Number Our Days
No, I wasn’t present in Nashville this week, so technically I didn’t attend, but thanks to the modern technological advances, I was able to watch much of the meeting from the comfort of my home in Minneapolis. I tried to follow the elections, the resolutions, and the reports given, although I didn’t hear the convention sermon or the worship parts much. As an SBC baptized, married, and trained church historian, I would like to offer a few outsider thoughts on what I observed. I will try to be objective, though doubtless, objectivity is hard to come by.
Entering into this convention, the SBC had a number of major issues before them, some left over from 2019 (the convention did not meet last year due to COVID), e.g. the infamous Resolution 9, and some more recent issues, e.g., the public departure of Russ Moore from the leadership of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, ERLC, and his public letter (ostensibly written as a private letter) outlining abuse and criticisms he suffered as he tried to do his job. Also before the Convention was controversy over the work of the Executive Committee (this is the group of people who manage the convention affairs between annual meetings) and its actions (appropriate or insufficient) in dealing with the very ugly side of SBC life—sexual abuse among partnering churches. Secondary issues before the Convention included the alleged misconduct of former Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson which was set out by Southwestern in their annual report, included in the SBC 2021 Book of Reports. These are in addition to new issues that SBC messengers chose to raise such as a resolution for the SBC to take an absolute stand against abortion, rather than approaching its mitigation incrementally. All of this was almost secondary to the major issue of the convention—the presidency. Who would be chosen to lead Southern Baptists for the next two years? Presidents serve annual terms but ordinarily get a second term without contest.
The question of the presidency loomed large this year for a couple of reasons—complementarianism/egalitarianism was on the table in the background because of the public departure of Beth Moore and because of the announcement that Saddleback, an SBC church, recently ordained three women. Will the next president lead the Convention toward reaffirming its complementarian stand or will that individual take another posture? Of the four men nominated, two men were unequivocal in their stand for complementarianism—R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary and Mike Stone, a GA pastor and former chairman of the Executive Committee. Ed Litton, who was elected with a greater than 50% majority on the second ballot, affirms the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which does not allow for women as pastors, but in his AL church, Litton has occasionally shared his pulpit with his wife Kathy. The question of women preaching in the church pulpit has been agitating in recent SBC life since Beth Moore’s Mother’s Day sermon of 2019. Mohler argued that the biblical restriction against women as pastors includes women in the preaching role. Yet Litton appears to disagree with this position, despite his affirmation of the BFM2000. Tom Buck, pastor of First Baptist of Lindale, TX highlighted on Twitter Litton’s views here and here. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, is a strong supporter of Ed Litton.
A second issue that did not sit well with strong conservatives is the refusal by the Convention and its leadership to repudiate CRT. Resolution Two (see p. 7) was adopted but without any clear language contra CRT. James Merritt, former president of the SBC and pastor of Cross Pointe Church in the Atlanta area declared “I want to say this bluntly and plainly: if some people were as passionate about the gospel as they were critical race theory, we’d win this world for Christ tomorrow.” Those who wished for a separate amendment to revoke Resolution 9 from 2019 were overruled because those responsible for following proper meeting procedure declared that a previous resolution was the view of those present at the time it was passed and therefore it couldn’t be reversed by a later generation. The resolution against CRT and Resolution 9 in 2019, seeking to rescind it, was presented by Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist of Cape Coral, FL, on behalf of 1300 co-signers, but this never made it to the convention floor. You can read about the issues here. There was a heated exchange on day two of the convention when Ascol’s motion was ruled out of order.
Another contentious issue was a resolution from the floor by Bill Ascol, Tom’s brother, calling for the SBC to demand “immediate abolition of abortion without exception or compromise.” Considered by the left leaning Baptist News Global as the resolution against abortion with “the most strident language ever used,” it was initially not brought forward by the resolutions committee. Bill took the microphone and moved that the chair call for a 2/3 vote that would bring the motion forward. That vote passed and the motion was put before the messengers. After extensive debate for and against, many over the issue of incrementalism in anti-abortion activity, the motion carried. The original resolution was amended, in part to read, “RESOLVED, that we will not embrace an incremental approach alone to ending abortion,” inserting the single word alone. The amended motion passed. However, many thought that the resolution as passed was wrongheaded. “It would state plainly and unequivocally that any measure, any method, any move that falls short of total abolition of abortion is to be taken off the table,” said Josh Webster, chair of research at the ERLC. For a discussion on the implications of the resolution, see here (start at 31.30). The early part of the video has Tom Buck sharing his views on the issues at the convention.
Finally, the convention endorsed an outside investigation of the Executive Committee and the SBC leadership. This investigation was announced immediately before the convention as a consequence of Russ Moore’s very public letter, ostensibly intended to be private, charging many around him of essentially driving him from the convention. At issue was the handling of sexual abuse allegations in the highest levels of SBC leadership. Last Sunday, eight sexual abuse survivors called for an open and transparent investigation by an outside agency. This action was partially precipitated by a refusal of SBC leadership to deal with a GA church whose former minister perpetrated sexual abuse. The allegations against the church were dismissed by the officials, despite credible evidence of sexual abuse presented to them. Although the motion for the investigation passed, some spoke against it arguing that the churches should be sufficient to handle their own sin issues. Just days before the motion passed, the executive committee itself refused to take more action in self-investigation.
The convention this year was an intense one. Whatever one thinks of JD Greear, he handled the pressure well, even if he didn’t please everyone. Now the gavel (Greear replaced the Broadus gavel because Broadus was a slave owner) passes to Ed Litton. It remains to be seen just where the SBC is headed. Will the strong conservatives like the Founders men, who really saw few of their goals accomplished this year, remain loyal to the SBC? Will the SBC become more welcoming of women in their pulpits? Was enough done in Nashville to keep prominent African American pastors in the convention? Dwight McKissic threatened to leave if Mohler or Stone was elected. Will the SBC change its approach to the handling of sexual abuse within its ranks as survivors demand? There are many good and godly men and women in the SBC. Any group as large as their movement is bound to have problems. I hope the SBC will strengthen what remains.
This week has been an extraordinary one for writing topics. On a personal level, Minnesota is in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave and we were without air conditioning over the weekend. On Saturday, Minneapolis broke a high temperature record, hitting 100! We were able to get an HVAC man to look at our unit on Monday. The good news is he got it working. The bad news is that the whole system needed to be replaced. Well, it was fifteen years old! Not a cheap repair! The new unit was installed yesterday.
As for Christian topics worthy of consideration, there is the leaked letter to SBC president J. D. Greear from Russ Moore, former president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission outlining his reasons for departing the SBC recently and serious charges against Paige Patterson, former president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, of theft of property and financial misdirection. Both issues are sure to make for a tense 2021 SBC meeting in Nashville in a few days. Add to this, news out of Canada that James Coates has lost another round in his fight with the Alberta authorities over efforts to keep GraceLife Church open as normal despite a potential public health crisis. I have been following both stories very closely because of my history with both the SBC and Canada.
However, the subject for my essay this week is yet another iteration of modern Christianity that I have studied, observed personally, and written on over the past decade—global Pentecostalism. On Saturday, June 5, “Prophet” Temitope Balogun (aka T. B.) Joshua died at the age of 57, following a service in Lagos, Nigeria. No cause of death has yet been released. Joshua was the founder of the Synagogue Church Of All Nations (SCOAN), home to Emmanuel television station. Joshua was among the wealthiest African Pentecostal Prosperity-Gospel preachers, purchasing a $60 million G550 Gulfstream jet in 2015. Nigeria is home to a number of high profile Prosperity preachers including David Oyedepo of Living Faith Church Worldwide International, Chris Oyakhilome, founder of Believer’s Love World in Lagos who was recently fined £125,000 by the UK broadcasting regulatory authority over COVID misinformation, and Enoch Adeboye of Redeemed Christian Church of God. The stunning reality is that though preachers like Joshua promise cures for a variety of maladies including blindness and HIV, (Joshua once claimed that he could cure homosexuality, but YouTube canceled his channel as a result), and even raising the dead, they have no ability to stop the death angel from visiting them at their appointed hour (Hebrews 9:27). In passing from this life, Joshua joins all other faith healing preachers who were unable to cure the ultimate human disease—death—including Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts, and the recently deceased Reinhard Bonnke, etc.
Having taught in East Africa for the past dozen years, I have had numerous opportunities to visit Prosperity Gospel churches (including two different Winner’s Chapel sites in Nairobi) and listen to the messages delivered by their stage personalities. The preachers were impeccably dressed and coiffed, men as well as women. The system of money collection is nothing short of amazing in these churches. In one church I visited, large, wheeled garbage cans were brought into the auditorium, and ushers walked through the crowds passing out “tithing” envelopes for the faithful. Tithers stood to be recognized and they were given the first opportunity to come forward, very publicly, bringing their tithes to the Lord and placing them into the awaiting wheeled carts. While they were coming, there was singing and exhortations for others to grab an envelope from an usher and join them in their processional. In the large church, throngs of people made the journey, from across the auditorium, out of the balcony and down to the platform to contribute. This tithing ritual is a key component of the Prosperity Gospel. PG teaches that if you want God to bless you, then you must be faithful to God and bring your tithes and offerings to him (in the person of the PG preacher). According to David Oyedepo “All financial testimonies in the Body of Christ are rooted in consistent tithing.” “Any believer who is not a tither will remain a financial struggler.” “It is impossible to be in command of financial fortune without being a tither.” This teaching prompted one well-known historian of the PG, himself raised as a Pentecostal, to suggest that the only ones who really prosper in the PG are the preachers, as the recipients of the peoples “tithes.”
Just how is it possible for PG preachers to thrive in the poorest country in the world? Nigeria is considered the poorest country because of the percentage of its population living in poverty (40% as of 2019). Nigeria, Africa’s largest country, with a current population of 209 million, is projected to become the third most populous country in the world by 2050. Currently it is estimated that nearly 87 million people live in extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $1.90 per day. Of this number, 73.5 million people live in rural areas, while 13+ million in urban areas. Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product was measured at 448 billion in 2019, equating to $2230 per capita, but in Nigeria, people in extreme poverty are living off less than $400 per annum.
Why does Nigeria have such extreme poverty? At least three reasons have been offered—corruption which includes mismanagement of its resources (oil), unemployment (estimated at 50%) and inequality, “Nigerian women are subject to unequal treatment in terms of labor, education and property.” Corruption is the single greatest threat to the Nigerian poverty level. It is estimated that by 2030, 37% of the country’s GDP will be consumed by corruption. OXFAM estimated that $20 trillion was stolen from Nigerian coffers by corrupt officials between 1969 and 2005. Sadly, while many government officials enrich themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens, PG preachers follow the same greed-filled pattern, taking advantage of some of the most vulnerable.
The richest man in Africa (for the past ten years, with a net worth of about 12 billion USD) is a Nigerian, Aliko Dasngote, who made his fortune in cement, Dasgote Cement, Africa’s largest producer. So where do the PG preachers fit in? The wealth of the ten richest pastors in Nigeria (Joshua is fourth on the list) totals about $700 million. Rather than these individuals using their influence to fight the tragic cultural and economic situation in Nigeria, they are wolves living off the sheep in the worst sort of way—living luxurious lifestyles in the midst of immense poverty, making promises they are not able to keep, fleecing the few resources that Nigerians have at their disposal for their own personal gain.
The state of Joshua’s soul is beyond my certain knowledge. It is difficult to believe that he knew the God of the Bible given his pronouncements and very public lifestyle, but this is really a matter for the Lord to determine. Africa is in great need of the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ. I thank the Lord to have been affiliated with Central Africa Baptist University and the men and women there who are doing their part to bring the truth of God’s word into the midst of darkness. May God continue to bless their efforts to the praise of his glorious grace!
Last week a friend wrote to me drawing a loose comparison between Rosa Parks (1913–2005), the courageous African-American woman who refused to yield to the racially-constructed, Jim Crow-era rule that required blacks to sit in certain seats on a bus and to move if a white patron wished to claim the seat they were sitting in, with Edmonton, Alberta pastor James Coates, who has repeatedly denied the seriousness of COVID and has since last year, defied the Alberta Health Association’s COVID mandates at every conceivable turn. My friend wrote,
The case was made on this side of the border that one legit pathway to change improper laws and regulations was to put them to a legal challenge (e.g., Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat set in motion a legal issue that confronted an unjust law). It seems that is what these men have done quite successfully. Is that contrary to the Canadian system? Is it illegitimate for believers in democratic societies?
Well, to my friend’s question on the legitimacy of believers protesting an unjust law in a democratic society, I answer yes, . . . er, well, no. Am I answering as an American (or Canadian) or as a Christian? There is a difference. What I can do as an American or Canadian may not equate to what I should do as a Christian. Two passages are particularly germane to this discussion, here quoted from the ESV. Rom. 13:1-7
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.
Peter exhorts in 1 Peter 2:13–14 “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.”
These two passages ought to govern our interaction with civil authorities. Taken at face value, they seem self-evident. But, there are examples (e.g., Daniel at prayer, the apostles after their release from jail) that show believers, OT and NT, who defied government orders clearly contradictory to biblically revealed duty for the believer. For Daniel, to pray even temporarily to Darius would have been a violation of the 1st commandment and for the disciples to refuse to testify of Christ would have been direct disobedience to what Christ told them they were to do in his absence (Acts 1:8). Ordinarily, Christians are to submit to their government to the point of paying taxes and rendering them honour. Disobedience seems only justified when clear biblical teachings are violated. Were they in the case of GraceLife?
Christians are commanded to worship God as a gathered body. This seems to be the clear teaching of Hebrews 10:25. But what does this mean? What does it entail? How does this take place in every circumstance? During the days of the Soviet Union, churches met illegally in the forests. Gatherings were routinely broken up and pastors were arrested. I had the privilege of meeting and hearing the testimony of Peter Rumachik who served eighteen years in the gulags of Siberia for his faith. I have met numerous brothers in Romania who were persecuted. Churches were shuttered for very specific reasons. The government wanted to suppress their Christianity. Christians met anyway and paid the consequences. There were few alternatives. And there was no end in sight. The closure of churches was a permanent goal. In 1931, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a prominent Russian Orthodox church in the heart of Moscow, was demolished to make way for the Palace of the Soviets. This was persecution, unmistakable.
But is this what was put upon churches in Canada? The COVID rules were heavy, harsh, somewhat arbitrary (some stores were considered essential services but not churches) but Christians were not singled out per se for persecution. No one told pastors what to preach. They could even criticize the government, publicly. Christian ministry could take place in different forms—limited attendance, drive-in services, the internet—but churches could still minister to people. Was it ideal? Of course not! Was it necessary? Time will tell. Was it lawful? Let’s see what the courts decide.
There is a group of churches in Canada that have protested the closure of churches by signing “The Church Must Gather” petition. It is a public outcry against the harsh measures. But many churches, though signing the petition, have still complied. I selected a random church with which I have some familiarity years ago. They signed the petition, but they are meeting via drive-in services, apparently lawfully.
Christians are reminded that governments are God’s servants given for our protection. Only when governments usurp God and his prerogatives, can Christians resist. Did governments in Canada usurp God? Was this “crisis” merely an attempt to wipe out Christianity from Canada? The annals of Christian history are filled with the records of persecuted Christians, even in today’s world. From Polycarp to the executions of Christian pastors in Nigeria (one man was executed just this week), persecution is real. What is happening in Canada cannot rightly be called Christian persecution. About the same time Tim Stephens was arrested, others who defied the lockdowns were also arrested including a mayoral candidate for Calgary, the owner of a restaurant and organizers of a rodeo.
Getting back to Rosa Parks and James Coates, while both were bold in their respective acts of defiance, the comparison of these two individuals really ends there. Rosa was objecting to a systemic, wicked structure (Jim Crow racism) that imposed “slavery by another name” on African-Americans living in the era before the Civil Rights movement. Her act of resistance to a rule whose only purpose was to keep her in her place as a black woman, not suitable to sit with the white folks was an act of self-identity. Moreover, it was not “religiously” motivated that I am aware of. On the other hand, James Coates is using Christian categories to justify his defiance of the civil orders whose sole aim is to curtail, at least ostensibly, a potential health risk, a health risk that James has repeatedly denied based on his own standards of investigation. He may even be right . . . the pandemic may not be as severe as the authorities initially believed. But is that the issue? Stories continue to be spread about individuals suffering from COVID. I read a prayer request for a missionary in Bolivia that is not expected to live because of his COVID related illness. COVID is real, whether James thinks it is or not.
At issue is what some are doing or not doing with respect to governing officials. Last week, James sent me a link to a book on the “Lesser Magistrates doctrine,” a Reformation era defense of actions like Fredrick the Wise who “disobeyed” an order of Charles V to arrest Martin Luther.
The lesser magistrate doctrine declares that when the superior or higher civil authority makes unjust/immoral laws or decrees, the lesser or lower ranking civil authority has both a right and duty to refuse obedience to that superior authority. If necessary, the lesser authorities even have the right and obligation to actively resist the superior authority. (Matthew Trewhella, The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates, 2013, 1).
Assuming the truthfulness of this doctrine, how does that impact what is happening in Canada? Provincial governments are grappling with a potential global health threat, something unprecedented in the last one hundred years. As they do so, they make rules, pass laws, issue decrees, flawed and poorly executed in some cases to be sure, in an attempt to protect the citizens under their authority. How can these rules truly be immoral or unjust on their face? There is no doubt that when this current crisis passes, as it surely will, studies will be undertaken by governments, universities, think tanks, healthcare professionals, politicians, students, denominations, etc. to examine the crisis in its totality—its causes, its cures, its severity, the responses, their effects, both on the disease itself and upon those collaterally impacted. Mistakes will be identified, flawed responses will be noted, improper motives, collateral damage, and yes, the impact that the crisis had on constitutional issues will all be scrutinized and, in some cases, litigated. Did the masks work? Was social distancing effective? Did closures of stores, restaurants, houses of worship, schools, parks, golf courses, sports events, etc. do more harm than good? Did governments act too soon (or not soon enough), too quickly, too severely? Remember that hindsight is always 20/20.
Since my last essay, Alberta Health acknowledged that the actions against Tim Stephens were improper and charges against him have been dropped. This is great news. Like I said about James Coates last week, I believe that Tim is a man under whose ministry I could sit. Even if I disagree with his position on this issue. We all make mistakes.
So, getting back to my friend’s initial question, can believers in democratic societies practice civil disobedience? Historically, many have. Conscientious objectors have refused to serve in the military (witness the life of Desmond Doss whose story was captured in the films The Conscientious Objector  and Hacksaw Ridge ). As was the case with Doss, he persevered long enough to get a change in classification, permitting him to serve in the military without carrying arms. Are these Canadian brothers merely conscientious objectors? Sure. But the entailments of their actions, opening churches that have been temporarily closed due to a perceived health threat poses a potentially greater health risk. Time will tell.
In summary, does the Bible allow Christians to resist their divinely appointed government? If so, where? If you are going to argue on the basis of Hebrew 10:25 that there is some form of biblical requirement that large corporate worship is biblically required, you will need more than this text to do so. If you are going to insist that defying your divinely appointed government who, however imperfectly, is trying to do its duty in fighting the unseen threat of COVID-19, you will need a more compelling argument. Most churches in Canada are complying, whether they want to or not. So, you want to argue it’s not the business of government to protect its citizen’s health? Ok, then whose business is it? A potential national health crisis isn’t the business of government? That’s a pretty narrow view of civil government.
These are indeed interesting days in North America among believers. Our fellow Christians in Canada are labouring under extreme government lockdowns, ostensibly to mitigate the COVID virus, while the Southern Baptists are preparing for their annual convention in Nashville next month that promises to be a resumption of the conflicts of 2019—CRT and women in the pulpit. One candidate for the presidency, Ed Litton, apparently co-preaches with his wife Kathy, recently elected as the first female registration secretary of the SBC. A movement is also afoot to repeal Resolution 9. Things are very interesting in our Christian world.
For my part, I have agonized on what to write about this week. As a historian, I am following both stories, watching history unfold and pondering how these issues will shape tomorrow’s Christianity. Last week’s post, “More Trouble for our Fellow Believers Up North” has become my most read essay since I started my blog. Just this week, the AquilaReport, a news website for the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) posted a link. I have heard praise and criticism from Canadians. Lots both ways.
I was recently contacted by a Canadian pastor who is following the rules asking me to contribute an essay on the Christian and his duty to the government. Truthfully, I have agonized over this—for several reasons. I do not like the extremes that the governments in Canada and elsewhere have taken to combat this health issue. Note the statement “I do not like.” Of course I don’t like them. Who does? That being said, I am not in a position to determine whether the actions of the government are, in fact, warranted. I am not a virologist, an epidemiologist, or a public health official. I can read the literature, but there are conflicting opinions, many conflicting opinions. So, it comes down to a question of the Bible. What is my duty to God in all of this?
Some might ask why I am even writing on Canada in the first place. I live in Minnesota. Why do I care and why should Canadians care what I have to say? I recognize many don’t. I sent the following email (slightly abbreviated) to some ministry friends in Canada to get their advice.
I have written three essays on the situation in Canada. I am trying to follow the story closely for several reasons.
- Canada is a second home. We are dual citizens and we love Canada. My history is deep with Canada. How many Canadians can boast that their grandfather attended the Queen’s wedding? And was invited to Diana’s? He was a diplomat for Canada during the War.
- What would I do if I were still pastoring there. Would I obey or . . . ?
- I am a church historian, yea even a Canadian church historian. I have presented papers in Canadian venues, published essays on TT and the history of Jarvis Street and have a forthcoming chapter in a book on Canadian Baptist fundamentalism.
- I have preached across Canada, pastored in three provinces, and know a number of good men from BC to NS, even some in NFLD.
- This is an important story with far reaching consequences
All of this being said, am I making things better or worse? Should I mind my own business? I have been encouraged by a Canadian pastor to write on the Christian and government.
Am I making things worse? Better? Or who do I think I am that I can influence the national discussion in Canada?
Give it to me straight if you would.
One brother replied to keep writing because “we need light not more heat.” “I believe that your last piece was utterly balanced.” A different fellow said “Thanks for asking! I think, in light of what you’ve said here, that you should definitely share your voice on these issues. I think that you’re measured, you love Canada, you have an objective outsider’s perspective, and you’re a trained historian.”
With these voices and others in mind, today I address what I see as conflicting issues for my Canadian brothers—civil liberty as guaranteed by the Charter and religious duties as prescribed by the Word of God. I recognize that Canadians are facing heavy government restrictions that contravene the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I also know that the Charter allows the setting aside of some rights under limited conditions, sometimes called the “reasonable limits clause” (Section 1). I am not claiming to be a Canadian legal scholar. But this is clearly a part of the issue in Canada and one which the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is taking up. Governments need to be prepared to defend their lockdown rules with hard evidence providing warrants for their severe measures. It may well be the case that the churches and businesses have had their rights wrongly infringed—more than religious groups are impacted; businesses have been lost permanently due to the harsh measures. Are the government actions justified? Also, political leaders have taken for themselves political powers, emergency measures, that circumvent the normal process of legislative oversight. Are these emergency powers warranted? Doug Ford of Ontario recently asked for seven more months of emergency powers. Is this warranted? Are these actions legal? This is ultimately a matter for the courts to decide and lawyers will take up both sides of these issues. Doubtless the results of the impending legal challenges will be studied by future constitutional scholars for years to come.
Have the various governments in Canada overreached? Of course, many will shout yes! But I am reminded of something I heard Rush Limbaugh say in the days following 9/11. As the full reality of the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center sunk in, Americans were discussing how to better protect themselves against unseen threats. One solution proffered was more and better surveillance. But Limbaugh warned that more surveillance would mean less freedom. And he was right! Today, the screenings and the pat downs and the xrays at airports are just commonplace. We hate the inconvenience and intrusion, but it’s the price we pay for security. We empty our pockets, we watch the TSA rifle through our luggage, check our electronic devices, and ask if we packed our own stuff, all in an effort to keep us safe. Is it worth it? The last airplane hijacking in the United States was twenty years ago—on 9/11. We surrendered freedoms to be secure. [NB. I am not arguing in agreement with all of these actions. They are illustrative of a larger issue.]
A non sequitur? Some will argue that terrorism and a health crisis are two different problems. Who gets to decide the threat level of terrorism or of a public health crisis? The Church or the government? What if Bush had taken a casual attitude toward 9/11? What if the cockpit doors weren’t reinforced so that they are now nearly impenetrable? What if governments didn’t close borders, issue mask mandates (I hate wearing a mask, but this isn’t the point), and put social distancing in place? Who gets to make these decisions? Can citizens simply say “I don’t agree with you!” to its government? Of course, but how should they pursue their disagreement? James Coates has justified (comments start 16:50) his church’s defiance of the Alberta COVID rules declaring that the pandemic isn’t that serious. “We came to the point with the severity of the virus, we did not see it as severe enough to warrant the health orders that are in place and us changing the way we meet, and we were persuaded that this was an issue that came to bear on the headship of Christ . . .” So, is this an issue of a serious threat or is this a headship of Christ issue? Under the headship of Christ, are there times when it could be serious enough to follow the rules? Or does the headship of Christ demand certain things regardless of the government rules? Clearly it does–is this the case now? James admits to initially following the rules in his church, but suggests that as they thought through their ecclesiology, they determined they couldn’t keep the rules. So, is the issue the seriousness of the pandemic or is the issue the headship of Christ? Maybe it’s both. But the arguments aren’t clearly separated. Can the government EVER impose health restrictions or does the headship of Christ overrule all such measures? [NB. I recognize that these men with whom I am contending are brothers in Christ. At issue is the soundness of their arguments and the justifiability of their actions. Many Canadians argue that these government resisters are hurting the witness of Christ. Are they?]
As of Tuesday, May 26, there have been almost 168 million global cases of COVID with nearly 3.5 million deaths (likely on the low side), whether from COVID or with COVID. If governments hadn’t taken this seriously, what might these numbers look like today? “We did not see it as severe enough to warrant the health orders that are in place.” This doesn’t sound like a headship position. Maybe, the restrictions, as bad as they have been, saved millions of lives globally. The global restrictions have been severe. Canada is not the only country that has faced lockdowns. Sadly, these have produced unintended consequences—loss of jobs, businesses, emotional anxiety, suicides and the loss of loved ones, dying alone, etc., but what might have happened if no such lockdown orders were issued? We will never really know, though I suspect that all aspects of this global crisis will be studied by academics, politicians and students until Jesus returns.
We are living in the world God created. We are each entitled to our opinions on the state of things, on the soundness of our governments, on the seriousness of this crisis. But who gets to decide health issues that impact society? Someone entered my home and brought COVID-19 to us in November. In the sweet providence of God, we had mild cases. Friends of mine haven’t been so “lucky.” Of course we can throw precautions to the wind and simply trust God for all things–no health insurance, no seat belts, no locks on our doors at home or at church, no dog leash rules, no rules of any kind. We will just trust God in all things. We could do this. However, isn’t part of the role of human government the protection of its citizens? They may be wrong. I’m not arguing that they have been right in every case, but why not pursue these harsh, Charter-infringing measures in the courts? Why just break the rules? What could possibly be the justification for this action?
This brings us to the second issue—our religious duty. What is our obligation in living in our world under the God-given authority he has determined? Having decided for themselves that COVID wasn’t serious, GraceLife wore no masks, refused to limit attendees and didn’t social distance. Was GraceLife free to do this under the headship of Christ? Just when can Christians break the law? I will take this up next week. Until then, let’s ponder one biblical passage. 1 Tim. 2:1–6
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
[NB. I am not trying to single out GraceLife for harsh criticism. However, I think that they have become the representative voice in this discussion. Given what I know of James and his background, I imagine that under ordinary circumstances, his church and his preaching would be a rich blessing to my family.]
As most of my readers know, I have been following closely the goings on of COVID and church life in Canada, my second home, where my wife and I served our first 19 years of ministry and where all of my children were born. If you ask them, they will proudly tell you they are Canadians! For my youngest, hockey is in his blood! We have dear friends across the country, many of whom I have kept in close contact with throughout this health situation. While things are opening up here in the United States—Governor Tim Walz of MN ended the mandatory mask mandate last week for those who have been vaccinated [yet another reason to be vaccinated], though some stores still ask/insist on masking—they are in severe lockdowns in Canada.
As we Americans celebrate the end of the mandatory mask mandate, the situation for Canadians from coast-to-coast is significantly different. Most of the country is severely locked down, affecting the livings of ordinary Canadians and prohibiting churches from holding “regular” services. Here is a sampling of the restrictions from British Columbia where no indoor church services are allowed.
Religious worship services may be held outdoors (including in open-sided tents and under overhead coverings). Before, during and after the service, people must not gather or socially engage.
- Up to 50 people may attend, plus 2 extra people to make sure rules are followed
- Participants must be 2 metres apart unless they live in the same private residence
- Drive-in worship events can continue to operate (No more than 50 vehicles may be present, and people who attend in a vehicle must remain in the vehicle)
- Musical groups of up to 5 musicians may perform
- The only people who can sing are soloists and worship leaders. The only people who can chant are worship leaders
Masks are required at all times by everyone in attendance.
- Masks can only be removed by soloists (when singing), worship leaders (when speaking, singing or chanting), readers (when reading out loud), or musicians who need to do so to play their instrument. They must maintain 3 metres of spacing or use a physical barrier
- Masks are not required for people who can’t wear a mask due to a condition or impairment or kids under the age of 12
- Collect information for contract tracing
- Supply hand sanitizer
- Caution those at risk, including seniors and those with underlying medical conditions or compromised immune systems, from attending
On the other side of the country, from Nova Scotia, things aren’t much better. As of April 28, 2021, “Faith gatherings are not permitted” and “Wedding ceremonies and funerals can have up to 5 people plus the person conducting the ceremony (receptions and visitation are not permitted).”
Canadians, as you might expect, are tiring of these restrictions. But in the light of the global situation, India, for example, things are not as bad in Canada because of these rigid rules. India has lost more than 1000 doctors to COVID-19 and countless medical workers. Entire families are being decimated. So Canadians generally are willing to put up with these oppressive measures in hopes of avoiding the Death Angel. “84% of Canadians have confidence in scientists, while only 52% have confidence in governments. However, 80% of Canadians trust the medical and health advice given by the Government of Canada. This suggests that confidence in medical experts generally outweighs doubts about governments.” One could argue that the lockdowns in the US and Canada have significantly contributed to the relatively “minor” effect (for the USA, 586k deaths since the pandemic began whether with COVID or from COVID and in Canada, 25k deaths). Canada’s population is less than 10% of the US yet their COVID deaths are less than 5% of the rate of the US. As severe as the restrictions are, they appear to be working. COVID deaths in India are now averaging 4k deaths per day which experts suggest is far from accurate.
Despite Canada’s success in protecting its citizens, a few Canadian Christians are pushing back hard against the government and its agents—health department officials and police officers who are called upon to enforce the rules. Tim Stephens, pastor of Fairview Baptist Church of Calgary was arrested on Sunday following the morning service. He was released today with no details yet published that can be found on the net. The most recent news from his lawyer is from yesterday. You can read his rationale for breaking the rules here. He is the father of eight and his arrest was likely very traumatic for them as they witnessed the event. On a positive note, Tim acted in a very Christlike manner, quietly complying with the request of the officers who did not appear to handcuff him as they placed him into a cruiser. This is exactly the opposite of how Calgary pastor Artur Pawlowski acted when he was arrested last week. Several videos have been released showing Pawlowski berating police and health officials, calling them Nazis every time they tried to reason with him about the COVID rules.
Moreover, three churches in Canada as of this writing have now been locked down so that the pastors/parishioners cannot hold services. GraceLife in Edmonton was fenced off first and has been under guard since, while Trinity Bible Chapel in Waterloo, Ontario and now Henry Hildebrand’s Church of God Restoration Church in Aylmer, Ontario is under locked and key by police as a result of their weekend (and continued) defiance of the restrictions. This is in addition to the churches and/or elders facing heavy fines for their contempt of court behaviour, $117,000 in the case of the Aylmer church and potentially millions in the case of the Trinity Bible Chapel.
While pastors in Canada generally are willing to abide by the restrictive rules, American evangelicals are encouraging the few resisters in their resistance by describing this as religious persecution. Tom Ascol, Owen Strachan, and Justin Peters are a few of these voices who have lent their support from afar to the arrested pastors. John MacArthur suggested this past Sunday that he heard from James Coates that the courts had ruled in his favor. These brothers mean well to be sure. But do they really understand the situation in the North? With all the airtime, podcasts, and tweets given in support of a small minority of men in Canada, where is their same level, yea even a greater level of concern for the brothers in China, North Korea, Myanmar, and Russia, just to name a few places, who experience unparalleled levels of persecution every day? No one is telling these Canadian brothers what to preach. No one is bulldozing church buildings or removing crosses from church steeples. Canadian pastors are free to promote their views world-wide and pray for the day when things will return to normal. What they cannot do is hold services as usual. It’s not ideal, it may even be wrong-headed, but it’s temporary.
We need to pray for the church in Canada that she will be faithful to her Lord amid this pandemic. Many pastors think that the actions of a very small minority are actually hindering their Gospel witness. We need to pray for the resisters and their families. Much is at stake—fines, jail time, forfeiture of freedom and property, loss of community witness. So much of the official reaction is driven by public pressure from regular Canadians to enforce the rules equally. FWIW, ALL Canadians are under the same rules . . . the rules are not specifically targeting the churches, or religious groups. Paint stores, restaurants, health clubs, public parks all have restrictions. Of course, the severity of the restrictions can be challenged but they are applied to all Canadians, not simply churches. Why should restaurants close and not churches? Of course, this is at issue with the churches as well, as the pastors argue that churches are essential to the welfare of believers. Why should churches be shuttered but not some retail stores?
Moreover, the resisters are treating their stand as the only legitimate biblical position to take. In a recent interview with Justin Peters, James Coates wonders how any pastor who isn’t following his lead can preach on texts in Daniel? “I don’t know what to do with these other guys who are complying. Do they ever preach Daniel 3? Do they ever preach Daniel 6?” His implication—if you haven’t defied the government like I have, you are not faithful to God! (The comments occur about 19:45 mark) This is hubris. To say that if others don’t take my view, they are disobedient when the reality is that of the thousands of pastors in Canada, only three have gone to jail.
Finally, I find it odd that Christians, and especially Baptists, who have argued historically that the church is not a building but the people of God, are concerned about buildings. I grant that we are bound to worship, but the Church has worshipped in many ways since the days of Jesus, including house churches, in outdoor venues, stadiums, etc. Granted that things are less than ideal, and some important activities simply cannot be done digitally, can the church not love God and her neighbours, respecting the temporary rules against the end of this dreadful disease or at least its control. I fear for the church at the end of this. While I don’t think this is religious persecution, it may become that if the government adopts the attitude that the only way to control these obstreperous citizens is to crush them for the good of others. Seems like a severe outcome and this may result in the law of unintended consequences. God help the church in Canada!
Some issues in theological discourse just never go away. Supporters on one side or the other are committed and tenacious in the articulation and defense of their views. Part of the tenacity arises from the belief that the stakes are just too high to surrender. The fight must continue no matter the consequences, or even the collateral damage. Every contest has collateral damage. Patrick Day is a recent example of a rising boxing star who took one too many blows. In 2019, he died four days after he suffered a traumatic blow to his head in his knockout loss to Charles Conwell. Conwell never meant for this to happen and considered giving up boxing as a result of the death. In conflict, things happen. Collateral damage may be unavoidable. So, the question then becomes—is the battle worth the risk?
The evangelical world is in the midst of yet another round of conflict on the role of women in the pulpit. This should come as no surprise really, as God warned humanity in Genesis 3:16 that in the relationship between man and woman, there would be a perpetual desire to rule each other “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”
The latest round in the ongoing gender debate is the role of women in the pulpit, specifically as a pastor or elder with a teaching ministry that includes both men and women. Christians have long recognized the duty of women to teach other women (Tit. 2:2). But should women pastor men? What did Paul mean when he said they were to be silent (1 Cor 14:34–35).
Clearly this discussion is not about ability. There are many good and godly women whom the Lord has raised up to serve in the Church. The question at issue is can women use their gifts indiscriminately or are there roles that they are not permitted to fill? A number of very articulate books have been published recently that argue that “patriarchy,” as Beth Allison Barr calls complementarianism, is a misunderstanding of the Bible, reading cultural issues into Paul’s prohibitions. Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Brazos, 2021) is receiving broad discussion in the evangelical blogosphere. Support for Barr’s position is widespread. Eg. here, here and here. Last year saw the publication of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristen Kobes Du Mez (Liveright, 2020) and Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose by Amiee Byrd (Zondervan, 2020). The issue of women in the pulpit just won’t go away.
Added to these academic discussions are several events in the SBC such as the recent ordination of three women at Saddleback Church, led by Rick Warren. The night was called an historic night. Indeed! Saddleback is one of the largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention whose official doctrinal statement excludes women from certain pastoral roles. Exactly what will entail from the ordination of these women is uncertain, but clearly the church and key SBC leaders think that the event is a watershed moment. Al Mohler doubled down his affirmation of the Baptist Faith and Message’s limitation of the office of pastor to “men qualified by Scripture.” Mohler, who is among four proposed candidates for the presidency of the SBC at its Nashville meeting this summer, calls this issue a “looming test” for the convention.
The Southern Baptist Convention must not be unclear about our theological convictions and the ground of our cooperation. We cannot afford to be. Attempts to deny the issue will not work. Right now, Southern Baptists will decide if we will redefine the doctrine of the Southern Baptist Convention. I do not believe that Southern Baptists will allow this to happen. I do not believe that Southern Baptists will retreat from the truth.
Numerous other Southern Baptists have raised their voices in support. Jason Allen, president of Midwestern and Adam Greenway president of Southwestern joined the chorus as did Denny Burk and Owen Strachan. Predictably, there was considerable pushback, even objecting to Mohler’s connection of the issue with 1 Kings 18:44–45, with one commentator asking “should I take this an indication [sic] that women pastors are ‘Jezebels?’”
Also in recent headlines was the announcement by Beth Moore that she was cutting ties with the SBC. Moore is no stranger in this discussion and has been the subject of contention in SBC circles since she announced in 2019 that she would be speaking at an SBC church on Mother’s Day. Moore was subsequently part of a discussion on sexual abuse held at the SBC annual meeting in Birmingham. Russ Moore (no relationship), moderator for the panel discussion on sexual abuse, addressing the Beth Moore controversy suggested that an SBC that didn’t have room for Beth didn’t have room “for a lot of us.” She also issued an apology for supporting complementarianism. She spoke again at a church on Mother’s Day recently. Her influence is significant across evangelicalism. Some are calling it “The Beth Moore Effect.”
The question to be asked at this point is whither the SBC? Will Saddleback withdraw or be removed from its affiliation? Will the SBC go on record yet again as affirming its understanding of biblical roles? What of larger evangelicalism? I grieve for the discord that this issue is bringing into the “family.” But every family has conflict. Have you ever been to a family reunion that turned into a family brawl? These can be ugly, and their memories linger. Yet sometimes conflict is unavoidable. When one side or the other pushes an agenda that will cause conflict, who is really surprised when that conflict comes and if it produces collateral damage? The SBC is going to have to decide if this is the “right hill to die on.” What the fallout from this struggle may be, only time will tell. Will there be a split, a fragmenting, or a flaking off of some churches who refuse to go with the flow, whatever the flow becomes? Whatever happens in Nashville in a few weeks, it will not end the conversation/conflict. There will be winners and there will be losers. The winners will celebrate, and the losers will regroup or re-form to fight again. This issue will not go away until we stand in the presence of the Lord and He tells us what He meant with what Paul said. By the way, the stakes are high. On the one side, the issue is inerrancy, on the other the freedom for women to preach. May God be merciful to His Church.