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!