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.]