps not. But I think they are doing their best to deal with a serious pandemic. (Are some of them hypocrites because they themselves don’t comply with the regulations? No doubt, but the hypocrisy of a few is no argument for us to follow suit.) I do not charge, as some do, that these regulations are actually aimed at suppressing religious freedom. This accusation is simply not the motive behind what our elected officials are doing, and it deeply grieves the heart—and the Holy Spirit—when Christians themselves echo the words of those who revile our elected officials, on social media calling them Nazis and Gestapo, or commies in what is now Chinada. That is shameful. If that’s the way you think maybe you need to spend some time in a nation governed by a truly oppressive regime where Christians are actually persecuted. Please, dear brothers and sisters, mind your comments on social media. The Lord is listening in. We are not to “reject authority, and speak evil of dignitaries.” Even Michael the archangel “in contending with the devil, when he disputed about the body of Moses, dared not bring against him a reviling accusation, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’” (Jude 8,9 NKJV).
With that Scripture in mind, let me share this now. A while back I watched a YouTube cell-phone video clip in which three ministers came to the door of a house in Calgary in order to deliver a court summons to a Christian leader who had been fined for disregarding the regulations on gathering. It was the man himself who had videoed the incident, no doubt with the intention of making it public, and I was dismayed at the way he, a supposedly Christian leader, treated these ministers, calling them Nazis and Gestapo and ordering them summarily to get off his property. Hardly the way to treat ministers, is it. Terrible disrespect. Ministers? In fact they were bylaw officers of the city police force, people the apostle Paul calls God’s ministers. Here is the passage:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.
Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.
For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. (Rom. 13:1-4 NKJV)
That’s quite something, isn’t it. (Remember it the next time God pulls you over for speeding.) To resist the authorities is to resist the ordinance and the “ministers” of God Himself. Paul wrote this to Titus: “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men” (Titus 3:1,2).
So, my fellow Bible believers, this matter is something the inspired writers of Scripture were big on.
A testimony to guard and a neighbour to love
Yet I read of another church, this one in Calgary, that continued to gather in their church building even after being fined for contravening the “ordinances” that authorities have put in place. Along with the fines, this church received a letter from the local community association politely and respectfully asking them to please comply with the orders for the benefit of the whole community. The pastor and elders apparently refused this request, upon which the community association, which had been conducting their regular meetings in the church building, told them they would now find somewhere else to hold their meetings. So, this church has damaged their testimony in that community.
And what does Peter have to say about that? The passage I quoted above begins with a “therefore.” Let’s read it again. “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake…” What is the therefore there for? This:
Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. Therefore, submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake… (1 Pt. 2:11,12).
There it is. Submitting to man’s ordinances is “for the Lord’s sake,” it is part of conducting ourselves honourably among those in the world around us because it is His name we bear. In the matter of the pandemic ordinances, then, we have the name of Jesus to protect, we have a testimony to guard…
…And a neighbour to love. In keeping the ordinances just like anyone else, we are saying to our neighbours, we love you, and want to do our part in keeping us all safe.
I hear you saying, “I do love my neighbour and all these regulations are hurting my neighbour.” Amen, our motive must reach beyond the boundaries of our own church community. But be careful that the way you are going about this does not injure your testimony in the eyes of your neighbour, who is upset because you are not doing your part to make this whole pandemic thing history. Your concern does not make it right to disobey the authorities. Go about this God’s way. Get hold of Him in this. And make your concerns known to the authorities, and in this way hopefully have regulations changed. Go about this like Pastor Sam Chua of Westlynn Baptist Church in North Vancouver. What a refreshing attitude, even though in neighbouring British Columbia Covid-19 restrictions have been even more strict than those in Alberta. Note what he says at the end about those who are “taking matters into their own hands.”
The Edmonton pastor is in jail because he has taken matters into his own hands. Is he then among those who are blessed when they are persecuted for righteousness’ sake? Or, is he making himself a martyr while in fact being dealt with justly, as any citizen who had broken the law would be? Brothers and sisters, the day could well be not far off when here in Canada Christians are persecuted for their faith. Let us guard our testimony in this day so that we are ready for that day.
Finally, I want to say that this was difficult for me to write. Even though I have taken my stand on the foundation of Scripture, I know that many very genuine and very sincere Christians are deeply impassioned by all this, and may not find what I’ve written easy to receive. It hurts me to think that what I’ve written will cost me their friendship. If so, it will be only on their part. I will continue to hold them dear to me.