The world is still in the midst of a global pandemic of significant proportions. I say significant for the COVID pandemic because this is not as serious a global problem as similar events that have been faced in human history. The Spanish flu killed an estimated fifty million people worldwide in 1918-1920 and maybe as many as one hundred million at a time when the world population was less than two billion. The US experienced 675,000 deaths when the population was just over 106 million. At week 52 of 2020, the COVID global death toll stood at about 1.77 million, a sad number indeed but not proportionate to the figures of one hundred years ago. Still the problem is serious. The statistics cannot express the grief and devastation the current pandemic has caused in human terms.
There may be any number of factors that account for the differences in morbidity between 1920 and 2020. Our current state of medical advance accounts for important reductions in potential deaths over the earlier pandemic. Things are not as bad as they could be, and the world is generally better equipped to handle disease than a century ago. The US life expectancy reached 78.8 in 2015, while it was less than 60 one hundred years ago. The race for a vaccine for COVID seems to be nearing the finish line. This is welcome news for many as the world awaits a return to normalcy, whatever normalcy may be in the coming months. Still, the threat currently posed by the virus versus the importance of gathered worship is part of the discussion driving the closure of churches worldwide.
Canadian Christians have been hard hit in these troubling days. Churches have been closed or services and gatherings reduced in number and frequency. The celebration of the ordinances, weddings, funerals, fellowships, and conferences have all taken some sort of hit, with many of these events cancelled or moved to online venues. But, there are some things that churches cannot do online. Thus, churches are faced with the dilemma of following government-issued orders, including reductions in meeting sizes and structure, e. g. no singing, or practicing civil disobedience. We know what Americans churches have done, but what about our northern friends?
This essay will not argue for or against the biblical or civil rationale of churches following or resisting government mandates. As a Canadian, I might have an opinion, but the goal of this article is simply to alert American believers of the shuttering of places of worship in Canada that seems to be more stringent than similar closures in the United States. Many believers have followed the events at Grace Community Church and their defiance of Los Angeles mandates. That story is still unfolding. However, many American evangelicals have limited or no knowledge of our northern brethren who are facing similar or more rigorous restrictions from various branches of the Canadian government. This is their story.
Having lived in Canada for nineteen years, I have a place in my heart for the “true north, strong and free.” I served in ministries in three provinces and have visited all of them except the Yukon, a territory. Canada is a beautiful country with a rich history but politically, it is less conservative than the United States. The province of Ontario, where our final Canadian ministry occurred, has been under a very tight lockdown recently. One of my Windsor friends told me that families not of the same household were barred from celebrating Christmas together or face fines of $800, a penalty that would make family gatherings expensive for many. Churches, on the other hand, have had significant restrictions for some time. Currently, funerals, weddings and religious services are limited to ten people, whether the meetings occur indoors or outdoors. These rules have been in place to varying degrees since the early days of the pandemic. Many went online to stay connected with their congregations. Then when churches were allowed to gather, limitations were written to require social distancing and the mask mandate. Churches were prohibited from singing. One former church had a preaching service on Sunday mornings and then held a brief outdoor song service, in an effort to comply with government orders.
While the internet allows pastors to maintain some connection with their congregations, there is nothing ideal about virtual church. Is this even church? Even if churches can do some things on the internet, they cannot do others. Celebrating the ordinances is difficult, even if it can be argued that this is acceptable. I know many churches have celebrated communion online, encouraging those who wish to participate to gather the elements at home and then partake when watching virtually. Some churches have told their members to take whatever they have at hand to use as elements. It need not be unleavened bread or the fruit of the vine. The nature of the elements is less important than the ceremony itself. Still, many churches will not offer communion in any fashion other than at corporate, in-person gatherings. Thus, churches feel overly restricted when they are barred from singing and the ordinances, both viewed as essential parts of corporate worship. Believers languish for want of the fellowship and encouragement that face-to-face assembly brings. Additionally, some groups (e. g. Old Order Mennonites), don’t use technology and aren’t too concerned for the provincial rules.
All of this has taken a toll on Canadian churches. Some leaders have been pushing back. In May, Ontario pastors sent a letter to the premier, Doug Ford, and launched a website designed to explain their position on the importance of opening churches during this pandemic. More than four hundred and forty churches have signed the letter. The Orthodox Jewish community of Toronto also expressed concern about the synagogue closures as parts of their ritual require the faithful to assemble. In September, a small group of Canadian pastors drafted The Niagara Declaration on religious liberty. One of these pastors is concerned that Canada is “on the brink” of “criminalizing Christianity.” (N.B. An issue before the House of Commons now, unrelated to COVID-19, is “conversion therapy.” If Bill C-6 passes, it will significantly impact how Christians address the issue of “gender identity.” This is seen by believers as a religious liberty issue.)
More recently, a protest was held at Queen’s Park, the location of Ontario’s Parliament building, drawing several hundred people representing churches concerned about the restrictions. A few churches have lately been gathering in defiance of government mandates because they feel they have the right to assemble granted in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (equivalent to our Bill of Rights). Last Wednesday, the six elders of Trinity Bible Chapel of Waterloo, Ontario were issued summonses by the Waterloo Regional Police for violating government restrictions. The elders posted a public statement declaring their intention to practice civil disobedience and now face fines of up to $10,000 each. The pastor, Jacob Reaume released a statement on New Year’s Eve explaining the church’s position.
Trinity Bible is not alone in their opposition. Aaron Rock, lead pastor of Harvest Bible Church of Windsor, Ontario, now faces a fine of between $750 and $100,000 for breaking the rules during Christmas week. Harvest issued its own statement. The church planned a Christmas Eve service but was informed that congregants would be barred from the building if they attempted to enter. Similar situations are occurring elsewhere in Canada. A pastor in Aylmer, Ontario has been charged and is facing severe fines for repeatedly defying government guidelines. Yesterday, community members held a drive-in protest to express displeasure over the church holding drive-in services. Individuals connected with Mennonite churches in Leamington, Ontario were likewise charged last week with breaching provincial COVID rules. In early December, Spring Church of Winnipeg was fined more than $32,000 for holding drive-in services. Also charged in early December was the Church of God, Sarto, Manitoba. Another Edmonton pastor was recently cited for the church’s breach in COVID rules. In October, a Saskatchewan church was fined. In British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, the RCMP issued fines in excess of $18,000 to three churches for breaking provincial COVID rules. Just today, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom announced that it would represent some of these churches in their efforts to maintain public worship.
The sentiments expressed by the above pastors and churches have caused division among the Canadian evangelical community. The Gospel Coalition has posted a number of essays that engage the issue. Things are delicate when judging between duties to earthly authorities and to God. Paul Carter, lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Orillia, Ontario, has a helpful statement on civil disobedience not unlike the statement that came out of 9Marks last year. Other essays may be found here and here. Professor Emeritus Stan Fowler of Heritage College and Seminary posted a short response to the protests arguing against the actions being taken by the protesting pastors and congregations.
Where all of these Christian interactions and legal matters will end up is uncertain. The Canadian Church is divided on what should be done. The legal system has been decidedly more progressive than their American counterpart for years. Will the various levels of government in Canada be successful in efforts to enforce church compliance? Churches among our northern neighbours may be forced to close because of their inability to pay heavy fines. A $100,000 fine is more than most churches could possibly pay. Will these levies become a big cudgel in the hands of civil authorities to bring churches to heel? This is not simply an issue of what is in the best interest of the public, but what is allowed by law. American churches have received some legal relief in their battle to stay open. It is to be hoped that our brethren in the north will find similar support. Canada cannot afford to lose even one church under the heavy hand of government. God be merciful.
What about Christian protest in Canada? This is not likely to occur on a large scale over this issue. I remember a rally I attended on the steps of the Edmonton legislature in the mid-1980s when Calgary pastor Larry Jones was arrested for violating Alberta’s Schools Act for homeschooling his children without government permission. There was a call for public protest, but only about two dozen people attended, mostly Alberta pastors. After a meeting between the deputy premier and the president of a Christian school group, Jones was released. The matter eventually went before Canada’s Supreme Court with Jones losing, but the court telling the province that they must “delicately and sensitively weigh the competing interests so as to respect as much as possible the religious convictions as guaranteed by the Charter.”
Will Canadian churches receive relief as these fines make their way through the legal system? Should they get relief? One pastor told me that Christians and churches in his area are largely in agreement with the government rules. Still, some churches oppose them. These are difficult days for the church in Canada. There is significant diversity among provinces regarding COVID’s impact and government policy. Churches in the eastern provinces are currently more open than churches from Ontario west. Just how far churches should go in civil obedience is a matter of contention. With respect to sanctifying one day over another, Paul concluded “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). The same must surely be true regarding government compliance versus civil disobedience. Let’s us pray for the grace of God on our northern neighbours! Even so, Lord, come quickly!