Number Our Days
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.
Now maybe no one will really care about this but, just so you know, the Minnesota Straubs have all been vaccinated—Rebecca last Wednesday, Joshua on Thursday and I on Saturday. We all decided on the J&J single shot vaccine. I realize there is some risk involved. But life involves risk. As my good friend Frodo Baggins, quoting Bilbo, reminded his friend Sam Gamgee as they were about to leave the Shire, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Life involves risk. Getting out of bed, driving a car, flying on an airplane, going to the mall. One just never knows when our ticket will be punched and we will draw our last breath.
So why did we get vaccinated and why should you care? Clearly some of you won’t care, so feel free to read no further. Some might care and think we were misguided, stupid, fearful, naïve, etc. But, some will care, either because they are trying to make up their own minds about being vaccinated or because they care about us. Why did we get vaccinated?
Let me offer several reasons why the three Straubs decided to get the J&J shot at this time. First the easiest part of this to explain. We got J&J because it is one and done. Simple enough—if you are going to get a shot, why get two if one will do? It was available near us and we got it done. End of story. Yes, there may be some risk. But risk is a part of life. The risk is primarily for women 50 and under. My wife looks in her 40s but alas, she has seen well over 50 winters. Neither Joshua nor I fit the “women under 50” category, so didn’t it seem to be an issue.
Many know that we all had COVID in early November. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, and we were advised that we really didn’t need to worry about getting a shot until at least the summer, but we decided to get one sooner, first because COVID-19 is a real threat. The longer this goes on, the more people are impacted by the virus. Sure, I grant that the mortality rate is quite small, however, in the US, COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death last year according to the CDC. Compare that with the mortality rate for influenza the year before, with the CDC estimating total deaths from the flu at 34,000 or about 10% of the number of people taken by COVID the following year. We have received flu shots in the fall for years without issue, so why, in theory, would we reject getting a COVID shot?
Second, we care for a disabled man and we need to hire staff to enter our home to help us care for him. We have no way of knowing who these caregivers come into contact with and it just seems prudent that we protect ourselves against their possible transmission of the virus to us, unwittingly to be sure. As a point of fact, we think that we got COVID in November from a man that visited in our home a few days after he and his wife had been infected at a sports gathering. By the time they were aware of their positive COVID diagnosis, our exposure had taken place and all three of us got the virus. The virus spread that quickly. Since the beginning of COVID, we have lost two full-time PCAs to COVID with one getting “COVID toes” where COVID affects the skin. We need to do everything we can do to mitigate our exposure and the exposure of our workers for their health and others. The vaccine seemed the prudent thing to do.
Third, it is anyone’s guess how important “having a vaccine” will become for international travel. Will the world refuse entrance of unvaccinated people into their countries? Who can say? The idea of vaccine passports has people up in arms, but having a vaccine to travel in and of itself is not new. I had to have a yellow fever shot to go to Zambia because I was flying through South Africa on the return trip and South Africa requires those coming into SA to be vaccinated for yellow fever to enter. Why should COVID be any different in principle these days? Last week it was announced that the US cruise industry is talking about reopening based on travelers having had COVID vaccines. We are not planning on taking a cruise anytime soon. But the world may require a vaccine and I hope to travel abroad this summer, so why wait until the last minute to get ready?
Fourth, we live in a world where people are genuinely fearful of death and COVID. We like interacting with people, especially people who do not share our faith, but being unvaccinated will likely hinder people feeling comfortable being around us. Why would we put an impediment in the way of being hospitable to others? I also recognize that COVID is real and can be deadly in certain circumstances. A very close friend was in hospital and out of his pulpit for ten weeks with COVID pneumonia. He lost his in-laws to COVID who were in their 90s but otherwise healthy, ten days apart and had four church members succumb to the virus. I spoke with him on Monday, and he told me of a mutual friend I have known for more than 40 years who contracted COVID, spending something like 30 days in hospital who died last week! He was 65. Wow! This is real. I know a number of other pastors that have had COVID with varying levels of difficulty. Why not do what we can to mitigate getting it and its spread?
Fifth, getting a vaccine is not about my rights. Of course, we all have rights, but I cannot take a weapon and target practice in my back yard. My rights are curtailed for the safety of others. What will Christians do if the government requires vaccinations? Or if your employer does or the school board does? Eric Metaxas, a well-known author has become the darling of the anti-vaxxers. Of course, he is within his rights to hold any position he likes but many Christians, thankfully, are not following his lead. Why is it that evangelicals are so resistant to the vaccine? Thankfully some men I know are speaking out, encouraging their flock to be vaccinated. This brother almost died, and he just lost his long-time school administrator, a man with whom I attended university.
Let each of us be fully persuaded in our own minds. I’m glad we got vaccinated. If things turn out badly, and I succumb to the vaccine, do not weep for my loss but rejoice for my gain. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. So why don’t I just skip the shot and pray for heaven? For the same reason I don’t walk in the middle of the highway. I don’t tempt God. For us, walking in wisdom means getting vaccinated.
As a church historian, it has been my blessing to plumb the depths and breadth of the magnificent story of Christianity from the time of Christ to the modern era. Our history is a story of highs and lows, of successes and failures, of glories and sorrows. Polycarp (69–155), disciple of John and Bishop of Smyrna, was that great saint who refused to deny his Lord to escape the persecutor’s fire. Sadly, our history is also filled with error. Churches and their leaders have misunderstood or misrepresented the Scripture and led those who come to them into error. Arius (ca. 250–336) is an exemplar here.
Today, Christianity is filled with many who do not follow the Word of God. In 1517, the predominant church in the West, centered in Rome, was shaken to its core by the Protestant Reformation. For more than one hundred years, men like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and John Knox, although birthed and educated in the Roman system, threw off their former religion and embraced sola Scriptura, sola fides, sola gratis, sola Christus. In turn, they exposed Roman Catholicism for what it was, a false religion led by false prophets.
Not much has changed in the last five hundred years in the Church of Rome. It has become larger, stronger, and more theologically erroneous. Today, many Protestants, especially evangelicals, have never darkened the door of a Catholic church, unless it has been for an occasional funeral. However, as a historian of Christianity, it has been my burden to understand the history of professing Christianity with all its warts and virtues. This includes Roman Catholicism. I have made it a regular practice to visit Roman Catholic churches wherever I have lived and traveled. Consequently, I visited some of the most impressive and important RC churches in the world, including the four papal basilicas in Rome—Archbasilica of St. John in the Lateran, where the pope’s chair is located, St. Peter’s Basilica, Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Basilica of St. Mary Major. Add to these, RC churches in France, in Paris (Notre Dame, recently burned, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Montmarte and the Basilica de St. Denis, which houses the bodies of the French monarchs) and in Strasburg, the Cathédrale Notre Dame; in Spain, Sevilla’s Catedral de Santa María de la Sede, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and Toledo’s Catedral Primada Santa María, considered the world’s finest Gothic cathedral plus many others; churches too numerous to list in Portugal, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Kenya, England, China, and of course, in the United States and Canada. In addition of visiting churches, I have also visited sacred grottos, shrines, holy places, monasteries and nunneries, etc. I have witnessed the Mass in multiple churches and observed Holy Week, Semana Santa, the nightly processionals leading up to Easter during a visit to Spain and Portugal. I have seen Roman Catholicism up close and personal. I have read its literature, observed its practices and seen its edifices. I have a pretty good idea of what Roman Catholicism is, what it teaches, and what it does.
It therefore came as no surprise earlier this week to learn that starting Saturday, May 1, Pope Francis is encouraging Catholics throughout the world to pray the rosary for the month of May to end COVID-19. Now who could object to people praying for the end of the pandemic? Seems like prayer couldn’t hurt, could it? But before we get excited and celebrate this religious activity, we need to understand a bit about it. It’s not simple prayer that Francis is encouraging, it’s the rosary—a string of beads purposed to keep the one praying on track through a series of prescribed repetitious utterances that, in part, magnify Mary and confuse her role in Christianity. It is true that the rosary also includes the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, but the predominant feature of the rosary is the Hail Marys—ten repetitions in between one recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, called a decade. The cycle is repeated five times as there are five decades in the rosary. So, when a person prays the rosary, the major utterances are the Hail Marys.
Why is this such a problem for Protestants and why this should cause us concern? First, the rosary, by its very design, seems to contradict the biblical warning against “vain repetitions.” In Matthew 6:7, Jesus warned his followers against uttering “empty phrases” (ESV) or “vain repetitions” (KJV), “like the Gentiles do.” Why do they utter these empty words? “Because they think they will be heard for their many words.” At a minimum, the rosary is a series of empty words that are spoken with no real purpose. Here is an example of the repetitious utterances, seemingly spoken without feeling or thought. (NB: After the ad, move a few minutes into the recitation to hear its tone).
Beyond the expressionless, empty repetitious nature of the rosary, a second and more important problem issue is the Hail Marys. Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death. Glory Be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. The one praying the rosary prays to Mary whom Roman Catholics believe is able to intercede for them in life and at death.
The rosary affirms Roman Catholicism’s belief that Mary is the Mother of God, a position that gives her a unique inroad into the presence of God. She can beseech her son on our behalf to send favors our way. This magnification of Mary has been a major issue that separates Protestants from Roman Catholics. While we may recognize Mary in the New Testament as the mother of the earthly body of Jesus, Mary has no special part to play in our salvation. She is not a co-mediatrix as is affirmed by many Roman Catholics. The goal to officially recognize Mary as co-mediatrix has been prominent in recent Catholic discussions. “‘Of course, Mary is the Co-redemptrix! She gave Jesus his body, and the body of Jesus is what saved us.’ The salient words of the late Mother Teresa capture how the fiat of Mary to become the Mother of God began her providential role as the Co-redemptrix.” (Source)
So, why does it matter that Francis is urging Catholics world-wide to pray the rosary during May? Well, the world’s population is now estimated at 7.7 billion. Of these, about 1.2 billion are Roman Catholics. Their spiritual leader has urged them to pray a false prayer to a false saviour for a false hope. True believers should weep over this darkness.