A Canadian Pastor Sits in Jail – Reflections on Canada, COVID and Christianity, Updated

by | Mar 10, 2021 | The current crisis | 6 comments

By now many evangelicals in the United States are aware that James Coates, pastor at GraceLife Church remains in the Edmonton Remand Centre for violating the Alberta Health Services COVID rules at the church. The church had been in repeated defiance of the masks mandate, social distancing requirements and limited seating orders (15% of fire code capacity) and had been warned numerous times that there would be consequences. Those consequences fell hard on Coates when on February 16, after turning himself in to provincial authorities, he continued to refuse to comply with the rules going forward so the judge felt there was no other alternative but to keep him in custody until he relented, or a judge ruled otherwise. As of last Friday, a provincial court judge refused to release Coates when he appeared before him, meaning James will be held until the three-day court date of May 3­–5 which will decide his fate. This seems likely to go to Canada’s Supreme Court for final adjudication. Sunday, March 7, the church’s associate pastor, Jacob Spenst, again preached to a packed service, limited only by the fire code capacity of the church, the third time since Coates’s arrest. The RCMP observed from the outside, noting the church’s continued non-compliance. The church had been ordered closed in late January for refusing to adhere to the AHS COVID rules.

This is a tragic situation on numerous levels. Credit must be given to this brother who is willing to pay the price for the convictions he holds in his service for Christ. His wife and children are deprived of his presence. The church over which he cares is deprived of their minister. The attention of the world is shining a bright light on Christianity in Canada, for better or worse. I have written on the situation in Canada before, here and here. I ministered there for nineteen years in three different provinces. I have also corresponded with numerous pastors and ministry leaders there about the situation. All of the men with whom I have spoken state categorically that this is the wrong hill to die on. Some have written on this to provide nuance here and here. Numerous Americans have described this as religious persecution in Canada, including Tom Ascol, Jared Longshore, Justin Peters and Ben Edwards.

James Coates has been compared positively to Daniel, the apostles, Polycarp and John Bunyan on the one hand. He is portrayed pretty negatively on the other. Is Canada facing a crisis of religious persecution? Well, that depends on who is asking and what is at stake. This is virtually unprecedented in recent Canadian memory. I do remember Canadian pastorThomas Larry Jones who was jailed for home schooling his children in the mid 1980s. That case went to the Supreme Court also. The courts will decide the case of James Coates and it is hoped that they will tread lightly. But Coates should also consider the ramifications of his actions, not that he hasn’t after three weeks in jail. Peter makes an important statement about a Christian who does wrong and suffers for his action. “What credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?” (1 Pet. 2:20). If our brother is doing wrong and pays the consequences for it, is this persecution? The Christian has to weigh carefully the clear teaching of Scripture and especially that of Romans 13.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

The examples of Daniel and the apostles who defied government laws out of obedience to God must be factored in. Since God is the greater, His law trumps human law. Christians around the world and across the ages have withstood unjust laws meant to suppress their religious duties. For Daniel, the law said, “Do not bow down to anyone but Darius.” How could Daniel submit to this? The rulers said to the apostles, “Do not preach anymore in Jesus’ name.” How could the apostles obey this? Both cases clearly represent civil law contravening biblical duty. Is such the case for James Coates and GraceLife?

For Coates, AHS rules include wearing masks. Frankly, I am tired of masks. But I’m not sure what biblical statement I can apply to defy this. Another rule is social distancing and 15% occupancy. I can see how this is an issue if the intent is to hinder churches permanently. Such was the case for the Conventicle Act (1664) of the Clarendon Code which restricted gatherings over five people not of the same family. This was designed to crush non-conformist churches. This is not the case in the AHS rules. In fact, most churches in Canada seem to find these restrictions a temporary hardship that can be endured for a greater good—public health and Christian testimony.

COVID rules are applied unevenly across the world because we simply don’t know the full impact of this disease. Many have argued that COVID is fake news. There really isn’t a pandemic. Tell this to my friend “Joe” who was out of his pulpit since before Christmas, missing ten weeks straight with COVID pneumonia. Joe was twenty-one days in the hospital, lost three church members to COVID and lost his in-laws nine days apart. He is back preaching now with 50% lung scarring, looking at a one-year recovery to see if his lungs will return to normal. Sure, few people have gotten COVID this severely. My family and I all had it in November. It was mild. But if the government hadn’t taken COVID seriously and had several million Americans or Canadians died, we would be clamouring for heads to roll for lack of caution. So, Americans and Canadians officials are overly cautious and unevenly apply the rules, but it seems that governments have our welfare in view. These are temporary restrictions aimed at more than just churches. We can make their job easier or harder by our response.

Incidentally, most Christians seem to acknowledge that the government has some role to play in our well-being. Churches have fire code attendance limits which even GraceLife admits. The week after Coates was incarcerated, his church met to the fire code limit rather than 15% of that limit. People were turned away on the basis of the fire code. Isn’t this submission to the government for social welfare reasons? Surely no one really believes that a church rated for 400 in a building is really in danger with fifteen extra people, do they? What about Hindu and Muslim honor killings? Should these murders be permitted under The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the American Bill of Rights? Polygamy was outlawed in the United States despite a Bill of Rights. What about a Jehovah’s Witness who refuses to give his child a blood transfusion on religious grounds? Can the government intervene? Governments have investigated excessive salaries of ministry leaders. Should these churches refuse to provide their financial details? What about churches with racist ideology. Must the government allow extreme racism to be preached? I understand the Pandora’s Box we are opening. This is really why we should self-regulate. As conservative commentator Paul Harvey used to say, “Self-government doesn’t work without self-discipline.”

Another question to be pressed here is what actual hardship entails from limiting church attendance temporarily? Of course, we long to see things return to normal, but normal may never return. What would actually be wrong with smaller house church gatherings led by spiritually qualified elders? Why must “the church” only meet when the whole is assembled? Who gets to decide what the whole is? Was this the case for the church at Ephesus? If James Coates wins his battle in Alberta and the church grows exponentially to regular attenders in excess of the fire code, how can he deny anyone entrance into the building based on a fire code calculation? Will that scenario produce another showdown with the government?

Finally, in Coates’s defense, why hasn’t the government been consistent with the rules? Coates’s assistant has violated the regulations while Coates is in jail. If this is a hill to die on for the government, where is their consistent enforcement? Would that the Alberta courts expedited this whole affair so that it can be adjudicated to its final conclusion. Why let Coates remain in jail?

When an irresistible force meets an immovable object one or the other or both must buckle. For my part, I wish Coates would reconsider his position. I respect his commitment, but I respectfully think he is wrong in holding it. The whole church NEVER meets. Someone is at work, someone is sick, someone is tired, having worked late the night before, someone has a family emergency and is away, and the list goes on. If the church can worship without a member who is caring for an unwell loved one, why can it not worship with only 15% and have multiple services to give the entire flock an opportunity to gather with other believers?

Why not comply and urge the courts to step in? British Columbia churches are pressing their case and the court may be hearing them. Doctors in Canada are speaking up about COVID. By James Coates being in contempt of court (his actual reason for incarceration), isn’t he side-tracking the real issue? Maybe there’s a better way. There seems to be no immediate end in sight. Why keep a pastor in jail while other defiant pastors remain free? Oddly, many who say they agree with Coates are still following the rules enough to avoid fines and stay out of jail. Doesn’t this make their solidarity a little hollow? There is enough “inconsistency blame” to go around. I grieve for James and his family. I grieve for GraceLife Church. I appreciate the civil officials who are designed by God to guard our welfare. I hope this can soon be resolved and that this won’t become a harbinger of anti-religious sentiment in Canada. Those would be dark days if it did. Religious freedom is a complex issue these days. Not all will agree on what rights God has given and what rights the state can overrule. There may come a time when Christians will need to go to jail in defense of their religious liberties, but most Canadian churches don’t believe that this is it. There is a website churches can sign showing solidarity for remaining open despite the pandemic. As of today, only seventeen Alberta churches have signed on, eleven churches from British Columbia, three churches from Manitoba, two churches from New Brunswick, fifty-one from Ontario, five from Saskatchewan, and three from Nova Scotia. Ninety-two church in Canada, but only one man in jail. I suspect that many of these churches are complying with the rules and are awaiting the courts to weigh in. God be merciful!

Update: Shortly after this essay was published, word came out that Parkland RCMP have laid charges against GraceLife for defying the COVID rules.

Jeff Straub

Jeff Straub

Church Historian

Jeff is an experienced professor of Christian history and theology. He regularly travels internationally to train Christian leaders. When stateside, he publishes in the field of American religion. Research interests include Baptists and slavery, racism, Pentecostalism, and global Christianity. Jeff has taught around the world including Canada where he resided with his family for his first nineteen years of ministry; Romania, Russia and the Ukraine in Europe; India and a limited access country in Asia; and Zambia and Kenya in Africa.

6 Comments

  1. Ben Habegger

    “The whole church NEVER meets. Someone is at work, someone is sick, someone is tired, having worked late the night before, someone has a family emergency and is away, and the list goes on.” Nevertheless, many contend (myself included) that the scriptural goal or ideal is the gathering of the entire congregation. Similarly, unconverted people will sometimes be accidentally admitted to church membership. It happens because of human frailty. That does not mean we should deny the need for a regenerate church membership. Also, once a church knows the biblical precepts for church worship and fellowship, it cannot simply obey laws which mandate the prolonged and indefinite neglect of those precepts.

    Even when the law only forbade prayer to God for a limited time (thirty days), Daniel prayed as he always had. Now tell me, is it a direct command of God that we absolutely must pray every day, let alone three times a day? That we do it on our knees in front of an open window? Sure, “praying without ceasing” is normally the right thing to do, but what if someone is in a coma and cannot pray? What if they sleep most of the day to recover from illness? Obviously these are silly reasons to insist that Daniel should have obeyed his government and waited a month to pray. Is it not also silly to compare year-long gathering restrictions to incidental absences from church? As for the implication that sphere sovereignty would have to allow Hindu and Muslim honor killings, well, I don’t think that merits a serious refutation.

    Reply
    • Jeff

      Well, Ben, we appear to disagree on some things.

      Reply
    • Tony Costa

      Now do Costco and Walmart and the double standards the Canadian government has with them and church gatherings. Gathering in Costco and Walmart is fine, gathering in church is not. No consistency here whatsoever.

      Reply
      • Jeff

        I totally agree. I assume though that the stores insist on masks being worn. Also while there is a higher density of numbers are people hugging and socializing at Walmart and Costco? Are they sitting next to each other? Why isn’t this being pressed in the courts? Maybe it is. No one is saying the government rules are perfect. But to totally ignore the rules seems cavalier.

        Reply
  2. Bill Janzen

    I’m an Ontario pastor. Very well put brother.

    Reply
    • Jeff

      Thank you

      Reply

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