Number Our Days
Recently I read the short book, Finding the Right Hills to Die On by Gavin Ortlund (Crossway, 2020). It’s a Gospel Coalition book with a forward by D. A. Carson. Book endorsements include Southern Baptists Russ Moore, J. D. Greear and Daniel Akin plus Bryan Chapell, a Presbyterian, and Sam Storms, a Charismatic Calvinist. With such a wide theological range of recommendations, these names give the idea that conservative evangelicals of many varieties will find this book useful. Indeed, most of the book, perhaps 75–80% is very good and few conservatives would be hard pressed to be dismissive of the author’s views. Of the remaining portion, there will be much discussion.
Ortlund combines two metaphors popularized in early 21st century evangelicalism to title his book. The first, theological triage, initially used by R. Albert Mohler in 2005, describes a way of thinking about theological discourse that recognizes that while everything taught in the Bible is important, not everything is equally important. Take the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of last things. Someone can be wrong about the timing of the Second Coming and still be a genuine believer, but if someone denies the trinitarian nature of God, their eternal destiny is in question. Belief in certain points on the person and work of Christ are Gospel-critical, while beliefs regarding the end times are of less important, even if both doctrines can be argued to be biblical.
During one season of my life, I worked as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and learned the importance of triage. Triage, from a French word trier meaning “to sort or select,” was introduced in 1792 by Baron Dominique Jean Larrey, the Surgeon in Chief of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard who developed a system to organize mass casualty emergency management in time of war. In modern emergency medicine, there are four levels of medical triage—level one – immediate treatment needed, the situation is life threatening (e.g. cardiac arrest, a sucking chest wound); level two – urgent, but not immediately life threatening; level three – less urgent but still important; level four – nonlife threatening (e.g. a broken arm or leg). Triage sorts those who are likely to live if immediate care is given, from those who are unlikely to live, no matter the level of immediate care given, and those who will live if no immediate care is given at all. For the first responders on the scene of a mass casualty, right triage choices will make significant determinations on the numbers of fatalities vs. survivors.
The second metaphor at play is a military one—a hill worth dying on. This calls to mind significant military battles such as the fight for Hill 255 (Pork Chop Hill) during the Korean War in April and July 1953. The hill was deemed to be valuable enough to expend significant military casualties on both sides to hold this strategic outpost. Not every hill in Korea had this kind of value. Some hills were just not worth dying for.
Both of these metaphors are used together to stress the kinds of doctrines that are really essential to the faith and those that are important but not Gospel-critical (e.g. credobaptism vs. paedobaptism) and those that are tertiary. Most conservative evangelicals are united in their view on the importance of the first-tier doctrines. These are essential to orthodoxy. From here, things begin to weaken. Just how important is baptism? As one moves down the list of theological issues, what about complementarianism vs. egalitarianism? What about views on creation—young earth, old earth, even theistic evolution or day age? How should we view eschatology or cessationism vs. continuationism? How significant are these doctrines for Christianity?
The section of Ortlund’s book that many conservatives will debate is the discussion of secondary vs. tertiary issues. Secondary issues are “urgent for the church” while tertiary issues (called third rank in Ortlund’s book) are “not essential to the Gospel or necessarily urgent for the church” (Ortlund, 47). For Ortlund, one’s view of the millennium and or of creation are third rank doctrines. The church shouldn’t divide over these. Ortlund places cessationism vs. continuationism between second and third tier. Complementarianism vs. egalitarianism is also a second-tier doctrine for Ortlund, although Beth Moore has recently argued that it has become a first-tier issue in the Southern Baptist world. Beth rightly sees the gender issue as being connected to inerrancy but wrongly calls this a first-tier issue.
So, who gets to decide what is a Gospel-critical, a secondary, and a third-tier issue? Evangelicals are widely agreed on the first level doctrines and their importance. They are generally agreed on second level truths, but widely disagree on these third level issues. So, who gets to decide what is and what isn’t tertiary? It seems to me, that tertiary issues are in the mind of the beholder. For many, how can revelatory gifts be considered tertiary? Either God gives a word of prophecy or he doesn’t. Can a genuine Christian simply ignore a revelation from God if it is such? One’s view of creation necessarily affects one’s view of Adam and the entrance of sin into the world. How are these tertiary issues? Even if eschatology is truly tertiary, can a church be expected to teach both or simply to teach nothing on eschatology for fear of offending someone? What does the teaching pastor do with the book of Revelation? Ignore it?
What is the significance of a tertiary issue in terms of fellowship? How can a local church possibly allow diversity on the issue of creation? What would we think if the pastor announced that “July is creation month.” “On the first Sunday, the young earth people have the service. On the second Sunday, we hear from the old earth people. We leave the third Sunday for those who hold to theistic evolution, and the last Sunday will be for the few holdouts that still affirm day-age.” The church would be filled with confusion! We live in the day of multiple services to accommodate musical preferences. Why not have an early service next week for the cessationists and a later service for the continuationists, complete with tongues, healing and prophesying, by both men and women, since women can get the gifts too. Seems to me that the only way that cessationists and continuationists can get along inside church is if one side or the other doesn’t hold their view very tightly.
The Evangelical Theological Society treats the cessationist/continuationist issue as tertiary. So, Sam Storms, the 2017 president of ETS, used his platform delivering the annual address to make an impassioned appeal to accept his view of things. Therefore, it apparently isn’t tertiary with him. All of ETS should embrace his view, otherwise what was the point of the address? I just wonder how ETS would have reacted if a Baptist got up to deliver an address on credobaptism? Certainly, Storms was within his right to deliver the address he wished to deliver but to what end?
What is the ultimate point of theological triage? Is the only thing that can separate one professing believer from another a Gospel-critical issue? John Piper many years ago tried to introduce alternative baptismal forms for church membership at Bethlehem while retaining credobaptism for leadership. The elders at Bethlehem ultimately withdrew the proposal. Why was it withdrawn? Churches will of necessity have narrower boundaries than simply first tier issues. A church’s view on baptism will necessarily set the theological direction. In the same way, its view on cessationism (pro or con), egalitarianism (pro or con), young earth (pro or con), and even eschatology (pre, a, or post mill), despite the contentions of Mark Dever to the contrary, provide boundaries for the church for the sake of harmony and genuine fellowship.
At the end of the day, discussions on theological triage are excellent for consideration of broad Christian fellowship. I can drink coffee with and pray with a brother who maybe an amill, egalitarian, old-earth, continuationist. But I do not see how we can do church together. We need something more than simple theological triage to understand how Christian doctrine functions within the context of a local church. Some things, no doubt are truly incidental. I once received an anonymous letter claiming that Judas was a believer. Apparently, Pope Francis is inclined to think this too. Whether he was or wasn’t is a matter of small consequence today (except for Judas). Belief one way or the other need not trouble the church. But young earth or one’s view of the end times? These are matters that may not divide us from one another in heaven, but they will likely separate us to some extent while on earth. Is this a bad thing? As long as we are charitable to others with whom we disagree over these so-called tertiary issues, I don’t see why we each cannot follow Christ according to the understanding we have of his Word. Baptists used to call this soul liberty. Here I stand, I can do no other, theological triage notwithstanding.
Several weeks ago, I reported on some research I was conducting on Baptists and freemasonry. The essay is a work in progress. Also, I have received numerous comments from pastoral friends who shared their experiences with freemasonry in their towns or congregations. One brother grew up in a home that was pro-mason. His father was a mason, his mother belonged to the Eastern Stars, a branch for women and some men since most masonic lodges are strictly for men, and his sister was a part of Job’s Daughters, a branch for young girls. He had been pressured to join DeMolays, a branch for young men 12–21, but as he had recently become a Christian, he decided to stay away. Another friend who had pastored in New England, told me of a new convert at his church who was preparing to follow his father and grandfather into freemasonry. He rose to give his affirmation that he believed in the Architect of the Universe, whom he now knew as Jesus, and gave his personal conversion testimony, only to be hissed out of the lodge, along with both his father and grandfather. A third pastor from Ohio told me of being invited to speak at a Shriner’s luncheon. He accepted “with some concern” and decided to preach the Gospel. He was never invited back. For what its worth, while masons affirm a belief in the Great Architect of the Universe (a non-descript term that permits Christians, Muslims, Hindus, even Deists as members, just not atheists), two things that cannot be talked about within the lodge are religion and politics. What else is worth a conversation? A fourth friend wrote to tell me of his experience as a student at Dallas seminary. He attended a church for a while pastored by Dr. Luther C. Peak. He discovered that the pastor, prominent in Texas Baptist circles and a classmate of W. A. Criswell at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was a mason, Scottish Rite, 33 degree. When Peak died in 2004, he was a member at First Baptist Dallas and his Masonic standing was a proud part of his obituary. This led me to discover that W. A. Criswell had also been a Mason, albeit inactive. Finally, I heard from a pastor in Canada whose Presbyterian denomination is in the midst right now of deciding what to do about freemasonry. My first essay helped him as a member of his denomination’s study group, in his investigation into the subject.
Let me say this before I get too much further into this essay. I am not God or a member of the Trinity, so I cannot say who is in the faith and who is not. Someone may identify outwardly with any number of groups that may not be strictly evangelical, yet do so as a new believer who has never been taught or as a casual participant lacking real understanding into the inner workings of the group. I am told that some have joined freemasonry because family members encouraged them to do so but never really became active participants. Moreover, freemasonry that developed in the 18th century was a gentlemen’s group that further evolved over the 1800s. What it was and what it became seem to be different. Finally, while not all Baptists rejected freemasonry, many began to see inconsistencies and unbiblical practices with aspects of freemasonry, urging their fellow Baptists or requiring them to remove themselves from the lodges. As this discussion has progressed into the 20th century, various evangelical groups have decided to disallow their members to be both freemasons and members of their churches. That so many evangelical groups have done this should give other Christians pause to consider whether the testimony of Christ is well-served by association with or separation from freemasonry. For those who are in freemasonry and profess allegiance to Jesus Christ, you have to ask yourself whether loyalty to one precludes loyalty to the other. If there is a tension, then one should abandon all else for Christ who alone is our only hope. This brings me to a final comment about freemasonry. I have not studied its tenets in depth. The one affirmation I am sure of is freemasonry’s belief in the Great Architect of the Universe. This is not merely Jesus by another name. There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12). The very fact that a Christian mason cannot discuss his faith inside the lodge prohibits any real reason to join. If one joins to bear witness to Christ, but that is prohibited since discussing religion is prohibited, what is the point of a Christian becoming a mason? So, what about a mason who becomes a born-again Christian? As with everything we do, once we are in Christ, all our activities must be measured by the Scripture and judgements made as to the acceptability of those beliefs, practices, associations, etc. I remember an incident that occurred early in my life as a student studying for ministry. I was a part of an evangelistic effort in which a man became a believer. It was a student ministry, so I have no idea if the man’s faith was genuine as I was soon gone back to school. But what sticks in my mind was a statement he made soon after he professed Christ. “I need to quit smoking!” No one spoke with him about this habit or challenged him to quit. He just realized that this was something he now needed to do as a Christian. My point here is not to speak about smoking. It is to suggest that once people become believers, everything in life should be under the Cross. “Proving what is acceptable to the Lord” (Eph. 5:10)
A word about masons and their hospitals is in order. Many are familiar with the Shriner’s Hospitals. A friend emailed me as I was writing this essay to tell me of his story with these hospitals. Two of his children had significant needs and they received free help including transportation to and from their hospitals by the Shriners. Who can speak ill of this? Certainly, those who care for others ought to be commended for their good works. My friend often had chances to converse with his drivers to and from the hospitals and found that some of these fellows professed to be Christians, some admitting that they spent more of their time at their lodges than at their churches. As the father of a disabled child, I can appreciate any who help bear the burden. Because we were in Canada, some of the funds that met our son’s needs came through provincial lotteries. So, should I have been pro-lottery so my son and others like him could receive help? Should I have opposed the lottery knowing full well that if it went away, so did some of the money for my son’s care? I am glad the Lord used that money to help me care for my son and I am also glad I never had to ask for it nor give my opinion on its biblical nature.
Freemasonry today is in decline. In 1959, about 4.5% of American men or 4.1 million were freemasons. Today that number is down almost 75%. There are a number of reasons for the decline, COVID no doubt being one of them as masonic lodges have been shuttered or limited like other organizations. There are internal discussions addressing this decline and suggesting that masons need to reinvent themselves, change or die. Also, as I mentioned last time, the secrecy of freemasonry has largely been brought into the light with tell-all books and now in the internet age, there is little that can be hidden. The secrecy was a major part of the masonic mystic. With that gone and the membership in decline, the issue of Baptists and freemasons will also likely fade.
My original pursue in writing on this topic was not to issue a polemic against freemasonry but to try to understand how some Baptists could understand the Word aright and participate in the world of freemasonry. Coincidently, later in the day after posting my first essay on Baptists and freemasonry, I received in the mail a newer book, Retracing Baptists in Rhode Island: Identity, Formation and History wherein the author, J. Stanley Lemons, discusses my research subject, Stephen Gano, specifically as it relates to his connection with freemasonry.
Some who commented on my first essay seemed to have an almost visceral response to the idea that one might be a Christian and freemason. That I am allowing the possibility of being both may seem as compromise on my part to some but I am willing to take the heat. The Bible tells us that we are to instruct those who oppose themselves. Strong opinions need to be tempered so as to gently help those who need to be delivered from error. The record of Baptists and freemasonry is mixed. Some groups have vigorously opposed the secret societies while others have been ambivalent. Still other Baptists embraced the world of freemasonry. If one knows anything of Baptist identity, this should come as no surprise. On almost any topic, Baptists run the gamut of beliefs. This is tied to the doctrine of soul liberty. Each believer gives an account of themselves to God alone. No Baptist can bind another’s conscience. We have our creeds, but each Baptist is free in and of themselves to decide where they stand. It is our strength and sometimes our weakness.
Word has come from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom that James Coates, lead pastor of GraceLife Church of Edmonton, is finally getting some good news. All of the charges against James have been dropped except one, and he has agreed to pay a $100 fine for failing to comply with the restriction against holding in-person services exceeding the density limits. James is expected to be released by Friday without conditions. This is surely welcome news for his wife and children as well as his church. It is also welcome news for believers across Canada. What was really served by incarcerating him for the past month, only to release him well in advance of the May trial date? Whether one agrees with his stand or not, to be incarcerated for trying to be a faithful shepherd was pretty severe. I don’t know James’s heart. I appreciate his willingness to follow his convictions even if I question his wisdom in taking this particular stand.
I am glad this release is pending. He will still be in court in May on the lone charge. After I published last week, word came out that the church as an entity was charged for continuing to ignore the provincial COVID restrictions. His church met again this past Sunday, ignoring the COVID restrictions yet again. The COVID problem still abides in Canada and elsewhere. In some ways, we are all in uncharted waters. We need to continue to pray for James and the church that they would reflect Christ in their response to civil authorities.
This situation has provided an opportunity for Canadian and American believers to think through our duties to our civil magistrates. We clearly are not all on the same page. Some have argued that the civil magistrates have no authority over churches while others argue that the provinces were acting within their powers. Let us try as far as possible to be courteous in our treatment of others with whom we disagree. One pro-church pastor called the adversaries of James Coates sanctimonious for their objections to his actions and suggested the adversaries were more concerned about James being arrested than of rapists and pedophiles being released into their communities. I’m not sure how he would actually know this. It is the severest of judgements on someone else’s motivations. This kind of unguarded rhetoric ought not adorn a minister of the gospel of Christ. Why can believers not disagree agreeably? Sanctimonious? Really?This story is far from over but with the release of Pastor Coates, those who oppose the COVID restrictions will be strengthened to continue their fight for a lessening of the rules. Let us pray that God will manifest Himself through these trials and that the Gospel will advance in Canada. There are many faithful brothers and sisters up north on both sides of this issue. Greater challenges lie ahead for the church in Canada.
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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 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, 4 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.5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.7 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.
The sad story about which I wrote last week wasn’t simply a temporary lapse in judgement that resulted in a fall from grace. By all accounts, the behaviour was systematic, planned, veiled, long-term, malevolent evil, much of it done under the pretense of “spiritual” ministry. To tell someone that she was a “reward” for serving God is utterly vile. To knowingly obfuscate the truth by using private internet, multiple cell phones, keeping multiple apartments in the same building overseas, and using “ministry” money to pay for this depravity is beyond belief. Yet it is all apparently true.
I grieve for the family, who I hope were as in the dark about the behaviour, as apparently were ministry colleagues. The fall out is being felt around the world. The Christian Missionary Alliance defrocked him last week. Harper Collins pulled his books. RZIM is suspending fundraising. RZIM Canada is winding down operations over the scandal. No doubt, there are many good and godly people throughout the international organization whose world has been disrupted who believed in the mission, and who had little to no personal contact with the founder, assuming him to be who he presented himself to be. Sadly, he wasn’t, and they are devastated.
I feel worse for the women caught in the web of abusive behaviour. I grieve for those who tried to alert others to the wicked actions only to be isolated and rejected. This is not about women nor is it the fault of women. This is about one man’s evil heart who deceived everyone around him, it seems. This has to be a wake-up call for the Church. Judgment must begin at the house of God. “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Pet. 4:17–18).
Some have responded to those writing on this by chiding the critics for kicking a man when he is down, for accusing him when he cannot answer for himself. Let’s think about this for a moment. First, because he was a public figure, he is open to public scrutiny. Questionable behaviour patterns are subject to examination. As a Christian minister, he was to be above reproach. Was he? Second, many gave him the “benefit of the doubt” in 2017, a fact of which he well knew and apparently used to further shield his wicked deeds. Does he deserve such benefit today? Third, the report that has been used as the basis of this writing was commissioned by RZIM and published immediately after they received it in an unvarnished form. The information is available for public perusal and only the willfully blind will fail to see the truth. Fourth, the sad reality is that the executrix of his estate will not set aside the NDA (nondisclosure agreement) with regards to Lori Anne Thompson. There is a petition to urge the NDA’s cancelation. The only thing that dispels darkness is light. Lori’s testimony was not a part of the investigation. She recently released a victim impact statement. Let the light of truth shine in this case. Where is the transparency? Let the truth be known! It is sad that this will follow her the rest of her life. Lori, we are saddened and outraged!
What about the man. He is dead, but will we see him again? I have been to funerals where the most grievous of sinners are preached into heaven by some well-meaning minister trying to offer comfort to those left behind. Some believers hold a defective view of eternal security, suggesting that one “could swing over Hell on a rotten grape vine, and still be saved” as I heard a country preacher defending the doctrine repeatedly affirm more than forty years ago. Let it be known that Christians are eternally secure. No question about it. But eternal security must not be decoupled from the doctrine of perseverance. Believers have a duty to persevere in faith, in the faith, and in good works. I am glad that I am not on the tribunal that will judge anyone as they stand before their Maker to give an account of the deeds done in the body. I have enough to give an account for of my own misdeeds. But given the very extensive, long-term, multifaceted nature of some individual’s alleged sins (multiple women, multiple countries, multiple kinds of sin, multiple occasions for sin), considerable doubt arises as to their eternal destiny (1 Cor. 6:9).
Why even speculate? Since we ultimately cannot know someone’s future state, why even consider the question? Certainly, we do not do this for the sake of any deceased individual. Once death occurs one’s eternity is sealed and what’s done, is done. But in the spirit of last week’s post—lessons to be learned—I say this to my ministry brothers—enjoying the pleasures of sin for a season is one thing, abiding in moral depravity without repentance is another. Both are wrong and to be shunned. But one who abides in gross, long-term depravity has little hope of eternal life. A person may in fact be saved, yet so as by fire, but the assurance of that life will allude them. About twenty-five years ago, I confronted an older former pastor, living with a younger girlfriend whom he had baptized as a child. He looked me straight in the face and assured me he knew he was a Christian, despite what I thought, even while he was living in adultery. I reminded him that the Bible offers no assurance to such a person. 1 John 2:3 offers a clear statement on how we know we are believers—if (if and only if) we keep his commandments. We know if we keep. We do not know if we do not keep. It’s as simple as that! Maybe God grants deathbed repentance, but don’t bet your eternal destiny on this. God forgives but there will be fruit of repentance. Of those who have died in apparent wickedness, we are not in a position to know, so we cannot say. But Christians be warned!
One thing more needs to be said about this sad story. It is a classic example of spiritual abuse. RZ used his position to wield power over others including the numerous women who had the misfortune of being abused by him. This is probably the worst thing for which he seems guilty. Had this been a David and Bathsheba type incident—a one-time moment of passion—it would still have been wrong and still abuse. But sadly, it was apparently long-term, serial abuse with victims cajoled into silence for questioning the appearance of impropriety. Serial abuse by a serial abuser. How could a purported “man of God” do such wickedness?
The internet is full of stories of abusive pastors and ministry leaders. Youth pastors who have sex with members of their youth groups. Dave Hyles, son of Jack Hyles, was back in the news recently over allegations of abuse more than thirty years ago. Sexual perversion is just the tip of the iceberg. Megachurch leaders are falling like dominoes for abusive behaviour—bullying congregants, lying to suit their purpose, powerplays to retain control, abuse of power in leadership. Carl Lentz is a recent example. As is Bill Hybels whose daughter Shauna Niequist recently spoke out. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ministry leaders need accountability. This can come through an elder or ministry board, but boards only work if they work, that is if they do what they are supposed to do, hold ministry leaders accountable. Pastors ought to have fellow elders who will hold them accountable and ministries should have board members who will do the same. Many times, boards who are charged with oversight, fail to do their due diligence out of loyalty to the one in charge. “Don’t rock the boat!” “The ministry is flourishing!” “He would never do that!” “What the leader is doing or has done is really not that bad.” Excuses are made while the abuse continues and gets worse. Opposition is slandered or silenced. Team members leave, sometimes by their choice and sometimes by another’s choice.
Let me say this to my brothers in ministry. Many may have read my essays and thought, “I could NEVER do this.” Brothers, yes you could, and so could I, but for the grace of God. An acquaintance posted on my blog the following comment last week.
I know from personal experience the damage that sin of this kind can exact. I lost my job, almost lost my marriage twice, and relationships with my children have been irreparably crushed. Shame, embarrassment, fear, years of trying to repair broken things and people follow. There are no sins that do not affect others. This is a good warning. All of the external safeguards are good, but as John MacArthur said, I can jump over any fence that you build. The point is, you must guard your heart, cultivate your personal, intimate, central relationship with Jesus Christ every single day. Or as Tozer said, Go hard after God.
May God give us grace to flee youthful lusts and pursue righteousness (2 Tim 2:22). May we not lord over God’s flock (1 Pet 5:3). He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Tuesday, word came out that Edmonton pastor James Coates, graduate of Master’s Seminary of Los Angeles and pastor of GraceLife Church which I wrote about two weeks ago, has been arrested and jailed for his failure to comply with Alberta’s COVID lockdown requirements. He is being represented by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom who has appealed to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney to release Pastor Coates unconditionally. The church has been warned repeatedly to stop holding large, in-person gatherings and it has repeatedly ignored that order, believing their duty to God supersedes their duty to the state. The history of the church’s efforts to remain open is laid out here. Pastor Coates presented his argument for remaining open in his recent sermon. He argued that the evangelical church has taken a legalistic approach to the Scriptures in that, unless the Scripture explicitly addresses the current situation, not merely by implication, the church is under obligation to the state not the Scripture.
Pastor Jacob Reaume of Trinity Bible Chapel in Waterloo was forced to abide by the COVID related Reopening Ontario Act. Yesterday he interviewed the lawyer, James Kitchen, who is representing Pastor Coates about the situation. Kitchen laid out the events of the week as it pertains to Pastor Coates. The church held its normal service on Sunday February 14th. An Alberta public health official came and reported the violations. Monday the RCMP asked Coates to voluntarily surrender himself to them which he did on Tuesday. When he appeared before the justice of the peace, the JP was willing to release the pastor provided the agree to stop performing his pastoral duties as he had been doing. Pastor Coates could not agree to these terms and was remanded, apparently until the matter is resolved which may be days or even weeks away.
With the jailing of Pastor Coates, the situation in Canada over religious freedom has been elevated significantly. American churches who defied COVID lockdown restrictions have found some legal protection, if not complete agreement, as the case of Grace Community Church of Los Angeles indicates. But the situation in Canada is decidedly different. While Canadians have The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the legal interpretation of those rights have been less sympathetic across the nation generally as it relates to the COVID restrictions. Churches have been forced into compliance with extreme fines looming and now incarceration if they fail to yield. That is until yesterday.
Further to the west of Alberta in British Columbia, churches received some good news. Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson of the BC Supreme Court denied an injunction request from the provincial Attorney General and Health Minister, Dr. Bonnie Henry, against three Fraser Valley churches who were attempting to maintain in-person services. This denial is not the end of the matter, only a temporary respite. The churches filed a petition against the province for infringement of their religious rights under the Charter which is set to be heard in March.
The stories of these churches are far from over. With legal questions and potential fines pending in several provinces and COVID still a problem, who but God knows where this will end up. Ironically, Ontario churches (some at least) are facing a relaxing of restrictions this coming Sunday. My former church will be open for the first time since before Christmas at thirty percent occupancy, meaning they will hold two Sunday services to accommodate those who wish to attend.
We need to keep our Canadian brethren in prayer. It is easy to stand back and criticize or commend what is going on across the border, but the consequences of these court challenges may have far reaching implications for the church in Canada. The case of James Coates could be precedent setting and influence other church related cases down the road. We need to pray for Coates, his family and his church, who are standing with him in this matter. Apparently, the church has seen an increase in attendance as a result of their stand. Will this continue if the pastor stays in jail and the levied fines become unbearable? God help these brethren