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.